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A Reggae Revolutionary: Remembering Peter Tosh

Posted: 20/12/2013 11:33

Before Nelson Mandela had been laid to rest, talk, inevitably, turned to his legacy. How would he be remembered: a benign, saintly figure, or, an unswerving revolutionary? For some, there was no ambiguity: he was one, or the other. But, for others, it wasn't contradictory that he embodied both traits: saint and revolutionary.


When I received my review copy of Remembering Peter Tosh, it struck me that a similar dichotomy could be true of the late reggae artist. In some quarters, especially among so-called hipsters, he was esteemed for championing the legalising of marijuana, and practising what he preached, by smoking copious amounts of ganja. To others, he was iconoclastic; a reggae revolutionary, who's caustic lyrics in an impressive discography illustrated that 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. Indeed, particularly as it pertained to his political activism, Tosh was ahead of his time.

A proud, spiritual son of Africa, he stood literally head-and-shoulders [he was a lanky 6'4"/1.95 meters] above other cultural contemporaries as one of the early, leading opponents of apartheid in South Africa and white supremacy in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Whereas in recent times Jamaica prided herself as being "the first country in the western hemisphere and second in the world to India which officially banned trade and travel with the fascist apartheid Government," initially, it had some ground to regain, in terms of its PR, with the radical and outspoken Tosh.

In March, 1968, for instance, he was arrested in front of the British High Commission in Kingston. Although protesting the hanging of three black activists Jamaica's oldest newspaper, the Gleaner, reported innocuously that, "Winston McIntosh of 19 West Road, Kingston, was among protestors who refused to be dispersed by the police, and was arrested and charged with obstructing the traffic."

Throughout his life, Tosh remained a passionate Pan-Africanist and openly supported the African Nationalist Congress [ANC] and South West African Peoples Organisation [SWAPO] resistance movements; this was manifest in his seminal album, Equal Rights. Later, to the chagrin of concert promoters, he refused to perform in South Africa - unless it was on his terms i.e., before a black audience in Soweto and the Townships.

In Remembering Peter Tosh Ceil Tulloch assembled a wide selection of contributors - all recounting personal stories. Consequently, the easy-to-read book reveals facets of Peter Tosh's charismatic personality that only those able to get close to him were fortunate enough to witness. Most of all, what stands out is how far removed Tosh's public and private personas were from each other.

We learn, for example, that, even in adulthood, he possessed a child-like quality. Worldwide stardom with the Wailers and, later, with the Rolling Stones, made affordable things his impoverished background denied: among them, toys - lots of them, skateboards, roller skates, a penchant for cartoons, and, famously, his beloved unicycle. He also kept animals: turtledoves, hamsters, and, his favourite, Freddie, a patois-speaking parrot.

Additionally, there are reflections on Tosh's sense of irony, desire to fly - literally, conviviality, humour - even when unintended, warmth and generosity. And it was touching, for example to learn an associate recall that, "he was one of the sweetest people you could ever meet."

Tosh also had eclectic tastes, as was seen when he introduced a harp on the album Creation. But, who would have guessed, for instance that, in addition to Curtis Mayfield, he loved classical music - especially Tchaikovsky?

This softer, cultured image was at odds with the negative portrayals of Peter Tosh: his rebellious streak; irreverence; political incorrectness; intimidation of journalists; expletive-laden speech; and his confrontational conduct at the One Love Peace Concert at which he assailed the political class that "hungry people are angry people".

Tosh spoke the language of the ghetto and, in so doing, gave the poor, disposed and marginalised a 'voice'. For example, people living without proper sanitation in Trench Town didn't care if the ruling class was offended by Tosh's abrasiveness: they wanted a civilised lifestyle without the impending disease that an open sewer threatened.

Peter Tosh was also well-informed, an avid reader, according to one contributor, an aptly named Desmond Shakespeare. He listened to BBC radio, and was said never to miss the news, if he could help it. The 1960s was an era of considerable social upheaval in Jamaica which, along with anti-colonial sentiments, witnessed the ushering in of Black Consciousness. One of the things which probably vexed Tosh was when the authorities implemented The Undesirable Publications Law [1967], in order to suppress activism by banning books and silencing dissenting voices such as Walter Rodney.

But times have changed. One contributor, Dr Omar Davies MP, made observations that allude to how, like Nelson Mandela, Peter Tosh's more strident persona could be reconciled with a government he was once at loggerheads with.

"Many individuals have asked me how I, as a politician, and as such a part of the status quo, viewed Tosh's anti-Establishment sentiments and blatant acts of defiance. I begin by indicating that I have always been troubled by the inequalities in our socio-economic system. Although the issues change with time, there will always be the need for oppressed people to oppose aspects of the prevailing system," explained Davies.

Once despised as a scourge of Jamaica's Establishment the reggae icon was no longer deemed an undesirable firebrand. Arguably, there had been a concerted effort - by those not distracted by the fearsome 'Steppin' Razor', "rude bwoy" persona he had perfected and projected at will - to reclaim his reputation. In 2012, for instance, marking the country's 50th anniversary of Independence, Peter Tosh was posthumously conferred Jamaica's third highest honour: the Order of Merit.

Fittingly, therefore, Remembering Peter Tosh is an invitation for readers to reassess both the man and his music and, thereby, safeguard his true legacy.

 

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