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The Influence of Bob Marley's Absent, White Father



Scott Gurtman

                                                           Prf. Tuna





“My fadda was a guy yunno, from England here, yunno?  Him was like…like you can read it yunno, it’s one o’dem slave stories: white guy get the black woman and breed her.  He’s a English guy…I t’ink.  Cos me see him one time yunno.  My mother?  My Mother African.”   (Bob Marley, 1978)


            The psychological aftermath of being an abandoned child of a biracial marriage was something that heavily influenced reggae superstar Bob Marley for his entire career.  Many of Marley’s most loyal fans and the vast majority of reggae enthusiasts are unaware that he was, indeed, born to a white father, Captain Norval Marely, and a black mother, Cedella Booker.  Bob Marley grew up angry with his father who he felt had mistreated him and his mother. Marley was also partially ashamed of his white heritage.  This childhood mentality of resentment and embarrassment sculpted Marley’s youth and eventually influenced the ideals and work of his musical genius for his entire career.  The sentiment of abandonment and the lack of a father figure forced Bob Marley to look to other means, like the ideals of Rastafarianism, for direction, comfort, and a sense of belonging.  The strong allegiance to black culture that resulted from the absence of his white father also partially attributed to Marley’s unwaveringly sense of Pan-Africanism.  The imperfections and almost total absence of Bob Marley’s Caucasian father, Captain Norval Marley, had a profound psychological influence on the great reggae icon.

The effects of racial issues on human nature and thought are highly debated and viewed quite sensitively by many.  Often, people even find their feelings and observations difficult to discuss with regard to the subject matter.  With this in mind, it needs to be stated that Bob Marley was not a bigot in any way.  In reality, Marley was a “missionary for a form of personal and collective identity he called “Rasta” a word that both signified a history of racial oppression, and pointed to a definition of community beyond the language of race” (Stephens 149).  It should also be stated that Marley was a member of the early movement of Rastas who were rooted in Garvey’s Black Nationalism, and in an ancient tradition of “Africanized” Christianity known as Ethiopianism (Stephens 149).  Early Rastas adopted the ideals of Kenyan anti-colonial rebels, their call to action being: “Death to the white oppressor” (Stephens 149).  However, by 1960 this mantra had evolved to “death to black and white oppressors,” but a certain binary racialism had persisted in Rastafarian thought (Stephens 149).  This paper seeks to argue that many of Marley’s actions were often influenced by the abandonment of his father who was a white man.  Marley stated his racial stance clearly in 1975 by declaring that


“My father was white and my mother black, you know. Them call me half-caste, or whatever.  Well, me don’t dip on nobody’s side.  Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side.  Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white, who give me this talent.”


            Marley’s mother Cedella began her romance with Captain Norval Marley, a colonial supervisor, when he was fifty years old and she was merely seventeen (Davis 9).  Norval Marley’s family was made up of white Jamaicans from the parish of Clarendon. Norval was relocated for work purposes to St. Ann where Cedella had grown up and resided.  Cedella recalls that


“He told me he loved me, and I believe that he did.  He was always honest with me in that time.  He told me he was the black sheep of his family, because the Marley’s did not like black people, but Norval liked them very much.” 


For a long period of time, the love affair between the black teenager and aging army captain went unnoticed.  However, when Cedella discovered that Norval unintentionally impregnated her in May of 1944, her and Norval were both afraid and proud, and Norval decided that the two should marry (Davis 10).   After convincing Cedella’s father that the marriage was a good idea, the wedding of Captain Norval Marley and Cedella was set for June 9th, 1944 (Davis 11).  However, a week or so before the wedding date, Norval informed Cedella that his chronic hernia had begun to aggravate him and as a result he would be changing jobs and moving to Kingston (Davis 11).

