My Afternoon With Bob Marley

Revisiting my interview with the superstar just a few months before his death

Photo: Rob Verhorst/Getty Images

In the back room corner of my old Fort Greene apartment was an old plastic file cabinet. Inside, buried beneath some college newspaper clippings, promotional photos of old Stax stars (Isaac Hayes, Booker T & the MGs), and datebooks from the 1980s, was a ticket stub I should have kept in a place of honor. It was from Madison Square Garden, Saturday, September 20, 1980. The show started at 8:00 p.m. The ticket price for an orchestra seat was $12.50, but mine had “Guest” stamped on it since it was complimentary. The name of the headliner, the Commodores, was printed on the ticket, but what made that show extraordinary were the opening acts — rapper Kurtis Blow and the reggae superstar Bob Marley, who I had interviewed earlier that same week.

But where was the transcript? I started opening other drawers and looking in other corners of that back room, hoping the interview hadn’t fallen victim to one of my moves over the years. Finally, deep in a file cabinet, there it was. I hadn’t seen it in years; the paper I’d typed it on had yellowed, corrections had been made with liquid eraser, and the first page had the address of my first post-college apartment in Queens.

Seeing the Marley transcript sent me back in time — not just to 1980, but to the mid-1970s in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood when the first Caribbean teenagers began attending Brooklyn’s Samuel J. Tilden high school. When they started arriving, they met both confusion and hostility from native-born Black students, including yours truly. Their roots weren’t in the American South. They spoke English with accents that ranged from sing-song charming to incomprehensible. They didn’t eat what we ate, didn’t move like we moved, didn’t always dress like we dressed.

Plus, many of that first wave of kids acted like they were better than us, with haughty attitudes similar to bourgeois African Americans and a pride in coming from an independent Black country and owning property “back home” that few of us could match. Those first arrivals were upscale folks, often from Trinidad or Barbados. Next came working-class Caribbean immigrants, folks whose rough-and-ready attitudes were as tough as any public housing young blood. Many of these screwfaced cats hung in front of Tilden High wearing tams, Clark Wallabees, and kicking around a soccer ball, introducing me to a new sport I neither understood nor liked.

In the tribal battleground that was 1970s NYC, the Caribbean influx added a new twist to our eternal jockeying for space and respect. I remember when their music began to infiltrate the city. First, it was calypso, which I’d been hearing coming from various house parties since I was small. But this new wave of immigrants didn’t just confine their sound to the intimacy of private parties or clubs. Using massive bass speakers that rattled the ice in paper cups and the windows of nearby homes, a new, booming, molecule-altering sound filled Brooklyn nights. Often it was accompanied by the unintelligible doggerel of U-Roy, I-Roy, and other “toasting” MCs. Though all this music would fall under the banner of what I’d come to know as reggae, it was the heavy dub sound that first announced to Brooklyn that the Jamaicans had arrived — and were not going to be quiet about their presence.

What made this sonic incursion tolerable for me was the welcome presence of Jamaican women. They were thick-hipped, luscious Brown, and fiery with an edgy passion and humor. If they loved you it was intense, but if you crossed them they’d slap any man or woman, damn the consequences. So even if my R&B-trained ear often found dub monotonous, I found contentment in watching the Jamaicans bring a sensuous slow-groove dance style to block parties and basement jams. I remember attending one East Flatbush house party where I had eyes for the older of two sisters, but her younger sister ambushed me by the speakers and nearly ground my boney teenage body to dust.

Their cultural impact was also culinary. After being skeptical about ackee and salt fish, I quickly took a liking to jerk and curry chicken, peas and rice, and sweet plantains. Slowly “their” food became “our” food. Very significant in my memory was the day a Jewish deli near Tilden High was taken over by Caribbean merchants. I’d had a knish (crusty baked potato with mustard inside) there on winter mornings while changing buses on the way to school; without missing a beat, I replaced those knishes with beef patties. This shift perfectly reflected how Flatbush, once the spiritual home to a large Jewish community, became synonymous with Caribbean culture.

What I recognized about reggae was that the vocalists had been deeply impacted by American soul music. One who caught my ear in the mid-70s was the late Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, who had so much Otis Redding he sounded like a ghost of the Stax star. But when I pointed this out to my Black American friends, they usually just blew me off; reggae’s foreign accents and off-kilter rhythm kept many of them from seeing the commonality between reggae and R&B.

