What Was The Smile Jamaica Concert?

On December 5, 1976, in Kingston — the island's capital — Bob Marley took the stage to the massive roar of love and relief from his fellow Jamaicans. There were over 80,000 people at the free concert, there to see their idol who just two days earlier had nearly been assassinated by armed thugs. "When me decided ta do dis yere concert two anna 'alf months ago, I told dere was no politics," he told the crowd (via "Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley"). "I jus' wanted ta play fe da love of de people."

His words belied what he'd been living through for months. Marley was caught between the country's two warring political parties, which used "armed goon squads" to do their bidding during a turbulent run-up to the next election scheduled for the beginning of 1977, per Spin. Michael Manley, who was then prime minister and the head of the left-leaning People's National Party, had hijacked Marley's idea for a free concert for his own political ends, according to "The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Album of the Century." The gunmen — who shot Marley, his wife Rita, and several others — were alleged to have ties to the rival political party, the U.S.-backed Jamaican Labor Party headed by Edward Seaga, per Far Out Magazine.

Caught up in politics

The concert got its name from the song "Smile Jamaica," which Bob Marley and the Wailers had recorded in November 1976. "It name Smile Jamaica and it deal with what's happening now — what should be happening now," journalist Vivien Goldman recounted Marley telling her in "The Book of Exodus." "Trench Town have to change. Long time, plenty people grown up there and it have fi change ... the political thing. But me never see myself, I never really call myself, political. Me only want to talk about the truth."

Marley may not have considered himself political, but that didn't stop Michael Manley from using him to gain votes. The politician had convinced the musician to support him during his first campaign for prime minister in 1972. And after Marley agreed to perform at the government-sponsored Smile Jamaica event, Manley changed the election date to coincide with the concert, making it appear as if Marley was again backing him. During the concert, Manley introduced Marley and hugged him.

A long legacy

Bob Marley still had a bullet in his left arm and was unable to play guitar during the Smile Jamaica concert. He intended to perform one song but ended up giving an electrifying 90-minute show. During the concert, Marley showed off his wounds and did an interpretive dance that reenacted the shooting. Not long after the show, Marley left Jamaica for the Bahamas and eventually went to England. Michael Manley won his reelection just over a week later. From the relative safety of London, Marley mused about the Smile Jamaica concert. "It's hard not to get involved, but they can't get me involved in politics," Marley told The Guardian in 1977. "I'm a Rastaman, not a politician."

Marley stayed out of Jamaica for more than a year, living mostly in England until his triumphant return in the spring of 1978 with another concert. During the show, he brought both Michael Manley and Edward Seaga up to the stage to embrace in what would end up being a short-lived peace. After Marley's death from cancer in 1981, his family held other concerts that bore the Smile Jamaica name. The 1988 version benefitted the victims of Hurricane Gilbert, which had devastated the island nation, killing hundreds. In 2008, another Smile Jamaica concert to celebrate Bob Marley's birthday kicked off what would become an annual event.