            A few months later, on a Tuesday evening, Cedella went into labor and at 2:30 Wednesday morning, February 6th, 1945, she gave birth to a baby boy without her husband present.  Cedella didn’t name the child at his birth, but waited for the child’s father to return from Kingston to decide on a fitting name (Davis 12).  Shortly after word had reached Norval that his wife had delivered their son, the Captain returned to St. Ann for a week and Norval decided that the baby boy should be called Nesta Robert Marley (Davis 12).  The absence of Norval during his wife’s pregnancy and at the birth of his son, as well as the brief visit by the Captain to name the child were the beginnings of a pattern of fatherly behavior that would continue for years.  Every month or so, when he could get away, Norval Marley came up to St. Ann to visit Cedella (Davis 13).  However, as the years passed and pressure mounted from Norval’s family, most notably his mother, the relationship between the “white army captain and the black country girl cooled off” (Davis 14).  As Marley became older, his father’s visits became increasingly less frequent until the man eventually completely abandoned Marley and his mother by severing all contact (Davis 16).

            At the time of Nesta Robert Marley’s birth in 1945, there was a huge gulf between the worlds of black and white Jamaicans (Stephens 167).  However, since Jamaica’s early colonial days, there was a “brown stratum that had been a firmly established intermediate class” (Stephens 167).  At the time of Jamaican independence in 1962, when Marley was seventeen years old, Jamaica was 77 percent black, 20 percent brown, 1 percent white, and 2 percent Asian (Stephens 167).  However, it was often the case that neither the whites nor the blacks accepted the brown, or mulatto class.  The black Jamaicans were still suspicious of “browns” and the whites did not view them as equals (Stephens 168).  Bob Marley was regularly exposed to this anti-mulatto prejudice during his youth in Kingston.  Marley often expressed this “memory of the hostility he encountered because of his biraciality” (Stephens 167).  The anti-mulatto prejudice Marley experienced “marked him deeply, as his family has affirmed” (Stephens 167).   

            In 1962, Bob Marley formed a relationship with a young girl, Esther, in his Trenchtown yard, or government project (Davis 34).  Marley’s mother, Cedella, recalls,


“…this little girl, living in the same yard.  They were in love.  Bob give me sign and I saw her pass Sledger (Marley’s cousin) a love note for him”


As a result of Marley’s mixed bloodline, however, a wedge was placed in the middle of the two young lovers.  The problem was the girl’s older brother, who hated Marley because he was half-white and forbade his sister to carry on the relationship, explaining to Cedella that he “didn’t want no white man screwing up our bloodlines” (Stephens 169).  Cedella continues,


“Her brother say to Bob, ‘We don’t want no white man in our breed.’  Her family kill off the romance.  Them style Bob as a white man. That made a difference in our yard”


The authors of Songs of Freedom write: “Considered a white boy, his complexion would often bring out the worst in people: after all, why was this boy from ‘country’ living down in the ghetto and not uptown with all the other light skin people” (Boot and Salewicz, 63)?  It is evident that Marley did not fit the preconceptions of black Jamaicans: he did not have the economic advantage that many expected from browns nor the anti-black racism (Stephens 169). 

This anti-mulatto sentiment was something that Marley experienced for his entire youth.  It certainly shaped him as a person as others were constantly viewing him as inferior.  Experiencing racism from both the black and white sides was also difficult because early on Marley had difficulties identifying with either racial group.  Benjamin Foot, Marley first tour manager in England in 1973, picked up on Marley’s lingering racial ambiguity (Stephens 169).  “I felt Bob wasn’t secure in himself at this time,” he recalled.  “I think he was perturbed that one of his parents was white, and he wanted to prove himself very much as being a black Rasta.”  The combination of white and black Jamaican heritage that was passed to Marley from Cedella and Captain Norval Marley most certainly played a role in shaping Marley’s youth and would continue to influence him for his entire career.

Growing up fatherless in the ghetto of Trench Town, Jamaica largely contributed to the rebel, or “Rude Boy” attitude that Bob Marley adopted during his adolescence.  Gregory Stephens notes that, “Bob Marley carried a chip on his shoulder during his teenage years, in part, because he was angry at his father (Stephens 188).  One time Marley noted to Cedella: “I think my father was a bad man,” because he felt that the Captain had mistreated him and his mother (Davis 21).  As a result of sense of betrayal by his father, Marley adopted a strong counter culture attitude that encompassed many rebellious ideals.  Marley was considered to be very tough by most and often feared because it was known that he maintained close friendships with various neighborhood gunmen and Rude Boys (Davis 48).  Partaking in violence and portraying an extremely tough outer persona, Bob Marley eventually established himself as the “ultimate champion of the Rude Boys” when he and the Wailers released Rude Boy in 1965 (Davis 51).

