Reggae superstar Bob Marley is an icon to this day, nearly four decades after his death. His music and image, as well as his spiritual and social beliefs, are recognized as pioneering and vitally important to Jamaican cultural identity. His sprawling family is still a huge presence in the world too. Did you know that he was father to at least 11 children? Let’s take a look at their relationship to their iconic father.
As U.K. newspaper The Guardian wrote in 2018, “Bob was not one of life’s monogamists and the number of children he had is open to debate, but the official figure stands at 11.” Bob’s children, as well as his wife Rita, control his vast estate, which was valued at around $130 million in 2017. They keep his likeness and music in the cultural conversation.
Bob’s children are also responsible for continuing to reinforce the message inherent in his music. He dealt with subjects of social justice and championed the freedom of the underprivileged all over the world. Amazingly, Bob’s efforts were rewarded on a global scale: he won the United Nations Medal of Peace in 1978. Many of his children share his musical abilities and belief in social activism.
Interestingly, on top of the confirmed children that run Bob’s estate, there have been a few pretenders to the Marley throne over the years. For example, in 2016 musician Fabian Marley’s claim to be one of Bob’s sons was disproved thanks to DNA analysis. For more than two years, the Marley family had been firm in their belief that Fabian was not Bob’s child, gaining vindication ultimately.
Two other people have been put forward as Bob’s children, but they are not listed on his official website. A biographer named Meredith Dixon claimed that Bob had fathered a woman named Makeda in 1981, and she had become part of the estate, but this has always been contested by the family. A claim that another woman named Imani, born in 1963, is Bob’s daughter has also never been proven.
But why would these people make claims to be part of Bob’s lineage? Well, the answer to that is simple. Bob Marley is a global superstar and the very face of reggae music to the world at large. He came a long way from a childhood spent in abject poverty in Trench Town, the poorest area of Kingston, Jamaica. The singer experienced his first musical success as a member of The Wailing Wailers.
Formed in 1963, the group went to number one in the Jamaican charts in 1964 but didn’t find international fame until 1972. Their album Catch A Fire was a huge hit and it led to tours of America and the U.K. as support for Bruce Springsteen. In 1975, “No Woman, No Cry” became the band’s first Top 40 single in the U.K.
As his star rose, Bob’s politically charged music made him both a champion of change and a target for those whose views that he challenged. In 1976, he survived an assassination attempt two days before the Wailers were scheduled to play a show in Kingston’s National Heroes Park. Incredibly, despite suffering an injury, he still played the concert.
Tragically, Bob’s life would be cut short in 1981 after he succumbed to cancer. By this point, he was a national hero in Jamaica, and the nation gave him a fitting farewell. His funeral service was held in the National Arena in Kingston, and 30,000 attended to say goodbye to a man who had been awarded the Jamaican government’s Order of Merit not long before he passed.
So who are the 11 children that he fathered? Well, Bob was married to Rita from 1966 until his untimely death in 1981. He adopted Rita’s daughter Sharon, who was born in 1964, and then they had three children together: Cedella, born in 1967; David, born in 1968; and Stephen, born in 1972. David would later become better known to the world as Ziggy Marley.
In 1974 Rita and Bob had a fourth child together, whom they named Stephanie. However, Bob’s mother disputed her son’s parentage of Stephanie, as she believed Rita became pregnant after she had an affair with another man. Either way, Stephanie was raised as Bob’s child. He would also father six more children with other women.
First, Robbie came along on May 16, 1972 to Bob and Pat Williams. Amazingly, only three days after this, Bob and Janet Hunt welcomed a baby boy named Rohan. Karen followed in 1973, and her mother was Janet Bowen, before Julian arrived in 1975 from Bob’s liaison with Lucy Pounder. Then Ky-Mani was born in 1976 to Bob and Anita Belnavis.
But Bob wasn’t finished. Finally, Damian was born in 1978. He was the product of Bob’s relationship with former “Miss World” Cindy Breakspeare, whom he was with from 1977 until his death. Despite fathering so many children outside of his marriage, and Rita allegedly having an affair that led to Stephanie’s birth, the couple remained wed right up until Bob passed.
