AN HISTORIC MOMENT IN POPULAR MUSIC
What would you say if I made the assertion that the most historic moment in modern popular music did not occur at Shea Stadium in New York, or the Apollo Theater in Harlem, or Abbey Road Studios in London. This moment did not involve The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones, or even Elvis Presley. This moment was not broadcast on television or radio in the US. In fact, most people are probably not even aware that it occurred at all! Rolling Stone Magazine, the BBC, New Musical Express, and a host of other mainstream popular music reviews obviously ignore the significance of this event, as it is not included on their annual lists of the greatest blah, blah, blah…
This event occurred in December 1976 on an open dirt field on a tiny “rock” in the Caribbean called Jamaica. The Smile Jamaica Concert was a concert held on December 5, 1976, at the National Heroes Park, Kingston, Jamaica, performed by Bob Marley & The Wailers.
The concert was held during a time when there was significant escalation in Jamaica’s sociopolitical culture of violence. A bloody struggle for power erupted before the 1976 elections wherein supporters of Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party and Michael Manley’s People’s National Party engaged in a street war that reached unprecedented levels of violence during the weeks and months leading up to the elections. A State of Emergency was declared in June 1976 and 500 people, including some prominent members of the JLP, were accused of trying to overthrow the government and were detained without charges.
The Smile Jamaica Concert was scheduled for December 5, 1976 as an attempt to quell the violence in the streets, although many saw the concert as a tactic used by Michael Manley to enlist support for his party during the elections, which were scheduled for December 15, 1976. At first Chris Blackwell of Island Records, advised against the show, which had originally been scheduled to take place in the grounds of the Jamaica House. Marley told Blackwell about the proposed show and suggested it was to be billed as a PNP event.
Disaster struck on December 3, 1976, just 2 days before the scheduled concert. Bob Marley and the Wailers were rehearsing for the concert at Marley’s residence at 56 Hope Road when 5 gunmen ambushed the place and shot Bob, his wife Rita, and his manager Don Taylor. Taylor and Rita Marley sustained serious gunshot wounds, while Marley was struck in the chest and arm. A detailed account of events leading up to the assassination attempt are detailed in this brilliantly written piece by Vivien Goldman which appeared in The Guardian. It has since come to light that the assasination attempt was orchestrated by operatives of Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party.
News flash of Bob Marley’s shooting (Jamaican Broadcasting Company)
Upon leaving hospital in Kingston, Marley retreated to Chris Blackwell’s Strawberry Hill estate and attempted to regroup and recover. Nevertheless Marley agreed to perform one song for the 80,000 people in attendance at the Smile Jamaica Concert on December 5, but it turned into an incendiary 90-minute tour-de-force despite his gunshot injuries.
Marley is almost unremarkable in this performance, appearing as some ragged street preacher shouting Proverbs from his soap-box, and not the Zion-bound pop culture icon we all know and love. There he is , on a makeshift stage surrounded on all sides by 80,000 Jamaicans hoping that this street prophet can bring the violence to an end through his wailing and moaning. It is as if we are bearing witness to a savior espousing his philosophies to his adoring disciples. Its only when you listen closely to his words that you realize that this is a man who is angry like hell at the system, the politicians, the bourgeoisie. A man who decided, at last, to stand up in the face of his enemies, despite his own physical injuries, and speak for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the downtrodden. On this night, merely 2 days after an attempt on his life, the “wounded lion” displayed gritty toughness, raw determination, and an unwavering sense of duty to fellow man. We are witnessing Marley’s transformation from soulful Caribbean singer to Rasta revolutionary.
Smile Jamaica Concert Video (HQ)
Thanks to Roger Steffens and Joe Jurgensen for providing much needed edits for the post.