how did bob marley die
Entertainment & Playlists

How Did Bob Marley Die? The Tragic Story

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Written By Will Fenton
Entertainment & Playlists

How Did Bob Marley Die? The Tragic Story

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On May 11, 1981, the world was shocked after learning that Bob Marley had died. 

The cause of his death was officially attributed to acral lentiginous melanoma, a type of skin cancer that had metastasized to his brain. 

His Early Life 

Born on Feb. 6, 1945, in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica, Bob Marley was a child of a Black Jamaican woman and a white British man.

As a child, he was teased for being biracial, which fueled his desire to use music to unify both races in adulthood.

Through his efforts, he became an anti-war icon and played a pivotal role in popularizing reggae music.

When Marley was two years old, he and his mother relocated to Trench Town, a neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica.

At the age of 14, Marley dropped out of school to pursue his passion for music and formed The Wailers with like-minded individuals from the community.

Their experimentation with ska and soul music helped popularize early reggae.

In the early 1970s, the band achieved some international success, but Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer parted ways with the group in 1974.

Following their departure, Bob Marley took greater control over the band’s direction, leading to the release of the albums Exodus in 1977, Kaya in 1978, and Uprising in 1980.

These albums contained some of the classic songs that Marley is celebrated for today.

How Did Bob Become A Rastafarian?

Following the disbandment of The Wailers, Bob Marley embarked on a period of reflection and evaluation.

After marrying his beloved Rita, he accompanied his mother to the United States while Rita remained in Jamaica.

However, this journey dissuaded him from starting a new life in America.

Marley found the frantic pace of life and systemic racism in the US unpalatable and yearned to be reunited with his wife.

Rolling Stone reports that this experience reaffirmed his desire to remain in Jamaica.

During Bob Marley’s absence, Jamaica experienced a significant event when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited the island.

This state visit was viewed as the second coming of the messiah by local Rastafarians, leading to a surge in conversions, including Bob Marley’s wife, Rita.

Upon his return home, Marley was taken aback to see his wife sporting dreadlocks, but he quickly adopted the Rastafarian faith.

This was a defining moment for Marley, which significantly altered his approach to music.

When he reunited with his former bandmates to reform The Wailers, their sound had evolved, and they pioneered a new genre called “reggae,” which blended rocksteady and ska.

By 1972, they secured a contract with Island Records, propelling them to stardom.

However, despite their success, something went awry, and their fortunes took a turn for the worse.


Bob Marley was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma in 1977, discovered under one of his toenails.

This form of cancer is prevalent in individuals with high melanin levels.

However, it was not well understood in the late 1970s, and Marley had to consult multiple physicians before receiving a proper diagnosis.

His medical team cautioned him that the cancer was likely to spread beyond his foot and recommended that he have his entire toe amputated to prevent the growth of cancer cells and limit the spread of the disease.

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Despite the advice of his doctors, Marley declined to have his toe amputated, citing his religious beliefs.

As a Rastafarian, he viewed his body as a sacred temple and believed that amputation would harm it.

However, some sources suggest that Marley’s reluctance to undergo amputation was also related to concerns about how it would affect his ability to perform and tour.

Instead, Marley opted to have his toenail and nail bed removed to halt the cancer’s progression. He also underwent a skin graft, which involved taking skin from his thigh and transplanting it onto his toe.

Following the removal of his toenail and nail bed, Marley turned to alternative treatments that aligned with his personal beliefs.

As his cancer continued progressing, he traveled to Bavaria, Germany, to seek treatment from Dr. Joseph Issels at his clinic.

Issels’ approach to treating cancer involved adhering to a strict diet, avoiding certain “toxins,” taking vitamins, and receiving holistic therapies.

Although the treatment has been widely criticized by cancer experts worldwide, Marley remained at the clinic for around eight months. 

Assassination Attempt 

Bob Marley and his wife, Rita, were the victims of an attack at their home in Kingston, Jamaica, in December 1976. 

The attack happened just two days before his scheduled performance at Smile Jamaica, a concert promoting unity in response to political turmoil and violence.

Despite his attempts to stay out of Jamaican politics, his presence at the concert was perceived as a show of support for Prime Minister Michael Manley and the People’s National Party due to the nature of his music, which often called for peace and unity.

This, coupled with the content of Marley’s songs, which frequently promoted peace and unity, led to him being regarded as a political figure despite his vocal reluctance.

Seven assailants broke into Bob Marley’s home in Kingston, Jamaica, and shot him, his wife, his manager, and a bandmate in December 1976.

Though they sustained significant injuries, all four of them survived the attack.

Surprisingly, Marley was able to perform at the Smile Jamaica concert just two days after the incident.

Although the attack on Marley’s life did not appear to be related to his cancer, which eventually claimed his life, it gave rise to conspiracy theories in Jamaica and globally.

Some suggested that the CIA had hired the assassins to target Marley and that they tried other means after the initial attempt failed.

Notably, Marley’s music only became more overtly political in the late 1970s, several years after the attack.

Bob Marley’s Final Days 

Following the assassination attempt, Marley attempted to carry on with his touring, but it became apparent that his health was declining rapidly, and his mental and physical abilities were deteriorating. 

By 1980, he was in the midst of a series of live concerts in New York City, which included two live shows at Madison Square Garden.

Reports suggest that he appeared unwell during the second performance and almost fainted on stage.

The following day, while out for a jog in the city, he collapsed on his way.

After a doctor conducted a physical examination on Marley, the outlook was not positive.

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Marley’s manager, Danny Sims, shared that the doctor had informed them that cancer had spread extensively throughout the singer’s body, including his lungs, liver, and brain.

