The world was stunned when Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981. The singer was only 36 years old. His official cause of death was given as skin cancer—acral lentiginous melanoma—which had spread to his brain.
In 1977, Marley was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma under a toenail. This type of malignant cancer is one of the most common ones that occur in highly-melanated persons. However, in the late 1970s, it wasn’t yet widely understood, and he had to visit several doctors before receiving his diagnosis.
His doctors warned him that the cancer was likely to spread beyond his foot. They advised him to have his entire toe amputated to stop the development of further cancer cells, limiting the growth to the toe.
He refused, saying that it was against his religion to have a part of his body amputated. The Rastafarian religion instructs its members to leave their bodies intact, as an amputation would damage their “sacred temple.” Some accounts say that the musician was less worried about his religion than how an amputation—of either his toe or his entire foot—would affect his ability to tour and play music.
Instead, he agreed to have his toenail and nail bed removed in an attempt to stop the spread of cancer. He also received a skin graft from his thigh.
After the removal of his toenail and nail bed, Marley sought alternative treatments that he felt were more in line with his personal beliefs. As his cancer progressed, he flew to Bavaria, Germany, to visit the clinic of Dr. Joseph Issels.
Dr. Issels’ treatment largely consists of “treating” cancer by following a strict diet, avoiding certain “toxins,” taking vitamins, and undergoing holistic therapies. Today, the treatment has been widely decried by cancer authorities around the world; nevertheless, the singer stayed at the clinic for roughly eight months.
In December 1976, Marley and his wife, Rita, were attacked at their home in Kingston, Jamaica. The attempt came just two days before he was scheduled to perform at Smile Jamaica, a unity concert held in response to political upheaval and violence.
Though the musician had held himself out of Jamaican politics, his presence at the concert was widely considered to be an endorsement of Prime Minister Michael Manley and the People’s National Party. Coupled with the content of the singer’s music, which often advocated for peace and unity, he was considered a political figure despite his vocal resistance.
During the attack, seven men entered Marley’s home and shot him, his wife, his manager, and a member of his band. They all survived, despite suffering serious injuries. The musician was even able to headline the Smile Jamaica concert two days later.
Though the attempt on his life did not seem to have a connection to his cancer that ultimately killed him, it fueled conspiracy theories in Jamaica and around the world. It was suggested that the CIA had hired the assassins to attack Marley and that they resorted to other methods after the first attempt failed. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the late 1970s, several years after the attack, that his music became more overtly political.
After the assassination attempt, Marley tried to continue touring. However, his health was clearly failing, and his physical and mental faculties were rapidly deteriorating. In 1980, he was in the midst of a series of live performances in New York City, including two shows in Madison Square Garden. During the second show, he was said to look ill while onstage and at one point nearly fainted. He went jogging in the city the next day and collapsed en route.
When a doctor conducted a physical exam, the prognosis was bleak. Marley’s manager, Danny Sims, reported that the doctor said the singer’s body was more riddled with cancer than any he’d ever seen. The disease had spread to his vital organs, including his lungs, liver, and brain. The doctor estimated that the musician had only months to live, and suggested that if he continued touring, he would die on the road.
The singer’s last show took place in Pittsburgh in September 1980. Afterward, he spent his time traveling between Miami, New York, and Germany to continue his alternative treatments. However, these were not successful. Some reports say that he initially began receiving radiation treatments at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City before changing his mind and traveling to Bavaria.
In his final months, he was so frail that he could barely hold himself upright. He was no longer able to play soccer. Eventually, his dreadlocks became too heavy for him to hold his head up, and his wife was obligated to cut them off. He was said to have weighed only 86 pounds in his last months.
In May 1981, it was clear that his treatments were not working and that he was close to death. He boarded a plane for his home in Jamaica. However, his vital signs crashed so badly during the flight that the plane was forced to divert to Miami, where he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.
Marley died from complications of melanoma on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36. His son Ziggy was with him and heard his last words: “Money can’t buy life.” His wife and mother were also with him when he passed away.
Shortly before his death, the musician was received into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Up until then, he had been a practicing Rastafarian.
In the decades after Marley’s death, rumors circulated that he had died from a toe injury while playing soccer. While he did initially notice pain in his cancerous toe while playing the game, he told friends that it had been happening on and off for years.
Other conspiracy theories bloomed in the wake of the assassination attempt in Jamaica, particularly because of the singer’s increasingly political opinions. The most prevalent was that he had been killed by the CIA. People speculated that the initial attempt on his life was a failed government operation and that, ultimately, he was poisoned or infected with radiation.
None of these theories have any real evidence to back them up, though they are not completely founded on fantasy. The musician was a figure of national interest throughout the last years of his life, and he was shot, supposedly in connection to the Jamaican political upheaval of the mid-1970s.
Sadly, there are few cures for acral lentiginous melanoma once it metastasizes to the vital organs. Even today, treatment consists of limiting cancer to one area of the body and performing an amputation if necessary. Radiation and chemotherapy may also be used. With modern medicine, melanoma is rarely fatal; it is likely that, if the singer had accepted his doctor’s advice to remove his toe, he would have made a full recovery.
Marley was given a state funeral in Jamaica on May 21, 1981. The Jamaican prime minister was present and gave the eulogy, thanking him for his contributions to his country.
The musician’s funeral combined elements of Rastafari traditions and Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the religion to which he converted before his death. He was buried near his birthplace. His coffin contained his red Gibson Les Paul guitar and a Bible left open to Psalm 23. His widow, Rita, also placed a bundle of marijuana beside his body; cannabis is a ritual plant in the Rastafari tradition.
More than 100,000 people attended his funeral and were permitted to view his body. He was buried wearing a dreadlock wig, the hairstyle he had preferred for much of his life.
The funeral was a huge affair, requiring massive organization, including security. The Jamaican government even postponed announcing its annual budget to focus on arranging the event. The famous Jamaican footballer Allan Cole read passages from the Bible. Marley’s widow sang, and his mother spoke the final words of the ceremony.
The singer left no will, as his personal beliefs were against materialism, and he hated the idea of his family fighting over his wealth.
Recommended: The top Bob Marley songs ever released
Prime Minister Edward Seaga spoke at Marley’s funeral, calling him “part of the collective consciousness of the nation.” He is undoubtedly part of the collective consciousness of modern musicians everywhere, having influenced not just reggae but many other genres as well.
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