During the mid-1970s, Jamaica was heading towards a civil war. The Caribbean island was struggling economically; urban unrest and political rivalry were claiming the lives of many Jamaicans. From day to day, the situation seemed to grow worse.
Part of the problems the country was facing, though certainly not all of them can be attributed to the political choices of Michael Manley, leader of the left-wing People's National Party (PNP). When Manley became prime minister in 1972, he took a strong non-capitalist stance, thereby angering not only rich Jamaicans and investors, but also the White House. In fact, Manly did many things to upset the United States: he supported Puerto Rico's independence, tied close relationships with Cuba, and held back on foreign export and trade.
In an attempt to bankrupt Manley's government, Washington started "putting the squeeze on the economy" as Manley described it himself. Due to these actions, many Jamaican and foreign investors left the country. There was an increasing shortage of goods, and more than 750 people died due to CIA-backed acts of terror.
Instead of Manley, America wanted to move into power the opposition leader Edward Seaga, of the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). But neither Manley nor Seaga were fighting a fair political battle. Both parties had hired teams of ghetto gunmen to take out the opposition and their strongest followers.
No one was spared; even celebrities such as Bob Marley could not escape the death threats. Marley was to appear at the Smile Jamaica Concert on 5 December 1976. However, the concert was endorsed by the Cultural Department of the PNP government. As such, JLP members felt that Marley was endorsing the PNP in the upcoming elections. One day before the concert, an attempt was made on Marley's life. Although he was hurt in the arm and chest, and fearing for his life, Marley decided to go ahead with the concert. After the show he immediately left the island for 18 months; Jamaica was no longer safe for the reggae star.
The situation in Jamaica worsened. Gunmen like Bucky Marshall and Claudie Massop functioned as spokespersons between the poor people in the ghettos and the political leaders. These gunmen gained enormous notoriety. In 1978, PNP gunmen planned an assassination of 14 JLP gang members, resulting in the death of 5. At this point, the gunmen themselves feared the situation had gone too far, and they called a truce.
The idea for a peace concert was brought up by the two gunmen Marshall and Massop. This concert would serve a double purpose: raising money for a housing project in Kingston, and saving the country from a looming civil war. Reggae had become massively popular on Jamaica due to the successes of stars such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh; the music seemed to be the best medium to reunite the people.
Massop himself flew to London to convince Bob Marley to play at the peace concert. Initially, Bob was reluctant but eventually agreed to return to Jamaica for the event. Bob Marley also released Kaya; an album with songs about love and peace, to coincide with the peace concert. The event was to be held on April 22, 1978; an important day, since it marked the 12th anniversary of Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica. The world press wasn't entirely flattering about the concert: it was even refered to as "Third World Woodstock".
The concert drew a crowd of 32 000 people, anxious to see the return of Bob Marley. There were rumors that Bob would perform together with his old band members Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. However, Bunny boycotted the event and Peter Tosh decided to appear with his own band. Other important bands appearing at the concert were: Dillinger, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller & Inner Circle, and Big Youth.
Peter Tosh appeared very militant on stage; in between songs he was harangueing Manly and Seaga, who were attending the concert from front row. Tosh also taunted the police by lighting up a joint, to great excitement of the crowd. Months later, the police took revenge by arresting him and nearly beating him to death in a prison cell.
Bob Marley's set was in sharp contrast with Peter Tosh's performance. With his songs, he asked for peace and unity. He seemed as if he was in trance, singing and dancing his heart out. During Jamming, Bob asks both Michael Manley and Edward Seaga on stage. Both politicians appeared reluctant to do so, but eventually shared the stage. Bob took both their hands, brought them together, and raised them above his head, symbolizing unity. It is a rare, spontaneous moment, but everyone realized the significance of it.
The One Love Peace Concert seemed to be a turning point for Jamaica's troubles, but the improvements came very slowly. Gunmen did not disappear overnight from Jamaican politics, but at least the peace concert halted further escalation. After Edward Seaga won the elections in 1980 and became minister, the country came in an economical upswing.
However, it wasn't until 1981 that Michael Manley and Edward Seaga met each other again in public, and shook hands. It was at the state funeral of Bob Marley; the man who brought them together the first time.
Heartland Reggae, 1983; DVD, Palm Beach Entertainment, 1999. Contains footage from the One Love Peace Concert