The Legend Behind the Legend: Esther Anderson on Reggae, Rebellion & Marley Thursday 09 January, 2014

Bob Marley and Esther Anderson.© Esther Anderson 1973

It’s never the same when you just read about some point in time, do the research, dissect the field notes, try to extract meaning from the inanimate and past. Nothing compares to speaking directly to someone who lived it, knows it, was one of the architects of this moment of interest. Their creativity and foresight […]


It’s never the same when you just read about some point in time, do the research, dissect the field notes, try to extract meaning from the inanimate and past. Nothing compares to speaking directly to someone who lived it, knows it, was one of the architects of this moment of interest. Their creativity and foresight shaped not a culture, but culture itself. They understood the nuances, they had the vision, and they carried forth despite the limitations of time and space and money. That’s what Esther Anderson is to Reggae. Not an observer or a friend of the people who made it happen, but a creator, a soldier, a force, if you will.

A creative force with many a talent, Anderson is a major reason you and I know who Bob Marley is. Tenacious and hardworking, she was committed to the vision of a Jamaica unencumbered, free to be what it is without restraint or whitewashing. She was the one to put Marley and the Wailers’ music out there; selling it from the back of a Mini Cooper to reluctant record stores, spinning it at all the hotspots in Kingston where she DJ’d.

More so, she was the visionary behind the most iconic images of Marley, a co-songwriter for some of his earliest hits, and one of the establishers of Island Records. Why? “To develop our culture. To give our people a voice. We are not into the ‘one story,’ one person telling the story. We are all storytellers, each and everyone of us. Jamaica is our only brand.”

As part of a trilogy of films highlighting the achievements of accomplished people of color, her latest is the documentary: Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, featuring a compilation of never seen before, pre-fame, footage of Marley. She captured these images herself, offering a window into his life before he became the worldwide legend. In this in-depth interview, Anderson opens up about her role in the making of Marley, Jamaican empowerment and identity, and what it means to live unchained.

© Esther Anderson.

Your talent encompasses so much: photography, modeling, acting, producing and songwriting. You have literally done and do it all.  How did your artistic journey begin?

The creative journey started as a form of rebelling against injustice, against the conventions imposed on us by society. Music, photography, journalism, films, poetry, etc are all powerful mediums to fight injustice. To master each of these art forms, one needs to understand them first, and some of the most inspiring experiences in my life have been learning and working in collaboration with some of the artists who challenged the system of oppression since the 60’s until today.

 You played a big role in developing Island Records with Chris Blackwell.  What would you say are some things people might not know about your involvement in the brand’s growth?

Since Jamaican Emancipation in 1835, Jamaicans have struggled and suffered to have their voice heard, so that the promise of equal rights and universal justice is a reality, and not manna falling from heaven. The big role of developing Jamaican culture and establishing a stronger sense of identity is best symbolised by the works of Marcus Garvey, from whom we all learnt. This struggle for freedom was carved with obstacles during the British rule, until independence, when a new kind of exploitation took place.


This prevented the Jamaican musicians from becoming economically viable. That is, when they stopped cutting cane, they had them cutting discs. The brand you mentioned was the one we helped to establish after independence with the aim to place Jamaica on the map, which we achieved, first in 1964 with Millie Smalls’ ska version of  “My Boy Lollipop,” arranged by the great Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. That creative journey brought to the world Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, the Wailers, and many others.

Unfortunately, REGGAE music is now owned by the shareholders of one of the biggest water companies, Vivendi. Most of the copyright to those musical works were sold away for $20, that’s all they paid the Jamaican musicians. They were signed away to the music exploiters, the very thing Marcus Garvey had warned us about.

My commitment was absolute. I helped to get their voices out. I helped them to gain confidence, promoted their image and message, became their personal manager, traveled with them directing them before they went on radio and television. To me, it was vital that we used the media to cross the artists over. And they had to be as strong as the Beatles or the Stones. We need strong voices, and great musicians from Jamaica to go out into the world and succeed. Brand did not enter in our vocabulary. That is not why we did the work. It was to develop our culture. To give our people a voice. We are not into the “one story,” one person telling the story. We are all storytellers, each and every one of us. Jamaica is our only brand.

