Thursday, March 26, 2009

Peter Tosh: Wailing Wailer

"I ask why am I black, they say I was born in sin, and shamed inequity. One of the main songs we used to sing in church makes me sick, 'love wash me and I shall be whiter than snow."
- Peter Tosh

At the One Love Peace Concert on April 22, 1978, Peter Tosh drew a stark contrast between himself and former bandmate, Bob Marley, in a bizarre juxtaposition of sets. Tosh insulted the political leaders present at the event (including Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, who Marley famously brought onstage in the next set as a gesture of peace between oppositional parties) by stating, “I am not a politician but I suffer the consequences.” He continued to grill the politicians for their failure to bring equal rights to poor blacks in Jamaica and he demanded freedom from the “general oppression of Africans on the planet” (Live at the One Love Peace Concert). After the rant, Tosh brought his militant demands to the forefront with the song “Equal Rights,” whose chorus sings, “I don't want no peace/I need equal rights and justice.” At the close of the song, Tosh continues on what he refers to as a “livatribe,” or live diatribe, concerning police brutality towards blacks and the legalization of cannabis while smoking a “spliff” (marijuana cigarette), a criminal act in Jamaica, to antagonize the present officers (Griffith 12). Five months later, some of the same police present at the event arrested Tosh and beat him within an inch of his life (Steffens). Even the threat of death could not silence the man whose incisive speech earned him the nickname “Stepping Razor.” Tosh’s confrontational and brutally honest approach to his music and words, on and off-stage, earn him a place as an uniquely aggressive black vernacular intellectual.

Peter Tosh’s beginnings in Kingston, Jamaica were a challenge and spawned his self-reliant philosophy. While Marley grew up with his mother and received financial support from his absent white father, Tosh lived with his aunt without a father or mother. He claims to have raised himself without influence from his aunt (Steffens). He met Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer at the age of 15 and they soon formed The Wailers group. Tosh’s militant attitudes towards black oppression and his optimistic outlook of escape from such oppression find their way into The Wailers’ major label debut, Catch a Fire, on songs such as “400 Years” and “Stop That Train.” The Wailers’ follow-up album, Burnin’, contains a smaller volume of material from Tosh, a foretelling sign of his departure from the group soon after the album’s release. However, Tosh’s sole contribution “Get Up, Stand Up” is a forceful call (Tosh’s verse is frequently considered one of the first “raps” prior to hip-hop’s emergence) to action for blacks, particularly Rastafarians, to “stand up for [their] rights.” Despite the success of the album, Tosh left the group, blaming producer Chris Blackwell for wanting to shift focus solely onto Marley. Tosh humorously but bitterly refers to Blackwell as “Whiteworst,” shedding light on his consistent distrust of whites in any level of authority (Steffens).

In 1976, after leaving The Wailers, Tosh released his (in)famous debut solo album Legalize It. Despite the overwhelming coverage of Tosh’s “cannabis cause,” a self-induced distraction from the truly oppressive system of racism, Tosh managed to call out the abuses of colonialist leaders in “Burial.”

What a big disgrace
The way you rob up the place
Rob everything you can find
Yes you did
And you'll even rob from the blind.

Tosh addresses the abuses of whites and the systemic destruction of African culture in this song. He sings that the African Diaspora has “robbed everything” from blacks similar to the way Frantz Fanon, who Tosh cites as an influence, explains in Wretched of the Earth (Campbell 79). He elaborates in interviews that blacks are the “blind” victims of a “brain-washing shitstem (Tosh’s play on the word “system”)” where blacks are left uneducated and illiterate in order to pacify dissent and maintain hegemony (Steffens).

While Tosh and Fanon may agree on how colonialism has destroyed African culture, Tosh’s second solo album, Equal Rights, shows a slight divergence from the Martinique’s philosophy in his song “African.”

Don't care where you come from
As long as you're a black man
You're an African.
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African.

