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April 13, 2024

Bob Marley: One Love and the Story Behind the Singer’s Politics

Bob Marley: One Love and the Story Behind the Singer’s Politics

It’s fitting that a biopic of a musician who sang about love would come out on Valentine’s Day. Bob Marley: One Love, hitting theaters Feb. 14, shows how Marley (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his reggae band The Wailers sought to use music to unite a divided country during the Cold War.

One Love takes place from 1976 to 1978 during a period of fierce political divisions in Jamaica. The country had been independent since 1962, and there were two main political parties: the People’s National Party (PNP)—represented by the socialist prime minister Michael Manley—and the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP)—represented by the capitalist politician Edward Seaga. The U.S. government saw Manley as a concern because of his democratic socialist politics. “He was hanging out with Fidel Castro trying to find out how he’s running his country so that he might run Jamaica in that way, and the United States did not want to have another Cuba so close to its borders,” says Matt Jenson, who teaches about the politics of Bob Marley’s music at the Berklee College of Music. In the tense political climate of the time in Jamaica, violence regularly broke out among supporters of both politicians.

Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley, Anna-Sharé Blake as Judy Mowatt, Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley, and Naomi Cowan as Marcia Griffiths in ‘Bob Marley: One Love’ Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Marley did not endorse either political party; he endorsed reggae music, songs that spoke out about poverty, life in the ghettos, social injustices, as well as political tensions—and he had the ear of the island’s politicians. In the film, Marley fields questions from reporters who are asking him why reggae has become so popular. In fact, as TIME wrote in 1976, “Reggae has not, of course, solved Jamaica’s problems by scrutinizing them, but it has grabbed the attention of the island’s politicians, who now realize that the easiest way to reach the electorate is through music.” Marley and many of the island’s musicians adhered to Rastafarianism, which was both a political movement that worked to make sure Jamaica’s culture reflected its people’s African roots and a religion of followers who believed that Jesus will come back as a Black man. As TIME described Marley’s influence in 1976, “Marley is Jamaica’s superstar. He rivals the government as a political force.”

One Love depicts an assassination attempt against Bob Marley

Marley’s influence, and the inherent risks that came with that, was seen most clearly on Dec. 3, 1976, when the singer survived an assassination attempt. Marley, his wife, and his manager were wounded in a shooting but recovered. In the film, Marley’s manager is seen taking a bullet for him and saving Marley’s life. Jenson, who saw One Love, points out that the scenes in which the gunman is at the “Smile Jamaica” concert and at Bob Marley’s doorstep at the end of the film asking for forgiveness reflect artistic liberties.

A leading theory is that opponents of Prime Minister Manley tried to assassinate Marley at his home outside the Jamaican capital of Kingston because they thought the musician was endorsing Manley with his performance at the upcoming PNP-backed “Smile Jamaica” concert. Despite the safety concerns, the singer went on to perform a mere two days after the attack in front of 80,000 fans, hoping it would calm things down. 

“Marley’s focus was actually to abate violence,” says Neil Roberts, an associate dean of the faculty at Williams College who has taught a course on Marley’s political theology.

Lashana Lynch as “Rita Marley” and Kingsley Ben-Adir as “Bob Marley” in Bob Marley: One Love from Paramount Pictures.Chiabella James—© 2023 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

One Love uncovers the influence of Bob Marley’s music

Marley then went into exile for 18 months in the U.K., and produced his album Exodus, featuring three of his most famous songs, “Three Little Birds,” “One Love,” and “Jamming.”

Marley’s status as a force above politics was clear upon his return to the island for the April 22, 1978, “One Love” concert, when Marley brings Manley and Seaga onstage and has them shake hands. That handshake “was almost like a temporary ceasefire in the political violence of the time,” says David Hines, an expert on Marley and Caribbean politics at Arizona State University, while describing the significance of the moment.

Two years later, in 1980, Seaga ended up unseating Manley in 1980. The two wouldn’t be seen together until Marley’s funeral in 1981, after he passed away from skin cancer at the age of 36.

But the album Exodus lived on, becoming a classic, so much so that TIME called it the best album of the 20th century.

Roberts says Marley has endured, in part, because of the political consciousness he added to music. While Marley and Rastafarians get a reputation for smoking marijuana—something they did for medicinal and spiritual purposes—Roberts emphasizes that doesn’t mean it was clouding his perception of what was happening around him. “People think Bob is just the smiling, ‘one-love,’ ganja-smoking, and ‘everything’s-gonna-be-alright’ musician with no political vision,” Roberts says. “He was involved in understanding politics in the Caribbean, in Africa, and in the UK.”

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