Fittingly, many of Bob’s children wound up making their way into the family business. In 1979 Ziggy, Sharon, Stephen and Cedella formed The Melody Makers, and they would go on to have significant mainstream success after they slightly adjusted their bandname to Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. Their 1988 album Conscious Party won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album.
Brother Julian is also a singer-songwriter who has been nominated for a Grammy Award, and Ky-Mani is a dancehall and reggae musician. But arguably the most successful of the bunch is Damian, who has mixed the hip-hop, reggae and dancehall genres to great effect in his career. He has collaborated with a diverse crop of artists, including Nas, Mick Jagger, Bruno Mars and Jay-Z.
In 2014 music magazine Rolling Stone published an article entitled “The Living Legacy of Bob Marley,” in which five of the children discussed their relationships with their father. Ziggy spoke positively, revealing that it was Bob who wrote “Children Playing in the Streets,” The Melody Makers’ first song. He stated, “My father was the one who got us into music.”
Ziggy felt that he had always related differently to his father’s legacy as an icon. He explained to Rolling Stone, “So for a couple of years my father and I were musicians alike. It’s a little bit different for me because we started music before my father passed away, before ‘the great rise of the legend Bob Marley’ in the eyes of the whole world. He was still a legend, but it wasn’t that big of a thing.”
In truth, Ziggy remembered his father for his personality, as opposed to his iconic status. He said, “He was a people person, you know? Friendly, having fun, having the kids around. He had a serious side, a revolutionary side, and the fun side – he liked to have fun.” Ziggy also spoke of his father’s love of both soccer and a Jamaican dice game called “ludi.”
Ziggy believed he had only felt pressure to live up to his father’s legacy when he moved to America; in Jamaica, it hadn’t been a factor. In his home country, Ziggy said, his father had simply been a local and hadn’t been treated like a revered hero. He revealed, “Bob grew up on the streets. He was one of the guys, one of the brothers. He didn’t carry himself as anybody higher or better.”
However, Ziggy did understand that an icon like his father had affected different people in different ways. He mused to the magazine, “Bob means to them according to the impact he had on their lives. For some of us, he will be a friend, a father, a brother. For others, he would be a legend, a king, a prophet. He was all of those things, but not all of those things all the time.”
In Ziggy’s opinion, his father was more than enough of a presence during his childhood. He had no angst about him not being around, as he revealed that Bob’s sons spent quite a lot of time with him. This wasn’t the case for his daughters, though. Ziggy admitted that the Jamaican culture, coupled with Bob’s traveling musician lifestyle, meant that he hadn’t spent nearly as much time with them.
In that light, Cedella, Bob’s eldest child, spoke of her experience of said culture as both a female and the daughter of Bob Marley. She backed up Ziggy’s point about their father not being hugely popular in Jamaica as they grew up. In fact, she felt that any negative cultural perception of the family was not due to Bob being a musician, but rather caused by a social prejudice against Rastafarians.
Overall, Cedella believed that their homeland had a misconception about the Marley household due to their Rastafari faith. The countercultural leanings of the religion/social movement often put its practitioners at odds with mainstream Jamaican society. Cedella said, “People had this idea that our house was filled with marijuana smoke and music, when I think our house was the strictest on the block!”
Now the CEO of Tuff Gong International, Cedella grew an aptitude for business at a young age, and her dad helped it flourish. She revealed to Rolling Stone, “My father actually told me he wanted me to run his business. And I looked at him – I’m like, 10 – and I’m like, ‘What business? I see you in studio, in the rehearsal.’”
It turned out that Bob wanted her to work in the record store that was part of his home compound on Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica. Cedella said, “I was behind the counter selling records, counting money.” In fact, she believes Bob’s forward-thinking attitude regarding his business and his brand is often overlooked.
“He started his own record label,” Cedella told Rolling Stone. “He was one of the handful of Jamaicans at the time who actually owned their own pressing plants. He wasn’t just pressing his own records, but other Jamaican artists. He was the first one to design and wear a Bob Marley T-shirt. He was very savvy.”
Another son, Stephen Marley, also followed in his father’s footsteps and became a musician. In fact, over the years he has won an impressive eight Grammy Awards for his efforts. Speaking about his father’s music studio, he told Rolling Stone, “Being in there is like being in an altar. It’s a holy place. All musicians that come through feel that, the energy of the place.”
