Roots | Peter Tosh, OM

Peter Tosh, OM

Chronicle: October 19, 1944

Peter Tosh was more than a luminary in the development of reggae music. He was the ultimate firebrand, speaking out against oppression around the world in both his songs and his public statements. He was a man who demonstrated the power of personal and artistic integrity, and pride and defiance in the face of authoritarian power. His music’s insurrectionary fervor has inspired artists of all stripes, from reggae disciples to punk-rock acolytes like The Clash.

Born Winston Hubert McIntosh in the rural parish of Westmoreland, Jamaica, in 1944, he moved to the notorious slum of Trenchtown at age 16. His mother strongly influenced him, and her sensibility would become apparent in both his lyrics and views; she was particularly concerned that he have a Christian upbringing. He attended the local church daily, and his experience there – singing in the choir and learning to play the organ – formed a sort of musical apprenticeship that prepared him for his subsequent career.
Peter also sought refuge from the rigors of poverty in pop music, notably the R&B and doo-wop beamed to the Caribbean by stations in Florida and Louisiana. Having cultivated his guitar skills and his expressive baritone vocals, he began playing with fellow Trenchtown roughnecks Bob Marley and Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingstone in the early 1960s. As he never knew his father, he came to see the group as his first real family and his bandmates as his brothers.

This nexus was the very earliest seed of the Wailers, who scored a #1 hit in 1964 with the ska jam ‘Simmer Down.’ The band’s affinity for American soul and gospel was further ignited by a burgeoning interest in global rhythms and the teachings of the Rastafarian religion.

As the ’60s wound down—and world political consciousness heated up—the Wailers pioneered a new musical direction: slower than ska and rock steady, this new sound combined thick grooves with more socially relevant lyrics (strongly informed by the tenets of Rastafari). What we now recognize as modern reggae was born.

Tosh was the backbone and heartbeat of the Wailers as well the group’s most accomplished musician – and a constant in the band throughout the arrivals and departures of his musical brethren. His tireless guitar, keyboards, percussion and other instrumentation formed the foundation of the Wailers’ sound and essentially set the course of reggae music. He was also a prolific and powerful songwriter, his militant perspective offering a bracing contrast to Marley’s more reassuring tone. In a sense he played Lennon to his bandmate’s McCartney.

This was borne out in his solo work, especially in such stirring songs as the purposeful plaint ‘Equal Rights,’ the unstoppable unity anthem ‘African,’ the ganja manifesto ‘Legalize It’ and his mesmerizing, indelible take on Joe Higgs’ ‘Stepping Razor.’ The latter title was also one of Tosh’s nicknames (alongside Bush Doctor, The Toughest and other monikers) – a highly fitting one, given the slashing wit of his wordplay, the keenness of his intellect, and the cool slice of his guitar. “I’m dangerous,” Tosh sang on the latter song, and as everyone from local toughs to government enforcers would come to understand, he wasn’t kidding.

His work trumpeted freedom and the struggle against injustice, and he emphasized the connection between music and revolution by toting a guitar in the shape of an M-16 rifle. Hounded, beaten and jailed by Jamaican authorities, Tosh never backed down or soft-pedaled his views. But he often expressed those views with humor, and was capable of lighthearted surprise as much as full-voiced outrage: an accomplished unicyclist, he often pedaled onstage, to the delight of his audiences.

His playful side and irrepressible charisma proved especially charming to women; Tosh’s reputation as a ladies’ man was well deserved.

Among the causes about which he spoke most eloquently and campaigned most tirelessly: the peril of nuclear weapons, the injustice of Apartheid (he was the first major songwriter to discuss the issue openly), and the benefits of legalizing marijuana.

He felt music was a vital tool in all these struggles, and to that end performed countless benefit concerts (including the Youth Consciousness performances in Jamaica, designed to galvanize young Jamaicans against violence and toward political enfranchisement) and established a ‘Rasta Reggae Radio’ station in Jamaica to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Peter also joined such megastars as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers and Bonnie Raitt for the celebrated ‘No Nukes’ concerts mounted by MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) in 1979, which ultimately became a successful album and film. Rolling Stone declared the performances “a stunning testimony to the depth of the shared beliefs of the generation which came of age in the sixties.” Unlike his U.S. peers, however, Tosh frequently put himself in danger as a result of his activism – especially his constant needling of Jamaica’s rulers.

