RITA MARLEY, widow of reggae superstar Bob Marley, and herself a singer lately being referred to as the "new queen of reggae," is a Bible thumper of the old school. Of Rastafarianism, that is.
Rastas (modern-day equivalents of the messianic Caribbean "cargo cults" of slavery days, who saw deliverance in the mainsail of any ship popping up on the horizon) have resolved to simply sit and wait, taking no part in the Creole society that still favors a fair-skinned black before a dark-skinned one. Rastas decline to cut their hair, to eat pork and other "unclean foods," to hold a job within "Babylon," the corrupt world in which they find themselves stranded, pointing for justification to passages in the Coptic and King James Bibles.
Rita Marley subscribes to this faith, but for her the act of sitting and waiting becomes more problematic than most. She is heir to the reggae kingdom of Bob Marley, whose hypnotic brand of Jamaican rock propelled by a peculiarly insistant stutterbeat became one of the most popular and galvanizing sounds of the last decade. Millions of fans from New York City to Nigeria, from Paris to Portsmouth, expect her to carry on his work. But when the exotic burden grows too onerous, well, the Scriptures take a beating.
"To every thing there is a season," she insists, earnestly quoting Ecclesiastes III:i, while seated in her hotel suite the day after a jammed and critically acclaimed show at the Ritz ballroom in lower Manhattan; it was one of the make-up dates for the much-ballyhooed tour she backed out of last spring.
Rita Marley, 37, like most Rastas, is a resolute fatalist, cultivating patience until the Final Judgment. "The people who know about what is really happening on earth now are bringing about a certain awareness and consciousness of when and how certain things are going to happen in the Last Days," she says, referring to the Apocalypse Rastas believe is imminent. "By the time I got the message of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in 1966 when the emperor visited Jamaica, Bob had already been teaching me to eat healthy, dress modestly, preserve my self-respect, recognize my identity and understand my place in Creation. When Selassie's motorcade passed by me in 1966, and he waved, and I saw the nail prints in his hands -- just like Christ's -- I knew my course. That's my struggle, those are my concerns. Prophecies will be fulfilled. In the meantime, we all try in our way to be strong."
That faith has helped Rita Marley get through the rough times that followed the death of her husband from cancer in May of last year -- to overcome her own grief, sort out the affairs of his record company, become a source of strength to her five children, pursue her own career.
In the last case, the significance of the album she had been working on before Marley's death was suddenly blown out of proportion. "The album was something that had been happening all along, simply a logical progression and not part of Bob's gift to the people. Yet I must say that it was Bob who helped me enter the business."
Rita Anderson was a 19-year-old nurse when she met Bob Marley in the shantytowns of West Kingston during the pre-reggae ska era of the early 1960s. She begged him to get her an audition at the Brentford Road studios of Coxsone Dodd, the producer who worked with Marley's own group, the Wailers, on such seminal hits as "Simmer Down." Dodd liked her voice and put Marley in charge of developing her and her group, the Soulettes; he arranged their first hit, "I Love You Baby." As other hits ensued, a romance developed between the teen-aged girl and her mentor, and they were married in 1966. Afterward, there were a number of well-received Rita Marley solo singles and others released under the pseudonyms Esete and Ganette, interspersed with her studio and tour duties as a member of the I-Threes (Rita, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths), the Wailers' female vocal group. She also helped Marley write such Wailers' hits as "Nice Time" and "Stir It Up."
Reputed to be a sagacious businesswoman and a staunch Rasta feminist, she seems in conversation to be more a tough-minded moralist than a fiery activist. And her music is not inflammatory or political like her late husband's; she seeks to console and conciliate. Short, full-figured and powerfully built, she carries herself with a rolling sway and an easy dignity, but there is a reflex suspiciousness to her manner.
Her dreadlocks conceal an inches-long scar left by a bullet that burrowed its way into a space between her scalp and skull during the assassination attempt on Bob Marley at his home in December 1976, just weeks before the Jamaican general election that returned the Democratic Socialist People's National Party of Prime Minister Michael Manley to power. Her husband took a slug in the arm during the attack, but the wounded Marleys, who were seen by the rival Jamaican Labour Party as being sympathetic to Manley's leftist regime, went on to headline a government-sponsored concert two days after the shooting.
Such transgressions by anonymous bands of gunmen (the assailants were never captured) are by no means uncommon in Kingston, and they take a toll on even the most resilient soul. But Rita Marley has seen her share of pain, from being born dirt poor in Cuba to growing up, like her husband, in the West Kingston slum of Trench Town. That she was once a pariah with an illegitimate child, living in a shack built out of zinc sheets, and now has a lavish split-level house in the wealthy Kingston suburb of Jack's Hill, sending her brood to private schools filled with fair-skinned offspring of Jamaica's Creole hegemony, is to her just one more indication of the bizarre uncertainties in a mad, doomed world.
