How Did Bob Marley Die?

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Jamaica’s first international superstar, Bob Marley is credited with bringing reggae, rasta and a powerful message of peace and reconciliation to people around the world at a time of great social crisis.

Following his death over three decades ago, “Nesta” left behind a legendary collection of music, but also a lingering sense of frustration at his refusal to save his own life.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley live in concert in Zurich, Switzerland, May 30, 1980 – less than a year before his death. (Photo credit: Drjazz.ch | Wikimedia Commons)

How did Bob Marley die? Having revolutionized popular music and earned lasting fame, Bob Marley died in 1981 at the age of 36 from a brain tumor, which had formed in the wake of a metastasized melanoma cancer on his right foot’s big toe.

This particular toe had been a periodic problem since he was a young boy in Jamaica. When the toe nail was ripped off during a soccer match at the beginning of Marley’s Exodus tour in 1977, he went to a doctor who found preexisting cancerous cells in the afflicted area.

By the late ’70s, Bob’s melanoma had spread to his brain and spawned a tumor that would take his life. When did Bob Markey die? After enduring months of experimental ‘holistic’ treatment in Germany, he passed away in Miami on May 11, 1981 among friends and family.

‘Cause every little is thing gonna be all right’The 1977 Exodus tour would cement Marley’s legend across Europe and the United States. But it began with a bad omen. In Paris for the first show, Bob played a game of soccer with some French journalists in which he badly busted up his right toe, losing most of the toenail. He should have stayed off the foot so it could heal, but Mr. Marley was on his Exodus tour; there was much to be done. The now-famous live recording at the Rainbow Theater in London was just weeks away.

So, Bob left the fate of his foot to chance and hope. By the London show, however, he was limping off the stage, his boot soaked in blood. Finally, he consulted a foot specialist in England who gave him the bad news: the toe was cancerous. Part of his foot would have to be amputated to keep the melanoma from spreading.

Chant Down BabylonAmputation was a big problem. Bob’s Rastafarian faith saw razors, scissors and combs as the technology of ‘Babylon’ and colonial oppression; a Rastaman should not allow his body to be pierced with any of these instruments. Horrified by the prospect, Bob agreed to a compromise: the doctors could resection the top half of his toe and perform a skin graft—but they would not be allowed to amputate through his foot as recommended.

Healing quickly from the less invasive procedure, Bob was heartened and tried to forget about his toe. It worked for a few years, but by the Uprising tour of 1980, the clock was ticking. Days before a major performance in Pittsburgh, he suffered a stroke while jogging in Central Park. His whole body was riddled with cancer, from the liver to the lungs and brain.

It seemed the American leg of the Uprising tour was all but doomed, but Bob—or, according to his family, his road manager and booking agency—was insistent that the show must go on. Despite extremely poor health, he performed his last formal show at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 23rd, 1980.

Jah Melanoma“Tuff Gong” Marley charismatically expressed Rastafarian themes and shared them all over the globe, providing inspiration not only for people of color, but for everyone who cared about peace and justice. Why would Bob Marley reject a life-saving procedure on the basis of this philosophy?

Practitioners of Rastafari commonly place their trust in natural or holistic medicine over the pharmacological approach of the West. Moreover, Marley had long believed Jah would protect him; if his death was a part of the plan, he was okay with that. Rastafarians believe in eternal life: “My richness is life forever,” he often said.

Bob didn’t catch his cancer early, nor did he take appropriate action when he first learned of the abnormal cells—the two biggest mistakes you can make when threatened with melanoma. Unfortunately, many people believe melanoma can be neutralized just by cutting off the mass. Bob Marley tried this route, but it was too little and too late; melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer precisely because it is so eager to metastasize.

A melanoma even a millimeter deep is already deep enough to breach the bloodstream and export cancer to the rest of the body. More often than not, as Marley’s case shows, such a rogue melanoma is nearly impossible to arrest. Yet the five-year survival rate for those that catch melanoma before it spreads is an astonishing 99%. In other words, Bob Marley probably could have survived had he allowed a timely amputation.

Bonus Facts To Arouse Your CuriosityAssassination Attempt: 1976Bob Marley and his close entourage survived a politically-motivated assassination attempt by anonymous gunmen in Jamaica a year before discovering his cancer. It was on the eve of a peace concert amid intensifying political violence in the Caribbean island nation. Bob played the concert anyway, explaining: “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”

‘Africa for the Africans’Rastafarianism’s roots hearken to 1920s Jamaica, when Marcus Garvey was a prominent public figure. It was from the beginning an empowering Afro-Caribbean cultural response to Western colonialism and racism. By the peak of Marley’s career in the ’70s, the Rasta lifestyle had been adopted by some 60% of indigenous Jamaicans.

Acral Lentiginous MelanomaSkin cancer is most prevalent among white people but that doesn’t mean people of color can’t get it, as young Marley’s untimely death demonstrates. Metastatic skin cancer, or melanoma, is the most lethal form of skin cancer. Bob Marley had a particularly aggressive type called “acral lentiginous melanoma,” which disproportionately affects individuals of African and Asian ancestry.


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  1. Pingback: Bob Marley & The Rise of Reggae in America | SLINT INDEX

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