In the rich, musical Jamaican patois, troublesome disembodied spirits go by the name ”duppies.” Here in America, of course, we just call ’em ghosts. But no matter which appellation you prefer, a seeming visitation by the specter of the late reggae king Bob Marley is guaranteed to shake a person up.
Shortly before Christmas, Will.i.am, frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, was in a studio outside Los Angeles. He was fretting about his latest post-”Let’s Get It Started” assignment — to remix the Bob Marley song ”Africa Unite” — when he had what he calls a ”scary” experience.
”It was like [Marley] was in the room,” says Will. ”I kept hearing him saying [in booming Jamaican accent], ‘No, boy, do not do that!’ I was like, ‘This is unbelievable, this can’t really be happening!”’
(Repeat after us, Will: I ain’t afraid-a no ghost…)
Fortunately, the person who had asked him to remix the song, Rita Marley — Bob’s wife and a member of the I-Threes, the late artist’s erstwhile female backup singers — was there to cool him out. Truth is, Will.i.am was just as spooked by the formidable Marley mystique as by any putative phantasm. ”I was like, ‘I can’t sing on a Bob Marley song!”’ says Will. ”I didn’t want to boom-boom-bap it or take his essence out of it. But Rita was like, ‘Yes, Will. Bless it and sing on it.’ She kept saying this was meant to happen.”
Reassured, Will completed the remix, to the delight and emphatic approval of Rita and the other two I-Threes, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths. ”Will appears to be one of my sons that I did not bear,” says Rita, who also perceived a presence in the studio. ”It was like Bob was there, telling us what to sing.”’
Since Bob Marley’s death from cancer on May 11, 1981, at age 36, the image and sound of the Once and Future Patron Saint of Reggae have never been far from pop culture’s consciousness. In fact, it’s almost eerie the way his back catalog, both as a solo artist and with his band, the Wailers, continues to fly out of record stores: Since 1991 alone, when SoundScan began to reliably track such things, his albums have sold a cumulative 21.3 million copies. (As any frequent attendee of after-hours fraternity parties might guess, the perennial favorite, Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers, accounts for 8.4 million of that figure.) Business interests are overseen by Bob Marley Music, a management company that coordinates licensing, merchandising, and sales of Marley-related products, all profits from which are divided among ”the family,” which includes Rita, as well as Bob Marley’s 11 children (only four of whom were products of his marriage to Rita). A spokesperson for the company declined to release any information about income, but it’s a safe bet that none of the Marleys are living in Trenchtown — the run-down shantytown section of Kingston, Jamaica, that Bob once called home.
Be you a child of Jah or a hedonistic hippie heathen, you can rest assured that nearly a quarter century after his passing, Marley’s sound and spirit are still very much with us. And you can look forward to a new wave of Marley mania in the coming months, beginning Feb. 6, the date that would have marked Marley’s 60th birthday. That’s when Rita Marley is mounting a monthlong celebration in Ethiopia, the spiritual homeland of the Rastafarian religion, which she and her husband practiced. ”Being his 60th birthday, I thought it was an appropriate time to do this,” says Rita. ”And it’s natural for us as Rastafari to yearn for Ethiopia.” (Contrary to published reports, Rita will not be transporting her husband’s body from Jamaica to be reburied in Ethiopia at this time, although she is holding open the possibility for the future.)