Rita Marley is still hounded by her notorious cancellation earlier this year of a painstakingly arranged U.S. tour that had been planned for the spring and summer. Her first solo album, "Who Feels It Knows It," had been released here in April to generally favorable reviews and the time seemed right for the widow of the king of reggae to occupy his vacant throne. But she never showed up.
The booking agency charged that she had found the concert halls too small, the money insufficient and the two-shows-nightly schedule too taxing. But Marley says her reluctance to follow through on her commitments was simply a matter of admitting to herself that there was more going on in her life than she could handle.
"I decided last spring that I wasn't ready for the road; I hadn't performed alone ever before on a tour and it was a difficult time for me. I was a little frightened so I backed off."
To her mind, the confluence of sorrowful events and unfair public expectations of her in late 1981-early 1982 boiled down to the central issue of whether to do a few things well or a lot of things woefully. And so, feeling indecisive, she looked to the Bible to help her edit her seemingly insurmountable agenda.
"I don't want to be pushed into doing anything I'm not into," she says quietly in a crisply sonorous voice, as buttery afternoon sunlight spills over her shoulders. "The Bible instructs that slow and steady wins the race, and there is a saying that 'their heights of greatment were not attained by sudden flight, but while their companions slept they were toiling in the night.'
"I'm not Bob; there will never be another Bob Marley; nobody can compete, including myself. I must make my own way, and when I'm into things is when I do them best. If I'm not ready to perform and I do anyway, it's like feeding the people poison."
She emerged from her self-imposed exile May 11, the first anniversary of Bob Marley's death, to sing at a memorial concert at Gusman Hall in Miami. A highlight of the concert was Cedella Marley Booker, Bob Marley's mother, booming a soul-stirring gospel-reggae song she'd written called "Mother Don't Cry (I'll Be Alright)," based on her son's last words to her before he died in a Miami hospital. But it was Rita Marley who seemed to cement the sentiments of the show when she sang a proud, ringing "No Woman No Cry," one of her husband's signature compositions.
Reinforced by the warm reception accorded her brief autumn tour of northeastern cities, Rita Marley shows a marked contentment on the eve of the release of her second Shanachie LP, "Harambe." "The title track refers to a Swahili word meaning people pulling together for peace, unity and freedom," she explains.
As for the cut called "King Street," she explains that it's "a downtown commercial street in Kingston where Bob has had a record store, but in the song I also am describing the main street in the kingdom of His Majesty, encouraging people to walk down that street to meet God for themselves."
She has just founded Rita Marley Music, a subsidiary of Tuff Gong, her husband's Jamaican record company, "to help concentrate on the sisters, because the producers in Jamaica feel that if they are not already big names they aren't worth the effort. I also want to use the new label to put out music that binds and soothes, as opposed to all the reggae these days that tears at the culture."
Forthcoming releases on the new label include her own album, an album by the Melody Makers--composed of Bob and Rita's four children--and a single by eldest son, David "Ziggy" Marley, called "What a Plot."
There are other ambitious projects she plans for 1983, including a cultural center in Kingston named for Bob Marley, a home for the aged, and an independent radio station designed to challenge Jamaica's two virtually reggae-less stations, JBC and RJR.
"After all these years, you are still more likely to hear Earth, Wind & Fire on Jamaica radio than any reggae tune," she says, shaking her head in amazement. "Sometimes I'm in Boston or Washington or Chicago and think I'm in Jamaica because I hear more reggae on the radio in these places than in Kingston!
"It's a funny thing how all this turned out, with losing Bob and undertaking all these tasks, but that's the way Jah God planned it," she continues, suddenly somber. "All I can say is that I'm trying to do my best to carry on the work. It will take time -- everything in Jamaica takes a long time. But we're seeing things like Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh expressing a desire to aid the cause, too. A oneness was what Bob was all about when he formed the original Wailers with Peter and Bunny, and I'm sorry it's taken them so long to realize that, but we must remember not to underestimate the moment when something finally comes about.
"You know, I think one of the most important songs, personally speaking, on the new album is a kind of a marching tune I'd put out down in Jamaica called 'There Will Always Be Music.' Some people in this country ask if it's a statement about the troubles in the record business today, and I guess you could hear it that way, but actually my main intent was to sing about Bob. On the record, the Melody Makers do a lovely backup under the credit 'the Nesta Choir,' and there's a pause in the song where I say, 'There will always be music, there will always be sweet song. Every time the church bells ring, we know, there will always be another song.' "
She picks up her folders, glances at the Bible at her bedside and speaks softly.
"The song is correct, I believe. With all the strife in the world, we must never forget that there is always a new melody, a new tune, a fresh star."