A Bob Marley biopic is coming in January. It may resurrect an old conspiracy theory

Pop Culture

If you were part the minuscule audience who watched the MTV Music Video Awards last week (according to Nielsen overnights, only 865,000 people tuned in to a show that featured Taylor Swift, Shakira, Selena Gomez, Nicki Minaj, and a reunited NSYNC), you would have seen a new teaser for One Love, the upcoming Bob Marley biopic.

The movie stars Kingsley Ben-Adir (who is British and not Jamaican to the consternation of some) and not only focuses on his music but also on his social and political impact. That includes the politically motivated assassination attempt on Bob and his wife by seven gunmen on Dec. 3, 1975.

Bob would live on for a few more years before dying of cancer on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36. His battle with the disease began with an exceedingly rare form of fast-growing and hard-to-diagnose melanoma (acral lentiginous melanoma) under the nail of the big toe on his right foot. Had Bob agreed to an amputation when he was diagnosed in 1977, he might still be alive. But because of his Rastafarian beliefs about the sanctity of the body, he chose other treatments which obviously did not work.

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However, there are those who believe that this cancer was induced and implanted in his body by the CIA. According to this conspiracy theory, the CIA was concerned about Marley’s power-to-the-people influence and declared him a threat to U.S. interests in the Caribbean. This story has been thoroughly discredited but it just refuses to go away. It goes something like this.

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The 1975 assassination attempt came as political tensions in Jamaica were running very hot. The two main political parties were the Peoples National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). Both parties recognized the popularity and power of Marley and aggressively courted his favour. Marley, however, recognizing the volatility of the situation, did his best to remain politically neutral during that election cycle.

But because of the peace-and-love-and unity, there was a suspicion that he was on the side of Prime Minister Michael Manley and the PNP, which was backed by the USSR and Cuba. Meanwhile, the CIA had allegedly backed the JLP. Manley was viewed as a communist (or at the very least, socialist) sympathizer, and continued his rule risked increasing the Soviet contagion of the Caribbean. Marley was starting a revolution and needed to be stopped.

One of the gunmen, Carly Byah Mitchell, was aligned with the JLP, and rumoured to have been contracted by the CIA for the job in exchange for cocaine and other drugs, something that he confessed after he and his fellow assassins were arrested and tried. They were eventually executed. Marley’s popularity and the power of his music only increased.

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When the assassination attempt failed, CIA operatives were dispatched to Jamaica to fix the situation and finish the hit. Those methods were to be much more subtle and untraceable. According to the conspiracy story, an agent named Bill Oxley became the clean-up man, a veteran of 17 other assassinations sanctioned by the U.S. Government.

To get to Marley up in his Blue Mountains house, Oxley claimed that he faked press credentials, passing himself off as a photographer for the New York Times. He came bearing a gift: a pair of size 10 Converse All Stars. Marley was touched and immediately tried them on. But when he stuck his foot in the right shoe, he screamed in pain. Marley’s big toe was pierced by a copper nail which (stay with me on this) had been made either (a) radioactive or (b) tainted with bacteria and cancer viruses. This, so the story goes, was the real cause of the acral lentiginous melanoma and not any kind of genetic risk factor.

Marley, it is said, shrugged it off. Later, though, he injured that same toe while playing soccer. When it refused to heal, a doctor examined the nail, performed a biopsy, and discovered the cancer. This was five months after he tried on those All Stars.

Oxley, observing from afar, was pleased that he’d succeeded in his mission. Meanwhile, he kept in contact with Marley, going so far as to recommend alternative medical treatments from Dr. Joseff Issels, a Swiss clinician who had allegedly worked under Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. And just according to plan, the treatments failed, the cancer metastasized to his brain and lungs, and Marley died in Miami, too sick to make the final leg of his flight to Jamaica.

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How do we know this? Because of an alleged (there’s that word again!) deathbed confession by Oxley in 2018. But did Oxley really exist? No one investigating this theory ever found a CIA agent with that name. “Oxley’s” story has been investigated and debunked many times.

Others subscribe to another theory. Lee Lew-Lee, a former Black Panther, filmmaker, and one-time confident of Marley and The Wailers, claims it wasn’t Oxley who showed up with the sneakers. It was Carl Colby, the son of former CIA director William Colby. That story has been debunked, too.

The Bob-Marley-was-poisoned-by-the-CIA conspiracy theory has come and gone over the years and still has its believers. Both T.I. and Busta Rhymes continue to claim that Marley was killed by forces sent by the U.S. Government. In the age of QAnon and with the release of the new biopic, this whole nonsense is poised for a comeback. You’re been warned.

Here’s the trailer for Bob Marley: One Love.

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