On April 22nd, 1978, international reggae superstar Bob Marley headlines the One Love Peace Concert at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica. The lineup included 16 reggae acts (including Marley) with a common goal: to restore peace to the Caribbean island nation, a former British colony then roiling with political strife.
Throughout the 1970s, long-simmering conflict between two main political parties had escalated into widespread violence. On one side stood the reigning democratic socialist People’s National Party, led by Prime Minister Michael Manley. On the other was the conservative Jamaica Labor Party, led by political rival Edward Seaga. Paramilitary street gangs funded by the two factions fought, neighborhood by neighborhood, for control of the electorate.
It wasn't the first peace concert for Jamaica. In early December 1976, Marley, a well-known advocate for peace and social change, had accepted an invitation to appear at the “Jamaica Smile” concert, organized by the prime minister’s office to try and defuse tensions. But two days before the event, gunmen ambushed and shot Marley, his wife and two associates. Miraculously, they all survived. Marley played the concert with a bullet lodged in his arm and a wound in his chest, then fled the island, viewing its politics as irreparably broken.
Two years later, the idea for another music-for-peace event emerged—launched, ironically, by two rival party-affiliated gang leaders incarcerated in the same jail cell. As the idea grew, organizers spirited Marley back from exile in London to headline the One Love Peace Concert. It would be dubbed by many observers as the “Jamaican Woodstock.”
On April 22, 1978, nearly 35,000 spectators converged in Kingston's National Stadium to hear performances by reggae stars both established and emerging, including Jacob Miller, the Mighty Diamonds, Peter Tosh and Marley. The show’s climax came during the song “Jamming,” when Marley called rival politicians Manley and Seaga onstage—and held their hands aloft together to symbolize love, peace and unity. The two men, on whose behalf hundreds, if not thousands, had been killed, appeared uncomfortable.
While the event itself unfolded peacefully, it did nothing to alleviate Jamaica’s deep political divisions—or quell its political violence, which soared in subsequent years. Marley died of cancer in May 1981.