“The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?,” said Bob Marley after a 1976 assassination attempt at his home in Jamaica in which Marley, his wife Rita, manager Don Taylor, and employee Louis Griffiths were all shot and, incredibly, all survived. Which people, exactly, did he mean? Was it Edward Seaga’s Jamaican Labour Party, whose hired gunmen supposedly carried out the attack? Was it, as some even conspiratorially alleged, Michael Manley’s People’s National Party, attempting to turn Marley into a martyr?
Marley had, despite his efforts to the contrary, been closely identified with the PNP, and his performance at the Smile Jamaica Concert, scheduled for two days later, was widely seen as an endorsement of Manley’s politics. When he made his now-famously defiant statement from Island Records’ chief Chris Blackwell’s heavily guarded home, he had just decided to play the concert–this despite the continued risk of being gunned down in front of 80,000 people by the still-at-large killers, or someone else paid by the CIA, whom Taylor and Marley biographer Timothy White claim were ultimately behind the attack.
Marley doesn’t just show up at the concert, he “gives the performance of his lifetime,” notes a brief history of the event, and “closes the show by lifting his shirt, exposing his bandaged bullet wounds to the crowd.” Erroneously reported dead in the press after the shooting, Marley emerged Lazarus-like, a Rastafarian folk-hero. Then he left Jamaica to make his career statement, Exodus, in London — as much a fusion of his righteous political fury, religious devotion, erotic celebration, and peace, love & unity vibes as it is a fusion of blues, rock, soul, funk, and even punk.
It’s a very different album than what had come before in 1976’s Rastaman Vibrations, which was an album of “hard, direct politics” and righteous, “macho” anger, wrote Vivien Goldman, “with surprising specifics like ‘Rasta don’t work for no C.I.A.’” The apotheosis that was 1977’s Exodus begins, however, not with Marley’s previous album but with the Smile Jamaica concert. What was meant to be a brief, one-song, non-aligned appearance became after the shooting “a transcendental 90-minute set for a country being torn apart by internal strife and external meddling,” says Noah Lefevre in the Polyphonic video history at the top. “It was the last show Bob Marley would play in Jamaica for more than a year.”
See the full Smile Jamaica concert above and learn in the Polyphonic video how “six months to the day” later, on June 3, 1977, Marley left on his own exodus and came to record and release what Time magazine named the “album of the century” — the record that would “transform him from a national icon to a global prophet.” On Exodus, he achieves a synthesis of global sounds in a defining creative statement of his major themes. Marley was “really trying to give the African Diaspora a sense of its strength and… unity,” Goldman told NPR on the album’s 30th anniversary, while at the same time, “really embracing, you know, white people, to an extent; doing his best to make a multicultural world work.”
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
I attended the widely-advertised Smile Jamaica Concert, and it was AMAZING. Never before, or since, have I been to a concert where there was electricity in-the-air, and the singer sang with such sincere conviction! Bob, though a Rastafarian, sung of peace and love, and told us during the concert, to be more Christlike in our love towards one-another, especially our enemies. The concert itself, was a love-letter, and his personal submission to God, who adores his children equally.