Perry Henzell’s film The Harder They Come had become a cult item, playing midnight shows at the Elgin Theater in Chelsea. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Village, attending became a rite of passage for any aspiring cultural hipster. I remember attending a show one night at the Elgin and being surprised at how many White people were there vibing to Jimmy Cliff’s acting and music. These weren’t the White ethnics who lived in Brooklyn enclaves like Canarsie and Mill Basin. These were punks with ripped leather jackets or smart-looking kids with extra-round glasses, the types of early musical adapters who read the Village Voice. I didn’t fully understand it yet but the audiences at those screenings were my people — musically progressive and adventurous — as much as any of my soul- and funk-loving friends back in Brooklyn. The audience I was part of at that screening gave me an early glimpse of the clan of musical adventurers I was destined to be part of and write for.

By the late ’70s, when I was in college and already writing for several publications, Bob Marley and the Wailers were not only reggae’s biggest crossover stars but a global attraction. Marley had pushed reggae from back-a-yard gatherings in East Flatbush to gigs in Manhattan at Central Park and the Palladium, as well as Europe and Africa. His songwriting (which seemed to have a heavy Curtis Mayfield influence) united immigrants, early adapters, punks, and suburban pop heads into a unique musical coalition. Unlike a lot of the older African American writers I encountered, I was curious about reggae music, largely because of the Caribbean presence in my high school and on Brooklyn’s streets.

I was befriended by Lister Hewan-Lowe, an employee at Island/Mango Records and part of the promotional team pushing reggae in the U.S. Lister was a wisp of a Brown man with a goatee, a soothing Jamaican-by-way-of-Crown-Heights accent, and a deceptively easygoing manner that camouflaged a hustler’s soul. Island had been effective in seducing the White rock press, flying them down to Jamaica to smoke ganja, be instructed in the tenets of Rastafarianism, and see the sociopolitical conditions that birthed reggae. Trips to Kingston’s notorious Trenchtown ghetto were a staple of this safari-like coverage. Rolling Stone, Creem, and all the major British rock magazines quickly made reggae a regular part of their coverage alongside new wave, hard rock, pop, disco, and R&B.

That the music was soulful and spiritual was certainly crucial to selling reggae, but having a label determined to tell its story as a cultural movement facilitated its acceptance. While rock was calcifying into tired formulas and Black musicians in the U.S. were increasingly obsessed with getting on pop radio, reggae was quasi-bohemian and deeply skeptical of the White institutions known as “Babylon” (while still happy to receive White record-buying dollars), which made it the chic, radical music of that moment.

Unfortunately, the African American audience, led by R&B radio gatekeepers, hadn’t embraced Jamaica’s popular music for the culturally insensitive reasons my peers at Tilden High had been hostile to Caribbean immigrants. Resistance to reggae and, by definition, the Rastafarian religion that it often promoted, was strong amongst a Christian community that was still worshiping a White Jesus. The idea that God’s representative on Earth was the late Ethiopian Haile Selassie did not go over well with folks still two decades away from calling themselves African American. In addition, dreadlocks — thick, knotty, long, unruly, uncombed hair — scared away Black Americans, especially since the era’s rising Black hairstyle was the greasy, intricately curled coif called either California or Jheri depending on the product used.

Lister, seeing me as young and open-minded, made sure I was invited to many Marley gigs in New York. I saw him and the Wailers at the Palladium and in Central Park, each time coming to realize that the Wailers were really one of the funkiest bands of the ’70s. Marley, a man philosophically committed to connecting to the African Diaspora, really reached out to Black America. I saw him do a brief, tasty onstage collaboration with Stevie Wonder at the Black Music Association convention in 1978. Wonder gave reggae in general, and Marley specifically, a shoutout in his hit “Master Blaster,” and Marley would make an explicit, somewhat successful, attempt to penetrate Black radio with 1980’s “Could You Be Loved.” Reggae would never be at the core of my being the way R&B, blues, jazz, and rock were, but the exposure Lister gave me to Jamaican culture helped me appreciate its artistry and broke down my own prejudices against reggae’s “riddims.”

In 1980, Marley agreed to tour with the Commodores as an opening act. The Commodores had morphed from a hard-funking six-piece band from Tuskegee, Alabama, into an adult contemporary ballad purveyor, led by the writing and singing of Lionel Richie. Marley didn’t need this gig to play the Garden — he could easily sell it out on his own — but he accepted the booking to introduce himself to a new audience. The irony is that by 1980 the Commodores had moved from a band at the core of Black pop music to a crossover band with a huge White audience charmed by Richie’s ballads.