I read that you did the initial sales for Island Records with Chris Blackwell from the back of a Mini Cooper. How did you get Jamaican record shops to actually buy the music?  How did you convince them?

There were no Jamaican record shops then. They were shops owned by the English. Basically, I would be the one going in with the box of records, trying to convince the owners to take it on a sale or return basis. These shops became so successful at selling these records that they would send me presents at Christmas. Owen Grey, Desmond Dekker, Lee Perry, Rico Rodriguez, they all came and passed through Trojan Records, which was partly owned by Blackwell.

While I helped to develop the label with Chris, I worked as a DJ after drama school in the evenings, until five in the morning. As a DJ, I got to introduce early Jamaican music like Blue Beat. Oh Carolina was on the favourites of most of the people who came to the club, and Jimmy Cliff was too singing those songs “The lion say, I am king and I reign.” These were some of the most popular requests at the Crazy Elephant club, the Crazy E. I took Quincy Jones and the head of Mercury Records, Irving Green, to the Roaring Twenties club to listen to Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’. That was the club where all the West Indians went to listen to music from their homeland. That night I convinced them to release the record in America. It went to the top of the charts.

Esther Anderson & Bob Marley. Self-portrait by Esther Anderson, 1973. Trenhorne Films.

What led you to create your film, “Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend”? 

I am making a trilogy of role models of African descent who contributed to popular culture. I have done part one, which is the story of Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The film, “Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend,” was meant to be the last one in the trilogy. I was working on pre-production of Alexander Pushkin, but this lost footage I shot in 1973 was found and returned to me after 40 years. I wanted to share with the fans the beginnings of how we developed Bob and the Wailers’ image.


You photographed the cover for Bob Marley and The Wailers’, “Catch a Fire” album.  It’s the first album cover to show someone smoking an illegal substance.  What was your thinking behind the art direction? 

I wanted them to be themselves. To accept themselves for who they are, and present them strong, as a band, as a union of forces with the stories, the melodies, the rhythm section of the Barrett Brothers, the union with His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. Smoking herbs was part of their daily way of life and their message was clear: “Slave driver, the table is turned.” How can you say that with an image, if not smoking a spliff, in the early morning Jamaican sunlight?

Catch a Fire album. Bob Marley and The Wailers. 1974 © Esther Anderson 1973

When Bob Marley’s “Catch a Fire” sold less than expected, you imagined other ways to promote Bob’s music.  What types of imagery and concepts, in re-introducing Bob, made him more successful?

Catch a Fire is the first album for Island. The first release was done at Island in London without understanding the importance of the message in the Wailers’ compositions. Songs like “Slave Driver,” “Concrete Jungle” or “400 Years,” are revolutionary songs in the tradition of Marcus Garvey. They didn’t know how to promote the Wailers’ music nor their image. You are going to introduce a new band to the world with a new music and a new rhythm, and you choose to advertise it as a cigarette lighter? A Second World War lighter that has nothing to do with the Wailers or what they are singing about.

When the second album Burnin’ was released with my photographs and the songs we collaborated on, songs like “Get Up Stand Up,” “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” with the fanfare of promotion, t-shirts and posters with a close-up of Bob Marley smoking a spliff, and the international press coming to 56 Hope Road to interview him, then it became a cause célèbre. Even Eric Clapton bought the album and covered “I Shot the Sheriff,” the first and only hit single he ever had. It was at that moment that Island Records re-released Catch a Fire with my photograph as a poster of Bob smoking.

You helped Bob transform Selassie’s UN speech into the single, “War.”  What was the creative process like for that song?

We build a house in Little Bay, in the South West coast of Jamaica, where we could have the freedom to create. Many songs were written there. But this song called War is not really about war. I encouraged him to record Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech at the United Nations as a song. These are Selassie’s words, which Bob eventually put music to: “Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace.” Bob made a chorus based on war, but that was not what Selassie meant. After I read the speech aloud to Bob and the Rastas in Little Bay, it affected us. That experience rooted us in Little Bay very strongly.


Stand up for your Rights. Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend Photograph by Esther Anderson, London 1973 © Esther Anderson 1973

Your film shines light on Jamaica’s colonial past with a series of paintings from the slavery era.  Why did you want to open the film with this imagery?

