Jamaican Music Music Interviews

Peter Tosh – Reggae’s Black Prince

Written by Stan Evan Smith

I want people to get sensitive to the music…if you’re not listening to the message of the music it’s like a fool dancing to calamity” ….Fool dance to comfortable promises’ Peter Tosh

The history of reggae music, or the reggae story, and its importance is invariably
and inextricably linked to the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley. They single-handedly transformed what pop music could be used for as an instrument of liberation. As the Wailers, they created a complex music, Reggae music, and redefined in popular culture by shifting the focus to concerns with the realities of the poor and oppressed and their quest for equal rights and justice.

Peter Tosh, the musical artist and Pan Africanist Rasta an, is a fascinating study in contrast, because, like most revolutionaries, he was a multi-faceted and complex human being. As an authentic artist from common culture, Tosh’s importance as world figure, for me, occurred when as the first reggae artist, and possibly the first western artist I can remember, who highlighted and then educated us about the evils of apartheid as a political system. On his 1977 epochal Columbia Records album ‘Equal Rights’, Tosh details “apartheid inhumanity.” With his mantra of “Equal rights and Justice” Tosh challenged the world community to end Apartheid. More importantly, this was done before apartheid became a fashionable political issue. Many were surprised at Tosh’s grasp of this unpopular issue so early, before this issue penetrated the public consciousness.

I had the good fortune to produce and host four retrospectives on the life and times of Tosh “Reggae Roundtable” on Habte Selassie’s programme Labrish, on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York. The guests included his former bandleader and Chairman of the Jamaica Association of Artist and Performer, Steve Golding, dub poet Oku Oonura, musician/producers Sly and Robbie, former manager and lecturer, Herbie Miller, musicologist and Director of Reggae Program at XM Satellite Radio, Dermott Hussey (visited Brazil with Tosh in 83), Fikisha Cumbo, (who had nine year association with him) author of ‘Get Up Stand Up: Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’ and radio personality Karl Anthony. A deeper understanding of him and his work could help to accord him his rightful place in history. Peter Tosh should be honored.

Peter Tosh was musical pioneer, a multi-faceted musician, singer, song-writer, composer and performer. Writer Mat Cibula described Peter Tosh as “truly one of the great lyricist of modern times.” He was also an authentic political revolutionary artist whose political ideology was Black Nationalism or Pan African-ism. His religion was Rastafari which espoused his views through his music. Described by Rolling Stone magazine as reggae’s Malcolm X, Tosh has been compared John Lennon for his cynicism and artful use of word play, however according Matt Cibula, “Lennon’s weak and passive Monty Pythonisms pales besides( Tosh) the holy wrath.” A purposefully melancholy soul of an artist, Tosh, was a simmering cauldron of righteous black anger for his oppressed generation because the central focus of his musical activism was human rights.

How important was Peter Tosh in the history of music, and what is his contribution beyond the world of music? Peter Tosh as a serious politically committed artist, both solo and the triad, the original Wailers, Bunny and Bob, exerted a powerful influence on world society. His influence went beyond music to politics, religion, liberation theology, anthropology and culture and has become a part of more than just music history. Tosh had a finely tuned and discriminating understanding of his role as political man. Because he came from the bowels of poverty and oppression where as Carol Cooper wrote in Village Voice, “The ghetto in Jamaica is… an area where black people live without the social connections to advance to upward mobility. It is here the (1) “inborn talents”…are “neglected and rejected for reasons of color or poverty.” Peter was about getting black and oppressed people to realise who they were, and, at a given point in time in their history, how they got to be where they are, and more importantly, where they needed to go and how to get there.

The misfortune of this seminal artist, who was one of the giants of music, is that in his prime, his resonant voice was stilled when it had so much more to say. As a deeply prime, his resonant voice was stilled when it had so much more to say. As a deeply spiritual, yet feisty and fierce, revolutionary political activist who was ready to die for his unpopular convictions, this complex freedom fighter and warrior artiste had few equals in his time. He remains for many, a salutary, misunderstood, controversial and complex figure. A controversial figure because of his political radicalism and his unceasing championship of equal rights and social justice and the legalization of marijuana, Tosh’s talent, greatness and musical achievement go largely unheralded and his music has yet received the acclaim it so richly deserves. Why he is not celebrated and honored in Jamaica?