 It is not uncommon to encounter examples of abandoned children who rebel against society, and it is apparent that Bob Marley fits this mold.  During his adolescence, the absence of a father forced Marley to turn to the streets of Trench Town for guidance and lessons.  This led to Marley’s adoption of the prevailing Rude Boy mentality and the tough attitude that it represented.  These character traits would stay with the reggae star for his entire career and certainly influenced his work on several different levels.  The rebel attitude is clear in Marley’s lyrics and his later attempts at reform in the social and religious arenas.  The influence of being an abandoned child on Bob Marley’s rebel attitude is evident and these circumstances changed the musician’s life forever. 

As a result of Norval Marley’s absence from his son’s life, Marley was forced to look elsewhere for male role models to guide him.  Each of these role models would influence the boy in different ways that would help carve the incredible man Bob Marley became.  One of Marley’s first role models was his grandfather, Omeriah, who supervised Marley for several years while Cedella was living in Kingston (Stephens 189).  Gregory Stephens notes that Omeriah “passed on much of the folk wisdom that would later appear in Marley’s songs” (Stephens 189).  Marley was also mentored by another one of his family members, Clarence Martin, who was a popular Jamaican dance hall guitarist during the 1940’s (Stephens 189).  It was on Martin’s guitar that the young boy would make his first attempt at creating music (Stephens 189).  As historian Chris Salewicz writes, “So began a pattern of older wise men taking a mentor-like role in the life of the essentially fatherless Nesta Robert Marley” (Boot and Salwicz 42). 

One of the most important father figures in the life of Bob Marley was Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, the founder and head of the famous Jamaican Studio One (Davis 39).  Many consider Dodd the inventor of the Jamaican music business because he created the first examples of Jamaican music being produced for Jamaicans (Davis 41).  Coxsone’s primitive studio became the “creative center of the Jamaican recording business as well as the laboratory where Jamaican ska, rock steady, and reggae music were researched and developed” (Davis 41).  Coxsone was responsible for releasing Bob Marley’s first hit, “Simmer Down,” and coaching his music.  Despite the help Dodd gave Marley’s music career, he also served as a father figure on a much more important level.  Marley was homeless early in his career and Dodd took Marley off the streets, letting him sleep in a shed in the backyard of the studio (Stephens 189).  Coxsone also instructed Marley to marry Rita after he impregnated her.  Dodd has gone as far as saying that he remembers the relationship with the young musician as a de facto adoption (Stephens 189).   

The lessons taught to Nesta Robert Marley by those who filled in for his absent father clearly contributed to creating the character and psyche of the reggae great.  Because Marley’s father had abandoned him at a young age, young Marley was forced to look to other men as role models.  The profound psychological effects that each of these men had on Marley are evident in his work and character.  The folk ideologies that were relayed through Marley’s grandfather are alive in his beautiful lyrics.  Moreover, the firm guidance of Coxsone Dodd forced Marley’s career on the right track, and the man provided Marley with sound advice with regard to issues in his love life, Rita.  The mental effects of being forced to turn to other men as mentors certainly affected Marley.  It must have been difficult for him to immediately confide in these men, and therefore, much time was spent developing trust.  Additionally, it must have been hard as a youngster for Marley to see others with father figures while he had no one.  The psychological implications of seeking male role models outside of his family altered Bob Marley’s life.

The most famous of all of Marley’s substitutes for an absent father came from a form of religion that to many Marley now personifies, Rastafarianism.  Born a fundamentalist Christian, Marley had privately converted to Rastafarianism by 1966 (Stephens 191).  Marley had been exposed to the Rasta belief of Haile Selassie I as a “living God” in the early 1960’s by father figures, fellow musicians, and Rastas in Trenchtown (Stephens 191).  Here was a “black religion that held that Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the black king whom Marcus Garvey had prophesied would deliver redemption for the black race” (Davis 62).  The emperor claimed to be the 225th ruler in a line traced from Menelik, the son of Solomon and Sheba.  Rastafarianism is both socio-philosophical and religious movement (Ojo 39).  In its socio-philosophical views, it identified closely with the Pan-African vision and the teachings of Marcus Garvey (Ojo 39).  It believes that the “Africans in diaspora are its exiled children and that their only true and real home where they can ever find peace and fulfillment is Africa, no matter how they seem to ‘thrive’ in captivity” (Ojo 39).  For Marley, the Rastas had become the spiritual alternative to the out of control anarchy practiced by the Rude Boys, and a sacred faith to adopt (Davis 63).  As Marley moved away from his Rude Boy, confrontational attitude, he began to lean precipitously into the wind of Rastafari (Davis 72). 