According to the doctor, Marley’s cancer was more widespread than any case he had encountered before.

The doctor gave a prognosis of just a few months to live and warned that continuing to tour would lead to the musician’s death on the road.

Bob Marley’s final performance was held in Pittsburgh in September of 1980.

Following this, he divided his time between Miami, New York, and Germany to find alternative treatments for his illness.

Unfortunately, these treatments proved to be unsuccessful.

According to some reports, Marley initially received radiation treatments at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City but then decided to travel to Bavaria instead. 

During his final months, Marley’s condition deteriorated to the point that he could barely support his weight.

He could not participate in his beloved sport of soccer, and, eventually, his dreadlocks became too cumbersome for him to carry, and his wife had to cut them off.

Reports indicate that he weighed a mere 86 pounds in his last few months.

By May 1981, it was apparent that his treatments had failed, and he was nearing the end of his life.

He embarked on a plane headed for Jamaica, his homeland.

However, his vital signs took a severe downturn during the flight, prompting an emergency diversion to Miami.

He was then transported to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for medical attention.

On May 11, 1981, at the age of 36, Marley passed away due to complications arising from melanoma.

Just before his death, Marley was accepted into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, despite having been a practicing Rastafarian until then.

Bob Marley’s Last Words 

According to his widow, Bob Marley’s final words before losing consciousness at a hospital in Miami were, “Money can’t buy life.”

In interviews and books, Rita Marley shared that her husband uttered these words before he lost consciousness at Jackson Memorial Hospital on May 11, 1981.

In reflecting on his last words, Rita emphasized the importance of living life fully and appreciating its value.

She noted that her husband often stressed the need to live properly and not take anything for granted.

Conspiracy Theories 

Following Marley’s passing, rumors began to circulate that his death was caused by a toe injury sustained during a soccer match.

However, it is important to note that while Marley did experience pain in his cancerous toe while playing soccer, he reportedly told friends that he had been dealing with such pain on and off for several years, indicating that it was not the direct cause of his passing.

After the assassination attempt on Marley’s life in Jamaica, various conspiracy theories emerged, likely fueled by the singer’s growing political views.

One of the most popular theories was that the CIA was responsible for his death.

Many believed that the earlier attempt on his life was a botched government operation, and ultimately, the agency may have poisoned or exposed him to radiation to bring about his demise.

There is no concrete evidence to support any of these theories, but they are not entirely unfounded either.

Marley was a prominent figure in Jamaica during his final years, and he was even shot, purportedly due to his connection to the political turmoil that plagued the country in the mid-1970s.

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Unfortunately, there are limited options for treating acral lentiginous melanoma once it has spread to vital organs.

Even in modern times, treatment involves restricting the cancer to a specific area of the body and, if necessary, amputation.

Radiation and chemotherapy are also common treatment options.

Melanoma is typically not a fatal disease with advancements in medical technology.

It is probable that if Marley had followed his doctor’s recommendation to have his toe removed, he would have made a complete recovery.


On May 21, 1981, Marley received a state funeral in Jamaica, which the country’s prime minister attended.

During the service, the prime minister delivered a eulogy, expressing gratitude to the late singer for his significant contributions to Jamaica. 

At Marley’s funeral, Prime Minister Edward Seaga delivered a speech describing the late musician as “part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”

Marley’s influence has extended beyond reggae and has left an indelible mark on many other music genres, making him a prominent figure in the collective consciousness of contemporary musicians worldwide.

During the musician’s funeral, there was a blend of Rastafarian and Ethiopian Orthodox customs, reflecting the religion he had adopted before his passing.

He was laid to rest near his place of birth, and his casket was adorned with his red Gibson Les Paul guitar and an open Bible to Psalm 23.

Additionally, his wife Rita placed a bundle of marijuana next to him, which holds significant ritualistic meaning in the Rastafarian belief system. 

The musician’s funeral was attended by over 100,000 people who were allowed to view his body.

He was buried wearing a wig of dreadlocks, which had been his preferred hairstyle for many years.

The funeral was a massive event that required extensive organization and security measures.

The Jamaican government even postponed the announcement of its annual budget to focus on arranging the ceremony.

Famous Jamaican footballer Allan Cole read from the Bible, and Marley’s widow performed a song while his mother delivered the final remarks.

As the musician was against materialism and detested the idea of his family fighting over his wealth, he did not leave a will.

His Legacy

Bob Marley released 13 studio albums of Ska and Reggae music, two live albums, and numerous compilation albums throughout his music career.

He received numerous accolades, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

Bob Marley also received the title of “Album of the Century” by Time magazine for his album Exodus in 1999.

Additionally, “One Love” was named “Song of the Millennium” by the BBC.

Millions of fans around the globe have beloved Bob Marley’s music.

His influence goes beyond music; he was also known for promoting peace, love, unity, and equality.

Also, his efforts were recognized by the United Nations, which awarded him the Peace Medal of the Third World in 1978.

His contributions to Jamaica were also celebrated, as he received the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1981, shortly before his passing.

Moreover, his legacy has been commemorated through the creation of statues, the naming of streets after him, and the display of artwork featuring his words and image, both in his home country and across the globe.

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Will Fenton

Introduced to good music at a young age through my father. The first record I remember being played was "Buffalo Soldier" by Bob Marley, I must've been six years old. By the time I was seven, I was taking drum lessons once a week. The challenge but the euphoric feeling of learning a new song was addicting, and I suppose as they say the rest was history. Favorite album of all time? Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones Best gig you've ever been to? Neil Young at Desert Trip in 2016 Media mentions: Evening Standard Daily Mail

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