But Tosh’s vision wasn’t limited to changing laws and reducing weapons. In ‘African’, he offers a moving testimony to shared roots, declaring, ‘Don’t care where you come from/As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.’ The song’s passionate demand that black people ignore the shades of their ‘plection’ and celebrate their common origins continues to resonate powerfully. ‘Get Up, Stand Up,’ which he co-wrote, became the anthem of Amnesty International.

Tosh hit the global charts with the classic-soul cover ‘Walk, Don’t Look Back,’ his smash duet with Mick Jagger (and became the first artist to sign with Rolling Stone Records), and was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Reggae Performance in 1987 for ‘No Nuclear War’ – just months after he was murdered in a controversial home-invasion robbery. Though his life was snuffed out by violence, his star continued to shine ever brighter in the ensuing years.

“Truth has been branded outlaw and illegal,” Tosh’s voice declared on an audiotape found after his demise. “It is dangerous to have the truth in your possession. You can be found guilty and sentenced to death.”

Peter Tosh’s example, as both artist and activist, continues to inspire creators and idealists around the world. He was and is a true leader whose music and message inspires people on every continent throughout the world.

Bush Doctor

The year was 1974 when Peter Tosh, a founding member of the Wailers (1963-1974), left the group who were already without Bunny Wailer, to pursue a solo career. As he embarked on his solo journey, the world would soon discover that Peter Tosh was more than just a musician. Tosh was a messenger, a philosopher, a revolutionary, a cannabis crusader and an ambassador for Rastafarianism. The uplifting music that Tosh created, were more than just songs; they were powerful messages of equality and justice. Tosh spoke out against police brutality and government corruption. He spoke out against apartheid and segregation, demanding equal rights and justice for every man. He even advocated for the legalization of Marijuana. Tosh didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk.

When Tosh wrote his songs, he did so spiritually enlightened by the herb; Marijuana. To smoke the herb gave him great inspiration. He believed and preached that Marijuana was the healing of the nation.

Legalize It

In September 1976, Peter Tosh released his first solo album, Legalize It. The album’s title track instantly became an anthem for supporters of marijuana legalization, Reggae music lovers and Rastafarians worldwide. It also catapulted Tosh to international fame. Peter wrote the song not only as a response to the constant victimization he received at the hands of the Jamaican police every time he wanted ‘a little draw of herb’ but also as a push for the legalization of Marijuana, in particular, for medicinal use. The title track, however, was deemed controversial in Jamaica when released which prompted the Jamaican radio to ban the song from airplay. But Tosh had an answer for them. He took out an ad in a Jamaican newspaper and printed the lyrics of the song. Any attempts to suppress the track, just made it more popular.

On April 22,1978, Peter performed at the National Stadium during the One Love Peace Concert in front of an audience of 40,000 strong. The Jamaican police were present along with dignitaries including Prime Minister Michael Manley and Opposition Party Leader Edward Seaga.

In between songs, Peter lit a huge spliff and began a seven minute long livatribe that was pure fire and brimstone. He lashed out at everyone in power in Jamaica, condemning both the government and the opposition. He demanded that there be an end to all police brutality against Rastas and the growers and smokers of Marijuana. He lectured about the benefits of marijuana and blasted those in power for their failure to recognize or even consider a legislation to legalize Marijuana in Jamaica. There was instant approval from the reaction in the audience. That night, Peter preached the truth.

Five months later, Peter would suffer the consequences for his candor. On September 26, 1978, Peter was arrested by a plainclothes officer for smoking what was left of a spliff (roach) while standing outside the studio in Kingston. Taken into custody, he was beaten mercilessly by twelve men with battlesticks for over an hour at the Half-Way Tree Police Station. He suffered severe head wounds that require 30 stitches and a broken arm which Peter used to shield himself. Peter survived the ordeal by playing dead. When Peter was asked if he was considered a threat to the Shitstem, he replied, “Yes mon! They worry about me ‘cause I tell the truth.”

Despite all the police brutality, Peter remained in Jamaica. After all, he was the Toughest! Peter would go on to record seven albums as a solo artists. And with each album release, he shared his beliefs with the world through the titles of his albums and songs. Peter truly believed he could change the world through his music. And that is why his legacy will live forever.

Peter Tosh will always be a man of the past, living in the present and walking in the future.