At the time Marley began to study Rastafari, Stephens notes “he was struggling with private conflicts about his biological father” (Stephens 191).  Listening to the music of Marley indicates that he was now looking to be led by the ideals of Rastafarianism because he did not have a father to guide him while his relationship with mentors like Coxsone Dodd had dissolved.  The religion provided the musician a constant in his life that would never betray him, while it provided guidance during difficulties, and offered religious figures that genuinely cared.  This recipe would completely fill the void left by Captain Norval Marley for the remainder of Marley’s life.  Anytime Marley had a problem or question, he would turn to his sacred beliefs for the solution.  From 1975 on, there is a sense that Marley was leading the Rastafarians: their cultural vision was being mediated through him, internationally” (Stephens 191).  In the following years, Marley claimed to be a spokesman for the Rastaman, and tried to offer the world the guidance that the religion provided him.

While Marley was living with his mother and working in Wilmington, Delaware he had a dream about his father that Cedella believed had great significance.  Marely dreamed that he saw a short man wearing a military uniform and a battered fedora hat (Stephens 190).  This man entered through the front door and stood beside Marley as he napped.  He took a ring from his pocket, a gold ring with a tiny diamond set in onyx (Stephens 190).  Taking Marley’s hand, the man pushed the ring on his finger and told him: “This is all I have to give you” (Stephens 190).  When Marley told his mother the story of his dream, she retrieved a ring that had belonged to Norval, which looked exactly like the ring Marley had described.  Cedella then insisted that Marley keep his father’s ring as “He never give yuh anyt’ing when him alive” and also told her son that the dream was some sort of blessing (Stephens 190).  Marely wore his new jewelry for a few days, but eventually took it off saying it made him feel very uncomfortable.  Marley would eventually give a very different interpretation to this dream, in regards to another ring that would become “his personal talisman” (Stephens 190).

In 1977, while Marley was living in London, he befriended the Ethiopian royal family that was living in exile.  After meeting with Haile Selassie’s son, Crown Prince Afsa Wossen, the heir to Ethiopia’s banished monarchy, produced a ring that he said had belonged to the emperor, a gold Lion of Judah set in onyx.  The Prince placed the ring on Bob Marley’s finger, and proclaimed that “you are the one who should wear it” (Stephens 190).  Marley would wear Selassie’s ring for the rest of his life, and he would later tell Cedella that this ring was the one that he had seen in the dream eleven years earlier while staying with her in Delaware (Stephens 191).   

It is obvious that the acceptance of Selassie’s ring for Marley was set up by his absent white father’s rejection.  The symbolic faith that Marley placed in Selassie by wearing his ring over that of his father shows Marley cared more for an Ethiopian ruler he never met than his father.  Selassie, and the Rastafarian ideals that he represented, were now Marley’s role model.  He had no father to turn to so he sought answers from Selassie’s speeches and actions.  Additionally, Marley found comfort in wearing the ring, especially after he developed cancer.  People tend to view material items as charms when they come from people who have been very influential on their life.  Marley clearly viewed the fatherly role that the emperor played as more critical in shaping him than that of his father, who had disappeared from his life.  Through Selassie, Marley constructed an ideal father, a “perfect African Father that he projected on to the historical person of Haile Selassie (Stephens 191).  Years earlier the reggae great had rejected his biological fathers jewelry as it made him feel uneasy, but eventually he did come to accept his mother’s view that his dream of the ring had great significance as Marley felt it was a true “blessing.”  However, the only blessing he could accept was the ring from his “true African Father” (Stephens 191).  

