How did Bob Marley really die? Debunking the racist myths

There are some persistent myths surrounding Bob Marley's death, myths that perpetuate a racist narrative about the reggae legend's people and culture.
Bob Marley
Bob Marley / Paul Natkin/GettyImages

Bob Marley is attracting a lot of attention after the release of Bob Marley: One Love, but it's not all positive. There are some persistent myths surrounding the legend's death—myths that perpetuate a racist narrative.

I’m just old enough to have grown up in a world without the Internet. In those dark ages, there was no way to check what you heard for veracity. Anyone who, like me, remembers factoids shared on the playground will have seen firsthand how misinformation starts. 

Misinformation has always been a tool used to push racist agendas, and it’s especially pernicious when that misinformation is presented as neutral fact. I often wonder how many people innocently spread these racist myths. Certainly, these elementary school tales were not told with malicious or racist intent.

Whether they are told innocently or not, the kinds of myths spread about Bob Marley's death are dangerous. It only takes a little bit of fact checking to find the truth, which is important to making sure Marley and others are not unfairly represented.

3 myths about Bob Marley's death—and the misinformation behind them

The myth that I distinctly remember is that Marley injured his foot while playing football. The injury became infected, and the infection became cancer. It's easy to see why this story would be so memorable; the idea that a common injury could become cancer scares the bejesus out of me. But as anyone with any medical knowledge will know, this is simply not how cancer works. You cannot get cancer from a football injury, or any injury.

Marley's cancer was melanoma under the nail of his big toe. He was initially told that it was an infected football injury, as this form of cancer was not commonly known about in the medical journal. He had to see two doctors before the spot was biopsied.

Skin cancer is generally caused by sun exposure, and people with black skin have a high degree of natural protection from the harmful effects of the sun, due to the melanin in their skin. Marley's cancer was an acral lentiginous melanoma, a rarer form that is not caused by sun exposure and often develops on the extremities. In 1977, when Marley was first diagnosed, this form of cancer was not even mentioned in the world's most popular medical textbook.

It's no accident that the form of skin cancer that primarily affects black people is the form that, even now, has the fewest successful treatment options.

The myth that the cancer was caused by an injury implies that he was too ignorant to understand that an infected injury needs to be treated. So it's particularly galling that this myth grew out of racist medical malpractice.

The second myth is that Marley would've lived had he accepted the recommendation to amputate his toe, but he did not because of his religious faith. This myth implies that Rastafarianism, the oft-misunderstood religion of Jamaica, is backward and anti-science.

It's true that Rastafarianism considers the body sacred and is generally against alterations or interventions to the body. However, by the time this recommendation was made, the cancer had already spread, and there was no guarantee that even an amputation would've saved him. And such a surgery would've negatively affected his ability to perform.

Had Marley gone along with the surgery, he would have sacrificed his religious principles and his ability to make the art that was so meaningful to him, in exchange for an uncertain chance at a longer life. He made a perfectly rational decision. Especially considering that he did undergo an alternate surgery that did prolong his life and allowed him to perform almost until the end.

In 2009, it was reported that Prince had refused hip replacement surgery for similar reasons.

The third, most famous, and most nakedly openly racist myth is that 19 species of lice were found in his dreadlocks when he passed (myths are more believable with randomly exact numbers, I guess.) However, the truth is that Bob Marley had no hair when he died, as he was undergoing chemotherapy. His dreadlocks had also already been cut off, as he had become too weak to lift his head with them.

Bob Marley was not only Black but from an undeveloped nation, which makes people disturbingly willing to believe he had bad personal hygiene. But not only are lice indifferent to whether hair is clean or dirty, but they also have a hard time living in dreadlocks. Because African Americans are more likely to use hair products and oils, they're 35 times less likely to have head lice than Caucasians.

These myths are memorable because they're so sensational. But if we can apply a little skepticism, it becomes easy to see the racist agenda behind them.

Got questions about history, trivia, or anything else? Send an email to askeverest@fansided.comand we might answer here on the site!

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