Cedella Marley: ‘The mission is to spread Daddy’s music to every corner of the Earth’

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Cedella Marley was 13 years old when the man she still calls “Daddy” died in 1981. She has many memories of him, she tells me, but two often stand out for her. The first is a sense of Robert Nesta Marley as a kind of shape-shifting presence in her childhood, always there and not there.

“He was always rehearsing when we were little and living in Jamaica,” she says, speaking on the phone last week from New York. “He would be the one that was always peeping in, peeping in the morning when he went out, and then peeping in at night when he got back. I would cover my head with my blanket in bed and I think he enjoyed scaring me a little bit. For a long time, he was a kind of scary shadow to me.”

And then, she says, there was the time when she finally won the admiration of her schoolmates, whose parents used to tell them not to mix with the Marley kids, because of Bob’s reputation for “bringing the ghetto uptown”. “One of my really cool memories is when Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five came to Jamaica. Daddy was the opening act. That was one time when I was proud to be Bob Marley’s daughter.”

Both those recollections seem to speak to a more complicated relationship with her father than any all-encompassing “One Love” mythology might suggest. But if he was often absent from Cedella’s day-to-day life as she was growing up, he has been ever-present in the 40 years since he died of cancer when he was only 36.

I think in some type of dictionary when you look up "confidence", you will find the words "Bob Marley"

As CEO of the “music, merch, publishing” business Tuff Gong that her father established, Cedella, now 53, is obviously surrounded by the songs. But also in off-duty moments, I imagine hardly an hour goes by without her happening to hear some track (one of the uncanny things about thinking about this story in the past couple of weeks is that every time I have sat down anywhere to work, a Marley track has come on within minutes. This morning, at home, it was from a car with an open window playing Waiting in Vain in the street outside).

“Yeah. You can tell the cool stores from not the cool stores by whether they are playing the music,” she says, with a laugh. When we speak she has just arrived in New York from her home in Miami. The music was there in the airport lounge. “The other day I had to go for an MRI scan and the guy put on these headphones for me and of course Three Little Birds came through.”

Her father would have been obviously gratified by the fact that his songs have become the whole world’s soundtrack?

“When Daddy passed in 1981, the naysayers said that his music and his legacy would be nothing,” she says. “Now that he is no longer physically here, he has long ago proven them wrong. He was the one who said, ‘My music will live on for ever.’”

It seems that almost from the beginning, writing songs in his teens, he was completely confident of that?

“I think in some type of dictionary when you look up ‘confidence’, you will find the words ‘Bob Marley’. Daddy knew he had special gifts,” she says, referring to her father’s understanding of himself as a mystic and seer. “And I know people don’t really talk about that much. Because it makes them uncomfortable. But I know that he could see things and he said what he said, and it’s happened, and it continues to happen.”

While the family, consisting of 11 acknowledged kids, Marley’s widow, Rita, and various other claimants, were still in long drawn-out battles over his legacy – he declined to leave a will – Marley’s ghost was ever more active. “I don’t believe in death, neither in flesh nor in spirit,” he used to say and he was as good as his word. At the millennium, Time magazine selected Exodus as the greatest album of the century. The BBC’s millennial celebrations began each hour with local renditions of One Love beamed from every part of the world.

If anything, since the arguments about his estate have been resolved that legacy has only advanced. The posthumous greatest hits album, Legend, is the longest-charting album in the history of the Billboard chart, 694 consecutive weeks and counting. For the past 10 years, he has occupied a steady place in the top five of the somewhat macabre Forbes magazine list of “top-earning dead celebrities”, regularly banking more than $20m. His estate, now named House of Marley, is managed by four of the children, Rohan, Cedella, Stephen and Ziggy (the latter three were part of the pop-reggae band the Melody Makers), while the other seven siblings sit on the board and share the proceeds. Profits come from the sale of licensed products in more than 50 countries, which included headphones, Marley Natural cannabis, smoking paraphernalia, Get Together portable speakers along with T-shirts, hats, posters, tapestries, scented candles and coffee.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jamaica, 1973.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jamaica, 1973. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cedella’s most recent contribution to this industry of Bob is a series of children’s books based on the songs. In the latest, Marley and the Family Band, the family move from Jamaica to Wilmington, Delaware, as she did as a child. The girl in the book brings joy into her neighbourhood with her family’s music. Producing the books, she says, has been a further education in the universal appeal of her father’s message. All over the world, she has watched kids become instantly enthralled by the figure at the heart of them.

“It’s like, I think these kids are coming out with old souls,” she says. “It is kind of eerie. They just gravitate towards Daddy…”

I quote to her something she said in Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Marley to the effect that, even when her father was dying, they never had him to themselves, there were always people wanting something from him. Does a part of her still feel that?

“No, she says, “it’s different because he’s not physically here. So they can’t get any more pieces of him. We have the memories and we have the mission. And we’re fearless in how we go about our mission.”

Wokeness means nothing to me. I was born woke. As Daddy would say: we have work to do

Cedella Marley

How would she define that mission?