Perhaps to make Marley not seem like a mere opener, my friend, the MC Kurtis Blow, was signed on to precede both star acts on stage at MSG. So the show was the Commodores, Bob Marley, and Kurtis Blow — Black pop, reggae, and hip-hop sharing the same stage, perhaps for the first time. On the day of the show, I hung out backstage with Blow, his manager Russell Simmons, and some of their crew. When it was time for Kurtis to perform, I helped carry a crate of records onto the MSG stage for DJ Davey D. It was my one and only time on that hallowed stage. It was brief, and it was amazing. Just to see all those faces and to gaze up at the top of the building to the then infamous blue (aka cheap) seats where I’d sat so many times was a tremendous thrill.

Equally impressive was that Kurtis, with only a DJ and a crate full of breakbeats, managed to entertain both the Marley rastas and the Commodores fans. Previously I’d only seen rappers and DJs perform before young crowds primed for hip-hop’s mix of beats and rhymes. This was the first time I’d seen a large, non-hip-hop crowd experience it. But turns out that if you tell people to “throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care,” people will participate, downtown as well as up. Kurtis’ well-received performance was a harbinger of the many rap triumphs at MSG to come.

Marley’s set, of course, was strong. His fans readily responded to his shaman’s dance, his great melodies, and the Wailers’ tight syncopation. Having previously seen Marley and the Wailers at smaller venues in New York, I missed the intimacy between the singer and his fans I’d witnessed before. Still, Marley filled the big arena with his charisma, and everyone, including the Commodores fans, appeared satisfied.

Alas, the Commodores were not so fortunate. Coming behind Blow and Marley, the Commodores’ slick act felt like a Vegas lounge show. After a few up-tempo tracks, a white baby grand piano was wheeled onstage and Richie went into a set of his signature ballads. At that moment the Marley contingent, many in the red, green, and yellow colors of the Jamaican flag, left their seats en masse, hitting the exits like rush-hour commuters.

Later that week, I got a call from Lister. Did I want to interview Bob Marley? Could I sell it to The Amsterdam News or another Black publication? My answers were “Yes” and “Maybe.” A few days later I was riding the elevator in the Essex House, a swanky Central Park South hotel, up to a suite. I had just turned 23 a few weeks before, and was just a few years from the teenage resentment of Jamaican culture. Now I was about to chat with the greatest music star that the island had ever produced.

I had a long, white reporter’s notebook tucked in my back pocket, a cassette recorder in a small briefcase, and a slew of very serious questions I’d gone over again and again the night before and on the subway ride from my Queens apartment. I’d been doing professional interviews since 1978, but aside from an unfortunate encounter with Richard Pryor (the subject of another essay one day), this was the biggest star I’d ever met. I was ushered into a massive suite with big windows overlooking Central Park. It was all very ornate with dark wood walls, bowls of fruit on imposing tables, and paintings of European landscapes. However, it smelled of incense, ganja, and sweet perfume as several stunning women moved leisurely in and out of bedrooms. My young man’s eye followed one woman as she leaned over and spoke to someone in a big comfy chair. I was motioned over and there, curled up barefoot and shirtless, wearing jeans and cradling a guitar, was Robert Nesta Marley.

Marley smiled at me, taking me in. He saw an anxious, serious, slender young man with a scraggly beard pull out my reporter’s notebook, trying to find the absolute right place to place my microphone. At age 35, Marley had already been interviewed on every continent by scores of journalists. I may have been tense, but Marley was as relaxed as if sitting on his back porch. I started by asking about his attitude toward the Police and other White bands that were doing reggae and receiving the kind of radio exposure in America that he hadn’t. He asked me who released the Police’s music. I told him A&M Records, a boutique Los Angeles label.

“Police with A&M, an American company who have vested interest in selling their music here,” he said. “If in America 20 companies have two reggae artist each, the American companies would have reason to promote reggae here. But Island put out 40 artists. Not enough force in the marketplace. Only one or two artist get exposure.” Trying to be provocative, I followed up by asking whether Chris Blackwell, the White Jamaican who owned Island and was the number one purveyor of reggae in the business, was actually exploiting the culture. This amused him. Marley laughed gently and replied, “Why not?” and laughed again.

