Death of a reggae icon: how did Bob Marley die?

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 skin cancer – acral lentiginous melanoma – which had spread to his brain.


In 1977, Marley was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma under a fingernail. This type of malignant cancer is one of the most common in highly melanic people. However, by the late 1970s this was not yet widely understood and he had to see several doctors before receiving his diagnosis.

His doctors warned him that the cancer was at risk of spreading beyond his foot. They advised him to have his whole toe amputated to stop the development of new cancer cells, limiting the growth of the toe.

He refused, saying it was against his religion to have part of his body amputated. The Rastafarian religion asks its members to leave their bodies intact, as an amputation would damage their “holy temple”. Some accounts say the musician was less concerned with his religion than with how an amputation – of his toe or his entire foot – would affect his ability to tour and play music.

Instead, he agreed to have his fingernail and nail bed removed in an attempt to stop the cancer from spreading. He also received a skin graft from his thigh.

Alternative treatment

After his nail and nail bed were removed, Marley sought alternative treatments that he believed 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.

Much of Dr. Issels’ treatment consists of “treating” the cancer by following a strict diet, avoiding certain “toxins”, taking vitamins and following holistic therapies. Today, the treatment has been widely decried by cancer authorities around the world; nevertheless, the singer remained at the clinic for about eight months.

Assassination attempt

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 due to perform at Smile Jamaica, a unity concert held in response to political upheaval and violence.

Although the musician kept himself aloof from Jamaican politics, his presence at the concert was widely seen as 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 peace and unity, he was seen as a political figure despite his vocal resistance.

During the attack, seven men entered Marley’s house and shot him, his wife, his manager and a member of his band. They all survived, despite serious injuries. The musician was even able to headline the Smile Jamaica concert two days later.

Although the attempt on his life does not appear to be related to his cancer which ultimately killed him, it has fueled conspiracy theories in Jamaica and around the world. It has been suggested that the CIA 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 bombing, that his music became more overtly political.

Last days

After the assassination attempt, Marley tried to continue filming. However, his health was clearly declining 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 at Madison Square Garden. During the second show, he was said to look sick on stage and at one point almost passed out. He went jogging in the city the next day and collapsed along the way.

When a doctor performed a physical examination, the prognosis was grim. Marley’s manager, Danny Sims, reported that the doctor said the singer’s body was more riddled with cancer than anything he had ever seen. The disease had spread to his vital organs, including his lungs, liver and brain. The doctor estimated that the musician had only a few months to live and suggested that if he kept touring he would die on the road.

The singer’s last show was in Pittsburgh in September 1980. Thereafter, he spent his time traveling between Miami, New York and Germany to pursue his alternative treatments. However, these were not successful. Some reports say he first started receiving radiation treatments at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York before changing his mind and traveling to Bavaria.

During his final months, he was so frail that he could barely stand. He could no longer play football. Eventually, his dreadlocks became too heavy for him to hold his head up high, and his wife was forced to cut them off. He reportedly weighed just 86 pounds in his final months.

By May 1981, it was clear that his treatments weren’t working and he was close to death. He boarded a plane for his home in Jamaica. However, his vitals crashed so much during the flight that the plane was forced to divert to Miami, where he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.

Marley died of complications from 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 died.

Shortly before his death, the musician was received into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Until then, he was a practicing Rastafarian.

conspiracy theories

In the decades following Marley’s death, rumors swirled that he had died of a toe injury while playing football. Although he first noticed pain in his cancerous toe while playing the game, he told friends it had been happening on and off for years.

Other conspiracy theories have flourished in the wake of the Jamaica assassination attempt, not least because of the singer’s increasingly political views. The most rumored was that he was killed by the CIA. People have speculated that the initial assassination attempt was a failed government operation and that he ended up being poisoned or infected with radiation.

None of these theories have real evidence to back them up, although they are not completely based on fantasy. The musician was a figure of national interest throughout the last years of his life, and he was shot, supposedly in connection with the Jamaican political upheaval of the mid-1970s.

Unfortunately, there are few cures for acral lentiginous melanoma once it has metastasized to vital organs. Even today, the treatment consists of limiting the cancer to one area of ​​the body and carrying out an amputation if necessary. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy can also be used. With modern medicine, melanoma is rarely fatal; it is likely that, had the singer accepted his doctor’s advice to remove his toe, he would have made a full recovery.


Marley had a state funeral in Jamaica on May 21, 1981. The Jamaican Prime Minister was present and delivered the eulogy, thanking him for his contributions to his country.

The musician’s funeral combined elements of Rastafarian traditions and Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the religion he converted to 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 next to his body; cannabis is a ritual plant in the Rastafari tradition.

Over 100,000 people attended his funeral and were allowed to view his body. He was buried wearing a dreadlock wig, his preferred hairstyle 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 organizing the event. Famous Jamaican footballer Allan Cole read passages from the Bible. Marley’s widow sang and his mother delivered 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.

His legacy

Prime Minister Edward Seaga spoke at Marley’s funeral, calling him “part of the collective conscience of the nation”. It is undoubtedly part of the collective consciousness of modern musicians around the world, having influenced not only reggae but many other genres as well.

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