How Bob Marley’s Message of Peace and Freedom United a Nation, If Only For One Night

It was only a short-lived moment in 1978, but only one person could attempt to heal a politically divided and broken nation.

“That until there no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation, until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes, Me say war.” –”War,” Bob Marley and the Wailers

The new film “Bob Marley: One Love” depicts a period in the life of the most famous Caribbean artist of all time. It captures a time when Bob Marley hoped that his art would inspire a new political consciousness. He was able to do just that a few moments after midnight on April 22, 1978, as he took the stage at the One Love Peace Concert and it seemed to work—if only for just a few minutes.

The late 1970s were a time when Black cultural movements were making social statements all over the world. In the United States, the Black Identity movement was on full display in everything from soul and jazz music to literature and even emerging on television. In Europe, ska, dub, and reggae music—all imported from the West Indies with the Windrush Generation—had been immensely popular and transformed London, Manchester, Liverpool, and many other U.K. cities.

In the Caribbean itself, particularly in Jamaica, emerging from the descendants of the enslaved was the, a sect that aspires to follow the literal biblical philosophies of the Old Testament and believes that Ethiopia is the promised land. Only fully independent from British colonial rule since 1962, Jamaica was a nation brimming with change, suffocated by people who believed they knew the one correct path towards it. Political strife began to grow, with many frustrated with the old economic stranglehold the British crown still had on the economy. Rastafarianism was a way for the people to protest through their own form of spirituality.

Michael Manley, a journalist and charismatic trade unionist, became prime minister in 1972, leading the (PNP). He adopted a brand of democratic socialism and introduced reforms like a minimum wage for all workers, a national literacy program, equal pay for women and land reform.

His primary rival was (JLP) leader Edward Seaga, a conservative favored not only by the British Crown but also by the United States, which was wary of possible growth of Caribbean communist movements outside of Cuba. 

“The PNP was more center/left, but (Manley) found out the Black Power movement, reggae, and Rastafarianism were becoming more international,” said Dave Gosse, Ph.D., senior lecturer and director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. “So, there was a coalition of the left, the poor, people, the unsatisfied people, Rasta people who were drawn to him. 

“But the JLP had changed leaders to Seaga and by then the tension got really hot,” Gosse continued. “Seaga had the support of the far right and the support of the United States and they accused Manley of being a communist.”

Their rivalry had devolved into violence in the parishes in and around Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, and thousands were caught in the gruesome fighting, which had become commonplace. Both parties had grown accustomed to using gangs as their strongmen.

Meanwhile, the most globally popular musical act out of Jamaica at the time was Bob Marley and the Wailers, a group founded in 1963 by Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, all of whom later adopted the Rastafarian religion. Growing in international popularity, the band was eventually joined by Marley’s wife, singer Rita Marley, drummer Carlton Barrett, bassist Aston Barrett (brothers), and guitarists Junior Marvin and Donald Kinsey. Collectively, they were among the first to open doors for a non-African American genre of music to reach a global audience.

Their music had a message of peace, an end to war and political strife. Their music was also equally Afrocentric, demanding justice for all Black people and freedom from materialistic corporate greed and autocracy, something Rastafarians wholly embraced. It turned into a powerful social movement. Despite a message of peace, not even Marley could escape the violence permeating throughout the island. 

In December 1976, two days before the scheduled “Smile, Jamaica” concert, armed gunmen broke into Marley’s home in Kingston in an assassination attempt. Both Marley and his wife, Rita, were wounded. They survived and performed two days later, despite their injuries. One of the assailants claimed at his trial that the CIA put them up to it in exchange for drugs and money.

After the concert, Marley left Jamaica. For him, it was a period of self-imposed exile. During that time, philosophical differences rose between him and Tosh, who believed there could be no peace without equality. After nearly two years, Marley returned to Jamaica in February 1978 and by this time, the violence was so overwhelming that even the gangs were looking for a way out. Historical research shows as many as 100 people died in political violence in 1976 leading up to the general election, and in an infamous massacre that year, five JLP supporters were ambushed and killed, according to the .

Two of the gang leaders, Claude “Claudie” Massop, a JLP backer, and Anton “Bucky” Marshall of the PNP, put together what came to be known as the “One Love Peace Concert,” which was intended to call for peace amid the bloodshed. Despite the danger and a recent cancer diagnosis of melanoma, Marley agreed to perform.

Cheryl Mango, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at Virginia State University who lectures on Caribbean history, said that Marley’s decision to do the show was likely entrenched in his Rastafarian beliefs.

“They are Pan-Africanists but they promote and believe in the idea of collective humanity and the idea of peace and anti-violence,” said Mango. “I believe it was rooted in his desire to want peace and that he had experienced violence himself. Also, I believe it was about him envisioning what his country could be.“

On April 22, 1978, more than 30,000 people showed up for the concert at the, which the media called the “Third World Woodstock.” Among those in attendance were Manley and Seaga, who were directly and openly criticized on stage by Tosh for the nation’s social conditions. In the final minutes of the second half of the concert, Marley took the stage and began performing “Jammin,” a song from his 1977 album now regarded as a classic in world, pop, and Black music.

Both men, who had refused to cooperate with one another, accepted the invitation to come to the stage and as Marley put his arms around their shoulders, bouncing on his feet, they shook hands.

“It was a great moment and a moment of hope,” said Gosse. “Bob had no other choice but to do it. It became a moral imperative. He was not just a Rasta man, but a man with a strong spirituality. People still talk about it today as one of the greatest moments in the history of Jamaica.”

While the snapshot of Manley and Seaga remains an optimistic one, the reality is that it did little to quell the violence. In fact, it only increased as gangs not only involved themselves in politics but also the drug trade. Police shot Massop 40 times before killing him in 1979. Marshall was shot and killed in New York City in 1980. That year alone, an estimated, in comparison to the 351 who died the year before, according to the Jamaica Constabulary Force. A staggering number for such a small island nation.

Seaga defeated Manley in national elections, taking power at a time when conservative movements had swept Ronald Reagan into office in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher into power in Britain.

Marley’s cancer spread through his body and his performing career came to an end, silencing him forever. He died in Miami on May 11, 1981, at just 36 years old.

Today, the political violence between the PNP and the JLP is a memory in Jamaica. Currently, the JLP is in power, with Andrew Holness serving as prime minister after he defeated the PNP’s Portia Simpson-Miller in 2016. Despite economic tensions, criminality, and other issues, peaceful transfers of power between politicians are commonplace. To Mango, that means Marley’s vision was at least somewhat successful.

“We don't realize how powerful a peaceful exchange of power is. That’s a key factor in keeping a civil society. This concert became a defining moment of the possibility of what could be Jamaica in the future.”

“Bob Marley: One Love” will be released in theaters on February 14.

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