“Big up yourself every time,” the singer, songwriter and percussionist Bunny Wailer said in 2012, addressing a crowd in Montego Bay at a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. “Because without the foundation, nuttin’ nuh deh.” On March 2, 2021, reggae lost a piece of its foundation when the last surviving member of the Wailers passed on at age 73.
The Wailers, which Bunny cofounded in 1963, were a crucial part of the bedrock of Jamaican music. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny sang hit after hit from their rude-boy days, when their satiny vocal harmonies helped to define ska, until they became Rasta lions, crafting essential LPs like 1973’s Catch a Fire and Burnin’, Bunny’s last recordings with the trio.
At the core of their work was a message of love, peace and unity that allowed reggae to become a global musical language. “We didn’t make this music for money,” Bunny told me the first time I interviewed him, speaking about the seminal recordings the trio created with Lee “Scratch” Perry at Studio 17.
Bunny, born Neville Livingston, and Marley met as kids in the rural village of Nine Mile, in the parish of Saint Ann. “He was 9 years of age and I was 7,” Bunny told me. “We went to the same school and we became very close because we wanted to know the habits of each other.”
He loved to sing and make his own instruments, building guitars out of bamboo and discarded sardine tins. “These songs I used to sing as a hobby but not something that I took very serious,” he said. “Robert heard me singing when he was not a singer … and he made himself a singer.” The friends stayed close when their families moved from Nine Mile to Trench Town, in the city of Kingston. In 1962 Marley recorded his first single, a song called “Judge Not,” for producer Leslie Kong. “I listened to him and said to him, I am very impressed to see that he had taken the music that seriously,” Bunny recalled. “He wanted me now to be involved, and he did not stop until he got me involved in the Wailers. And I’m still here wailing.”
“In Bunny Wailer rests the other two brothers,” Bunny told me. After Marley’s tragic death from cancer in 1981 and Tosh’s shocking murder in 1987, he would become the last living member of the founding Wailers, and an ambassador for reggae’s seminal generation. On the group’s powerful song “Pass It On,” they sang, “Live for yourself and you will live in vain/Live for others and you will live again.”
Bunny was a true spiritual believer — not surprising for someone who raised himself up out of poverty to become an internationally renowned singer. As such he never shied away from expressing his opinion, no matter how controversial. “Sometimes we have got to be discomforted to be comforted,” Bunny said to me.
As the art and design director for the Wailers, Neville Garrick had known Bunny since the early days. “Bunny was the one I got close to first,” said Neville, who designed the cover for Bunny’s classic 1976 solo debut, Blackheart Man. “He lived out on the beach in the bush. He wasn’t part of what Peter would call the ‘shitstem’ of living in the city. Bunny was the most rootical one. Him plant his likkle herb tree and plant him likkle vegetable.”
A Rastaman, Bunny considered smoking marijuana a holy sacrament, even though the act could easily land you in jail in Jamaica. “We would go to the country and go buy herb, and then we would have to be careful coming in for fear that you might get pulled over,” Neville recalled.
During one of their weed runs, they ran into a police checkpoint. Bunny had already served an 18-month sentence for ganja, and they both knew what the consequences would be if they were stopped and searched by the law enforcement they referred to as “beast.”
“I’m driving this little Citroën that can’t go more than about 60 miles an hour,” Neville said. “You can’t outrun nothing. And you know the roadblock — if you turn around they gonna see you.”
“Hold still, roots,” Bunny told him. “Them can’t see we. Just drive through the roadblock.”
Neville did what he was told. “Bunny had some scientific thing in a way,” he said. “I believed him and I just drove through the roadblock and they never waved us down. I think what that kind of illustrated was just positive energy, because negative energy pull negative energy toward you.”