Shortly after midnight on April 22, 1978, Bob Marley took the stage with his band at the One Love Peace Concert at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica. It was the first time that Marley had performed in his home country in nearly two years.
Marley was performing at the urging of gang leaders from rival political factions, with the goal of leveraging a star-studded musical performance to encourage peace in the politically divided, violence-stricken Jamaica. While the performance provided a powerful and memorable moment of unity, political violence would continue to plague the Caribbean nation.
Bob Marley and the Wailers: A Cultural and Political Force
The reggae singer had fled first to the Bahamas and then to London in 1976 after he and his wife, Rita Marley, and two others in his inner circle survived an assassination attempt at his home outside Kingston. Shot in an arm, Marley had been preparing for the government-sponsored “Smile Jamaica” concert when several armed men raided his compound.
Since the early 1970s with his group, the Wailers, Marley had established himself as a cultural and political force in Jamaica. His songs included lyrics that broadly addressed a concern for Pan-Africanism and colonial oppression, as well as the tensions between the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party (JLP).
Under the leadership of Michael Manley, the PNP had won the 1972 general election and reggae, according to Brown University Caribbean Studies scholar, Brian Meeks, was the soundtrack of this new political movement.
“Leading up to the ’76 election, Marley was invited to present a concert by the minister of culture at the time, so it was seen as a PNP concert even though it was a government concert,” Meeks said during an interview with the Jacobin magazine.
“Marley was shot shortly before the concert, and it’s now pretty much certain that he was shot by a JLP gunman who wanted to stop him from bringing his significant presence to bear on an event that would redound to the interests of the PNP just before an election.”
Just two days after the attempt on his life by these suspected gang members, Marley recovered well enough to perform a 45-minute set in the “Smile for Jamaica” concert before 80,000 people at National Heroes Park in Kingston.
While he recorded Exodus, one of the Wailer’s most famous albums during his exile in England, politically-motivated gang violence continued to engulf Jamaica, particularly in the capital city of Kingston, as the PNP consolidated its power under Manley, who won the 1976 election.
Black Culture, Black Consciousness and Rastafarianism
To understand Marley’s music and political motivations is to understand his life as a Rastafarian, a religion developed in Jamaica in the 1930s that he began to embrace in the mid-1960s after being raised as a Catholic.
Rastafarians believe that Ethiopia is their promised land and that the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, is the Black Messiah, the one that Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey prophesied would come from Africa. Marley brought that philosophy of the world to his involvement with the warring political parties that led to his involvement with the One World Peace Concert.
“In my music I and I want people to see themselves,” Marley said. “I and I are of the house of David. Our home is Timbuktu, Ethiopia, Africa where we enjoyed a rich civilization long before the coming of the European. Marcus Garvey said that a people without knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots.”
Party Leaders and Political Violence
The son of Norman Manley, who founded the PNP in 1938, Michael Manley courted Marley and Rastafarians during his successful run for prime minister in 1972, where the party’s slogan, “Better Must Come,” came from a song from Delroy Wilson, a reggae artist. During the campaign, Manley wore African garb and carried an ebony and ivory staff that was given to him by Selassie.
''An epoch of brainwashing in white-oriented society has left scars which, however unconscious, mar the inner assurance with which Black people accept their own forms of beauty and excellence,'' Manley said in 1969.
In June of 1976, Manley imposed a state of emergency to curtail the political violence in the streets between gang leaders hired by both his PNP and Edward Seaga’s JLP. The State of Emergency allowed the government’s security forces to arrest 1,000 Jamaican citizens, which helped reduce serious crimes from as many as 160 a week before the emergency down to 54 in the weeks after the emergency began.
However, for Edward Seaga, the JLP leader, the state of emergency signaled the suppression of civil liberties and his party’s growing popularity with the people. A Democratic Socialist with close ties to the Cuban government, Manley believed that the JLP’s conservative opposition was sowing destabilization in the country and making allegations that Jamaica’s ruling party was communist.
Marley Returns Home for 'One Love' Concert
In late February 1978, Marley returned to Jamaica after being away in London for 15 months. He was lured home by gang leaders from rival political factions—Claudius “Claudie” Massop from JLP and his PNP counterpart, Anton “Bucky” Marshall. The two men believed that music could help bring peace and that no one better embodied this idea than Marley.
Shortly after midnight on April 22, 1978 Marley appeared before 30,000 people at the National Stadium in Kingston. During his performance of “Jammin,” he called Manley and Seaga to the stage in a show of peace. They all clasped their raised their hands together in show of unity.
The rich symbolism of the scene and Marley’s expression of love and hope filled the air with optimism for this country troubled by violence and economic blight. But the concert couldn’t ensure peace or the end the gang-related political violence in Jamaica.
In 1979, Massop—one of the "One Love" concert organizers—was killed when he was shot a reported 40 times by police in a car chase in Kingston. During the 1980 election, when Seaga soundly defeated Manley, an estimated 700 people were murdered. In 1980, Massop's counterpart, Marshall was killed in a New York City nightclub.
By then Marley was fighting his own personal battle. Diagnosed with melanoma in 1977, the 36-year-old hero of the people died in 1981 in Miami.