Throughout his career, Bob Marley’s grand idea was of a “perfect African Father as ‘earth’s rightful ruler’” (Stephens 182).  As Gregory Stephens explains, “Marley was in some sense the fulfillment of Malcom X’s late advice that the ‘back to Africa’ movement, which Garvey and others had advocated, should be read and enacted as a cultural turn, rather than a physical return” (Stephens 182).  Marley, through his music and magazine interviews was the voice of this cultural reorientation.  For example, consider the lyrics of Survival with regard to a cultural return to an African destination.


Africa Unite, for we’re moving right out of Babylon

And we’re going to our father’s land


However, unlike Malcom X, Marley never stopped portraying Africa as the literal destination of the Promised Land (Stephens 182).  He would only concede, in 1978, after a visit to Ethiopia, that his “African Zion” might be located outside of Ethiopia (Stephens 182).  It is also important to consider that Marley’s “cultural turn (or Exodus) to Africa was a cultural and religious move rather than a geopolitical movement” (Stephens 182).  The dream of Africa as homeland that he portrayed as Zion was the resolution of or redemption from its opposite: Babylon (Stephens 183).  Babylon is not an exact place or a specific race, but rather a system of “self-absorbed individuals who worship idols and live decadent lifestyles at the expense of the poor.” 

Marley opted to portray his African Zion as an exact geographical location because of his insecurities with regard to his father.  The imperfections and almost total absence of Marley’s own biological father led to a largely unconscious projection on to Haile Selassie as a perfect African Father.  To Marley, Selassie filled in for his real, absent father.  Also, in the context of the musician’s life, “the cultural migration to Africa can be read a quest for psychological wholeness” (Stephens 187).  Marely was an abandoned child and this abandonment, the basically complete absence of his white father and the frequent absence of his black mother, had a major impact of his psychology.  The security that Zion gave Marley would help fill that void.

During most of Bob Marley’s musical career, he was rarely seen reading anything other than the Bible or music magazines (Stephens 198).  During the 1978 Kaya tour, however, a change began to occur.  Neville Garrick, the Wailers art and light man, remembers that in May 1978, Marley went into several bookshops in Chicago and bought “a large quantity of black consciousness literature,” including biographies of Malcom X and Angela Davis (Stephens 198).  For the rest of that tour, Neville would see Marley engrossed in these novels at every spare moment.  There are several factors that may have contributed to Marley’s change in reading selection.  First, he may have been responding to critics who were declaring that Marley had sold out.  It is also possible that he had a growing sense of international responsibility: in June 1978 the African delegations to the United Nations gave Marley the “Peace Medal” to honor his efforts for “equal rights and justice” for Africans (Stephens 198).  As Stephens suggests, Marley may have wanted to live up to people’s expectations that he would be a “freedom fighter” (Stephens 198). 

A final possible explanation for Marley’s sudden change in literature choice may be related to his absent father.  By 1978, Marley was attempting to make his mark on the world before the cancer destroyed him.  With international stardom, fame, and fortune, Marley had become quite secure about who he was as a person and he spent much time explaining his views to the world.  It should be noted that this was quite a contrast from the childhood days of anti-mulatto teasing and the sense of insecurity that resulted.  Marley opted to focus on his African heritage much more than his Caucasian.  This was partially related to his unwavering faith to Rastafari, but there may have been other factors involved?  Why did Marley attempt to portray himself solely as a black man and even go as far as reading black consciousness novels when he was 50% white?  The answer may lie in his view of his absent father.  By 1978, Marley was comfortable with the fact that Norval never played a role in his life, and by only identifying with African roots, Marley was in a sense dismissing the man forever just as the Captain had done years earlier to Marley and his mother.  Marley saw himself as the product of Rita and Jamaica and wanted little ties to the man who had not been there while he grew up.  This desire to not identify with his other half may have been the motivation for the change in literature that Marley underwent.

An issue over which reporters often questioned Marley regarded the white majority that attended Marley’s concerts and purchased his music.  As a man who tempted to reform Africa, and a steadfast practitioner of a religion that looks to an African Zion, one can understand why Marley would have liked to appeal more to a black audience.  But were these the sole reasons?  When interviewed, Marley acknowledged that in the short run, tension would persist between some blacks and whites in his audience (Stephens 214).  “There should be no more war between white and black,” he demanded.  “But until white people listen to black with open ears, there must be, well, suspicion.”  It is evident in Marley’s work that he was “reaching out to people of the African diaspora, especially to those Rastas referred to as ‘careless Ethiopians,’ who were unaware of their African heritage” (Stephens 181).  After a performance in Santa Barbara on July 23, 1978, a reporter asked Marley what he made of the fact that white people in America were following a black man. 


