Long before Bob Marley became the Third World’s first international superstar, he was Jamaica’s hero. He gave poetic voice to the people’s concerns about violence and human rights. As his fame grew, so did his influence on Jamaican politics and, by 1976, Marley was revered as a Rastafarian prophet. He was held in such high regard that on Dec. 3, 1976, seven gunmen tried to silence him — forever.
The ruling People’s National Party (PNP) had scheduled a free concert in an effort to soothe a nation in turmoil. But members of the conservative Jamaica Labour Party saw it as a ploy to draw attention from their campaign in the upcoming election. Political unrest and partisan violence raged, and PNP leaders feared that the musician would be attacked to stop the concert.
They weren’t the only ones with premonitions of pain. As the show approached, Marley himself had dreams of gunfire, and his bandmates’ moods grew uneasy; some were neither ready, willing, nor able to come to Marley’s house in Kingston for a rehearsal that would be monitored by PNP sponsored armed guards.
At around 8:30 p.m., the musicians broke. Marley and manager Don Taylor were in the kitchen when gunfire pierced the silence: Two carloads of gunmen had apparently followed Taylor onto the property. One attacker fired eight shots at Marley — several hit Taylor, who stood between Marley and the gun, and one grazed Marley’s chest and burrowed into his left arm. Gunmen also shot Marley’s wife, Rita, and another associate before a passing police car scared them off. Remarkably, everyone survived the shootings.
While the Jamaican public assumed the attack was political, the affiliation of the would be assassins — who, according to legend, were eventually killed in revenge — has never been determined. Marley was treated and released from the hospital in a few hours. And though he worried about his safety, he decided to perform at the Dec. 5 open air concert. Once on stage, Marley explained to the 80,000 in attendance that he could not play guitar and would sing only one song. He started with ”War” and, energized by the crowd, continued on for 90 minutes, performing ”Get Up, Stand Up,” ”Smile Jamaica,” ”Rebel Music,” and 11 other Wailers classics.
Two years later, Marley hosted the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston and joined Prime Minister Michael Manley of the PNP and opposition leader Edward Seaga on stage in a handshake that signaled a new era of peace. In 1981, Marley died of cancer, leaving a legacy as a musical genius, spiritual guru, and, to his countrymen, cherished savior.
Time Capsule: December 3, 1976 At the movies, the farce Network, starring Peter Finch, strikes a chord with Americans who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. In music, Rod Stewart’s single “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” is No. 1 on the Billboard chart. In bookstores, Alex Haley’s slavery epic, Roots, is the top best-seller. And in the news, the U.S. Supreme Court postpones Gary Gilmore’s execution to further ponder his case. Six weeks later, however, Gilmore would die by firing squad, making him the first American in a decade to be executed.