Peter Tosh: The man, the time, and the musicSunday, March 01, 2020
As we have just about closed celebrating Reggae Month a special tribute is made to Peter Tosh for his enduring campaign, nationally and internationally, for the legalisation of ganja and his effort against the miseducation of the black youth. His life oscillated between Schopenhauer's will and representation and Nietzsche's life of tragic existence.
His 'will' — the inner-self — and its representation in music illustrates his spiritual embrace and philosophical orientation. He endured the sorrow of suffering during the 1960s, the horror of near-death police brutality in the 1970s, and the tragedy of a brutal and violent killing in the 1980s. He brought joy to many for his militant political strides and spiritual themes. His music connects our lives with our history and contemporary society. It is informed by a new morality and radical politics that were also some of the characteristics of the political leadership and environment during the 1970s. He was a gifted thinker, artist, performer and musician. It is important that we honour him, who is not popular with status quo.
Tosh's music is a powerful instrument of education. I recall a student from the eastern Caribbean in New York informed me that he learned about apartheid and the anti-apartheid struggles from Tosh's music. Other people have had deeper radical encounters with Rastafari from Tosh. He used the stage to spread the good news about the 'new' king and messiah in a similar manner to Leonard P Howell and his street meetings in St Thomas during the 1930s.
As an artiste, Tosh captured the essence of Rastafari and asserted it in his music. His song You can't blame the youth is a deep reflection of themes from Howell's mission during the 1930s in St Thomas — issues concerning the miseducation of the black youth, and also the false doctrine advanced by the Christian church about ignoring gold, silver, and wealth, but embrace the idea of dying and going to heaven for milk and honey.
Like Howell, Tosh's was anti-imperialist and anti-Western civilisation. The “stepping razor” may have contemplated these questions: What is justice is it? And whose rationality is it? He spoke about the justice in a tone suggesting his rejection of the colonial laws. At the 1978 Peace Concert he spoke about laws in the Jamaican society that were created by the elites to keep the underprivileged in a state of ignorance and extreme poverty. Tosh asserted his school of critical legal thinking and argued that the laws are associated with oppressive injustice set as policy objectives by the colonial elite.
At the 1978 Peace Concert, Tosh gave the history on imperialism in Jamaican and its dangers to the progressive developments in Jamaica during the 1970s. He spoke about this colonial “shitstem” set up by the colonial elite; “a di same bucky massa business” characterised by “black inferiority and white superiority, ruling this country for a long time”.
The following songs illustrate his apprehension of his spiritual ideas and its representation in the form of music: I Am That Am, Rastafari Is, Let Jah be praised, and Jah is My Light and Salvation. There is a high level of intellectual quality and artistic ability in Tosh's music. He told the crowd that he was qualified to speak because he had been humiliated and received a near-death brutal police attack for ganja. Some of his songs creatively advance his thinking on justice and ganja are: Legalize It, Bush doctor, Nah Go a Jail Fi Ganja, Bush Doctor and Buckingham Palace.
The artist, musician, and performer possessed “enlightened eyes”, his radical politics was informed by race and a new concept of morality and justice. The planter/colonial Jamaican society was informed by race (white supremacy), and that the assertion of race awareness (black consciousness) was an important milestone in black liberation involving the debriefing process from slavery.
His anti-imperialist themes appear in his music from as early as Pound Get a Blow to The Day the Dollar Die, Babylon your Queen-dom is Falling, and No Nuclear War. His radical political themes appear in songs such as 400 Years, Get Up Stand Up, Equal Rights and Justice, Only the Poor Man Feel It, and Down Presser Man. The idea of equal rights and justice secretes through the lines and spaces of his music.
He was also critical of some members of the Rastafari movement in other interviews. He once said that there are many imposters in the movement, and that they read the Bible 24/7, “but they are agents of Lucifer”, who “mek I and I look like criminals in the eyes of men”. He reminded the Rastafari movement of the founding principles of self-reliance and industry in Pick Myself Up. In another song he sings a similar message, “Black people, arise, (because) we have been sitting in the dirt for too long; and it seems like we do not know when we are right or wrong.” This is indeed a well-needed lesson for blacks in general and members of the Rastafarian movement in particular.
Peter Tosh was a long-standing activist for African liberation. There is evidence of his participation in a Kingston demonstration against the Ian Smith's white racist minority Government and unilateral declaration of Independence in Rhodesia during the 1960s. Tosh and two others were arrested for the mounting of a roadblock on Spanish Town Road. The dominant political leadership in Jamaica during that time led a forceful struggle in support of the liberation in southern Africa. This was the background against which Tosh used his stage and music to launch his anti-apartheid campaigns.
In a speech at the same peace concert at the National Stadium Tosh declared that 1978 is the year celebrating the anti-apartheid struggles. He refreshed his solidarity to these struggles. He called on black people to be conscious of themselves and become knowledgeable of the laws that govern them. He asserted his apprehension of themes of African unity and anti-apartheid struggles in songs such as African, Apartheid, and Recruiting Soldiers for Jah Army. His music played an important cultural role among the guerillas fighting in Zimbabwe during the 1970s.
As an observer to the transitional election (very early 1980s) in Zimbabwe, this writer was invited to a victory party organised by members of the Zimbabwe National African Union (ZANU) and witnessed guerillas dancing their traditional dances to Peter Tosh's Equal Rights and Justice album. It was explained that their endurance in the “bush fighting” was buoyed by this kind of music. Someone from St Vincent went to South Africa in 1992 as an observer in the transition to the black majority Government, he told this writer that he observed members of the African National Congress army singing and dancing to Tosh's Recruiting Soldiers for Jah Army. The capturing of the essence of the African liberation struggles and its assertion in the music caught the imagination of the liberation fighters in those areas where his music made significant contribution to the struggles.
Tosh made the right kind of music, that which was then and still is today a powerful instrument of education and resistance.
Louis E A Moyston, PhD, is a university lecturer. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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