After a pause, he gave a less flippant answer. “At the time when this music needed exposure, Blackwell provided it. Then he went and scooped up everything first. When A&M, CBS, Warner Bros. — all the big companies—come to Jamaica looking for reggae performers, Blackwell had them all. So in that way, he exploited the music. But I also say this: Before Chris Blackwell, no one wanted to touch the music. He brought people down to Jamaica to know the music and tell America of it. When we sign with him, he let us make record ourselves. He say we know the music best. He give us money to control sessions. No one previously had given reggae artist freedom to present our vision like that and been as fair with the money. He let the music grow and the message flow.”

We talked a bit about the lyrical message of his music, but Marley didn’t truly get engaged until I asked, “Why is it that Black Americans have not been interested in the message or music of reggae?”

“I tell you this way,” Marley began. “Rastafari message to Black American is to return to their roots, their beginnings in Africa. Some say ‘I no African. I not from there. I American. I New Yorker.’ But they cannot change their color. They must accept the truth. If not this generation, their children will. Black people can make Africa the strongest nation on Earth. It is the only place where they will be allowed to be themselves. The Black man’s life here in the West is a farce. He is neither himself nor White man. The Bible shows that Rastafarians accept the truth of who we are, something that has never been told. We can find ourselves in the Old Testament and in Africa. Africa makes the Black man somebody. His life in West full of pretense with TV, music, and hip talk. But where is their identity in this society? Black man is a spiritual man. So you see him searching for his spiritual roots. We want to be from somewhere. A Jim Jones exploit this. Jah his real leader. Africa his real home. I see many Blacks say they gonna ‘check out’ Rastafari, see what it’s about. But it not like that. It must be of your heart. Like I when I go Africa for the first time this year and get off the plane, I feel strength under the feet. Land no strange to me, nor I to it. Always I imagine it in my mind. When arrive there, it was vision come true. Yes. Vision come true.”

Talking about Africa and its destiny animated Marley — particularly South Africa, which was a decade away from releasing Nelson Mandela and dismantling apartheid. “South Africa is King Solomon’s gold mine,” he said, “a place of Black hearts. Black man’s rights. The people will sometime take over there. It is inevitable. I no advocate violence or bloodshed. Unity there and throughout Africa is coming. Will come. It will be so. Already you see the chessboard beginning to move that way. Russia, Cuba, America are interlopers. Africa must have right to develop its own way. That is the only way it will fulfill its destiny as savior of the world. It fruit basket of the world. But it not be harvested until unity is achieved.”

Since Marley saw religion as a way to unite people, I asked him about the very recent Iranian Revolution, which had dominated world news that year. “I don’t want to talk about some things because of the tension involved,” he replied at first. But I could tell he really wanted to weigh in and, with a little prodding, he said, “Khomeini forget that he a man. Man brought up in arms of mother. The biggest man just a baby. Can remember when he was carried on his mother’s breast.” He chuckled and then added, “That my comment on that.”

The middle of the interview was, admittedly, a little by the numbers as I asked standard inquiries about his introduction to music (radio from Miami) and the grimy Jamaican record business (“I tell you before I sign with Island I had found three albums released in England I not know about”).

I’m sure Marley had been interviewed about his first visits to America many times before, but he still found humor in recalling his first trip to Delaware, where he stayed with his mother in the early ’70s. “What is this?” he said and then laughed heartily. “Didn’t know what to expect. Delaware very different place. I work in a Chrysler plant. I pick up parts here, put them there, pick up another part. Sometimes it’s body. Sometimes it’s fenders. Sometimes axels.” This memory made him burst out in a big laugh, almost a cackle. It was a long way from a Delaware car plant to a Central Park South suite. Marley clearly appreciated that distance.

By now my time was getting short and, while Marley didn’t smoke in front of me, ganja was obviously a huge part of his religion, lyrics, and public image. When I asked him about it, the singer, again, found a topic that (forgive the pun) fired him up. He began by quoting Psalms 18:8: “It say ‘There went smoke out of the God’s nostrils and fire out of his mouth.’ So herb is a sacrament. Herb reveal yourself to you. All wickedness you do, the herb will reveal to your conscience, because it makes you mediate. Man makes laws against it. But how is what is natural and made by God illegal?! I think government action, that illegal.”

