New Zealand Music Month: The legacy of Bob Marley

New Zealand Music Month: The legacy of Bob Marley

It’s New Zealand Music Month! Rachel Yates, Curator Pacific Cultures, looks at the influence of Bob Marley on the musical landscape of New Zealand.

Since 2001, driven by the New Zealand Music Commission, the month of May has been dedicated to the promotion and celebration of local New Zealand artists and music.

As part of this initiative, I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the Te Papa collection and contribute to the month with a blog looking at Pacific music in New Zealand – specifically reggae and the influence of Bob Marley on our cultural landscape.

Badge of black and white circles and the website listing
Badge, New Zealand Music Month, 2010, New Zealand, by New Zealand Music Commission, maker unknown. Gift of Chris Rae, 2012. Te Papa (GH021748)

Reggae is a genre of music that originated from Jamaica in the late 1960s. In a New Zealand context, reggae is both popular and influential, particularly amongst Māori and Pacific populations.

Bob Marley is a significant historical figure whose music and ideologies influenced many musicians (as opposed to what is reported at the beginning of the video clip below). Cultural anthropologist Brent Clough claims that “across Oceania, hundreds, if not thousands, of amateur and professional musicians are interpreters of Marley’s songs or play Marley-style reggae. Cassettes, CDs or sound files of his songs are staples in many private collections.”[1]

Following the tour of the Bob Marley and the Wailers to New Zealand in 1979, the ’80s started with a surge in reggae style bands.


A popular band of this era are the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame inductees of 2012, Herbs.

As pioneers of Pacific reggae, their songs speak to their personal struggles and the challenges faced by the communities they were a part of. The lyrics of their music are reflective of local issues including the struggle of tangata whenua, Pacific identity in New Zealand, French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and the influence of Bob Marley and his ethos on their lives.

Herbs consisted of Maori, Pacific, and NZ/European members who have been described as having a “distinctive Polynesian feel”.[2] Herbs are an example of how “political and cultural struggles of different aggrieved populations intersect”[3] through the medium of reggae.

Globalisation has encouraged the localisation of reggae by people all around the world, and many cultures outside of Jamaica, including New Zealand, have adopted the style and used the genre to give voice to their own stories.

Photograph of the four members of Herbs crouching in front of a wall, which say Love Herbs painted on it
’Herbs’ (Fred Faleauto, Morrie Watene, Toni Fonoti and Spencer Fusimalohi), circa 1981, New Zealand, by Ken George. Gift of Ken George, 1998. Te Papa (E.002477)

Bob Marley popularised the teachings of Rastafarianism and was a huge influence on Herbs composer Toni Fonoti, a founding member, who wrote the classics French Letter, Dragons & Demons, and the band’s tribute to Marley, Reggae’s Doing Fine.

Fonoti left the band just before their tour of the Pacific in 1982 as he wanted to commit to a Rastafarian lifestyle and felt his duties with Herbs were affecting his ability to do so[4].

Toni and Brian Fonoti in London on their way to Ethiopia
Toni, left, and Brian Fonoti in London on their way to Ethiopia. 1988. Photograph courtesy of Toni Fonoti collection/AudioCulture

The name Bob Marley has come to be synonymous with causes of resistance, and the promotion of peace, love, and citizen rights. Evidence of Rastafarianism is seen in the use of the tricolour combination of red, gold, and green in material culture as well as Rasta-related imagery like the lion of Judah symbol and dreadlocks.

The following collection items speak to Marley’s influence among New Zealand youth culture and how his legacy continues to inform and inspire communities across the globe.

Poster featuring two women facing police. One of the women has dreadlocks, a badge which says Bob Marley, and the colours red, gold, and green are present in their clothing. The women are saying Those cops are heading towards us. Don't forget all we have to tell them is our name, age, and occupation. Don't say or answer anything else!
Poster, ’Those cops are heading towards us!!’, early 1980s, New Zealand, by Wellington Media Collective, Sharon Murdoch. Purchased 2015. Te Papa (GH024645)
Photograph of a woman holding up a sweatshirt featuring Bob Marley's face
A Certain Kind of Past – Glade House, Auckland, 1983-1984, Auckland, by Ken Browning. Te Papa (O.018251)
Photographic image of an unidentified young man with tattoos on his left arm - as seen in his bedroom, a number of posters adorn the back wall including one of Bob Marley
A Certain Kind of Past – Glade House, Auckland, 1983-1984, Auckland, by Ken Browning. Te Papa (O.018215)

A prominent place to find references to Marley and Rastafarianism are at music festivals. New Zealand has a rich culture of music festivals dating back to the ’70s; as well as being a favourite pastime for thousands of Kiwis, these festivals act as an avenue for local artists to share their music and perform live to a large audience.

Reggae themed festivals include Ragland Soundsplash, East Coast Vibes Music Festival, One Love, and Raggamuffin to name a few.

I leave you with footage from earlier this year of Pacific reggae artist Fiji (George Veikoso) in Tauranga at the One Love festival[5]. The video went viral and shows the crowd singing Maori waiata E Papa Wairi. Fiji’s a cappella version was undoubtedly inspired by Herbs, who performed their iconic version of E Papa Wairi at the New Zealand Music Awards of 1987.


Pacific reggae in New Zealand remains strong today with a wealth of artists like Three Houses Down, Tomorrow People, Sweet & Irie, Swiss, Unity Pacific, and Brownhill.

A tribute to Marley from New Zealand artists was commissioned last year and features 15 local artists whom sing their own version of Marley’s songs – Stir It Up: Aotearoa’s tribute to Bob Marley. Take some time out this May and check them out!


[1] Clough, B. (2012). Oceanic Reggae in Cooper, C (Ed). Global Reggae. P. 226.

[2] Dix, 2005 cited in Turner, E. (2016). What’s Be Happen? A Bakhtinian Analysis of Aotearoa New Zealand’s First Pacific Reggae Album. (Doctoral thesis, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand.) P. 5.

[3] Alvarez, L. (2008). Reggae rhythms in dignity’s diaspora: Globalization, indigenous identity, and the circulation of cultural struggle. Popular Music and Society, 31(5), 575-597.

[4] Moffat, G. (2015). Toni Fonoti profile.

[5] Tapaleao, V. (2017, February 5). ‘Reggae artist Fiji gets One Love crowd singing Maori waiata at Tauranga festival’. NZ Herald.

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