Fanon advocated the assertion of national cultures while Tosh “identifies a collective African identity based on blackness” and asserts that blacks, regardless of location, should unite and use their collective identity (Wright). Tosh’s Pan-African viewpoint stems from his Rastafarian roots and the Pan-African ideals espoused by Haille Selassie, the prophet and God-incarnate according to the religion.

The Equal Rights album serves as Tosh’s thesis on the condition of blacks around the world and is arguably his greatest contribution as a black vernacular intellectual. The album sets a defiant tone with a remake of The Wailers’ “Get Up, Stand Up” which was an anthem by the time of Equal Rights’ release. Tosh's verse from the original Wailers recording of the song is considered a prototype for rap.

We sick an' tired of-a your ism-skism game -
Dyin' 'n' goin' to heaven in-a Jesus' name, lord.
We know when we understand:
Almighty god is a living man.
You can fool some people sometimes,
But you can't fool all the people all the time.
So now we see the light (what you gonna do?),
We gonna stand up for our rights! (yeah, yeah, yeah!)

Tosh's album proceeds to stand up lyrically to white oppression with the subsequent track, “Downpressor Man,” an indictment of the courage (or lack thereof) of the white oppressor. Tosh warns the “downpressor man” of an uprising and asks, “where you gonna run to?” Tosh’s confrontational lyricism on these tracks as well as the aforementioned “African,” the title track “Equal Rights,” and a South African protest song, “Apartheid,” criticize political, social, and economic injustices. His music also provides sources of resistance through assertion of black identity and calls for action from all black people.

Equal Rights and Tosh’s “livatribes” leads one to believe that he would become more ingrained in the vernacular. Mick Jagger, who was present at the One Love concert, signed Tosh to the Rolling Stones’ record label, which brought Tosh’s music to a broader, international audience. Despite freedom from censorship and wider distribution, Tosh’s militant message diverted from issues of blacks on Bush Doctor, Mystic Man, and Wanted Dread or Alive, all of which were considered financial and critical failures (“Peter Tosh Biography”). Tosh’s 1983 album, Mama Africa, managed to squeeze in only one song with vernacular merit, “Not Gonna Give It Up.” Tosh sings that he “will be fighting ‘til Africa and Africans are free” and reiterates his arguments concerning poverty. After the release of Mama Africa, Tosh left for self-imposed exile in Africa, trying to free himself from record contracts that distributed his music in South Africa.

Tosh returned in 1987 to record No Nuclear War, which contained numerous protest songs concerning apartheid and racism and won a Grammy for Best Reggae Performance. Tosh appeared on the path to career (and vernacular) revival. Unfortunately, a gang of three men, who opposed his militant views, murdered Tosh, on September 11, 1987 (Campbell 237). Peter Tosh’s premature death made him a martyr for his outspoken and unveiled attitudes and cut short an uncompromising vernacular career.

Works Cited

Campbell, Nicholas. Stepping Razor Red X: the Peter Tosh Story. Boston, Massachusetts: Northern Arts Entertainment, 1992.

Griffith, Pat. "Marley Meets Manley as "One Love" Triumphs." Black Echoes May 1978. 30 Apr. 2008

"Peter Tosh Biography." Rolling Stone. 2004. 30 Apr. 2008.

Steffens, Roger, and Hank Holmes. "Reasoning with Tosh." Reggae News. Sept. 1980.

Tosh, Peter. “Burial” By Peter Tosh. Rec. 1974. Legalize It. CBS, 1974.

Tosh, Peter. Equal Rights. Rec. 1977. CBS, 1977.

Tosh, Peter. Live At the One Love Peace Concert. Rec. 22 Apr. 1978. Jad Records, 2000.

Tosh, Peter. "Not Gonna Give It Up." By Peter Tosh. Rec. 1983. Mama Africa. Capitol, 1983.

The Wailers. Catch a Fire. Island Records, 1973.

The Wailers. "Get Up, Stand Up." By Peter Tosh, Bob Marley. Rec. 1973. Burnin'. Island Records, 1973.

Wright, Handel Kashope. "Whose Diaspora is This Anyway?" Goliath. 2003. 30 Apr. 2008 .