The opening sits on the foundation of the music. The pain and suffering of  the African people during plantation slavery. It is part of what drives us to want to write songs that speak up for the oppressed. All those Jamaican prints are part of our makeup -our history. It is only natural that one would want to look at the facts. The Jamaican National Library and the Institute of Jamaica in Downtown Kingston, in collaboration with Del Crooks of the Jamaican Film Commission, graciously opened the prints and manuscripts archives to us. Those prints are a testament of the true nature of the prejudicial system of oppression imposed by the Colonial powers since the arrival of the invading forces of Columbus.

It had been important for you to communicate the influence of Rastafarianism (which really isn’t an “ism”) on Reggae.  What did you want people to know about how they connect?

The Rastafarian people live in the fringes of society. They were the untouchables of Jamaica, but they had a strong faith, a point of view which is looking up to Ethiopia. Reggae music comes from the resistance movement, the Rastafarian culture. In the same way as the Coromantees from the West Coast of Africa resisted slavery in Jamaica, and the historians call them rebels, the musicians were called rebels before being called Rastas. Nowadays the media call them all Rastas or yardies. The tradition of resistance is clear in Reggae music.

What about your own journey into Rasta?  What did you take away from the beliefs and way of life?  Are you still influence by it now?

Bob and I took vows of the Nazarite together and created an ecological home by the sea, with a garden that was inspired by the botanical gardens of Jamaica and The Secret Life of Plants, and the example of Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who was creating another garden in the hills of Westmorland. After the work was done, and the music had crossed over, I came to the end of my vows and cut my locks. It doesn’t mean that I have left the movement.

Bob Marley and Esther Anderson.© Esther Anderson 1973

After you learned Marley had a wife and kids, you continued to support him professionally.  I imagine that would be difficult, but throughout your career you’ve been so strong and professional.  What made you keep going for him?  Was it bigger than him?

The message was bigger than him. He was a messenger, and he knew it.

I got chills when you said Bob told you, “You can never leave me, my music will follow you everywhere.”  What did that mean to you when you heard it?  Was he right?

I smiled at him, because he is so cheeky, and he was right, because his music and the Wailers follow me everywhere.

Through your films, (and not just Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend), you portray legendary and inspirational people of color, providing positive images to the marginalized.  What have you learned about the power of art to effect change?

Art is at the centre of society, of all societies, in all disciplines, from ancient carvings to masks and chants, musicals and films, architecture and poetry. Art affects how we live every day. But, does it actually help us to make changes? For example, African music came to the Caribbean and into the Americas through slavery. Now, here we are some 500 years later. Are the people really living better because of art existing in their lives? We hope it will make changes. Did the music bring any changes to the areas where the music came from? It doesn’t seem to me that Trenchtown is better than before.

The advent of the digital age has brought about a change. If you are possessed by wanting to express yourself through this medium of music and singing, the word is out that you can use modern technology. You can share it and you can sell it independently. You don’t need a middleman to exploit you. The Jamaican musicians’ experience is clearly not Rock & Roll. Films used to be good, but now they release violent movies, cheap violent movies targeted the dispossessed. Why don’t they show proper documentaries and films that inspire and educate the people?

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

In the capitalist society, they give goodies to everyone, but at the same time they take away our God-given sense, as the poet Kwasi Biko wrote. Why should we be chained? We are born free. I never liked that song that went like “my baby got me locked up in chains.” As far as I am concerned, I am rebellious, and because of that I have been able to continue doing my work.

The documentary, “Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend,” is available for via iTunes, Amazon and streaming, buying, or DVD purchase at:

Written by Nesrien Hamid and Kathryn Buford






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  • Michael Arkk says:

    Her STORY must be told.REGGAE made the world move to a mystical vibration and is about to move the world again. There would be no Bob Marley and the Wailers without the sacrificial efforts of Lady Esther Anderson. I will take this opportunity to say THANK YOU to her. You have helped to lay a monumental foundation for Jamaica Afrika and the Caribbean. We will never forget you. And I endeavor to help in telling your Story. The world might still be waiting to hear this grand music if you did not answer the call and made the sacrifices…

  • Dreama says:

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