“Me always in exile. Fe me Rastaman is man in exile. I am known in Jamaica and ’em shoot after me but nobody don’t know who me kept it a secret. Somebody shoot after me. Me not afraid a people like that. You know why? ‘Cos me know I don’t do anything wrong. But me not afraid ‘cos if people attack me one time them never ever will do it again. What me stand for me always stand for. Jah is my strength.”
Bob Marley, London, 1977
As my Jet Blue flight from Washington, DC to Jamaica touches down at Norman Manley International Airport, I can’t help but consider what it must have been like here in Kingston, Jamaica thirty eight years ago today – December 5, 1976. It is a day that still lives in the hearts and minds of the Jamaican people and one which would forever change the world’s perspective on the island’s most beloved son.
Just two days after an assassination attempt on Bob and Rita Marley at their home at 56 Hope Road, Kingston, Marley is in hiding with family and several close associates in a mansion above Kingston. He has no idea who made an attempt on his life but rumor has it that ghetto-level enforcers for Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) made the move to send a message to the Gong – do not play the concert.
The Smile Jamaica Concert is held on December 5, 1976, at the National Arena in Kingston, Jamaica. When word spread that Marley would perform a free concert for the people in order to quell much of the violence taking place in the country he was approached separately by warring political factions of the JLP and the PNP, both eager for his support. However, Marley is reluctant to play politics and he chooses to do a non-aligned event. However, Bob cannot escape the loose affiliation he’s had with Michael Manley’s Democratic Socialist PNP since the late-1960s when he used to play music at Manley’s campaign events all over the island. Marley’s new single “Smile Jamaica,” released around the election, is even seen by many as a concealed call to vote PNP. As Richard Johnson writes in the January 1977 issue of Melody Maker:
“Is this the rebel from Trench Town who said to the Jamaican establishment with so much defiance, ‘If you are the big tree we are the small axe/sharpened to cut down/ready to cut you down,’ and, ‘It takes this revolution to cause a solution,” and ‘Them belly full but we hungry’? Is this the same universal rebel who is now saying, ‘Can’t criticise, oh smile in Jamaica?’ What about the African Dream and the African redemption? Has the Rasta rebel now become a ‘responsible citizen’”?
Manley’s conduct around the concert is indicative of a man who at least had Marley’s tacit approval. Knowing that Marley has the ears and hearts of the people, he takes full advantage, going so far as to propose that the show be held on the lawns at Jamaica House, the Prime Minister’s official residence. However, Bob insists that the concert be held on neutral ground.
Journalist Vivien Goldman, staying at 56 during the lead-up to the concert, recalls being awakened one morning by quarreling in the yard. Looking out her window Bob was standing under the big mango tree, talking angrily to two nameless men. There is something ominous and dreadful in their exchange. Bob’s body language is tense and taut, even aggressive. It is the first time she is seeing this side of the Gong and it is unsettling.
The vibe is heavy at 56 all week long. Bad men, political enforcers and shady characters are bearing down on the compound all week, dropping heavy warnings to the singer and those closest to him.
“Me hope you know what you a do, Dread” they whisper among the din of regular Rasta reasonings, “ras claats,” and children playing in the yard. The band is quiet and subdued during the seemingly endless daily rehearsals, each man contemplating the growing threat.
At some point during the day of Friday, December 3, 1976 the two plainclothes police officers assigned to guard the gate at 56 Hope Road inexplicably disappear. Nobody takes notice. Marley associate and Wailers Art Director Neville Garrick, “the man who decorates the music,” is stopped by police and arrested for possession of marijuana while driving to rehearsal. Neville, still reeling from the mess created by his Smile Jamaica concert sticker design (which is eerily similar to the PNP logo) can’t seem to shake the bad vibes.
As night falls Marley takes a break from rehearsal and walks to the kitchen to get an orange. He is met by his manager Don Taylor who is already in the kitchen eating a grapefruit. A car blazes into the driveway. Four gunmen burst in, shots blazing. It happens in a flash.
Marley’s cook Gilly sees faces – young phantom faces – but he can’t place them. Percussion man Seeco cries out “Blood claat! Is Seaga men! Dem come fe kill Bob!”
