Peter Tosh: The uncompromised


Howard Campbell (Jamaica Observer) writes about Peter Tosh, his trajectory and his convictions. The musician was killed in his St. Andrew home thirty years ago. This is the 53rd in the Jamaica Observer’s daily entertainment series, “highlighting 55 Jamaicans who broke down barriers and helped put the country on the world stage.” Each day, the Observer features a new personality, culminating on Jamaican Independence Day on August 6. Campbell writes:

The One Love Peace Concert at the National Stadium in Kingston on April 22 1978 is immortalised by Bob Marley’s symbolic hand clasp with Prime Minister Michael Manley and Opposition Leader Edward Seaga. But for drummer Sly Dunbar, Peter Tosh was star of the show. “Before wi went on, wi neva know wha’ Peter was going do. When him go on, him cuss everybody…him neva care. Dat was jus’ Peter,” Dunbar, a member of Tosh’s Word, Sound and Power band, told the Jamaica Observer in a 2003 interview.

Tosh blasted Jamaica’s political system that night. No politician or civic leader was spared for the violence that had destroyed Jamaica for most of the 1970s. “Dis concert here whey dem sey is a peace concert, I man neva did a guh come inno. Yuh know why? Cause wha, was a peace concert. An ah wonder if many people realise what di word peace mean. Eeh? Yuh si most intellectual people in society tink di word peace means coming togeda. Peace is di diploma yuh get in di cemetery. Seen! On top a yuh grave dat is mark ‘Here Lies Di Body of John Strokes, Rest in PEACE’. Seen!”

Next month marks 30 years since Tosh was murdered at his St Andrew home at age 42. On September 11 1987, music lost an unapologetic African, skilled musician/songwriter and, arguably, its most fiery commentator.

Tosh’s unwillingness to compromise his culture and standards won him little fans among the conventional. Two of his landmark albums, Legalize It and Equal Rights, were scathing statements against the establishment. Interestingly, they were marketed and distributed by Columbia Records, the biggest record label in the 1970s. Tosh refused to tone down his rhetoric even if the company was tied to America’s corporate elite.

Released in 1976, Legalize It was his passionate appeal for government to make ganja legal. Given the decriminalisation process that has swept Jamaica since 2015, he was way ahead of his time.

Musically, he was ahead of the pack on hot-button issues such as institutionalised racism. Recording and touring with Peter Tosh, Dunbar recalled, was educational. “Tek a thing like apartheid. Is Peter mek me know ’bout dat…when mi first hear him talk ’bout it, mi think it was one a di word him always invent,” said Dunbar.

Tosh’s brilliance had many high-profile admirers. Including rock superstars The Rolling Stones who signed him to their record label shortly after his Peace Concert performance. He was a good enough guitarist for famed American jazz guitarist Eric Gale to recruit him for his Negril album, released in 1975. Dunbar believes Tosh’s no-holds-barred approach was a deterrent to his talent. “Peter was the wickedest wah-wah guitarist! Yuh don’t hear a lotta people talk ’bout dat.” [. . .]

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