Arts: When Marley wailed and a government trembled
Bono's onstage mediation this week evoked memories of Bob Marley's One Love Peace concert to unite Jamaica. By Neil Spencer, who was in Kingston in 1978
Thursday 21 May 1998
As Marley danced around the stage and improvised lyrics to his hit "Jamming", he declared "We've got to unite". In front of the stage were the world's media, alongside the full weight of Jamaica's political establishment. At the sides of the stage lurked an unsavoury array of ghetto gunmen from opposite sides of the political divide, their weapons abandoned, temporarily, mingling with the cream of Jamaica's reggae musicians. Deeper back in the national stadium was everyone who had managed to hustle a ticket or sneak in. Inside and out, armed police lined the barriers. While a blood- red full moon beamed down from the sultry Caribbean sky, Marley raised his hands in supplication to the higher forces which he evidently believed he was serving and a mixture of politicians, gunmen musicians and Rastafarian elders crowded the stage in celebration of the newly- won peace. It was an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary night. Long before Marley appeared on stage the atmosphere surrounding the concert had been building to a giddy, portentous intensity.
That spring Jamaica was in crisis. The country was on the point of bankruptcy, thanks mainly to Washington's intransigent attitude to Manley's socialist government. While guest workers from Cuba helped build hospitals, the shelves of the shops stayed empty. Down in the teeming ghettos of Kingston, rival gangs of ruthless gunmen - sponsored, however discreetly, by the rival political parties - murdered and intimidated the dirt poor "sufferers" of the city in the run-up to the general election. Gun law ruled.
The state of economic chaos and murderous political intrigue was compounded by the apocalyptic strains of the Rastafarian religion which had swept through the island during the Seventies, attracting the young and the musicians in particular. Marley himself had graduated from local stardom to become an international figure, the first Third World superstar. His music, his dreadlocks and his espousal of his faith had turned the tiny Rasta cult into a globally acknowledged force. Little wonder that he and the island's Rastas felt they were participating in some cosmic drama which had Jamaica at its epicentre.
In 1976 Marley's fame had seemed to take its toll when a group of gunmen had burst into his Kingston home and shot him, his manager and his wife. That no-one died was taken as further proof of divine providence. Since then the singer - the Mighty Gong as he was known among his followers - had been in exile. The Peace Concert marked his triumphal return.
Those attending were treated to a display by the best musicians the island had to offer; Dennis Brown, The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, Jacob Miller, Big Youth and more. Peter Tosh, Marley's old partner, caused a sensation when he interrupted his set to deliver a vitriolic tirade against the assembled politicians, haranguing them for their persecution of the poor for their fondness for ganja (marijuana).
As Tosh lit a huge spliff on stage, the police bristled with indignity.
By contrast Marley seemed not to be fully present. He delivered his set in a state of near trance, rarely opening his eyes, even as he pulled together the country's old political foes into uneasy embrace.
The concert was a huge success, dispelling the violence in the ghettos and making the small island nation the focus of world attention, yet it was to cast a disquieting shadow in the months and years ahead. The two leading gunmen involved - the JLPs Claudie Massop and the PNP's Buck `Marshall - were both shot dead before the decade was out, leading Tosh to make a record in which he declared that "those who signed the Peace Treaty are now dead in the cemetery". Jacob Miller died in a car crash in l980. Marley, the ghetto rude-boy who had become his country's most famous ambassador, died of cancer the following year. Peter Tosh was murdered in a hold-up at his home in 1987.
Nor did the peace last long. The run-up to the election, which was won by Edward Seaga, was marred by shooting incidents. As the world's cocaine trade boomed, Jamaica became a staging post, saturated with guns imported by Colombian gangsters or the CIA, depending on which rumour you believed.
It is tempting but foolish to draw any portents for Tuesday's Belfast Peace Show. Ulster is not the third world and Bono, though not averse to the odd religious lyric, is not Marley.
And while politics and guns have gone hand in hand in Ulster for the last 30 years, the present accord is politically agreed, rather than a grass-roots initiative supported by expedient politicians.
The real message of Tuesday's show is a reminder of pop's power to make symbolic interventions into political life.
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