The driver of the car pulls up, backs out and speeds away as the four gunmen jump in. It’s over in a matter of seconds. A few passers-by observe a car speeding away from 56 Hope Road headed downtown, right into the heart of Tivoli Gardens, ground zero for Jamaica Labor Party enforcers.
Don Taylor, who is standing between Marley and the gunmen, takes five shots to his back and legs. Marley is shot in the arm and the bullet passes through, grazing his chest. Rita is hit with a grazing shot to the head friend Lewis Griffiths is shot twice in the stomach. All are rushed immediately to University Hospital in Kingston. Taylor is given emergency surgery and placed on the critical list. He is flown to Miami the next morning for more surgery.
The news of the shooting shocks the island. The Associated Press report that Marley has been shot and killed.
Bob and Rita are released from the hospital the next morning and driven high up in the hills to Strawberry Hill. The estate, owned by Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, is guarded by armed police. Few come and go save for Housing Minister and Trench Town MP Tony Spaulding who is dispatched to set Marley at ease.
That evening, Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley visits Marley to discuss whether to go ahead with his free concert. Marley is forced to contemplate his next move.
Will the alleged shooters be in attendance?
Will Marley be executed live on-stage in front of 80,000 people?
Will he even make it to the park?
Even the cops who now escort his motorcade could not be trusted. They could be leading him to his execution. Marley is given assurances by both political parties that he will be safe.
But could they be trusted?
His band are nowhere to be found, shaken by warnings dropped by nameless, faceless individuals at 56 Hope Road in the days leading up to the concert,. At 7pm a familiar voice crackles through the walkie talkie of one of the police officers in the room. It is Stephen “Cat” Coore of Third World who had just completed their set at Smile Jamaica. Bob grabs the walkie talkie from the officer.
Tension in the room is high, everyone on edge not knowing what to expect next.
“The vibes is positive here at the show! De crowd massive mon! It’s all peace and love and unity.”
The decision is made. Marley will play.
The motorcade winds through the mountains as it descends upon Kingston en route to Hero’s Circle Race Track where 80,000 Jamaicans eagerly await his arrival. As Marley steps from the car with his manager, he is struck by the overwhelming presence of police and military troops. After greeting the roaring crowd Bob announces that his performance is “not related to any politricks.”
Marley is almost unremarkable in this 90-minute performance, appearing as some ragged street preacher shouting proverbs from his soap-box rather than the Zion-bound Rasta we all know and love. Halfway through his performance of “War” his wife Rita joins him on-stage, her head swathed in white bandages and Ethiopian wraps.
There he is, on a makeshift stage surrounded on all sides by 80,000 wailing Jamaicans – men, women, children, military, police, and politricksters – all of them looking for a savior, someone to bring peace during a time of war; someone to give strength to the widows and fatherless children; someone to comfort the woman who “hold her head and cry, ’cause her son had been shot down in the street and died.” Can this man – the street prophet in tattered clothes crying out in the night – stop the blood running red through the Kingston ghettos?
It is only when you listen closely to the words of the prophet that you realize that this is a man who is angry like hell at the system – the politricksters and the bourgeoisie that live a world away from the sufferers who beg bread daily at the gates of 56 Hope Road. A man who decided, at last, to stand up in the face of his enemies, despite his own fears and physical injuries, and speak for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the downtrodden. On this Sunday evening of December 5, 1976 – just two days after an attempt on his life – the “wounded lion” sacrifices his soul live on-stage. Marley gives the performance of his lifetime characterized by gritty toughness, raw determination, and an unwavering sense of duty to fellow man. Marley closes the show by lifting his shirt, exposing his bandaged bullet wounds to the crowd.
The politicians, journalists, and detractors, will never view this man the same from this day forward. This is a man who is willing to risk his life in order to shed light on the injustices perpetrated by the few at the expense of the many. Bob Marley is a revolutionary.
I give thanks for the brilliant works of journalists Vivien Goldman, Richard Johnson, and Basil Wilson whose reporting on the 1976 Smile Jamaica concert made this essay possible.
My favorite photos ever taken of Bob Marley were taken this night by photographer Alex Webb:
His courageous performance was captured on video in its entirety and from this gritty footage you can almost feel the tension in the air that night. It is without a doubt the best live performance I’ve ever seen. See for yourself.