“Man’s governments, his politics, can’t be defended,” he continued. “It a playland of the Devil. Nothing to do with creating brand new world. Herb heals the nations in all aspects. That why politicians afraid of it. Show the devil in them face to face. They no want that. So they try to stop others from smoking it. But you know that no work. Herb is spreading just as is the word of Jah.”

“But,” I asked, “isn’t Selassie himself dead?” Again, I was trying to be provocative but was stopped dead when Marley, accompanying himself on guitar, began singing: “Jah lives! Jah lives! Fools saying in their heart, Rasta your God is dead. But I and I know even more that Jah lives! Jah lives!”

It’s always impressive to be near anyone with a truly great voice sing. But to be three feet from Bob Marley as he answers your question with a brief performance that refutes the question’s premise? That’s an unforgettable experience. Nearly four decades later, I can still feel his voice flowing toward me in all its soulful power.

Then Marley stopped singing, put down his guitar, and said, “This foolish talk. How can God die, mon? Forces try to crush your spirit with such lies. Example of how the White man has set himself up as teacher, intimidating the Western Black with his technology and words, so that they believe blindly his pronouncements and no hear the truth of Rastafari. We Black people have to develop our people in our way. I feel that wisdom and understanding come from the great King Solomon. By studying his word, the teachings of Jah, and the Bible, he can know how to be true to himself.”

“People call you a prophet when you say things like that,” I said. “Do you accept that term?”

“I am no prophet,” Marley said. “I just conscious of things that happen. God make them happen. They no happen without him. So I just follow his vision. It is he who give me the inspiration to write. I no do it without him. So what I say comes from him and projects his wishes.”

“How long does it take you to put a song together?”

“Different each time,” he said. “I have song been putting together four, five years. Not ready yet. It hard writing, mon. But with Jah’s inspiration, it happens. He wants all to know the truth and that is what this all about. I not seeking stardom, but to spread Jah’s truth, so it can cover the Earth like the ocean. It is the vibration of the music, mon. It is strong. Has clarity to touch all people. Cease the hostility in the world. See we play this music a long time and know how it binds us together. One man may write song, but we play and understand it as one. This vibration carries from the stage and can be felt by all who hear is… The truth powerful thing.”

We talked a bit more about songwriting and stardom, though nothing was as utterly compelling as what I’ve related here. (Why I didn’t ask his thoughts on Kurtis Blow and rappin’, I don’t understand. That was a major fail.)

The sad thing is that at the time, I couldn’t sell the interview anywhere. All the major music press had all done significant Marley features. The Amsterdam News, which had a small entertainment section, felt it had already covered Marley. Players magazine, a black Playboy published out of Los Angeles that often ran decent interviews, held onto the piece for several months, but finally passed. I wouldn’t get this interview published until Ebony used part of it a few years ago.

A few days after I interviewed him, Marley and his entourage were playing soccer in Central Park when the singer collapsed. Malignant melanoma was found in one of his toes. Surgery to remove the cancerous tissue would have saved his life. But, true to his Rastafarian beliefs, he would not have the operation. In May 1981, less than a year after our conversation, he died in Miami.

That show I witnessed at Madison Square Garden would be one of his last, and our interview, as far as I can determine, was also one of his last extensive conversations with a reporter. Perhaps because I was a young writer and wasn’t an established voice, certainly not when it came to reggae, even after his death I didn’t really find any takers for this long talk with Marley. So it sat in my files for decades until, eventually, I misplaced it.

In the years since his death Marley’s songs, recordings, and images have made him a global icon, easily one of the most admired musical artists of the 21st century. Anywhere you go on the globe you are liable to hear a Bob Marley tune played in a night club or by a hotel cover band, in Singapore or Capetown. Though a simplified version of his philosophy is what’s been sold—“One Love,” anyone?—any serious dip into his music reveals a revolutionary spirit at odds with consumer goods in Babylon.

In today’s Brooklyn, the Caribbean immigrants of the 1970s are a seamless part of the borough’s social fabric. The annual West Indian Day parade is Brooklyn’s biggest event and parts of the Flatbush are as Caribbean as any island. The cultural pipeline between the islands and my hometown flows hot with food, clothing, dance, and music styles, mutating in an exchange whose profound funkiness we now all take for granted. Bob Marley would surely have written a great song about it.

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific) www.pacificpacific.pub.

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