Legendary reggae icon Bob Marley died in 1981 at the age of 36. It was far too early for a man whose vision and talent still influence people today. It was also the kind of loss that was ripe for wacky conspiracy theories. As we approach the 40th anniversary of his passing, find out the real cause of Bob Marley’s death.
Bob Marley Was A Legendary Musician
Bob Marley was born Nesta Robert Marley on February 6, 1945, in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. The son of a white father and black mother, his biracial identity shaped his worldview and music.
Marley began playing music with his childhood pal Neville Livingston—aka Bunny Wailer—in primary school. In the early 1960s, they linked up with Peter Tosh and became known as The Wailers. The group initially released music under small Jamaican labels, but they didn’t see commercial success until they signed with Island Records in the 70s. The group disbanded in 1974, but Marley continued to perform under the name Bob Marley & The Wailers.
His solo career made him a true force. According to Rolling Stone, Marley’s mid-70s recordings “created new sonic ground and changed how we would hear music…They put forth an uncompromising vision of a society kept in hell and ready to storm its gates.”
“No Woman, No Cry,” released in 1975, is still popular today. Rolling Stone even ranked it as the 37th Greatest Song of All Time. Take a listen to the track below:
How Did Bob Marley Die?
Marley died from cancer on May 11, 1981. The disease was first diagnosed in 1977 in the form of acral lentiginous melanoma, or skin cancer, in his toe. Doctors recommended that he have the appendage amputated, but Marley—who had converted from Christianity to Rastafarianism—refused. He cited his faith and its rule about “not cutting the flesh.”
In her autobiography, No Woman No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley, Bob’s wife Rita says appearances also played a role in his decision to forgo serious treatment. “How could I go on stage?” he asked her. “They won’t stay looking at a crippled man.”
The singer opted for a skin graft using tissue from his thigh. Marley refused follow-up medical appointments and continued to focus on his music. In 1980, following a performance at Madison Square Garden, he collapsed while jogging in Central Park. Doctors discovered that his cancer had quickly metastasized and spread to his brain, liver, and lungs. He played one last show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before canceling the remainder of his tour and seeking alternative treatments in Germany.
After eight months, his condition showed no signs of improvement. Marley headed back to Jamaica, intending for it to be his final resting place, but his condition was so severe that he passed away during a detour to a Miami hospital.
Marley was given a state funeral in Jamaica on May 21, 1981. He was buried with his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened at Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja at Nine Mile, the village where he was born.
There Are Some Conspiracy Theories Regarding His Death
Marley died at such a young age that some fans wondered if there was more to the story.
Many drew a connection between his death and a previous assassination attempt. In 1976, Marley, his wife Rita, and members of his entourage were shot two days before he was scheduled to perform at a live show in Jamaica. (All victims survived and the concert went on as planned.)
Timothy White, author of Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, claimed that the shootings were politically motivated. The assassins worked on behalf of the right-wing Jamaican Labor Party (JLP); in turn, the JLP worked with the CIA to silence Marley, whose lyrics were deemed disruptive to the status quo.
Because Marley survived, the CIA allegedly came back with a Plan B. According to a wild conspiracy theory, Carl Colby (son of late CIA director William Colby) gave Marley a pair of boots that were lined with a radioactive copper wire. The wire pricked his toe and infected his body with cancer.
In 2018, the bizarre theory resurfaced in a different form when a retired CIA Agent by the name of Bill Oxley allegedly confessed to murdering Marley.
Marley was raised in poverty at a time when Jamaica underwent major political upheaval. His music shed light on the instability he witnessed, and as a result, many critics seemed to consider his work too provocative for the masses. It would be easy to believe that Marley was silenced, but professional myth busters have proven otherwise.
Where The Conspiracy Theory Falls Apart
Bad news for Busta Rhymes and T.I., who reposted misinformation about Marley’s death on their Instagram accounts.
According to Snopes, the alleged confession by Bill Oxley was a complete fabrication. The source of the story, Your News Wire, has a history of publishing fake news. No supporting evidence or sources were provided with their article, nor did any other news outlet choose to report on such a shocking revelation. (And to no one’s surprise, the site shut down in 2019.)
Even as recently as 2020, USA Today published a fact check article shutting down the rumor. The outlet could not confirm the existence of a CIA agent named Bill Oxley. They also found that people pushing the theory on social media were also tied to QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory that has been debunked time and again.
Whether or not Marley’s music was seen as a threat to conservative politicians, his unfortunate death was not the result of an inside job. The world ultimately lost a legend due to natural causes.