Tosh as a solo artiste, his voice and perspective is rarely ever written with equal prominence as Bob Marley however his work was equally important and Peter Tosh is “Just as much an architect of reggae music” as Bob Marley. Peter Tosh summed up his life’s mission this way. “Reggae is spiritually revolutionary, and the message is divine. The message content opens the eyes of the people to the evils of the system… inside the music are the seeds of destruction of the said system. But the music, like a germ, is contagious, so it must germinate and all the guardians of the system can do is delay the process… It must happen! The system must explode from conflict, modify to accommodate the pressure or transform to a brand new day.”

His critics did not write much by way of in-depth critique or analysis of Tosh’s ideas and philosophy. Not many sought to go beyond the fascination with the exotic myth of the noble savage. It became all too “easy to be absorbed by the novelty of Peter Tosh’s culture and forget that he has his own ideas” and that these ideas were rooted in political, cultural and religious philosophy. As Carol Cooper noted in the Village Voice “Critics raved about imagery and spectacle of Rastafarian music without ever touching on the heart of the message.” This accounted for Tosh not being asked serious questions, or for them to probe beyond his public persona to find out who he was, or what he was trying to accomplish. Tosh was as well read as he was articulate in his advocacy of the issues he believed in. His drummer Santa Davis stated “Peter used to read a lot of books, like, intellectual stuff, deal(ing) with world (issues)” and according to engineer Dennis Thompson, “Bush’s, as he affectionately called Tosh; house was always filled with books because he read a lot.”

He had an intelligent and informed grasp of world issues he considered important.
This included a very astute understanding of the role class and race issues played in the discrimination against blacks and oppressed people living in impoverished in Jamaica
Sly Dunbar, who recorded and toured with Tosh’s band in the 1970s, told me on a 1996 edition of my “Reggae Roundtable” special on WBAI, he was amazed that Peter Tosh knew about apartheid in the early 70s. “The things Peter use to talk about, although we didn’t understand at the time, all come to pass. It was like, he was seeing ahead of all of us.” His knowledge of apartheid was so thorough, yet none of his peers or brethren had ever heard the word,
much less knew what it meant at the time.

Critic Stephen Davis questioning of Tosh about the beating he took at the hands of Jamaican police is an example of how Tosh and what he was fighting for was not understood. Davis asked Tosh did the police know he was and the fact that he was international celebrity implying that this somehow could have made a difference in the way Tosh was treated. Peter replied “you don’t have to know a man to treat him the way he should be treated. Because I don’t … drive a Mercedes Benz, I don’t look exclusively different from the rest” Davis implication missed the point thinking that had the police knew Tosh’s status they may have been inclined to be less brutal. What Davis failed to grasp is that, at that time blackness of skin was treated, by the society as badge of inferiority and the celebrity culture of entitlement was not what Tosh and his revolution was about. For Peter the fact that he was an international celebrity, shouldn’t be the reason he was treated differently. He saw his mission as fighting for the common man, who he saw himself as part of as distinct, to have his humanity affirmed. In other words one need not be celebrity before your basic human rights were accorded you.

For art to be valid it has to make a social statement or more importantly. Art without a socio-cultural context is useless, therefore can be no such thing as an artist who is divorced from his social context. Art is the artists’ expression of his vision, social context and his socio-political circumstances and cultural milieu. Langston Hughes in his essay The Negro and the Racial Mountain wrote about the obstacles and pressure the black artist faces in being true to himself and his racial identity. The black artiste, whose work must, like all true artists reflect his life experiences, is instead forced into the false option of being just an artist. In racially discriminatory society where black skin proved be an impediment to civil and social equality, claims to black individuality ignored, their indigenous language and culture marginalized and suppress this creates the “urge towards whiteness.” Peter Tosh was forced to work against bruising criticism and misunderstanding from his own people. This is mountain Tosh as true artist had to climb. Tosh as artiste of • common people and through his assertion of his cultural identity he was never afraid of being himself ,his African-ness he discovered and was able to maintain his own individuality as he developed his art and became a great artist.

Peter would have been 63 on October 19. 2007. It has been 20 years since one of world and reggae music’s greatest artist and most articulate voices was silenced by an assassin’s gun. Let’s celebrate this great warrior and musical pioneer.

About the author

Stan Evan Smith

Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator for Jamaicans.com