When people remember Bob Marley in 2012, many images come to mind.
The happy dreadlocked man who still stares down from a million student bedsit walls. The footballer jinking past defenders. Or perhaps the spliff-toting figure who adorned Miley Cyrus’s 19th birthday cake, prompting her to joke: “You know you’re a stoner when your friends make you a Bob Marley cake!”
Marley himself would surely rather have been remembered for his principles, politics or philanthropy than his love of weed. He was, after all, the man who gave the writing credit (and therefore the royalties) for No Woman, No Cry to Vincent Ford, the soup kitchen supervisor who helped Marley out in his early, poverty-stricken days.
The man who, at the peak of his popularity, would happily welcome ghetto kids into his Jamaican home at 56 Hope Road. And the man who, one day in 1976, lay bleeding within the bullet-riddled walls of that home, the victim of an assassination attempt by those who feared his growing political influence.
That explosion of violence on 3 December was shocking, but had been brewing. Marley and his band The Wailers had returned from their world tour supporting the Rastaman Vibration album to find the island riven with tension and beset by power cuts and food shortages. Violent clashes between rival gangs had become commonplace as the ruling, left-wing People’s National Party (PNP), led by Prime Minister Michael Manley, and the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by the US-backed Edward Seaga, struggled for supremacy.
In 1972, Marley had openly supported the PNP, but as the 1976 election loomed, he decided to remain neutral and committed to play the Smile Jamaica concert — a non-partisan attempt to ease the tensions.
However well-intended the Smile Jamaica concert was, there were people on the island determined to make it a political manoeuvre. Manley moved the election date forward to coincide with the gig, making it appear to many that Marley was endorsing the PNP. This heightened the risks to his personal safety, according to his friend Vivien Goldman.
Then working for the British music paper Sounds, she was invited by Marley to stay at Hope Road in the weeks leading up to the concert. “It was like a massive commune,” she explains, “with a ‘throw your mattress down and crash’ vibe. It was full of people coming to pay their respects, it was a big thing that people from the ghetto could hang out in this uptown area.”
Not all the visitors, however, were friendly. One morning, Goldman was woken by voices. Through her window she saw Marley having an argument with two men. “I could see him being harassed and [he looked] uncomfortable,” says Goldman. “Guys came round to shake him down all the time.”
During her stay, Marley played Goldman a new song he was working on, also called Smile Jamaica. Struck by the absence of his usual lyrical edge, she asked why he’d written such a jolly song. “Jamaicans need to smile more,” was his reply. “Jamaica’s too vexed.”
Just how vexed would soon become clear. Goldman had to return to the UK before the shooting incident, but her Marley biography The Book Of Exodus contains a vivid account of what happened. The Wailers had just finished rehearsing and Marley’s wife Rita drove out of the compound. As she went out, another car came in and a passenger shot at her as it passed. Three gunmen charged into the kitchen and opened fire on Marley. Manager Don Taylor barged the singer to the ground, although Bob still took a bullet in the arm.
Miraculously, there were no fatalities — but the slug was never removed from Marley’s arm for fear the operation would cause him to lose control of his fingers. The bullet holes remain in the wall of the building, now the Bob Marley Museum, to this day.
And the incident was to leave a similarly permanent impression on both Marley’s music and Jamaica itself. First, however, there was the small matter of the Smile Jamaica concert, due to take place just two days after the shooting. Incredibly, an injured Marley resolved to play the gig, despite the danger his assailants could return to finish the job.
It’s difficult to imagine any modern celebrity making a similar decision but, as Marley expert Dr Jason Toynbee of The Open University’s sociology department points out, Marley was not your typical pop star. “He did it because he thought the gig would be a force for reconciliation,” says Toynbee, also author of Bob Marley: Herald Of A Postcolonial World?. “It was an incredibly brave thing to do, but he was a very brave man.”
The Smile Jamaica stage was crowded with allies concerned for Marley’s wellbeing. Marley lifted his shirt to show his wounds, singing his songs of freedom more passionately than ever before, as if in the hope that his indomitable spirit would act as a force field, deflecting any stray bullets. The concert passed without incident. The PNP won the election. No one was ever charged in relation to the shooting, although the public pointed fingers at politically motivated gangsters. And Marley left Jamaica the next morning, eventually ending up in London, where he recorded Exodus, a spiritual, statesmanlike response to the events of 1976. It would later be hailed as the album of the century by Time magazine.
Marley’s greatest triumph, however, came in April 1978, when he returned to Jamaica for the One Love Peace Concert. There, he was joined on stage by both Manley and Seaga, all three holding up their hands together to demonstrate unity — a “historic moment” according to Chris Blackwell, boss of Marley’s label, Island Records.
“The concert reflected a mood in Jamaica that everyone had had enough of the violence and wanted to move forward in a spirit of cooperation,” says Blackwell. “When Bob linked the hands of the two rival political leaders, he created a lasting image of peace that was beamed around the world.”
Sadly, making the actual peace between the two parties last proved beyond even Marley. Jamaica’s economic problems and the internecine relationship between politics and gangs continue to this day. But Marley’s efforts did not go unnoticed internationally, helping to usher in a new generation of rock stars prepared to stand up for what they believed in.
“Marley prefigured what happened in the Eighties with Live Aid and U2,” says Toynbee (Bono has admitted to taking the lyrics of Redemption Song to political meetings). “But politics is a matter of what millions of people do rather than what one man does.”
Nonetheless, Goldman sees echoes of Marley in Youssou N’Dour’s attempts to run for the presidency in Senegal (recently injured when he was hit by a projectile at a rally). Comparisons can also be made with Manny Pacquiao’s forays into politics or George Clooney drawing attention to humanitarian causes. “Clooney’s a good guy,” says Toynbee. “But Marley’s political and moral stature is completely different. He was an incredibly principled and ethical character, one of the most extraordinary people to live in the 20th century.” On her next birthday, Miley Cyrus might want to put that in her pipe and smoke it.
Marley is at cinemas from 20 April
(Images: Rex Features)