On February 6, music fans around the world will celebrate what would have been the 70th birthday of reggae superstar Bob Marley. Although he was felled by cancer more than three decades ago, his legacy highlights pop culture’s impact on national identities and even on economies, says Jamaican radio host and culture critic Dermot Hussey, co-author of Bob Marley: Reggae King of the World.
“Marley came at a time when sometimes you wondered whether people were looking for that kind of a persona and he fulfilled that need. He was very humble, modest, passionate, and very determined. He wrote great music, great songs,” Hussey told me in an interview about Jamaica’s creative industries.
Marley, a farm boy from Saint Ann Parish, gained popularity with his lively rock steady rhythm, a precursor of reggae, just as Jamaica and other British colonies were gaining independence in the early 1960s.
Hussey contends that while Marley was a towering figure of 20th century culture, many artists in Jamaica and other parts of the post-colonial world raised themselves up with reggae’s socially conscious sound and lyrics.
“The music had a beat that most people find seductive. The messages were messages that people could understand – social deprivation, social inequalities, and visually, it was very striking,” he said.
Indeed, Hussey owes much of his own success to the Jamaican media boom of the 1970s. His jobs as reporter at the Daily Gleaner, public relations specialist, production assistant on Rockers and radio producer on Radio Jamaica gave him decades of unprecedented access to stars such as Marley.
Hussey is still firmly rooted in his heritage, working since 2000 for Sirius XM, a satellite radio broadcaster in Washington, DC. He served as Sirius’ director and is now the host of Real Jazz and the reggae program The Joint. He also keeps a close link to Jamaica through his web radio program RIFFIN.
Hussey has mixed feelings about the commodification of pop culture through tourism and entertainment. While Bob Marley’s estate is worth an estimated $130 million, many artists struggle to make a living and to defend their intellectual property.
“There’s good and bad in the dispersion of any kind of culture. A lot of people don’t see themselves as artists. The primary function is survival. It was quite a time, for instance, before reggae was played on a soundtrack or a Rastafarian could appear in a Jamaican film or commercial,” he said.
So how can Jamaicans move from surviving to thriving?
“Better governance. Better leadership,” Hussey said, noting that job training, agricultural reforms, and stronger links to international markets could help more Jamaicans to harness their unique culture in an authentic way.