Why hasn't Jamaica made Bob Marley a national hero yet?

Mural of Bob Marley in Hoxton Street, London. Photo by Luke McKernan on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Think Jamaica and you think Bob Marley. Arguably the Caribbean island nation's most famous export even though he died more than four decades ago, Marley still holds stock as a reggae music pioneer who brought Jamaica's music, culture and worldview sharply into focus on the global stage. Successive Jamaican governments have remained keenly aware of his enduring star power, using his music in tourism commercials, promoting the Bob Marley Museum as a must-see attraction, and even decriminalising marijuana (Marley was a staunch Rastafari, a religion that uses ganja as an integral part of spiritual observances).

Yet Marley, though revered the world over, has not yet achieved the ultimate recognition in his homeland: the title of national hero. It is a long-acknowledged oversight that former culture minister Lisa Hanna formally took to parliament on April 5, citing Marley's message of peace, his shaping of Black consciousness and outspokenness against systems of injustice, his “lyrical activism for the poor and disenfranchised,” his stellar representation of both reggae and Rastafari, and his kindness and “One Love” philosophy as some of the reasons he should be posthumously given this honour:

Jamaica's national heroes belong to a small and exclusive club; there are currently only seven of them. Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey was the first to hold the honour. Other heroes include Paul Bogle, a 19th-century deacon and activist who led the Morant Bay Rebellion and died at the hands of colonial authorities; George William Gordon, a champion of enslaved Africans; Samuel Sharpe, who staged a rebellion that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Jamaica; Norman Manley, one of the architects of Jamaica's independence; the country's first prime minister Alexander Bustamante; and the only woman hero, Nanny of the Maroons, an 18th-century Maroon leader whose sharp military strategies helped secure freedom for her people. The Order of National Hero honour is detailed in the country's National Honours and Awards Act, which was passed in 1969.

On Facebook, Hanna continued:

Our National Honours and Awards Act describes the national hero motto: ‘He built a city which hath foundations.’
Today, as the world seems more embattled with geopolitical conflict and nation states worrying about their people's economic survival, we need Bob's guidance, reassurance, and revolutionary empowerment to reset our humanity to one another.

If we are serious about becoming republic, let us first demonstrate it by embracing our own, recognising the monumental impact they've made on our lives and the global village. It's time to make Bob Marley our eighth national hero.

Social media reactions came in fast and furious, with many expressing surprise that Marley didn't already have this national honour conferred upon him. While some accused Hanna of using the issue to gain political points, others felt the move was “long overdue,” especially in light of the authorities’ fraught relationship with local Rastafari communities.

Even as people discussed the enduring relevance of Marley's music, many felt that the title of national hero required a different set of criteria. Facebook user UniqueYan Pryce explained:

I have absolutely no issues with the national and international accolades bestowed upon Bob Marley, Professionally he deserved it all. However as a national hero NOPE NOPE. far from it. The seven there now gain their title selflessly. Died fighting for this country and generation[s] to come so we may be free in every way […] without any personal gain. […] So to put Bob Marley and Usain Bolt in this category is madness.

In December 2021, opposition senator Floyd Morris called for four of Jamaica's culture and sports personalities — Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Usain Bolt and Louise Bennett-Coverley — to be conferred as national heroes by August 6, 2022, the country's 60th anniversary of independence from Britain.

Incidentally, Jamaica's history as a former British colony has become part of the rationale for those advocating for Marley's hero status. On November 30, 2021, the 55th anniversary of its own independence from Britain, Barbados renounced Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, officially becoming a republic and using the occasion to bestow upon Barbadian-born pop star Rihanna the title of national hero.

For a Caribbean island that was once dubbed “Little England,” Barbados's decision to throw off that vestige of colonialism in such a deliberate way rekindled curiosity about if and when Jamaica would follow suit. After an awkward visit to the country last month by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in which Prince William deftly avoided talk of reparations, stopping just short of apologising for slavery, pressure once again mounted for Jamaica to follow in Barbados’ footsteps, both in terms of republic status and by honouring nationals who excel. Barbadian senator Crystal Haynes tweeted:

A Jamaican living in Barbados mused:

Meanwhile, another Jamaican asked:

On Facebook, Robin Lim Lumsden reflected:

Is Jamaica going to be the last country to acknowledge a man who contributed to the improvement and awareness of social justice, world peace and make him a national hero? He will probably be the most famous Jamaican of all time. We as a nation look embarrassingly provincial, still ruled by the backward colonial bullshit and hypocrisy he sang about. Either that or we are incredibly stupid not to embrace him as a son of the soil, the land where Bob Marley is from, because whether people like it or not, he is the main association people from all over the world have with Jamaica.

“Main association” or not, it remains to be seen whether Jamaica will choose to grant its most famous citizen the country's highest honour.

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