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Rolling Stone’s 1976 cultural mash-up of Bob Marley and Jamaica

There is a generalized Western dismissal of the Global South and its peoples, as exemplified in the racist attack on Jamaican President Manley and reggae star Bob Marley. It is quite unlikely that anyone growing up in a culture which constantly touts itself as ‘the greatest in history’ will not be cursed with delusions of a superior heritage

‘Babylon system is a vampire’
– Bob Marley, Babylon System

The Rolling Stone edition from August 12, 1976 sported one of the most eerily prescient covers ever to appear on any publication. Whirling onto newsstands with dreadlocks flying was Bob Marley—the ‘Rastaman With a Bullet.’ Less than four months later Marley would indeed be ‘with bullet,’ one nicking his chest and lodging below his left elbow when a couple carloads of rudeboys shot up his Kingston home. It was two days before a scheduled ‘Smile Jamaica’ concert Bob had helped organize ‘to cool out the violence.’

Two essays supported the cover spread: ‘The Rastas Are Coming! The Rastas Are Coming!’ by-lined Michael Thomas but accredited in a note to I. V. Panno; and ‘Bob Marley With a Bullet’ by Ed McCormack. The essays brilliantly capture a sense of the violence and upheaval that was ravaging Jamaica and something of the mystery that was Bob Marley. They are also remarkable for the coloured lenses through which Marley and Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley are viewed.

The Panno piece opens by noting the violence rending Jamaica while simultaneously discounting it. It is suggested that the PNP (the People’s National Party headed by Manley) may have staged an assassination attempt on Manley to cast blame upon the JLP (Jamaica Labor Party of challenger Edward Seaga). Such shenanigans certainly may have taken place, on both sides, but the extent to which upper echelon politicians were involved, and not ghetto gangsters acting largely autonomously, is not clear.

Jamaica at the time was embroiled in a ‘tribal war’ fought by gangs of rudeboys aligned to the politicians, who made sure jobs and other boons went to ‘their guys.’ The words ‘tribal war’ appear in many songs of the era and the death count during the run-up to the elections was appalling. It is a distinct possibility, then, that the assassination attempt Panno questions was real and not staged theatrics.

Panno writes that Manley ‘came to power with a vision… to remake the nation in his own image…. A whole nation in bush jackets!’ One cringes at the insinuation that Jamaica’s leader was such a vain nutcase, as if his preference for Kariba shirts over the West’s traditional three-piece business suit were a measure of his lunacy, if not the mark of the communist beast. May it not simply have been an appropriate choice in the tropical heat, an affirmation of Caribbean identity against Babylon’s wish to control everything, right down to basics like what to wear?

The essay makes Manley out as some sort of swaggering, hip-shooting cowboy ideologue with questionable ethics at best. ‘From where he sits, Manley has been charged by a higher authority than the electorate, a kind of historical imperative, clear only to him, to save Jamaica or die trying.’ Why would it have been clear only to him? Why would it be the case that ‘Nobody knows what [democratic socialism"> means?’ Were Jamaicans, a mere fourteen years after independence, unaware of the hardship and deprivation they lived under? Did they not long for jobs, better wages, improved working conditions, quality education and health care for their children—all ends which Manley’s democratic socialism was intended to achieve, and which in truth were the logical outgrowth of ideas his father, national hero Norman Manley, had previously championed?

Further on in Panno: ‘If it means he has to devalue the dollar or suspend the election, even if it means having to lean on Seaga and the JLP and stir up a bit of burning and looting—he won’t stop now.’ Yet burning and looting and other such inconveniences that made life harder for the people would likely be blamed on the man in office--Manley. The CIA certainly thought so; it is the very underpinning of the agency’s sinister ‘covert destabilization’ strategy—thoroughly detailed in apostate CIA man Philip Agee’s 1975 expose ‘Inside the Company: CIA Diary’ and congressional hearings the same year, notably the Church Commission.

Case in point: Panno made reference to a flour poisoning scare that killed 20 Jamaicans. Agee explicitly stated that one of many methods of CIA destabilization programs is the ‘contamination of agricultural products.’ There had actually been two incidents of flour contamination around the first of the year and a later poisoning of rice. All three outbreaks were reportedly caused by parathion, long banned in Jamaica. Speaking in Jamaica in September, 1976, Agee accused the CIA, operating out of the US Embassy in Kingston, of undermining the Manley administration.

Manley bashing was standard Gleaner propaganda that was picked up by the news services throughout North America and most probably ‘aided and abetted’ by the CIA (the Daily Gleaner Jamaica’s newspaper of record, pro-US, pro-business, pro-Seaga). Yet Manley was no Marxist ideologue; a graduate of London School of Economics, he favoured Fabian Socialism, the gradualist brand of socialism favored by moderate reformers like H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. He had even supported the expelling of communists from the PNP during his father’s administration.

