By Lee O’Neill *Updated 2020
As Bob Marley and the Wailers took their positions on stage for a 1980 Boston concert [at Hynes Auditorium,] they resembled a tribe of Biblical prophets carrying electric guitars. Red, gold, and green spotlights shined on the different members of the band, from the patriarchal percussionist Seeco Patterson to guitarist Al Anderson dressed in military fatigues.
The leader of the tribe walked to the center microphone in complete darkness and slowly began the song “Natural Mystic.” A spotlight finally landed on Bob Marley, whose long dreadlocks suggested a lion’s mane, and the mood for the show was fixed. Whether they knew it or not and whether they liked it or not, the Boston audience was being drawn into a spiritual experience.
I had the opportunity to interview Marley several hours after that September 1980 concert. It was to be one of his last. The Wailers [then] traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, for a show at Brown University and went from there to New York. *Following two extraordinary shows at Madison Square Gardens, where the Wailers finally performed before a predominantly African-American audience while outshining the Commodores, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. The extent of his illness became apparent. The Wailers made their final appearance in Pittsburgh a few days later.
In many ways, the 1980 tour and the Uprising album it promoted were designed to force Reggae and Rasta into the commercial marketplace, particularly the black commercial marketplace. In terms of sales and airplay, “Could You Be Loved” was perhaps Marley’s most successful single, and much of his offstage time was spent on promotional activities. His message, however, was far deeper than that of a musical ambassador.
“We are in a struggle to be free, to eat,” Marley said in the interview after the concert. “This music is about struggle. Reggae is a vehicle to carry the message of freedom and peace.”
“This music is about struggle. Reggae is a vehicle to carry the message of freedom and peace.”
The freedom and peace of Marley’s message had a level beyond that of temporal politics. “We know that there is a God Jah Rastafari, Selassie I,” he said. “I believe in Selassie I more than I believe in myself.”
At Marley’s core was his devotion to his faith. “I do everything for Selassie I. I sing for Selassie I. If I eat a grape, [Marley paused and dramatically reached for and ate a grape] I do it because Selassie I wills it.” Jesus Christ came to earth and said ‘in two thousand years I will come again.’ Well, two thousand years have come and Selassie I is on earth. Now is the time.”
Although Rasta was born and developed out of a philosophy of African redemption, the overwhelmingly white audiences at the Boston and Providence shows were confusing. Marley himself found this somewhat perplexing. “I don’t know why more black people weren’t there. I feel like more black people should listen to Reggae. Perhaps in time, perhaps in time…I am Rasta. I need black roots. Someone has to keep the roots.” Marley grabbed one of his dangling dreadlocks and exclaimed, “This must have some meaning for us, for why we do it.”
The concert in Boston was clearly arranged to attract a black response. The show was emceed by a DJ from WILD, a black-oriented AM radio station. The crossover hit, “Could You Be Loved,” was heavily plugged by the emcee.
None of the songs performed, however, made any concession to those who came for a good time. The songs were all evangelical to a greater or lesser extent and all were delivered with the fervor of a prophet. More than ever before, Marley was placing the choices of right and wrong directly into the hands of each individual member of the audience. “It’s you I’m talking to,” he sings in “Coming in From the Cold.” In “Could You Be Loved,” he asks if the listener is open and free enough to be really loved. He prefaced “Zimbabwe” by addressing the crowd directly with “Every man has the right to decide his own destiny, but if Africa no free, none of us are free.”
“Every man has the right to decide his own destiny, but if Africa no free, none of us are free.”
The connection between individual action and communal redemption was driven home most forcefully during two songs in the middle of the set. “Running Away” is an intensely personal song that speaks to everyone listening. “You must have done/something wrong/You can’t run away from yourself.” After establishing a context of responsibility, the song segued into “Crazy Baldhead,” a song that affirms “we’re going to chase those crazy baldheads out of town.”
This did not, however, predict the political domination of the world by the black race. For one thing, Marley did not divide the people of the earth into those with white skin and those with black skin. “I see a white system,” he said, “a system I call Rome that we must overcome. I stand for the black, spelled b-l-a-c-k, not b-l-o-c-k, which means to block, but black, which is right. Anyone who accepts Selassie I in his heart is black. I don’t see white skin or black skin.”
Moreover, Marley took little interest in contemporary politics. When asked his opinion of the upcoming election in Jamaica, he shrugged and said, “I don’t care who win. Politicians are one big lie. Politicians use people. They use Selassie I and they use me second. They keep trying to connect we and them, but I was never part of them. Never part of them.”
“…Politicians are one big lie. Politicians use people. They use Selassie I and they use me second….”
He continues, “We appreciate Marx and Lenin, but we follow Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. We don’t need Marx and Lenin and Hegel and so on. We want it to be more easier for the people ahead. We don’t fight over ideologies. Them control the newspapers, televisions, everything. It’s just one big lie them politicians tell. I’ll never vote,” he acknowledged.
