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Bob Marley Spins In His Grave

The Marley estate plans to use Bob Marley's name or image on a vast array of products, from Marley coffee (the slogan: 'Stir it Up') to soccer balls, bedsheets, and a Grand Theft Auto-ish video game. 'He worked out', daughter Cedella says. 'Great abs. He would make a great action hero.' —Rolling Stone, 2009

"Marley Marijuana"? What's next, Mandela Mac-and-Cheese? Ghandi Granola? Lennon Lint-Remover? Dylan Diapers? MLK Menswear?

Probably, and hopefully, not, as the surviving families of those icons seem to have some taste, restraint, ethics, and just plain good judgment  not to mention respect for the person who made their name famous.

For many years, I had the privilege and pleasure of working backstage at music festivals, especially "world music" and reggae events. Meeting many musical stars, even heroes, was almost always a joy. One-on-one, protected from paparazzi and such, these artists were almost always polite, humble, friendly and even grateful to be well-cared for before and after their stage time.

There were exceptions, of course. One year we had a few of the children of reggae legend Bob Marley appearing, and they traveled with bodyguards - totally unnecessary backstage - and big egos. Sitting with another reggae legend, who had been a longtime friend of Bob Marley, we watched one junior Marley walking along with a pushy bodyguard ahead of him warning "Artist coming through" and I asked what he thought of it all. "If Bob were here now, he'd have those boys over his knee" replied the star, shaking his head.

I've long wondered about that remark. Bob Marley's family legacy has been a very mixed one. One can quibble about the music his children have made, but the legal history is a real shame. In-fighting and money-grabbing seems to have been the norm in the decades after Marley died intestate. While the details in many such cases are fuzzy, one thing is certain - it's not likely what Bob Marley would have wanted.

Now comes the latest attempt to cash in on his image - "Marley Natural" marijuana, a "brand" that was announced in November, garnering worldwide media attention - as no doubt intended.

Is this a "natural' fit? Of course Bob Marley smoked cannabis. But would he want his name on it, as part of advertising for a profiteering product? Would he partner with business interests who had nothing to do with reggae, Jamaica, the Rastafarian faith, or anything else Marley was associated with or devoted to? I'd bet no - as would many others who knew him. Marley was renowned for his indifference to money and his generosity on handing out cash to most anybody who asked. If any business endeavor would be suitable in his name, it would surely be a charitable one.

And so, disgusted by the news of this new "product roll-out," I sent an op-ed to the Jamaica Gleaner, Marley's home nation's leading newspaper, suggesting that if they must market cannabis, they devote the proceeds to charities Bob Marley would have endorsed - and then was surprised to see the Gleaner printed it, in their Sunday edition.

The reaction, at least as measured by the many emails I have received and the comments online, has mostly been along the lines of "Right on!" and "Don't hold your breath that they will heed any such message." Which is probably true, but, well, it just seemed to me that somebody had to say it out loud. The comments saying "They can do whatever they damn well please with their name and money" only confirmed for me the need to raise some questions.

Here is the op-ed (retitled and Anglicized by the post-colonial Gleaner):

Are the Marleys high?

Shame on family for peddling patriarch as brand

An Open Letter to the Marley Family

Dear Rita, Cedella, and Rohan Marley:

Congratulations on last week's very visible launch of your forthcoming Marley Natural brand of marijuana. As no doubt intended, you received worldwide media coverage.

But I am also compelled to ask: Have you no shame?

Don't get me wrong. As a longtime reggae fanatic and journalist, I have long revered Bob Marley's music and messages. I went to his concerts and even met him once - where I was in awe of his presence. The BEAT magazine, a leading world music journal and my primary publisher for many years, devoted entire issues to him every year.

Collectively, we, too, loved the man. And as for cannabis, I, too, favour legalisation and have even contributed to major medical policy papers advocating that - if carefully done.

But contrary to what Cedella has told the press, Bob Marley is not a brand. The businessmen you have partnered with to sell cannabis make no bones about their motivations - money, and money only. They are what Bob Marley referred to as "pure Babylon."

As you know, herb to him was a sacrament, not just another product to be marketed for profit by capitalists. Anti-herb drug warriors are already using your product launch as an example of Big Cannabis practices that will prove that marijuana should remain illegal. I strongly believe that rather than smiling about this latest attempt to cash in on his image, your father/husband is spinning in his grave.

You may have a way to redeem this looming debacle, however. Back in 2005, Stephen Davis, who knew Bob Marley and wrote one of the best books about him, penned a scathing open letter to him in The BEAT magazine. Davis lamented the infighting, greed, and scandal that ensued among your family after his death, and asked, very pointedly:

"Where is the Bob Marley Hospital for the Poor that should be operating in Spanish Town? Where is the Bob Marley Orphanage that should be the pride of St Ann's Bay? What about the Bob Marley Home for the Aged in Negril, or the Bob Marley Early Childcare Centre in Sligoville and Port Antonio? These non-existent institutions don't exist because your family has other priorities, which seem to be mostly themselves."

So here is your challenge, and your opportunity - which should be a relatively easy one to fulfill, as I very much doubt any of you are truly in need of more money. I note that there is a Healing of the Nation page on your new product website - which is so far blank. If you will now make a public, binding pledge to devote all profits from Marley cannabis to an independent, audited foundation that will provide the sort of essential human services Davis proposed, Bob Marley might indeed smile from beyond. Otherwise, many of us who remember his message will continue to believe that his family is defiling his memory.

And finally, in the same edition of the magazine where Mr Davis' open letter appeared, there was a 1936 speech by Emperor Haile Selassie, whom Bob Marley himself revered, of course. Its title: 'God and history will remember your judgment'. I humbly suggest you think about that before you attempt to cash in again on the name you have been so fortunate to inherit.

Sincerely, Steve Heilig, San Francisco

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