On this day 11 May 1981, Jamaican singer, musician, and songwriter Bob Marley died, aged 36 due to the spread of melanoma to his lungs and brain. His final words to his son Ziggy were: “On your way up, take me up. On your way down, don’t let me down.”
July 1977, Marley was diagnosed with a type of malignant melanoma under a toenail. Contrary to urban legend, this lesion was not primarily caused by an injury during a football match that year, but was instead a symptom of already-existing cancer.
He had to see two doctors before a biopsy was done, which confirmed acral lentiginous melanoma. Unlike other melanomas, usually on skin exposed to the sun, acral lentiginous melanoma occurs in places that are easy to miss, such as the soles of the feet, or under toenails. Although it is the most common melanoma in people with dark skin, it is not widely recognised and was not mentioned in the most popular medical textbook of the time.
Marley rejected his doctors’ advice to have his toe amputated (which would have hindered his performing career), citing his religious beliefs, and instead, the nail and nail bed were removed and a skin graft was taken from his thigh to cover the area. Despite his illness, he continued touring and was in the process of scheduling a 1980 world tour.
The album Uprising was released in May 1980. The band completed a major tour of Europe, where it played its biggest concert to 100,000 people at San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy. After the tour, Marley went to the United States, where he performed two shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City as part of the Uprising Tour. He collapsed while jogging in Central Park and was taken to the hospital, where it was found that his cancer had spread to his brain, lungs, and liver.
Marley’s last concert took place two days later at the Stanley Theater (now The Benedum Center For The Performing Arts) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 23 September 1980. The only known photographs from the show were included in Kevin Macdonald’s 2012 documentary film Marley.
Shortly afterward, Marley’s health deteriorated as his cancer had spread throughout his body. The rest of the tour was canceled, and Marley sought treatment at the clinic of Josef Issels in Rottach-Egern, Bavaria, Germany, where he underwent an alternative cancer treatment called Issels treatment, partly based on avoidance of certain foods, drinks, and other substances.
After eight months of failing to effectively treat his advancing cancer, Marley boarded a plane for his home in Jamaica. During the flight, Marley’s vital functions worsened.
After landing in Miami, Florida, he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital (later University of Miami Hospital) for immediate medical attention, where he died on 11 May 1981.
Marley was given a state funeral in Jamaica on 21 May 1981 that combined elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy and Rastafari tradition. He was buried in a chapel near his birthplace in Nine Mile; his casket contained his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened at Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja placed there by his widow Rita Marley. On 21 May 1981, Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga delivered the final funeral eulogy to Marley, saying:
“His voice was an omnipresent cry in our electronic world. His sharp features, majestic looks, and prancing style a vivid etching on the landscape of our minds. Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”