By Vinette K. Pryce
Winston Hubert McIntosh, a.k.a Peter Tosh, has been described by many adjectives, nouns and pronouns: controversial, firebrand, Babylon-basher, outspoken, defiant, militant, soul-rebel, iconic, Bush Doctor, Rastafarian, ganja-planter, godfather of ganja, Red X, Stepping Razor, unicyclist , Grammy-winner and most recently as bestowed by the government of Jamaica: Honorable.
He was a founding member of the Wailers, reggae’s most successful and wide-reaching music ambassadors. He comprised the three-man core of the group with Bob Marley and Bunny “Wailer” Livingston.
By American comparisons, Marley’s message might well resonate with those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bunny could readily relate to methods practiced by President John F. Kennedy. But undoubtedly, within the triumvirate, Tosh’s approach could easily be identified with a parallel to Malcolm X.
The irony is that all three US figures died young, assassinated and now martyred.
Tosh died at age 42.
Like Malcolm, he was savagely murdered in front of witnesses and in a place he loved and called home. That was September 11, 1987.
Reports were that he was killed by robbers in his Jamaican home.
“Tosh loved Jamaica, which he dubbed, ‘Jah mek yah,’ he considered the island of his birth a piece of Africa afloat in the Caribbean – what he termed ‘carry us/them beyond.’
Early African Identity:
Throughout his musical career Tosh encouraged an African identity.
In his own words he sang about being Black and an African — “Don’t care where you come from As long as you’re a Black man, You’re an African; Never mind your nationality You have got the identity of an African If your plection high, high, high If your plection low, low, low If your plection in between You’re an African”
The lyrics illustrate Tosh’s identity and project his African-Jamaican perspective and diasporic relationship to Africa. Tosh dedicated himself to the political freedom of Africa and committed himself to its liberation. During the apartheid era, and before many of his fellow singers and musicians knew its meaning and implications, Tosh took a stance against the white supremacist governments of South and South West Africa and their Western allies.
He openly supported the African Nationalist Congress (ANC) and South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO) resistance movements. He composed and recorded an album stocked with protest lyrics related to Africa and the suppressive colonial leaderships in the southernmost states. The title tracks comprised “African,” “400 Hundred Years,” “Get Up Stand Up,” and “Downpressor Man.”
The songs all voiced his support for African liberation and his concerns for the oppressed. Tosh also participated in the international opposition to South African apartheid by appearing at anti-Apartheid concerts and by conveying his opinion in various songs such as: “Apartheid” (1977, re-recorded 1987), “Equal Rights” (1977), “Fight On” (1979), and “Not Gonna Give It Up” (1983).
Of his political leanings, his former manager Herbie Miller said “He met and spent time in reasoning sessions with Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Angela Davis and others with similar reputations for engaging in progressive struggle.”
“Along with Toure and Davis, and like the celebrated renaissance man, political activist and fellow entertainer, Harry Belafonte – with whom he did a video special in 1976 – Tosh was not afraid of being on the front line. In 1967, he was arrested outside the British High Commission in Kingston protesting Ian Smith’s take-over of the former Rhodesia, now the South West African state of Zimbabwe. And he never gave up music as his primary weapon. Songs such as “African,” “Mama Africa,” and “I am Going Home,” are other samples of Tosh’s recorded reactions to Africa and its liberation.”
Although there was much ado about Marley’s gesture of uniting two feuding leaders when he called Prime ministers Edward Seaga and Michael Manley to join him onstage during the now-fabled One Love Peace Concert in Jamaica, on that April 22, 1978 evening Tosh was slated to perform. The Bush Doctor made an appearance just before his former band-mate took the stage for an historic unity appeal. Tosh’s overshadowed performance has since been released and made public in 2001. It reveals that the Rastaman wailed redemption songs.
“Tosh’s set comprised his most militant numbers — “400 Years,” “Stepping Razor,” “Burial,” “Equal Rights,””Legalize It,” and “Get Up, Stand Up. And if that was not enough, between songs he spoke at length in a series of uncompromising speeches that scathingly attacked the government, the opposition, and the concept of peace itself,” a report said.
Reportedly, “the audience appreciated his words, the government and the press did not.”
The local newspapers allegedly condemned his behavior and performance.
Tosh allegedly “remained unrepentant.”
And while the rulers did not approve the critical performance, visiting British rock star Mick Jagger seemed very impressed. Reportedly, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones had signed Tosh to a solo deal on his record label. As Tosh performed he watched from backstage that night. After that Jagger invited the Jamaican to join him for a tour that lasted through the summer. Tosh was the opening act to the Rolling Stones, super-group. After that, the two singers joined forces on a cover of The Temptations “(You Gotta Walk And) Don’t Look Back,” a song Tosh had previously recorded with the Wailers.
Tosh later briefly united with Marley during a Burbank, California concert. There Marley headlined when Tosh joined him for an alleged show-stopping rendition of “Get Up Stand Up.”
In the fall of that same year, Tosh was arrested for drug possession. He was jailed and beaten so badly he required 32 stitches to close the gaping wounds in his cracked skull.
After his release he released “Legalize It,” a ganja anthem which was immediately banned from Jamaica’s radio airplay.
In 1987, Tosh seemed to have had a boost in his career. The year he died he was awarded a Grammy Award for his last recording. He won in the category of Best Reggae Performance for “No Nuclear War.” His revered recordings include: “Bush Doctor,” “I’m the Toughest” and “Dem Ha Fe Get a Beaten” “Mystic Man” “Rumours of War” and “Jah Seh No” “Buk-In-Hamm Palace” “Stepping Razor” “Bombo Klaat” “Nothing But Love,” “Mama Africa” and his first post-Wailer, solo, single “Brand New Secondhand.”
In 1991, a documentary film produced by Wayne Jobson was released. “Stepping Razor – Red X” is based on a series of spoken-word recordings which chronicled the story of the artist’s life, music and untimely death. In the film Tosh narrates his life-story.
Visitors to Jamaica are able to visit a site named in his memory. Tourists and fans of his music often flock to The Peter Tosh Museum & Gardens which is located on the South coast of Jamaica in an area known as Belmont. It is located midway Negril and Black River.
During his birth-month last year, Tosh was conferred an honorable citizen.
His posthumously award, the order of merit – is Jamaica’s fourth highest honor.
Miller now curator of the Jamaica Music Museum and Tosh’s former manager, successfully lobbied the Jamaican administrations to formally recognize Tosh’s accomplishments.
On the announcement of the honor last summer, Miller said “it was a long time coming.”
Had he lived on Oct. 19 this year Tosh would have been 69 years old.