If any album could be declared Bob Marley’s masterpiece, it is Exodus. Recorded during a period of exile in London in the aftermath of a gun attack on Marley’s home in Jamaica, it was a musical statement of towering authority which combined visions of Biblical drama with profound expressions of solidarity and tender personal feelings. Released on 3 June 1977, the album housed a string of Marley’s biggest and best-loved hits: ‘Jamming’, ‘Waiting In Vain’, ‘Three Little Birds’, ‘One Love’/‘People Get Ready’ and, of course, the title track. Time magazine pronounced it “the best album of the 20th Century”.
Even before Exodus, Marley had become one of the best known figures in the Third World. As Timothy White noted in Catch A Fire: The Life Of Bob Marley, the reggae star was “quoted as a poet, heralded as the West Indian Bob Dylan, even the Jamaican Jomo Kenyatta [Prime Minister and founding father of post-colonial Kenya]”. This made Marley a key figure of power and political influence, whether he liked it or not, and, on returning to Jamaica after the Rastaman Vibration tour in 1976, he soon found himself caught up in events leading up to the general election of 15 December.
The standing Prime Minister, Michael Manley, cajoled Marley into agreeing to perform at a free concert called Smile Jamaica, sponsored by the Ministry Of Culture, to be staged ten days before the election. Manley reasoned that this “Jamaican Woodstock” would help to defuse tensions on the street before the election, while no doubt hoping it would deliver him a significant propaganda coup into the bargain.