There is no doubt that Bob Marley got a good part of his charisma from his late mother, Cedella Booker. Bubbly, outspoken, but always polite, Cedella Booker epitomised the rural Jamaican woman: strong-willed, hearty and fiercely protective of her child. In her case, that child was a son who would grow to be the first superstar of the Caribbean.
Born on July 23, 1926, Cedella Malcolm, nicknamed Ciddy, loved to sing. She apparently inherited her charm from her own father, Omeriah, the Jamaican equivalent of an African griot. Together they lived in the countryside of Nine Miles.
As a teenager Cedella attracted the attention of Captain Norval Marley of the West India Regiment, 31 years older than her. The liaison between a black woman and a white man must have been shocking in the parish of St Ann, but Cedella, immersed in romantic dreams, was already putting her own spin on her relationship with the middle-aged Englishman. She would insist for the rest of her life that Marley had loved her and married her before he went off to Kingston.
She was 19 when her son Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945. Rather than dwell on what must have been a difficult struggle as a single mother, in countless interviews Cedella Malcolm rewrote her own personal history to paint a cheery picture and create a mystic aura around her son. In Catch a Fire, she says she spent much of Marley’s early life worrying about his health and the spirits that were always tracking him.
When he was a teenager, they went to Kingston to live. There she had a daughter, Pearl Livingston, with Bunny Wailer’s father. Bunny and Bob grew up like brothers and formed a group, the Wailers.
Cedella did not like the tenement yards of the ghetto. With her son building his own life as a welder and aspiring musician, she left for Delaware in the US. Bob joined his mother after he suffered an eye injury on a welding job, but soon confided in his mother, now Mrs Cedella Booker, that he was in love with a girl named Rita.
In her book, there are hints that the relationship between the two women in Marley’s life was strained. In Bob Marley: My Son, she is forthright about her acceptance of Marley’s mistress the beauty queen Cindy Breakspeare (mother of singer Damian “Junior Gong” Marley).
Booker was at her famous son’s deathbed in 1981. She portrays herself as remaining strong for him, but spoke of the heartache she felt when he asked her continually, “Why me? I never did anyone anything.”
In his life, Marley never uttered a bad word about Booker. He had a profound impact on her. It was through him that she grew dreadlocks and became a Rastafarian. After his death of cancer, Booker pursued her own recording career. She made two CDs: Awake Zion! and Smilin’ Island of Song. They featured Jamaican folk songs strung together with her own narration, and introduced children to Jamaica and her son’s music.
In an interview on radio in Trinidad and Tobago marking the anniversary of Bob Marley’s death, Booker once said she never felt her son had left her: she talked to him every day of her life and still felt his presence strongly. Her favourite song, she said, was Three Little Birds. It fitted her optimistic nature.
Booker died in her sleep at her home in Miami on April 8 this year. She was 81. In light of the stories she had spun about her son’s spirituality, it is tempting to think that her painless death was part of the whole Bob Marley legend she had helped to build. If she could write her own obituary, she surely would have said, “You see, my son would not allow me to suffer.”