“The mission is to spread his music to every corner of the Earth. Daddy wanted his words to be known in every place on Earth. And I think that we are accomplishing that goal.”

The latest expression of that mission, a musical based on Marley’s life, Get Up, Stand Up!, will open at the Lyric theatre in London in October. The book of the show has been written by Lee Hall, whose many credits include Billy Elliot. One way of thinking of this project is as a sort of global version of that earlier hit: the story of the ghetto boy who gave the whole world a new rhythm – that fusion of Jamaican ska and rocksteady and American doo-wop and rock’n’roll that became known as reggae.

Earlier this month, I sat in on rehearsals of Get Up, Stand Up! as the cast welcomed the on-stage band for the first time. Even in a bare rehearsal space in south London those opening guitar chords and drum rhythms, the accent on the off-beat, immediately transported you to the Kingston suburb of Trenchtown circa 1960, where Bob first joined up with his cousin, Neville “Bunny” Livingston, and guitarist Peter Tosh to form a band and write songs. The Caribbean’s poet laureate Derek Walcott coined the perfect term to describe that new beat: “thud-sobbing”. For all its dancehall joys and energy, Walcott wrote, reggae is a music that evokes “a sadness as real as the smell/ of rain on dry earth”.

In rehearsal, a good deal of that emotion was on display, arising from Marley’s understanding that “one good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. The musical will attempt to give a sense of the whole arc of Marley’s career in two and a half hours. The songs are obviously the perfect vehicle for this storytelling, each one a window into a specific time and place and part of a wider philosophy. Watching even a part of it as I did – vibrant renditions of Trenchtown Rock and Lively Up Yourself – you imagine it will further establish the storied trajectory of the singer’s life as something like the stations of the cross.

Some details of that journey remain better known than others. Marley, known by his middle name Nesta, “wise messenger”, as a child, was as an outsider from birth. He was born in 1945 in the hills of Jamaica’s “garden parish” of Saint Ann, his mother, Cedella Malcolm, was an 18-year-old village girl, his father a rootless white Kingstonian in his 60s who claimed (falsely) to be a British-born “captain”. Marley was first sent away to live with family before he and his mother settled in Trenchtown, then a squatter camp west of Kingston, where Marley grew up with the poverty and spiritual aspiration and politics of rebellion that drove his songwriting. He was bullied as a kid for his pale skin and mixed parentage and found an escape in music. He cut his first record, Judge Not, on the eve of Jamaican independence in 1962. Thereafter, his music became synonymous with freedom, as well as triumph over suffering.

The musical will also dramatise his experiments in what Rastafarians understood as “social living”, his ever-complicated love life, in particular that triangle between his backing singer, Rita (his wife and mother of his four elder children) and Cindy Breakspeare, the 1976 Miss World, his lover and muse, as well as his near fatal involvement in Jamaican political struggle. (In 1976, days before Marley was scheduled to perform at a Smile Jamaica concert aimed at preventing civil war at the forthcoming election, gunmen entered his house at 56 Hope Road, shooting him, Rita and his manager, Don Taylor. Despite wounds to his chest and arm, Marley insisted on performing at the National Stadium two nights later as planned.)

His subsequent exile in London began in the creative genius of Exodus and ultimately ended in tragedy when the cancer that began in an infected big toe (a reported football injury) spread through his body. Towards the end, when his weakened body could not support the weight of his dreadlocks, a group of the women closest to him, led by Rita, still his wife, and Breakspeare, gathered in candlelight, read passages from the Bible and cut his beloved hair.

Subsequently, disciples have inevitably multiplied. In So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley, the historian Roger Steffens offered a bibliography of more than 500 books that have been written about Marley since his death. His music and his spirit have become synonymous with youthful rebellion across the world. Macdonald’s documentary film ends with a sequence of references to the singer at the heart of popular political movements. “In Tunisia at the start of the Arab spring, people are singing Get Up, Stand Up,” Macdonald noted. “Immediately after the fruit seller set fire to himself to start the revolution, that was the slogan written on the wall near where he died.”

* * *

If the hopes that came with post-colonial liberation fuelled the songs, they have currently become inevitable anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement. After watching the rehearsal of Get Up, Stand Up! I asked director Clint Dyer, deputy artistic director of the National Theatre, whether it felt like a particularly important moment to be doing this show.

“It’s a weird one, isn’t it?” he says. “Because you could argue if it had happened earlier we might have got to a better understanding of this message already. Especially in the theatre industry or in Britain more widely. The message is as heartfelt and as important and as desired as it ever was. It’s just now it feels that there is more kind of acceptance of a voice like Bob’s.”

Like most first-generation British Jamaicans, Dyer’s Sundays as a kid “were filled with reggae music”. (It is not for nothing that Steve McQueen’s series of films about the Windrush generation were titled Small Axe, a quote from Marley’s song about finding a voice in a hostile culture: “if you are the big tree/ We are the small axe/ Ready to cut you down”.)

