From Showman To Shaman: How An Assassination Attempt Changed Bob Marley’s Life And Music

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The turning point in the whole political thing was the assassination attempt. When he survived that, he was transformed from a showman into a shaman, and anybody who can escape a practical point blank assassination attempt becomes mythic in the eyes of his people.

The assassination attempt of Bob Marley has gotten heightened attention recently thanks to Marlon James’ award-winning work, A Brief History of Seven Killings. While built around an actual event, the book is largely fictional, and doesn’t attempt to address the reality of what happened on that fateful night in Kingston, Jamaica in 1976 when Bob Marley was almost gunned down. Roger Steffens is a Marley historian, covering the man and his music for 42 years over six books, the most recent of which is called So Much Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley. Uproxx spoke to Steffens about the assassination attempt, and aimed to decipher the possibilities surrounding the crime — who did it, and further, why?

The ’70s were a time of change for Jamaica, and not necessarily for the better. Under Prime Minister Michael Manley (1972-1980), Jamaica had adopted a violent and extreme social and political climate. The U.S. was terrified that Manley would turn the country communist, and the general consensus was that Bob Marley was supporting him. (This is where rumors of a CIA-led hit-squad originate from.)

“He eschewed politics,” Steffens says. “(Bob Marley and the Wailers) did some bandwagon campaigning for Manley in ’71, and early ’72, and Bunny Wailer swears they had nothing to do with politics, and that they weren’t supporting Manley, but they went around with the People’s National Party (PNP) bandwagon performing live shows and gathering audiences after which Manley would get up and make a campaign speech. I think Bunny is rather disingenuous with that claim. They did think Manley, being a progressive and practically a socialist, was going to change things for Rasta, for keeping them from being targets from police, and he was going to legalize marijuana. Neither of those things really took place, so that’s where that line grew: Never make a politician grant you a favor — he will always want to control you forever. That was directly to Manley.”

Marley became disillusioned with politics following Manley’s election in 1972, and things got worse for the country. The aluminum industry, one of Jamaica’s biggest exports, pressured Manley to do their bidding, but even more pressure was applied by the U.S. government. Henry Kissinger led the charge against Manley, helping to cut off funding to the country and closing down a lot of their assistance in an attempt to destabilize Jamaica for fear of it turning into the next Cuba.

“In the mid-’60s, (the U.S.) started smuggling guns into Jamaica and arming the right-wing party, the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP),” Steffens says. “That led to basically, in the ghettos of Western Kingston, a permanent civil war.”

The JLP was headed by Edward Seaga, and in 1976, Seaga and Manley went to battle for the Prime Minister’s seat. Marley was becoming a big international star, and Manley wanted to syphon his social power into his platform and campaign. Bob wanted no part of it this time.

“The whole [political] system was corrupt,” Steffens says. “It was a system of keeping people down, especially black people. You should not look to politics to solve your problems. Bob said, ‘Every law is illegal. Every government of the face of the earth is illegal. Only Jaa Law should be followed.’ So, he was cynical and distrustful of politics and politicians. He didn’t think that they provided the answer at all.”

As Marley’s fame grew all over the world, he thought about doing a concert in Jamaica — it had been a few years since he had performed live in his homeland. The timing of the concert coincided with the ’76 election, and Manley, seeking to keep his office, aligned his re-election campaign with the concert.

“He’d been warned that he shouldn’t play a concert. So, before he had a chance to do this, posters started appearing around Kingston in the early Fall of ’76 saying he was going to do a concert on the lawn of the Prime Minister’s house,” Steffens says. “He went to the Prime Minister and said, ‘I never agreed to this,’ and ‘I don’t want it to be seen like I’m supporting a politician. This is something I want to give to my people free of politics.’ So Manley said, ‘Let’s do something at National Heroes Park, the National stadium, and it’ll be a non-political event and you can have the park to do your show.’ And shortly after Bob agreed to that, Manley declared national elections to be held several days after the concert. So that by appearing on stage with Bob that evening, it would appear that Bob was endorsing the re-election of the socialist Prime Minister. So, he immediately came under death threats from the Jamaican Labor Party and placed under a 24-hour guard made up of members of both political gangs.”

On the day of the assassination attempt, Bob’s guard had vanished. Rita Marley was driving down away from Bob’s home on Hope Road when a vehicle veered into the driveway and fired a shot at her; the bullet grazed her scalp. At least three gunmen entered the home with automatic weapons, and began firing on the occupants, which included Marley, his manager, and several band members. Bob was hit in the arm, but his manager, Don Taylor, was struck several times. The men returned to their vehicle and raced back out of the Hope Road driveway, last seen headed in the direction of the JLP’s headquarters. Despite warnings not to hold the concert, two days after the shooting, Bob Marley performed a 90-minute set, still healing from the gunshot wound.

