The man who made the world groove in Jamaican tunes, an artist who was one of the faces of a rich and vibrant culture, was none other than Bob Marley. He made his mark by fusing the Jamaican styles of reggae, ska and rocksteady creating a type of music that couldn’t stop one from shaking their legs. Not only his music, but Marley’s religious identity as a Rastafari, his support for Pan-Africanism, and his demand for marijuana being legalised made him a standout icon of contemporary culture.
Born in British Jamaica, Marley found peace in music even in times of unrest. Famously kickstarting his musical career in 1963 after forming the Bob Marley and the Wailers band, he and his group didn’t have to wait for long to achieve success, with the song ‘One Love/People Get Ready’ – which featured in their debut album The Wailing Wailers in 1965 – the world greeted them with open arms. Though The Wailers disbanded in 1974, Marley was quick to find a backup band to keep him going. Nothing could dampen his spirits throughout his career except, of course, for the near-death experience in 1976.
On December 3rd that year, seven men armed with guns raided Marley’s utopian “safe house” at 56 Hope Road while he and his team were rehearsing for an upcoming concert in the home studio Tuff Gong. “The forebodings came true in the midst of rehearsals around 8:30 in the evening. Two white Datsun compacts drove through the gates of Tuff Gong, from which the long-time guards had mysteriously disappeared,” reggae historian and archivist Roger Steffens wrote in his book, So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley. The gunmen shot Marley’s wife first in the head. As she was leaving the house in her Volkswagen, Rita stopped to let another car drive into the compound through the gate which was curiously unmanned. As the other car passed, a gunman shot at her from the passenger seat, the bullet grazing across her scalp leaving her bloody but alive.
“At the moment when the gunmen broke in, we were rehearsing ‘I Shot The Sheriff’,” eyewitness Tyrone Downie, a keyboardist, recalled, according to So Much Things to Say. “Bob had stepped out, ’cause the horns weren’t on that record and the horn players wanted to play on it…He came out of the rehearsal room and went into the kitchen to get a grapefruit or something…And all of a sudden you see a hand come through the door like, around the door, and start firing this .38”. Though aimed for his chest, the bullet hit Marley’s arms as his manager Don Taylor pulled him down just at that moment. Taylor and Louise Griffin, a band employee, also got shot in their leg and torso.
By some miracle, the gunmen fled the scene soon after shooting Marley leaving behind zero casualties. “Either by good fortune or poor aim, the bullet aimed at Marley skidded off his chest, lodging in his arm rather while wife Rita, although shot in the head while disembarking from a vehicle, survived the hit,” Face2Face Africa reported. “Marley’s manager Don Taylor sustained serious injuries from being shot in the leg”. The victims were rushed to the University hospital where they were treated.
The event, without context, is sure to leave the readers bewildered. So let’s delve deep into this fateful incident and rediscover the motive behind it. During the mid-1970s Kingston came to resemble a war zone. Political tensions heightened in Jamaica due to the approaching elections between the CIA-backed Jamaican Labour Party and the People’s National Party, linked to Cuba and Russia. Both the parties aggressively courted the support of Jamaica’s greatest cultural export, Bob Marley. Though Marley and his wife had backed the then Prime Minister Michael Manly and his democratic socialist People’s National Party in the 1972 elections, they decided to remain neutral during the 1976 elections.
With supermarkets running short on stock, plentiful power cuts, gun-flooded island and no-go areas where brutal soldiers patrolled operating under their own twisted law, Jamaica experienced its darkest times since the British left. Marley, being inspired by the Stevie Wonder concert held the previous year in aid of blind children in Jamaica, wanted to host a similar free concert to spread the message of love and peace during the tumultuous time. According to Stephen Davis the author of Bob Marley: Conquering Lion of Reggae: “Bob wanted to do something like that, a benefit concert…It was set up for the National Heroes Park. It had no political overtones, except, of course, the fact that there was a huge battle for the soul of the nation.” In other words, Marley was caught in his own cultural gravity.
The PNP strategically moved the election dates to coincide with the Smile Jamaica concert, effectively turning it into a rally for the government. This made Marley furious because he had agreed to the idea of a free concert on the condition that there wouldn’t be any political interference. Though Marley was given police protection after PNP’s stunt, his house became a targeted spot by the right-winged Labour Party led by Edward Seaga. Nancy Burke, Marley’s neighbour and friend, recalled hearing Wailers percussionist Alvin Patterson, say: “Is Seaga men! Dem come fi kill Bob!” After the shooting, numerous reports indicated that the gunmen returned to Tivoli Gardens, a neighbourhood loyal to the JLP and home to the notorious Shower Posse.
Both Taylor and Marley were present at a ghetto court in which the gunmen who shot Marley and the others were tried and executed. According to Taylor, before one of the shooters was killed, he claimed that the CIA signed them up to kill Marley in exchange for cocaine and guns.
Following the incident, Marley moved to England where he spent two years in self-imposed exile. “It was tremendously depressing because he had been helping the people who came to shoot him,” said reggae archivist Roger Steffens. “He’d been giving them money, he’d been giving them food — he just couldn’t understand how these people could betray him so terribly. It was a very depressing time for him in that year that followed.”
Steffens continued, “But he was also a very merciful person: in 1978, on his European tour, some guy came backstage and confessed to Bob that he would have been a part of the people who came for him that night but he just couldn’t find his gun that evening. Bob forgave him and brought him on the rest of the tour with him, gave him a job on the tour.”
He returned to Jamaica in 1978 and performed at another political concert, the One Love Peace Concert, once again in an effort to calm warring parties. Near the end of the performance, Michael Manley and his political rival Edward Seaga joined each other on stage and shook hands at Marley’s request.