“Is God who mek everybody, and him mek a way for the black man that the white man have to follow, because out of the black man came the white man, all me”


From this statement, it is clear that Marley had “carried an Afrocentric paradigm through to its logical conclusion: if Africa was the mother of all races, and if forerunners of modern humans did first appear in Ethiopia, then all ‘races’ were related” (Stephens 182).  The manner in which Marley tried to create more popularity for his music amongst blacks was true to his roots (Stephens 182).


What we black people cannot deal with in America is color prejudice.  You mustn’t bow to the white man.  You must be superior to him.  That means you cannot be prejudice, because if you are superior, how can you be prejudice?


When read with the viewpoint of Rastafari in mind, it is clear that Marley was refashioning the idea of  “black superiority” (Stephens 182).  

            With the psychological implications of having a white father he resented, it can be understood why Bob Marley wanted his music accepted by more blacks.  Marley identified himself as black and did not consider his white roots.  He even went as far as making statements that blacks should be superior to whites.  How could someone who is 50% white make a statement like that unless they don’t identify with their white heritage?  The Afrocentric ideologies that Marley used to try and sell records to blacks also seems a bit contradictory unless Marley’s absent father is considered.  Although it would be possible to simply dismiss these two considerations as mere a result of Rastafarianism, it seems that Marley’s opinion of his father played some role.  Just as Captain Norval Marley had abandoned Marley when he was younger, Marley abandoned the white heritage that the man passed to him.

            Although Bob Marley attempted to remain far from the Jamaican political arena for most of his career, he did opt to take a firm stance with regard to a unified Africa.  Marley spent the last several years of his life utilizing his music as a means to convince Africans and the rest of the world that a united Africa was necessary.  This sense of Pan-Africanism was in part an extension of Rastafarian ideology, but Marley made this objective his personal quest.  On Marley’s album Survival, he goes as far as titling a song “Africa Unite.”  The piece stresses the urgent need for the unity by warning that “it’s later than you think” (Stephens 200).  Like other areas of Marley’s life, it is interesting to examine Marley’s sense of urgent Pan-Africanism in light of his white father whom Marley resented.   

            Did Marley opt to push for African unification because he thought it was the most intelligent political decision or was there a deeper sense that he would be uniting his people?  It would be ridiculous to claim that Rastafarian thought did not play a role in sculpting Marley’s opinion of one African state.  However, Marley’s self-identification with only his black heritage may have also played a role.  Along the same lines as Marley’s push for blacks to leave Babylon and return to Zion, Marley may have viewed his push for unifying Africa as attempting to help his people.  Again, this example of Marley’s actions for what he viewed as his people could be explained through the resentment, embarrassment, and hostility he had towards his white father that abandoned him.

            Despite not being present during the majority of the life and career of Bob Marley, Captain Norval Marley’s absence and race did have profound psychological effects on his son.  This abandonment, the almost complete absence of his white father, had a major impact on Marley’s psychology, his artistic sensibility, and eventually on his theology.  As a youth Marley was forced to suffer the wrath of anti-mulatto racism and this experience certainly shaped the man the musician became.  Without a father figure to guide him, Marley would adopt radical behavior like that of the Rude Boys and end up homeless.  Whether one looks at Marley’s need to fill the void that was left by his absent father by looking to other male role models, or the stars eventual turn to Rastafarianism, it is clear that Captain Norval Marley’s absence greatly affected Marley.  Moreover, as Marley reached international stardom, he began to disassociate with his white heritage by reading black consciousness literature and actively practicing Pan-Africanism.  Part of this sense of loyalty to Africa was a result of his serious religious convictions, but the psychological role that his father played is evident especially when considered in light of Marley’s decision of which ring to adorn.  The almost total absence of Bob Marley’s Caucasian father, Captain Norval Marley, had an incredibly profound psychological influence on the reggae superstar that would drive Marley and shape his entire life and career.














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