Bob Marley: time will tell

For one bright shining moment it seemed the unbridgeable political divide in Jamaica had been closed. James Ferguson remembers that day, 30 years ago

  • One of the iconic images of Jamaican history, the Manley–Seaga handshake; from left: Michael Manley, Bob Marley and Edward Seaga. Photograph by HRM/Adrian Boot
  • Live at London’s Rainbow Theatre 1977. Photograph by HRM/Adrian Boot

West Kingston in 1978 was a dangerous place to live. Well off the tourist trail, this rundown part of the Jamaican capital was where the gun reigned supreme. And many of the guns were in the hands of warlords, or “dons,” whose supporters fought against rival gangs in a lethal vendetta.

The turf wars of West Kingston took a terrifying toll in lives among combatants and innocent bystanders alike—and all in the name of politics. When the British had withdrawn from independent Jamaica in 1961 they thought they had bequeathed a stable two-party, “Westminster-style” democracy contested by the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party. But by the 1970s, fuelled by a deteriorating economy and Cold-War tensions, the system had turned decidedly nasty.

Elections always brought a rise in violence. The contests of 1972 and 1976 had witnessed victories for the charismatic PNP leader Michael Manley, but an escalating death toll as gangsters allied to the two parties struggled for control of poor inner-city areas like Trench Town and Tivoli Gardens.

Ironically, Jamaica was also in the international news for a very different and more positive reason. Since 1971 the career of Bob Marley and the Wailers had been putting the island on the map, as a succession of hit single and albums and sell-out tours had turned Marley into a superstar and popularised reggae, rastafarianism and Jamaica’s image in spectacular style.

Jah moves in mysterious ways, and it was an unlikely meeting that brought Marley into the cauldron of Jamaican politics in the role of healer.

In a fascinating new biography of the reggae legend, fellow Beat regular Garry Steckles tells how two ghetto warlords—Claudius “Claudie” Massop and Bucky Marshall—found themselves sharing a Kingston prison cell. Although sworn political enemies, the two dons somehow found common ground, agreeing that the violence was destroying their communities. What was needed was a high-profile event that would promote peace and reconciliation, a peace concert, and there was one man who could top the bill—Marley.

Once out of jail, Massop, who knew Marley from his Trench Town days, flew to London to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. And he didn’t. In February 1978 Marley was back in Jamaica, 18 months after he’d left in the wake of a still-unexplained assassination attempt that had left him wounded. The concert was by now scheduled for April, and expectations among Marley fans and the world’s media were at fever pitch.

Bob Marley’s commitment to the project was complete. As a former ghetto youth, he knew what life in West Kingston was like, and he knew all too well the horror of unpredictable violence and gang rule. He was also a musician with a vast international following and a man of irreproachable personal integrity. In this sense, he was the perfect candidate to front the show.

The event scheduled for April 22 was to be called the Peace Concert; it was not officially sponsored by either political party, but both leaders had agreed to attend; the performers—and it was a long list of Jamaican talent, including Culture, the Mighty Diamonds and Peter Tosh—had agreed to appear free of charge. Even better, admission to the National Stadium was to start at only J$2, meaning that it was to be an event for the people it was meant to help.

And so that evening 30 years ago, Bob Marley walked onstage. As thunder boomed ominously around the Jamaican capital, the moment had come. The Wailers launched into Conquering Lion, then moved effortlessly through a string of classics: Trench Town Rock, Natty Dread and Positive Vibration.

Throughout the performance Manley had been sitting in the second row, surrounded by (doubtless well armed) bodyguards. Not far from him sat his great rival, JLP leader Edward Seaga, a man with a background in Jamaican popular music. Both had clearly thought that this was an event they could not be seen to have missed, but neither could have guessed what would happen next.

As the irresistibly lilting sound of Jammin’ filled the stadium, Marley danced, skipped, swayed and began to speak, half-shouting, over the music.

“I’m not so good at talking but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say, well, I’m trying to say, could we have, could we have, up here onstage here the presence of Mr Michael Manley and Mr Edward Seaga. I just want to shake hands and show the people that we’re gonna make it right, we’re gonna unite, we’re gonna make it right…”

Who knows what ran through their minds at this moment, but Manley and Seaga had no choice: they simply had to go onstage, as refusal would have spelt political disaster. Seaga went first and was pulled up onstage, followed a few seconds later by Manley. In a melee of musicians and minders, with the reggae blasting into the night air, the two leaders—both white and in white shirts—stood either side of Marley, illuminated by the stage lights and thousands of camera flashes. As Marley continued to scat-sing his message of peace and reconciliation he took the two men’s hands and joined them over his head.

As Garry Steckles writes, “He kept them there for a few seconds, with the arch-rivals smiling somewhat uncomfortably—they’d almost certainly have preferred to throttle each other.”

The photo of the Manley–Seaga handshake, their arms reaching over Marley’s dreadlocks, is one of the great iconic images of Jamaican history. A mixture of discomfort and resignation is etched on the politicians’ faces, while Marley look manically gleeful, like someone who has pulled off a great trick—which is what he’s done.

It was a memorable night, but the concert brought no lasting peace. When elections came in 1980, Edward Seaga won a landslide victory and 900 Jamaicans lost their lives in political violence. It was the worst electoral death toll in Jamaican history. By then both Bucky Marshall and Claudie Massop were dead, Marshall shot at a dance in New York and Massop gunned down by police at a Kingston road block.

As for Bob Marley, already ill with cancer at the time of the concert—though nobody would have suspected as much—he died on May 11, 1981, aged only 36.

Was it all in vain? On one level, the answer must be yes, as the concert clearly failed to stem the tide of inner-city violence. But on another, it was a resounding success, an extraordinary performance by a musician at the very peak of his career and proof that even the most powerful of politicians cannot resist the pressure that comes from an individual who truly represents his people.

Bob Marley: A Life, by Caribbean Beat columnist Garry Steckles, is published by Macmillan Caribbean and in the UK by Signal Books

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