Chanting Down Babylon

Men standing in front of a Rastafarian mural, Kingston, Jamaica, 1983
Miami News Collection/Bridgeman Images
Kingston, Jamaica, 1983

A photograph from Jamaica’s One Love Peace Concert in 1978 shows an ecstatic Bob Marley, dreadlocks flashing like lightning conductors, at the center of the stage. Beside him stand Michael Manley, the country’s grim-faced prime minister, and Edward Seaga, the equally tense-looking leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which was then engaged in a bloody power struggle with Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP). In a gesture of peace, the three men clasp hands above Marley’s head.

In the late 1970s Jamaica was on the verge of civil war. Each party disparaged the other’s leader. Manley, the radical leader of the socialist PNP, was mocked as “Fidel Castro’s poodle,” while Seaga, as the head of the capitalist JLP (which its rival believed was bankrolled by the US), was cast as “CIAga.” Since 1962, when Jamaica won its independence from Britain, the two parties had become pathologically partisan. Both held the unshakable belief that, as the political activist Donavan Phillips said, “When your party is in you eat; when the other man’s party is in you starve.” The nightly news showed gunmen—political enforcers—crouched behind burned-out vehicles firing at each other. The violence led to hundreds of deaths.

Marley, as a Rastafari whose creed dictated separation from the state, declared allegiance to neither party, but after it was announced that he would headline a free concert sponsored by the prime minister’s office, he was targeted over his perceived support for Manley. In 1976 Marley had been shot and wounded by JLP gunmen who broke into his compound. He fled to the UK. But two years later, as the violence escalated, both warring political parties sent emissaries to London to plead for his return. They were desperate to recruit him for a peace concert they hoped would stop the bloodshed.

Marley’s part in the improbable and fleeting truce between Manley and Seaga signified the changing fortunes of Rastafari, the pseudo-Judaic sect and social movement founded in Jamaica in the 1930s by the charismatic street preacher Leonard Howell. Until the One Love Peace Concert, it was inconceivable that a man who identified with such a despised group could be regarded as a peace broker.

Like most Jamaicans, Rastas are descendants of enslaved Africans, but unlike their compatriots they regard themselves as Africans in exile. “Jamaica is an Island,” they say, “but not I land.” Their destiny is Zion, the biblical Land of Israel, which in the Rastafari vision is transposed to ancient Ethiopia, a utopian otherworld to come. A century ago, many black people in the diaspora took comfort in the notion that actual ships, such as the fleet of the Black Star Line envisaged by Marcus Garvey, would take them to Ethiopia. In his final composition, “Redemption Song,” Marley channeled one of Garvey’s…

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