Bob Marley died in 1981 in Miami, Florida on his way from Germany to Jamaica. He was returning from a failed treatment regime (diet and holistic treatments) administered by Josef Issels, a physician and former Nazi, who promised to cure cancer in a way that would conform with Marley’s Rastafarian belief that the body is a temple and therefore should not be defiled through surgery. A melanoma on Marley’s big toe, first discovered in 1977, had spread with a liquefying force to his brain after he postponed treatment for years.
Marley’s role in turning reggae into a worldwide phenomenon is one of the reasons the category of “world music” was invented, according to Hua Sue, in his article “Manufacturing Bob Marley”. Marley’s 1984 album, Legend, has become one of the best-selling albums of all time. And TIME magazine named Marley’s album, Exodus, as the album of the century in 1977. His short music career included only a handful of albums yet, decades later, his music embodies a cathedral of meaning for millions of people. It moves across time and space and geography unlike music from other artists who enjoy only mass appeal.
For Steve Jobs, treating an illness was also an expression of beliefs and not the administration of statistically significant outcomes promised by modern medicine. For almost a year after his diagnosis, Jobs tried to cure himself by using acupuncture, drinking special fruit juices and visiting “spiritualists.” When Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, asked why “such a smart man could do such a stupid thing”, Isaacson said of Jobs: “I think he felt: if you ignore something you don’t want to exist, you can have magical thinking. It had worked for him in the past. He would regret it.” Jobs died in 2011 after years of battling pancreatic cancer.
The men were different in many obvious ways, but there is a rhyme between them and, at the risk of succumbing to magical thinking, perhaps some degree of universal significance to be discovered by comparing them side by side.
Though Jobs and Marley share a malicious fate in ignoring a cancer diagnosis, the largest measure of coincidence can be found in the way they lived, worked and believed. The men were different in many obvious ways, but there is a rhyme between them and, at the risk of succumbing to magical thinking, perhaps some degree of universal significance to be discovered by comparing them side by side. The obvious first intersection is music. Marley showed his mesmerizing beat and inspirational lyrics about love and redemption had a worldwide audience, and Jobs created the world’s largest digital content store and transformed the way the world consumes music.
“We were very lucky,” Jobs said to Rolling Stone Magazine in December 2003. “We grew up in a generation where music was an incredibly intimate part of that generation. More intimate than it had been, and maybe more intimate than it is today, because today there are a lot of other alternatives……And in our own small way, that’s how we’re going to make the world a better place.”
Jobs and Marley both translated mystical inspiration into action. Their beliefs and practices were supported by deeper values and set them in opposition to behavioral rules that we normally associate with indicators of success. Marley’s advocacy for the oppressed and interest in justice are rooted in his Rastafarian beliefs that have a close affinity to Judaism and early Christianity. “Babylon” was Marley’s focal point as it symbolized Western political and economic injustice, or “downpression,” as he used to say. Rejection of oppressive power structures and dislocation are several of the ancient themes that energized Marley’s music and completed the universal appeal of his lyrics.
Where Marley sought redemption through the peaceful unshackling of mental chains (“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our mind”), Jobs saw technology’s highest calling as the agent of creative individualism and a counterpoint to the ruthless monopolizer, Darwinian and copier of innovation, Bill Gates. Jobs said, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” Bill Gates was to Steve Jobs what Babylon was to Bob Marley.
Jobs’ spiritual discipline, mostly involving Zen Buddhism, makes sense in the context of the rebellious forces at work in his heart. He regularly practiced meditation, traveled to India in search of a personal guru, and even had a Buddhist monk, Kobun Chino, officiate his marriage in 1991. Some have suggested his obsession with perfection was rooted in the Buddhist philosophy of life as an ever-changing river, constantly in the process “of becoming.” Jobs inserted his “freedom fighter” worldview into Apple’s beliefs: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently .” It’s like Jobs wanted to unify sufferers to, “stand up for your rights.”
For Jobs and Marley, attacking cancer with the secular forces of modern medicine made no sense when the source of their creativity and structure of meaning stemmed from mystical beliefs rooted in challenging the status quo. Their creativity was a cosmically grounded form of artistic expression – a pattern of nature – that we now understand has a universal appeal. Marley called it “good vibrations,” and for Jobs it could have been “karma.” Perhaps this is why people say you can hear Marley’s heart beat in his music today and still “feel” Jobs in the 10th generation of the iPhone.
In daily habits, Marley and Jobs were both: vegetarians, non-alcoholic and cannabis users. In an interview with the Department of Defense, Jobs went on record saying that the last time he got “high” was in 1977. Jobs explained cannabis helped him relax and made him more creative. For Marley, cannabis use was a spiritual lubricant advocated by Rastafarian beliefs. And neither were exemplary in some aspect of personal conduct. But abrasive relationships didn’t seem to diminish the wonderment of their accomplishments.
For Job’s, a college dropout, the science behind computer programming was never an interest because it required formal education. He had a passion for calligraphy during his short time at Reed College because it was, “artistically subtle in a way science can’t capture,” according to Jobs. In a similar vein, Marley said, “Reggae music is a people music. Reggae music is news. Is news about your own self, your own history, things that they wouldn’t teach you in a school…”
Neither Marley nor Jobs had their biological fathers present in their lives. In fact, their fathers came from faraway places and from different cultures – and this “mixed blood” impacted their identities as coming from poverty, exile, and dislocation and from the margins of society. Bob Marley’s father, Norval Marley, was a white Jamaican originally from Sussex, England, whose family claimed Syrian Jewish origins. Steve Jobs’ father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, grew up in Homs, Syria and was born into an Arab Muslim household. In an amazing twist of fate, Jobs was a customer at a Mediterranean restaurant in San Jose, CA without realizing that it was owned by his biological father. The two met on a casual basis, and later, through Job’s sister, Mona Simpson, he learned the man at the restaurant was his biological father. “It was amazing,” Jobs later said of the revelation. “I had been to that restaurant a few times, and I remember meeting the owner. He was Syrian. Balding. We shook hands.”
Finally, both Marley and Jobs fathered children out of wedlock.
No artist, religious leader or technologist can have a global impact without fulfilling a basic need or urge in people who are willing to receive it. So perhaps the question about the connection between Marley and Jobs has more to do with “why” than “what” makes them such a powerful force years after their deaths. Could it be that feelings of oppression (mental slavery), loss of identity and dislocation resonate with millions of people?
Today there is one glaring global force implicated in mass negative feelings. A new study has confirmed that Facebook use is negatively associated with overall well-being (eroding self-esteem among other issues). And in what is likely a breach of Australian law, Facebook denied and then apologized for revelations about its marketing plans to sell advertising to vulnerable youths who “need a confidence boost” from well-timed marketing messages – like when they feel “worthless” and “insecure.” The Australian obtained internal documents from the social media giant that reportedly show how Facebook can exploit the moods and insecurities of teenagers for the benefit of advertisers.
So the next time you hear a Bob Marley song or see the Apple logo appear on your new iPhone, remember that the positive emotions you feel at that moment (easy laughing, elation and heightened awareness) emanate from a cosmic force created for your liberation, creativity and redemption.