Looking back at the life of Bob Marley

A lifelong reggae historian reflects on the life of the reggae icon, whose 75th birthday anniversary passed on Feb. 6

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Photo contributed by Roger Steffens

Bob Marley’s 75th birthday passed on Feb. 6.

Phil Akre, Staff Writer

Author, lecturer, editor and archivist Roger Steffens has lived life in the friendly, distinct grip of reggae music. Steffens, 77, has been a champion of reggae culture and its preservation since the mid-1970s. He has interviewed hundreds, including a diverse palette of music icons such as Bob Marley, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Ray Charles and Nina Simone. Steffens published his book, “So Much Things to Say: An Oral History of Bob 4Marley,” in 2017 to critical acclaim, featuring years of interviews with Marley’s closest associates and family. His Los Angeles home houses the world’s most extensive archive of Marley and reggae pieces and memorabilia.

Steffens became close friends with Marley and his band, the Wailers, in 1978. He became immersed in the world of Rastafarian culture, Marley’s personal life and his ascension to international stardom. In 1979, Steffens became the co-host of the radio show, “Reggae Beat,” which the L.A. Weekly called “the most popular non-commercial radio program in Los Angeles.” Since then, he has dedicated his life to the preservation of reggae history, with a lifelong goal of moving his archives to Marley’s home country of Jamaica.

On what would have been Marley’s 75th birthday, Steffens spent the day honoring his friend throughout Los Angeles. Over the weekend, I spoke to Steffens on the phone to hear his memories of the life of a global icon, nearly 40 years after his death from Melanoma. Here, he discusses Marley’s enduring ideals, his own reggae endeavors and how Marley’s impact will stretch forever into the future.

Celebrating Marley’s 75th birthday

“We had three separate events. (Marley) has a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and every year at noon we meet there. The people who come have dwindled over recent years, but because of the 75th anniversary, it was a much bigger crowd this year. Ras Michael from The Sons of Negus was there, and people who knew Bob at different points of his life showed up. Barbara Barabino, who started the campaign to raise money to put the star on Hollywood Boulevard, attended. At 3 p.m., I gave a talk at the Hollywood Library, the Goldwyn Library, just off Hollywood Boulevard. Then, that night, at the Mr. Musichead rock photo gallery on Sunset Boulevard, was the opening of a major exhibition of various photographers, with pictures of Bob, including one of mine. That had a big crowd. We really paid a proper homage to him in L.A.”

Bob’s enduring qualities

“I think I was struck most by his humility and how open he was to everybody. The generosity was overwhelming. He gave away most of the money he made. He became a moral figure. It is now absolutely clear that he was the most important musical artist of the 20th century, the man whose work will reverberate further into the future than any other person–and I include Bob Dylan and John Lennon in there. But, Bob stood for so many different things. The head of Amnesty International always said that wherever you go in the world today, Bob Marley is the symbol of freedom. I was interviewed last year by Phil Keoghan, who is a 10-time Emmy-winning producer and host of  ‘The Amazing Race,’ and has been to 130 countries. He said that in every single country he’s been to, he found evidence of Bob Marley. He wanted to talk to me about why that was so, and it was one of the best interviews I’ve ever done.”

What would Marley have regarded his most important work?

“Well, I think as far as the songs go, it might have been ‘War.’ They were Haile Selassie’s words directly set to music, and they were the words of the person he considered to be God incarnated on our planet right now, a living man. So, that had one of the deepest effects on him. I also think ‘Redemption Song,’ being one of the last songs he wrote, if he did in fact write it. The keyboardist claims that he wrote it, but who will ever know?”

Photo contributed by Roger Steffens
Roger Steffens took photos of Bob Marley backstage at the San Diego Sports Arena in 1979.

The future of Steffens’ reggae archives

“The archive fills seven rooms of the house, floor to ceiling. I’m on the verge of transferring it all to Jamaica. I finally found the proper buyer for it, and they want to build a museum to house it in Montego Bay. It’s taken almost 40 years to find the right deal. It’s perfect. He promises to keep it intact forever, which has always been my bottom line, and why I wouldn’t sell it to the Jamaican government. They laughed in my face and said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, once it’s ours we can do whatever we want with it.’ I figured it’d all be on eBay in six months. I think I’ll keep copies of my own writing (at home) and will it to the museum when I pass. I’d like to keep my own library for a little longer.”

Steffens wound up backstage with Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1978, after meeting guitarist Junior Marvin at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium’s mixing boards.

“I didn’t recognize him, but he had little dreadlocks popping out of his head, and I figured he had something to do with the band. I struck up a conversation with him, said the right thing to the right guy, and next thing I know I’m back in the (Wailers) dressing room with my wife, meeting the band. I was pretty speechless. I had gone to Jamaica in ’76, and I think I ran into Bob there, but he was off on tour. I had my pocket picked in Bob Marley’s record shack, by one of the big reggae stars at the time, so it was a very different experience from what I had anticipated. Then in ’78 when I met the band and Bob, well, Bob was very, very stoned that night. I asked him if he was gonna sing ‘Waiting in Vain’  that night, and he just kind of looked up drearily and said,‘Oh, maybe.’ It turned out he would never sing it live, because the I-Three’s wouldn’t sing the song because they thought it was about Cindy Breakspeare. Rita (Marley) didn’t want to sing it, and Judy sat out in solidarity, so there was no point in performing it. It’s a shame, because his most beautiful love song, and it really never got played live.”

Personal aspirations Marley left behind

“I really think he would have gone forward to Africa and established a town, maybe in Ghana, which was much safer. The infrastructure was much stronger than it was in the time he went to Ethiopia in 1978. I think he was shocked by what he saw in Ethiopia. Of course, the Derg had taken over the country, and they would throw anybody even with a picture of (Haile) Selassie into prison. So, that is not what Bob wanted to go back to, or forward to. I think, truly, he would have established a community for repatriating Rasta. I think Ghana would have been agreeable to that.”

Marley’s everlasting presence

“Last year, the Marley clothing company alone made $100 million. It’s unbelievable, and that’s 40 years after his death. What young people look for, too, is a rebellious hero. A lot of them came to him for his promotion of the legalization of herb, but it goes further than that. It’s the respect for mankind’s human rights, and everywhere in the world Bob is still the symbol of freedom. It’s wonderful to see. I’m still learning new things after all these years. He is the gift that keeps on giving.”