Theories on the hitmen’s affiliations range from the CIA to the JLP, but in the wake of the shooting, no one was ever brought to justice. Steffens has a different theory as to who tried to kill Bob Marley.

“Now concurrent with this was a racetrack scandal,” Steffens says. “His best friend, Allan ‘Skill’ Cole, a famous soccer player, fixed a race at a race track. He burned the Jamaican mafia for a million dollars. So, they were out to kill him and he fled the country. He eventually surfaced as the manager of the Ethiopian soccer team. He was out of the country for a good deal of time. So Bob was paying off some of this debt: Everyday, people from the gangs, the mafia, would come to Tuff Gong, and he would give them a little more money, and they were demanding that they would pay off this debt for his best friend. That may have been the motivation for the shooting. On the other hand, all of the people that came to kill Bob were all affiliated with the JLP, right up to the leader of the posse which was Jim Brown, who was one of the most notorious hitmen for the JLP back then. So, that’s why a lot of the rumors say the government sent them to kill Bob.”

Steffens, in all of his Bob Marley wisdom, has no definitive answer on who attempted to kill Bob Marley in December of 1976. But, the one thing that he is sure of, is that it wasn’t the CIA or the American government.

“People always ask me two questions,” Steffens says. “‘Did Bob die from smoking too much marijuana, and did the CIA come to kill Bob Marley?’ And because I have denied that, I have been accused being a CIA agent myself. People do take that seriously. If I could find one centilla of verifiable evidence that the CIA gave the order to kill Bob Marley I would be shouting it from the rooftop; it would be the opening line for my biography of Bob. But, I can’t. Years ago, I worked with the British documentarian Jeremy Marre. He made a film in Jamaica in ’77, which is still the best documentary on Reggae ever made called Roots, Rock, Reggae. Later, we worked together on a film called Rebel Music, which is the story of Bob Marley’s life. One of the persons Jeremy interviewed was a rogue CIA agent, Philip Agee. Agee was the guy that wrote the book that named all the CIA agents around the world and the CIA put a hit on him so he went to go live in Cuba, which is where Jeremy interviewed him. In the interview, Jeremy talked to him about the assassination attempt. Agee said he had been stationed in Jamaica for a while, and he could find absolutely no evidence that the CIA had somehow told Seaga’s people to kill Bob Marley.”

Plenty of rumors abound when it comes to the incident and the aftermath of it. Steffens says many of them are untrue.

“There’s rumors — and they were used by Marlon James in that “gay porn book” that he wrote — that a poisoned boot was given to Bob when he was in hiding the day after the assassination attempt up at Chris Blackwell’s house in Strawberry Hills,” Steffens says. “That never happened. Don Taylor, whose autobiography (Marley and Me: The Real Bob Marley Story) was just utterly repellent and filled with falsehoods, claims that he took Bob to trench town and watched two of his alleged assassins hung there, and that never happened. Nobody knew Bob better than Allan “Skill” Cole… Skill was intimate with Bob’s every secret, and he said there was never a poisoned boot, and Bob never watched somebody get hung — these were all stupid rumors that had been going around for years and never seemed to die.”

Bob would relocate to England following the shooting, going through a transitional period of healing.

“It was tremendously depressing, because he had been helping the people who came to shoot him,” Steffens says. “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. 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. This is not your normal human being. It’s a man who understood the wisdom of forgiveness and wanted to bring the world to a place of spiritual morality. (The assassination attempt) made him a hugely important figure in countries that were struggling to overthrow illegal powers, especially in Africa.”

If the assassination attempt was meant to derail Marley’s life and music, it failed. The attempted murder galvanized Bob, and reinvigorated his music and his message.

“The music didn’t really begin to reflect (the assassination attempt) that much until the Survival album,” Steffens says. “The mature statement of Bob’s philosophy is contained in the Survival album in 1979. He finally came to the conclusion that an eye for an eye just makes everybody blind, and that violence is not a solution to violence. The way we change the world is we change ourselves, and then radiate outward. He was singing the songs of the sufferers. I love what John Perrelli of the New York Times wrote in 1996. Perrelli was asked to choose one work of musical art that would last at least 100 years into the future, and he chose “Burnin’.” He wrote, ‘Bob Marley became the voice of third-world pain and resistance, the sufferer in the concrete jungle who would not be denied forever. Outsiders everywhere heard his voice as their own. If he could make himself heard, so could they without compromise. In 2096, when the former third-world has overrun and colonized the superpowers, Bob Marley will be commemorated as a saint.'”