The essay points to resentment toward Cuban workers on JamRock stealing jobs from locals when unemployment was rampant. There surely would have been some resentment, but the likelihood that workers were in Jamaica at the expense of the Cuban government and stole precisely nothing from locals is not noted in the article. Equally unnoted is that the schools, clinics and microdams the Cubans were building were important contributions to the infrastructure; the doctors and nurses Cuba sent over eased suffering and saved lives (of PNP and JLP alike). The only reason this happened was because of Manley’s official state recognition of Cuba and his friendly stance toward Castro—but this mutual respect between two world leaders became cover for the Establishment’s ‘cry wolf’ that impugned social programs to improve the lives of average Jamaicans as ‘Communism! Communism!’ This of course is universally true about Western capitalism and not confined to Jamaica.

Panno’s claim that Manley hadn’t delivered on creating employment, that ‘half the island’ was unemployed, is false on the first count and journalistic hyperbole, obviously, on the second. Statistics show that Manley cut the unemployment rate by 15 percent over the course of his first term and maintained rising wages that outpaced inflation. He also instituted a 40-hour week to lift workers out of the legalized slavery of endless hours toiled for barely lunch money and bus fare (an ongoing battle in Jamaica to this day). Manley didn’t stop there.

With his wife Beverley, head of the PNP Women’s Movement at his side, Manley instituted a plethora of social programs to redress the lingering inequities of colonialism. Public works programs. A national minimum wage. Land lease and agrarian reform. An effective literacy campaign. Free education through university. Royalties on bauxite had not been adjusted for sixteen years and stood at a paltry $1.50 per ton; Manley’s renegotiated levy injected $145 million into the economy in the first year alone. True, the bauxite industry retaliated, cutting back on production, but Manley can hardly be blamed for the phenomenon of corporate greed.

Manley must not have been too hated by the people, as the author alludes. Manley swept to victory in the ’76 elections in the biggest landslide in Jamaican history (to that time). That landslide was followed by an even bigger one in the ’80 elections, as the CIA finally got its way with the ascendance of Edward Seaga to power. Tragically, the election season was marred by truly horrendous violence, the murder count dwarfing that of 1976.

In his piece on Bob Marley, McCormack noted that Bob drove a BMW, ‘the same car as the prime minister,’ as if to detail Bob’s hypocrisy in being so materialistic while presenting himself as the opposite. The irony of course is that Bob cared very little about material goods and possessions. It has been said that when he returned from an overseas tour his bag was pretty much as it was when he left, not bulging with glitzy knickknacks and the like. His generosity to sufferahs who tramped into his yard hungry and penniless is legend.

About visiting Marley in his yard, McCormack wrote: ‘Marley was so whacked out of his skull [on ganja"> that it was possible to study him in perfect Nubian-carving profile for several seconds before it even dawned on him that he had company.’ Maybe that was true. Or maybe Bob knew exactly what was going on the precise instant this intruder stepped foot inside the gate, if not before. Given that there was a tribal war going on and Top Ranking rudeboys breezed in and out of the yard at their whim, it seems likely.

McCormack suggests whimsically that Bob’s ‘proud imperialist bearing’ may have been inherited from his father, ‘rumoured to have been a white officer in the British army.’ But Bob was very clear that he came ‘not to bow but to conquer’ in the name of Jah Rastafari, his God, Emperor Haile Selassie I. The piece wraps up with McCormack, cognizant of his inability to pierce the veil of Bob’s inscrutability, writing that ‘the distances between us seem vast as all Ethiopia.’

Perhaps this is the crux of it. One cannot help wondering if these vast Ethiopian distances are in part due to a generalized Western dismissal of the Third World and its peoples. And not to single out Rolling Stone and their writers. How can anyone grow up in a culture which constantly touts itself as ‘the greatest in history’ and not be cursed with delusions of superior heritage? What does it mean when the US ambassador to Jamaica arrives via his personal yacht and has seventeen racehorses shipped down for his amusement? Who, it was said, used derogatory language to describe Jamaicans, demanded visa applicants wait in long lines in the sun and forbade access to the bathroom on the grounds that ‘Jamaicans take pleasure in flooding the toilets’?* (No, this is not going back to the 19th Century!) What does it mean when American tourists lord it over the black help at their resort? When Jamaicans are viewed by US business interests as a source of cheap labour that is little better than modern slavery? What does it mean when the CIA actively seeks to undermine a foreign government that does not sufficiently behave in thrall to Washington’s wishes?

What if every encounter between the developed countries and poor nations were entered upon with mutual respect? What if foreign investment in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean were made with real concern for building infrastructure and social institutions and improving living standards for the people in those regions and not just with an eye on the bottom line? What if the multinational corporations negotiated fair wages instead of packing up factories overnight in fits of greed to flee to new shores where ever more lucrative deals might be struck? What if the Third World were viewed not merely as a handy source of labor and resources but as a community to which a massive debt was owed after four hundred years of brutal oppression? These things can only happen—Babylon system will only curb its taste for ‘sucking the blood of the sufferah’—if the lives of the people in those regions, individuals like Marley, Manley and Average Joe and Jane, are valued and respected as much as those of folks back home.**
*See my novel Stir It Up, p. 139 in paperback edition.
** But see my essay on how the lives of US citizens too have since the 1960s been increasingly devalued:

***David Dusty Cupples is the author of Stir It Up: The CIA Targets Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Progressive Manley Government, a novel. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] or through his Facebook site:



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