Forever Hustling Bob Marley
I was standing outside a trailer in Ft. Worth, waiting to get paid at the end of a two-day Bob Marley Festival. May 11 is the anniversary of Marley’s death, a good time, I’d learned, to hustle a gig. I’d talked the director into paying me as an M.C. to do a memorial presentation about Bob, and provide samples and music throughout the festival.
Standing there at dusk in Trinity Park along with musicians from regional bands, I was in a disillusioned mood. This festival had degenerated into excuse to sell products. The throng mostly shopped in a sea of booths. The Bob Marley hustle keeps getting stranger. There was one red-headed singer, a gal in tight pants and with a dubious voice, who went into a monologue about Bob, which ended with her shrill declaration: “Bob Marley died for your sins!”
My time finally came and I was ushered into the trailer. Two 30-ish African American women with processed hair were in charge of paying performers. From their looks, their manner, and the R&B on their radio, I guessed they knew little about Bob. Our conversation, in which I described my work about Bob as a “real revolutionary,” quickly confirmed this impression.
The talk turned to money – the real reason we were all there. One woman insinuated that I wasn’t going to get paid. “Didn’t you read the fine print of your contract?”
“No,” I confessed, although in truth I only had an oral agreement.
She told me the contract said I would have to, in essence, sing for my supper.
“Show me what you got,” she said.
I was determined not to take these women seriously, and they were determined to make me grovel. This went back and forth, as I tried to figure out exactly what they wanted, and whether or not I was willing to give it to them. At first, they made it sound like they wanted a strip tease. Or a demonstration of my bedroom techniques. They seemed to be in no hurry, so I finally stood up and demonstrated a “slow wine” to these women. They squealed in delight or amusement, and quickly forked over the money.
I remembered this incident later while living in Jamaica, when Bob’s birthplace was being invaded by Robert Roskind. In 2001 Roskind published a book, Rasta Heart: A Journey Into One Love. After Roskind fell for Marley’s music, he envisioned the Rastas as saviors of humanity. Roskind’s naiveté was comic in the scene where he takes a jambox onto a Negril Beach, puts on Legend, and begins testifying to Jamaicans about the gospel of “One Love.”
I began seeing Roskind’s name all over Jamaica. Penning a letter or editorial for the Gleaner, in full reverse-missionary mode. Putting on concerts all over the island. Sure enough, Roskind found co-sponsors for this missionary work in the Marley family, and the Jamaican government, who together put on a 60th earthday tribute to Bob in New Kingston (February 6, 2005), which I attended. It had been hard for me to take seriously Roskind’s reports about his various missions, like carrying One Love to the Havasupi Indians in Arizona’s Grand Canyon. But Roskind’s interests clearly intersected with those of the Marley family, and the Jamaican Tourist Board.
We’ll be forever milking Bob, I reflected. I suppose I was as guilty as the rest. I’d written a book with a chapter about Bob Marley, and although it paid me little, it did put me into contact with Marley fans from all over the world. I rationalized what I was doing with the knowledge that at least I was actually bringing pieces of Bob’s voice to public events, sides of Bob that have never been aired in public before. But I was doing the Bob Marley hustle, all the same.
And the Bob Marley hustle continues….in 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that companies including Wal-Mart and Target could not sell items with Marley’s image, without obtaining permission from the reggae star’s children.
But here in Puerto Rico, where I live now, small vendors everywhere sell merchandize with Bob Marley’s face and name. No court of law will ever be able to stem that tide.
Gregory Stephens teaches creative writing to STEM students in Puerto Rico. He was born in Ada, Oklahoma, and during the 1980s was an award-winning songwriter in Austin, Texas.