“For me growing up here as a Brit,” Dyer says, “Bob gave me a portal into the experiences of my parents, my grandparents, my family, you know, so it was important to have that, especially in a Britain that wasn’t really accepting us as British people. We had to feel some deeper meaning somewhere else. And obviously, that would be Jamaica.”

Bob Marley in concert at the Rainbow theatre, London, 4 June 1977.
Bob Marley in concert at the Rainbow theatre, London, 4 June 1977. Photograph: Adrian Boot/Reuters

As he has got older, he feels the music has grown up with him. “The wonderful thing about Bob’s legacy is that every generation seems to have a point in which they meet Bob Marley.” If you’re alive in the world, he suggests, “you can’t really get from ages 16 to 20 without having a Bob phase. It’s like a rite of passage into becoming a moral human – at some point you get to hear and be interested in the philosophies he speaks about; whether you can live by them is the challenge.”

The onerous task of inhabiting that spirit on stage falls to Arinzé Kene, the polymathic playwright, actor and singer, whose career includes celebrated stage performances in Girl from the North Country and as soul singer Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami, as well as an Olivier award for his play Misty. “We first had discussions about me playing Bob back in 2016,” Kene says. “Probably the first feeling about it for me was fear, because he was such an amazing human being. It’s a big job, kind of career-changing. I also just really didn’t want to fuck it up.”

If the rehearsal is anything to go by, Kene need have no worries. If one of your regrets in life is never to have seen Marley on one of those sell-out tours in the late 1970s, then I imagine parts of this show might give you a flavour of what you missed, like a revivalist meeting.

There are survival tactics in most of his songs. He will often use the words to tell you a secret

“It’s not a tribute act,” Kene says. “We’re going under the layers as far as we can. I have tried to understand what music meant to Bob, that’s how I find the voice. It was always him opening up to see through the pain, you know, through the political turmoil, through the religion of being Rasta.”

Marley has come to be perceived as a saintly figure though he obviously was a complex and often troubled character. Is it possible to contain those multitudes in a musical?

In many ways, Kene suggests, the feelgood “don’t worry about a thing” quality of some of the music is itself the political point. “Just seeing a black person really love themselves was and is really offensive to some people. Some people believed and still believe that we should hate ourselves, because they hate us. Bob’s existence was defiance of that, his entire existence.”

All the qualities required to embody that spirit are embedded in the songs, he says, if you listen hard enough. “Partly,” Kene says, “I realised I’d always listened to him for survival, there are survival tactics in most of his songs. He will often use the words to tell you a secret: this is how you spread love, give love, be open to receive love. This is how it feels. ‘Could you be loved and be loved?’ The lyrics are full of questions and lessons.”

Because of Covid, Cedella Marley has been unable to travel over to see rehearsals of the musical though she is trying to be hands-on as a producer on Zoom. She hopes she can be here for the opening, along with her mother, Rita, who celebrated her 75th birthday during lockdown. She loves the fact that it is happening in the West End. “I think Daddy would – will – appreciate it. These were some of his happiest hunting grounds. [London] was a place where his creativity really flourished.”

Rita Marley and her children (Cedella on the right) in Central Park, New York, 1982.
Rita Marley and the children (Cedella on the right) in Central Park, New York, 1982. Photograph: Michel Delsol/Getty Images

She suggests that the trajectory of his story makes it perfect for this interpretation. She was named after Marley’s mother, Cedella Booker, who “put him on the bus and sent him to go live with a bunch of strangers when he was young. And that scarred him for life, you know, abandonment issues. Later, because his mother was a devout Christian, Rastas were not allowed in the house. So it was nice to see her in her later years come to appreciate her son for bringing joy to so many people around the world.”

If Cedella Marley has any abandonment issues of her own she has, she says, long ago learned to live with them. She was forced to toughen up early in life, not least by the assassination attempt on her parents. “You come to discover that sometimes the bad men are the nicest people,” she said of that event. “But they are nice people who would kill at the blink of an eye. I wouldn’t wish anybody to go through having their parents shot.” As an adult, she has also had cause to call on that toughness. In 1993, she was attacked and held hostage by six gun-wielding youths who ransacked her home. “All the while I just kept thinking of Daddy,” she said subsequently. “He was telling me to stay calm: I could feel him hovering over me.”

It must feel a great privilege to have her surname, but does it sometimes also seem a burden?

“I was born in 1967. All of this about identity crisis is a modern invention,” she says. “Wokeness means nothing to me. I was born woke. As Daddy would say: we have work to do.” She is proud of the way the family have retained control of her father’s legacy, as he would have wanted. “You also have to remember, Bob Marley was the first Jamaican artist that decided that he was going to print his own T-shirts. He decided that he was going to manufacture his own records. He decided that he was going to choose his own destiny. I learned that you take control of your own assets. We’re rebuilding our vinyl factory plant in Jamaica. So that’s exciting for me, you know, just growing up around vinyl.”

What does she think he would have made of digital media?

“Well,” she says, “he’s not physically here and he’s got 66 million Facebook friends. I imagine he would be competing with the pope…”

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