Harare, Zimbabwe – Forty years ago, Bob Marley and his band, the Wailers, stepped onto the stage at Rufaro Stadium in Harare to help usher in Zimbabwe’s independence from British and local white minority rule.
It was electrifying. The unmistakable reggae thump of the legendary Jamaican musician filled the air as chants of “Viva Zimbabwe” boomed out over the crowd in-between songs.
“It was a moment I fully savoured,” Christopher Mutsvangwa, one of the fighters during the liberation struggle, known as Second Chimurenga (1966-1979), told Al Jazeera.
“Tears of pain-filled delight rolled down my cheeks,” he recalled of the momentous occasion. “Unfortunately, many of my beloved comrades were not there any more to watch the spectacle they paid the ultimate price of life for.”
That night in April 1980, Zimbabwe became Africa’s newest independent country as Britain’s Union flag was brought down to be replaced by the banner of the nascent state.
Months earlier, in December 1979, an agreement signed at London’s Lancaster House had paved the way for the country’s first free elections in February 1980. ZANU-PF, one of the liberation movement parties, won a landslide victory, with its leader, Robert Mugabe, becoming Zimbabwe’s first prime minister.
Marley, one of the most politically and socially influential musicians of his time who also had a strong connection with Africa, was invited to perform during the ceremony celebrating majority rule and internationally-recognised independence for Zimbabwe.
The reggae superstar not only accepted the invitation but also spent tens of thousands of dollars to fly in his band and its equipment to take part in the festivities that started on the evening of April 17.
“That night, Marley and the Wailers expressed solidarity with Zimbabwe,” said Fred Zindi, 22 at the time and now a professor in the Education Department of the University of Zimbabwe.
“It was almost inevitable that a man so identified with the struggles against class and racial oppression should be invited to perform at the celebrations of the birth of a new nation, Zimbabwe,” added Zindi, who had attended the show.
Also among the 40,000-crowd at Rufaro Stadium were heads of government and dignitaries from around the world, including Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
While the band was playing inside the stadium, largely in front of people invited to attend the occasion, big crowds locked outside tried to enter the packed stadium. Police responded by firing tear gas but Marley remained on stage and the show went on.
Thankfully for many unable to be at the concert on the 17th, Marley agreed to perform again the next day, with an estimated 100,000 people in attendance.
Among the highlights of Marley’s Harare showing was Zimbabwe, a song from his 1979 Survival album. In it, Marley sings: “Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny/And in this judgement there is no partiality/So arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle/’Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble/ Brother, you’re right, you’re right, you’re right, you’re right, you’re so right/We gonna fight, we’ll have to fight, We gonna fight, fight for our rights.”
The song, an anthem for Zimbabwe’s freedom, took shape during one of the Rastafarian musician’s visits to Addis Ababa in 1978, according to Gibson Mandishona, a Zimbabwean statistician working at the time for the United Nations in Ethiopia.
“Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia had given a vast piece of land to Rastafarians from Jamaica, to enable them to lead their dedicated lifestyle. Marley used to support and enjoy by being with the Rastafarians, and thus paid bi-annual visits to Addis Ababa,” Mandishona told Al Jazeera.
“In one of his visits in 1978, a friend told me that Marley was asking about me and the UN jazz band of which I was leading. This was a leisure music band of some nine UN experts which played as hobby at social functions.”
Mandishona said when he met Marley, the international superstar told him: “I can smell Zimbabwe becoming independent soon.”
Mandishona continued: “He began sounding the Zimbabwe tune he had been experimenting on. It was typically a reggae total format. Being a Shona poet, I moderated the tune to have some Shona rhythm bits.”
Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36 but his music still lives on worldwide, including throughout Africa – in Zimbabwe, several local reggae groups have over the years played concerts in Marley’s honour.
“Through his music, he was fighting capitalism and oppression of the Black [people] by colonialists,” said Victor Matemadanda, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans’ Association and also the country’s deputy defence minister. “Himself being a product of slave trade, he connected much with his songs,” added Matemadanda, stressing Marley’s struggle for a united and free Africa.
Mutsvangwa echoed the same view, highlighting the role of Marley’s music in Zimbabwe’s liberation movement.
“The timely arrival of Marley’s reggae music and its globalist Pan-African message changed political attitudes as the young freedom fighters marched to war,” said Mutsvangwa, a former diplomat. Marley’s music, along with that of Zimbabwean superstar Thomas Mapfumo, had become the battle cry of freedom fighters, added Mutsvangwa.
Professor Nhamo Anthony Mhiripiri, a chairperson in the Media and Society Studies department at Midlands State University, described Marley’s music as”politically committed”.
“He was an organic thinker who participated in the struggles … against colonialism. Zimbabwe was a highly mediatised hotspot where many atrocities were committed and publicised. Marley played his part through highlighting the suffering of Zimbabweans and their aspirations for self-liberation.”
Forty years on, the independence anniversary on Saturday will be a low-key affair that will find Zimbabweans, the majority of whom struggle with a deepening economic crisis, under lockdown as the country tries to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
As of April 17, Zimbabwe had 24 confirmed cases, including three deaths.