Marley felt the political concerns of Jamaica pale before the need to establish a black homeland in Ethiopia. The ongoing war between Eritrea and Ethiopia assumed a universal significance. “You must try to look beyond. Where are they getting the guns? Someone is pushing these things and as long as people send guns instead of food to starving people, there will be wars.”
Even a war in the land of redemption did not deter Marley from his goal of an Ethiopian Zion. “Ethiopia is the place where Christianity began. It is the first place of land that man ever stepped on. It is the beginning of civilization. But Ethiopia doesn’t mean that piece of land. Ethiopia means the whole continent [of Africa].”
In this context of a Promised Land, Ethiopia/Africa becomes the land where Rastas can establish a life for themselves and escape the perils of Babylon. “This is Exodus of Jah people,” he said, echoing his classic song. “When the nuclear war mash on you, we are miles and miles away in Ethiopia. Man can’t destroy the earth. Man can destroy himself or what man has made. The earth was created by Selassie I and only he can destroy it. We must not fear for atomic energy ‘cause none of us can stop the time.”
The exodus of Jah People was more than a metaphor to Marley. To him, it seemed the spiritual and physical qualities of Africa were limitless. “Africa gives a man a place to build a home where he wants to live, and to build the kind of house that he wants to build. A man can grow a vineyard if he wants. The weather is always fine. The temperature is always warm.”
Marley smiled for the first time during the course of the interview when describing Africa. “Even the breeze agrees with me. Yah, man, even the breeze agrees with me.”
Click below↓ or listen here.
Behind the Interview: Writer’s Note by Lee O’Neill, 1980
Color photographs [in the magazine] by Barbara Bartfield, a friend now living in London. The occasion, a concert for African unity called “Amandla” was held at Boston’s Harvard Stadium, summer of 1979. The show featured Babatunde Michael Olatunji, Eddie Palmieri, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Patti LaBelle, and Dick Gregory as MC. Musically, the show was tremendously successful, although many people left after Marley and before Patti LaBelle. Attendance was estimated at over 25,000.
“Amandla” was a fundraiser, but rumors of malfeasance cast ugly shadows on the event. Stephen Davis claimed in the book Bob Marley [they] showed $250,000 dollars after some initial troubles regarding fees and expenses.
Despite claims that the show was filmed and recorded for future video and live album, neither ever surfaced over the past 14 years and the professional or bootleg version [Note: The Marley Estate acquired the rights to the video in 2008 – see below]
A variation of this article first appeared in Worcester Magazine, October 8, 1980. During the summer and early fall of that year, Marley and the Wailers were touring incessantly to promote their new album, Uprising. I managed to obtain an invitation to a press conference in Marley’s hotel suite following his Boston show. I thought that the show was tremendous, however, many of my friends were disappointed by the local MC, the stage patter, and the funk and African influences on the music. To many, this indicated Marley softening up and selling out to commercial interests.
Arriving at the hotel suite shortly after midnight, I was immediately ushered into a pure “pimper’s paradise.” Dozens of sharply dressed hustlers and scantily dressed women lounged around the outer rooms of the suite. The air was thick with ganja and cigarette smoke. Groups huddled together around the edge of the room doing cocaine. The music–Diana Ross, Rick James, and the SOB band–played loudly. Occasionally, one of the Wailers or a management-type would dart into the room for a minute before retreating back to one of the inner rooms. Around 1:30 a.m., along with about 10 other journalists, I was led into Marley’s bedroom. We settled ourselves on his bed or the chairs and proceeded to talk for about an hour.
Marley was clearly exhausted, as he looked thin, haggard, and gray. He appeared frustrated at having to answer the same questions about ganja, dreadlocks, Jamaican politics, and the commercial potential of Reggae over and over again. Mostly, however, he was frustrated with the parade of journalists who showed little interest in discussing topics that were important to him. That hour in his bedroom was tense and occasionally depressing. Only toward the end of the session, when I was able to get him talking about Ethiopia and Africa, was he only able to smile and relax.
My impression was of a man with an enormous burden on his shoulders. After his death, less than a year later, the nature of that burden became apparent and more poignant. In revising this article for republication, I was constantly reminded of that evening in his hotel room, the images from the shows that night and the following night in Providence, and every time I had to change a present tense verb to a past tense, I was saddened at the loss of this great man.
Click to watch Amandla performance here or individual songs below↓
- 16:05 Positive Vibration 02. 21:28 Slave Driver 03. 25:53 Them Belly Full 04. 29:58 Running Away 05. 35:05 Crazy Baldhead 06. 39:08 The Heathen 07. 44:31 War 08. 50:11 No More Trouble 09. 52:10 Lively Up Yourself 10. 57:18 No Woman, No Cry 11. 1:04:15 Jammin’ 12. 1:10:03 Get Up, Stand Up 13. 1:14:51 Exodus 14. 1:26:10 Zimbabwe 15. 1:33:30 Wake Up And Live