Music

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.”

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