On the other hand, the first thing Rohan thinks of when he pictures his father is not music but the smell of Jamaican cooking in his home. Rohan recalled to Rolling Stone, “You can smell fruits. You can always get a good fish tea in a calabash. Fish tea is like a soup; they grind up the fish and get the water. Yeah, man, it was wonderful. It was the best taste.” He added, “Those are good memories.”
Rohan believed his father’s social philosophy boiled down to the notion that he, as someone with means, should work to ensure the lives of future generations were improved. Rohan said to Rolling Stone, “You see how to do things for a generation. You don’t want to do things just for you. No, man, you can’t. My father did not do that.” Rohan felt Bob’s outlook was, “The ones that come after I should be greater than I.”
Interestingly, some of the children also discussed whether they felt their father’s legacy was a burden to them, especially in terms of the public’s expectations. For instance, Karen Marley, who rarely speaks about her father, said to Rolling Stone, “People come to me expressing their like or dislike with what the family is doing. We’re not Bob. We’re his kids.”
“We try to carry on his legacy, stay true to it as much as possible, that’s number one,” reasoned Karen. “But at the end of the day, we’re all individuals, doing our own thing.” This push and pull between what individual family members may want to do and what is best for their father’s legacy was also addressed by Stephen in the interview with Rolling Stone.
“I wouldn’t say it’s ‘hard’ to get everyone on the same page, but it takes work,” admitted Stephen. He acknowledged that Bob will always be a focal point in everything the family does, and added, “I guess like every other family, sometimes we don’t agree, but we believe in each other.” This belief hasn’t been enough to keep the family away from controversy over the years, though.
Unfortunately, over the years, there have definitely been plenty of fights in connection with the Marley estate. For instance, Bob’s child Ky-Mani penned a book in 2010 entitled Dear Dad: Where’s the Family in our Family Today? that told his story of being excluded from the estate for much of his life. As we noted earlier, Ky-Mani wasn’t born to Bob and Rita.
Ky-Mani’s mother, Anita Belnavis, a Caribbean table tennis player, gave birth to him while Bob was still married to Rita. It meant Ky-Mani, who was only five years old when his father died, grew up without the financial benefits enjoyed by many of his siblings. As a child, he felt like he was on the outside looking in.
In 2010 Ky-Mani told Dolce magazine, “It’s hard when you know that you are from a great legacy and you know what your background is, but yet you’re still living in a two-bedroom wooden house with nine people living in it.” Even when Ky-Mani and his mother moved from Jamaica to Miami, life got no easier. He was surrounded by gang culture and drugs.
Ky-Mani was eventually awarded a financial settlement by the Marley estate in 1994. But, when his book was published, it caused strife within the family and also between Ky-Mani and his publisher Farrah Gray, who released an incendiary statement. It read, “The Marley family is so outraged over the publishing of this memoir they lodged a campaign of intimidation over Ky-Mani Marley as the author of this book.”
Ky-Mani told Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner in 2010, “I’m not happy about it. I’m very hurt. All I wanted to do was tell my story, not cause any conflict.” He claimed that he had showed an early draft to Cedella, whose only concerns had been the extracts about his belief that Rita disliked him and who had been the one who had initially cut him out of the estate. He also alleged that the publisher changed the title of the book to something salacious to boost sales.
On top of this dispute, there have been other ugly incidents involving lawsuits and court battles within the estate. For example, in 2011 the estate sued Bob’s half-brother Richard Booker over his attempt to trademark the term “Mama Marley” for use in marketing his fish products. The family apparently keeps a tight grip on not only Marley’s image, but also his lyrics and his name, having lodged tens of lawsuits over the years.
Whether Bob would have been comfortable with his estate being handled this way is up for debate. But what isn’t subject to any doubt is that his legacy as a musical icon lives on. In 2017, Damian’s song “Living It Up” told the stirring story of his father finding his way out of poverty in Kingston to become a legend.
Damian told Interview magazine that he had wanted the song to inspire people from humble beginnings to shoot for the stars. If Bob Marley could do it, then they too could succeed by working hard and remaining focused on their ambitions. It’s easy to see how his father would have heartily approved of that message.