Bob Marley’s One Love Peace Concert in 1978 Sought to Quell Jamaican Unrest
One of the most iconic events in Jamaica’s history as an independent country was the One Love Peace Concert on April 22, 1978, organized by reggae superstar Bob Marley in response to the wave of deadly political violence that was then gripping the island nation.
At the climax of the event, Marley, amid a rendition of his hit “Jammin’,” brought Jamaica’s two rival political leaders onto the stage at the National Stadium in Kingston and had them shake hands.
“We gotta be together and through the spirit of the Most High, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie, we’re inviting a few leading people of the slaves to shake hands,” Marley said as her danced furiously during the song. “To show the people that you love them right, to show the people that you gonna unite. Watch, watch, watch what you’re doing, because I wanna send a message right out there.
“I’m not so good at talking, but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. Could we have up here onstage 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’ve got to unite… Jah Rastafari!»
Manley and Seaga were both reluctant; the shake was awkward, mutually grudging. But it happened, an ebullient Marley standing between the two sullen statesmen, literally guiding their hands together above their heads with his own.
One of these two rivals was then Prime Minister Michael Manley, a populist of the left. The other was his conservative opponent, Edward Seaga, who died on May 28, his 89th birthday.
Marley’s idealistic gesture was met with skepticism by many, including his former bandmate Peter Tosh, who during his own set at the concert went into a tirade, berating both Manley and Seaga for failing to help Jamaica’s poor or to legalize cannabis. He then launched into a rendition of “Legalize It.”
In the ’70s, Jamaica, like too many countries around the world, was caught up in Cold War polarization. Manley – the son of Norman Manley, who had led Jamaica through independence from the United Kingdom in 1962 – was elected in 1972 and sought an equidistant course between the two superpowers. He extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union and Cuba, declared himself a “democratic socialist” and, most significantly, made the government a majority partner in bauxite mining operations.
By the next elections in 1976, Jamaica was spiraling into crisis. U.S. aid was suspended and economic suffering resulted in angry, unemployed youth being exploited by political factions. Manley’s ruling People’s National Party (PNP) and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) each groomed street gangs and pitted them against each other. Bloodshed escalated and the tourism industry evaporated, deepening the crisis further, in a vicious cycle.
Seaga, a parliamentarian and Boston-born son of a Lebanese-Jamaican businessman, had by then emerged as leader and candidate of the JLP, a party of the political right, despite its name. He was also a veteran of Jamaica’s music industry, having produced a few albums of the island’s traditional folk singers, and stood for bringing Jamaica firmly back into the U.S. orbit. Manley prevailed over Seaga in an election that took place under a state of emergency.
Manley’s supporters saw the crisis as enflamed behind the scenes by the CIA, following the playbook of destabilization of unfriendly regimes seen in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Indonesia in 1965 and Chile in 1973. Rumors of guns flowing into the JLP-aligned street gangs from the U.S. and right-wing Cuban militants brought in by the CIA to back them up won him the unflattering moniker, «CIA-ga.»
Bob Marley at the One Love Peace Concert in 1978: «Could we have up here onstage 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.»
Despite Marley’s efforts, the violence only escalated after the Peace Concert. The 1980 elections again pitted Manley against Seaga, and that was the bloodiest year yet with an estimated 800 lives lost to political violence. This time, Seaga emerged victorious.
The tide was turning worldwide with Ronald Reagan elected in the United States that same year and Margaret Thatcher already in power in the U.K. Seaga followed the rightward trajectory. He broke ties with Cuba and imposed economic austerity in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, although the bauxite interests were already departing for more stable and compliant source countries. The Jamaican industry never recovered.
Manley and the PNP returned to power in 1988, but by then Seaga had completely changed Jamaica’s political landscape. Manley had abandoned his socialism and pursued policies not too distant from those of his rival. Seaga remained at the helm of the JLP, but never returned to power.
The Peace Concert still stands as a shining moment of hope for reconciliation and shared humanity amid political strife, even if it failed to de-escalate the situation in Jamaica. Marley (he died in 1981) and Tosh (murdered in 1987) would likely feel vindicated that Jamaica amended its Ganja Law in 2015 to allow cultivation for medicinal purposes and even permit sacramental use by Rastafarians. Former sugar plantations are being converted to the new crop and exports to Canada are already in progress.
Cannabis may yet replace bauxite as a more environmentally sound mainstay of Jamaica’s legal economy and a source of social cohesion as the bitter memory of the island’s near-destabilization fades into the past.
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