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Bob Marley and the Wailers - When surnames tell a story

I had the pleasure of listening to David Olusoga's powerful keynote speech at the Black British Book Festival in Birmingham recently. During his speech, he spoke of his revelation at making the connection between the Highland Toffee he used to eat as a child, and the fact that the sugar used to make the delicious treat would have originated in the Caribbean, harvested by enslaved peoples.

While the name Bob Marley may be familiar to many, the other members of the Wailers may not be. The band known as the Wailers was formed in 1964 with three core members - Winston McIntosh, Neville Livingston, and Robert Marley. While they subsequently became known as Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley respectively, it is their surnames which David Olusoga pointed out, were all of British origin.

Norval Sinclair Marley - Bob Marley's father

Bob Marley's father was Norval Sinclair Marley, whose family came from East Sussex. The surname Marley was first used in the 12th century in England (spelled Merlai). The surname McIntosh is undeniably Scottish, first documented in Moray, again in the 12th century as 'Mac-an-Toisch'. The surname Livingston is from West Lothian, first appearing in the 12th century as 'Levingston'.

While this may not change how you understand and interpret the music made by the Wailers, it may shift how we understand the musicians themselves. Rather than 'only' being proud Jamaicans who descended from enslaved people, their respective surnames reveal them to also be products of British colonialism who overcame poverty and incredible odds to produce some of the most influential and timeless music in recorded history. That further step in acknowledging a specific location of ancestry is both powerful and humbling at the same time.

McIntosh, Marley and Livingston c.1964

In a recent CPD session with Syreeta Neal, she told us that:

Can you teach reggae, and specifically about Bob Marley and the Wailers without acknowledging their ancestry? Without acknowledging his dual heritage? Without understanding the music and its wider post-independence, post-colonial narratives?

Lots to think about...

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