On the anniversary of the reggae superstar’s death, we remember a particularly transcendent moment from his remarkable career.
Of all the music and stories surrounding the short but unforgettable life of reggae icon Bob Marley, the crowning moment may be his performance at Jamaica’s One Love Peace Concert of 1978.
For a little background, Jamaica in the 1970s was roiled by poverty, violence and political upheaval. The situation was exacerbated by Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) and opposition leader Edward Seaga of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), who not-so-covertly took gang leaders into the fold as part of the ongoing turf wars.
How bad were things? Marley and his wife were both shot at their Kingston home in December 1976, prompting him to flee the country. How bad were things? Rival gang leaders Claudie Massop and Bucky Marshall met in a Kingston jail sometime afterward and essentially agreed that hey, it’s getting kinda bad out there.
The two men hatched a plan for a unifying peace concert, and following his release from prison, Massop flew to London to pitch the idea to Marley. Marley was receptive, giving the project the headlining presence it needed to rally politicians and fellow musicians.
On April 22, 1978, the One Love Peace Concert was held at Kingston’s National Stadium. Sixteen of the country’s biggest acts were on the bill, and the festivities commenced even as Manley, Seaga and the rest of the eventual 32,000 fans were still spreading out among the three sections marked “Love,” “Togetherness” and “Peace.”
The show took an interesting turn in the second half, when performer Jacob Miller lit a joint, jumped into the audience and donned a policeman’s hat. Later, Marley’s former bandmate Peter Tosh pushed the envelope by interspersing his songs with political speech and berating the prime minister sitting in front of him.
At around 12:30 a.m., Bob Marley took the stage for his long-awaited return performance. Backed by the Wailers and the I-Threes, he launched into a short set that included favorites like “Trenchtown Rock,” “Natty Dread” and “War.”
The climax came during a rendition of “Jammin’,” when Marley asked for both Manley and Seaga to join him on stage. Building to a fevered pitch, he called for the two opponents to shake hands and show the world “we gonna make it right, we gots to unite!” – at which point a bolt of lightning flashed above.
Was the lightning real? Some people say no, it was a special effect. Other eyewitnesses swear it was raining at the time and yes, that was actual lightning that tore through the sky at an eerily coincidental moment.
What happened next certainly was real, as Manley and Seaga appeared on opposite sides of Marley. At the singer’s assertion they joined hands in front of him and over his head, a forced but clear encapsulation the “one love” message of the undertaking.
As this was real life, there was no rosy ending where everyone danced off into the sunset. The violence returned for an especially nasty 1980 general election, in which Seaga unseated Manley, and Marley himself was gone a few months later at the age of 36.
Still, special moments have a way of transcending day-to-day events that command attention, and the enduring image of the concert is of Marley holding the hands of the two political enemies, a show of strength against the overpowering forces that bring out the worst of human nature and tear countries apart.