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Gary Younge
Bad vibes as tug-of-love hits Marley anniversary

"Once you get up there you will feel he vibe," he adds, and then moves on with his cutlass over his shoulder.

Up in the village of Nine Miles, where Marley was born 60 years ago tomorrow, the reggae superstar - who died aged 36 in 1981 - lies encased in marble. "This is where Bob rests in peace," says Jonathan Braham, the tour guide. The question most people on the island are asking is, for how long?

Marley's family has announced plans to move his remains to Ethiopia, sparking a pan-African tug-of-love not just between his family and his fans but between the country in which he was born and the continent he revered in his religion and music.

At the heart of the row stands his widow, Rita Marley, mother to four of his 11 known children and the central figure of the I-Threes - the backing vocalists for Marley's group, The Wailers. Last month she said she intended to exhume her husband's body and transport it to Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafarians.

"We are working on bringing his remains to Ethiopia. It is part of Bob's own mission," Mrs Marley, who left Jamaica for Ghana and has had a troubled relationship with the island and her husband's entourage, told the Associated Press.

"Bob's whole life is about Africa, it is not about Jamaica. How can you give up a continent for an island? He has a right for his remains to be where he would love them to be. This was his mission. With the 60th anniversary this year, the impact is there and the time is right."

When the news broke in Jamaica, some were outraged. Jeanett Robb wrote to Jamaica's Daily Observer this week arguing that Mrs Marley "should be stoned out of this country and not allowed to return".

Mr Braham goes further: "If they try to move him there'll be war."

Others disagree. At the cultural centre in Trenchtown, where Marley spent his teens, 52-year-old Benjamin Cole's matted dreadlocks are greying with age. He says he knew Marley when he was a "bawld head" - without dreadlocks - and would be buried in Ethiopia himself if he could. "As a Rasta, Ethiopia is my destiny."

Mortimer Planno, who is largely credited with converting Marley to Rastafarianism, says: "If the law gives her the right to take the body then I don't see anything wrong with that."

In the days after Mrs Marley voiced her intentions the public outcry was so intense that she hid from reporters and then sent out spokespeople to insist she had been misquoted.

So, while Jamaica is preparing a month of celebrations to honour the 60th anniversary of Marley's birth, and considering whether to elevate him to the country's highest honour of national hero, Mrs Marley and the late singer's mother, Cidella Booker, will be attending events in Ethiopia with the Marley children, Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour.

"This is a question of ownership," says Carolyn Cooper, the head of reggae studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. "Who owns Bob Marley? His family, the Jamaican people, or his fans? The decision to hold the events in Ethiopia is a sign that for the Marley family Ethiopia has a magical appeal that Jamaica does not have."

For most of his life, nobody with any power wanted to claim Marley at all. "Bob Marley was never particularly popular among the Jamaican establishment," says Stanley Niaah, a researcher at the Centre for Caribbean Thought. "The very people who want his body to remain here are the ones who would not want him to become a national hero."

His white, British father abandoned him as a child. Growing up in Trench town, a violent slum in west Kingston, during the post-independence period, the Jamaican establishment looked down upon the poor, inner-city youth, and the reggae music and Rastafarian culture that many denizens embraced to articulate their plight.

For a long time, Ethiopians had little idea of what to make of him or Rastafarians. When Haile Selassie made a brief visit to Jamaica in 1966 he was so surprised by the 100,000 Rastas at the airport that it took half an hour to coax him out of the plane.

"He was a product of a particular moment," Ms Cooper says. "He delivered a message or radicalism globally. 'Get up/ Stand up/ Stand up for your rights.' It spoke to black people. It spoke to working-class people. It was rebel music but it connected with American flower power music."

By the early 70s what was once radical in Kingston's slums had become chic in western capitals. Mick and Bianca Jagger had a reggae band at their wedding reception. Paul Simon arrived in Jamaica to do some recording. Paul McCartney declared reggae "where it's at". And its ambassador was Bob Marley.

The rebellious became respectable. In 1996 the UN granted consultative status to the international Rastafarian movement, recognising it as an non-governmental organisation. Rastas still face discrimination but the current minister for national security, Peter Phillips, was once a Rastafarian.

"Reggae is now upper-case Culture," Ms Cooper says. "Dreadlocks are now a fashion statement. A lot of the symbolism has gone."

The respectable has become marketable. Jamaica earns more than a third of its GDP from tourism. Marley, whose music was a product of his marginal status in Jamaica, became central to the country's branding. The tourist board used his song Smile Jamaica to attract foreign visitors. The controversial monument in New Kingston's Emancipation Park is called Redemption Song, after one of Marley's biggest hits.

"Jamaica is a small place but Bob Marley is part of the way that it becomes bigger," says Susan Mains, a lecturer in human geography at the University of the West Indies.

"He's a popular icon and a corporate icon and there are times when those two things collide. In the short term there could be a big fight over moving his body, but in the long term I'm not sure how much difference it would make ... The body will have gone but the vibe will still be there."

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