Sumeet Sharma                                                                                    December 2, 2009

Speech: Rhetoric of Reggae                                                                                      Final Paper


Nuclear Weapons and Reggae: A Clash of Rhetoric


            October 19th 1937 would prove to be a sad day for nuclear physics.  After all, the father of atomic energy, Ernest Rutherford,  just passed while lying on a hospital bed in Cambridge, England.  By being the first to split an atom [i], Rutherford’s research set in motion developments that would lead to the advent of nuclear technology, weaponry and eventually war.  Seven years later, on the same date; a small family would rejoice to celebrate the birth of new member of their clan, Winston Hubert McIntosh.  This child would grow to become reggae music’s leading emissary of his era, popularly known by the name of Peter Tosh.  By releasing his album “No Nuclear War,” Tosh crystallized a global movement that called for the eradication of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology with the eventual goal of eliminating the prospect of nuclear war.  At first glance, these two men have little in common aside from the date.  One died on the date October 19th and the other was born on the same day seven years later.[ii]  However the true irony of this incident cannot be truly appreciated without understanding the rhetorical implications of the movements that these two men participated in.  The social movement that is reggae music is fundamentally based on resisting the same power structure that nuclear weapons uphold.  Nuclear weapons came with a philosophy that justified their existence, nuclearism.  Perhaps it was destined that those events on that date seven years apart would come to perfectly characterize the relationship between nuclear weapons and reggae: the death signifying the end of a hopeful ideology that promised the fulfillment of new expectations for the world, the birth alluding to the start of a new era of disappointment and struggle for the Jamaican people, the years in between serving as a testament to the distance between the two ideologies and the date acting as a reminder that everything including nuclear war and reggae are linked.

            The links between nuclear war and reggae music are endless.  There are allusions and direct references to nuclear war, weaponry, energy and technology in many reggae songs.  Peter Tosh’s song No Nuclear War is a clear example of the effect that the threat of war has had on reggae music.  The song titles his grammy award winning album also called No Nuclear War.  His message is clear in the first verse of the song:

“We don't want no nuclear war

With nuclear war we won't get far

I said that We don't want no nuclear war

With nuclear war we won't get far”[iii]


However while considering that Peter Tosh was born, raised and lived on the small island nation of Jamaica for almost all of his life, one has to wonder why Tosh was so concerned with the topic of nuclear war.  There are the obvious reasons: that nukes and their fallout threatened to kill everybody or even that the album was made to appeal to western audiences.[iv]  Yet reggae music strains to read deeper into as to what nuclear weapons mean in the prism of jamaican as well as human history.  There are correlations between the themes of reggae music and the rhetoric of nuclear war.  Reggae music understands nuclear war as simply another vehicle to exploit oppressed societies, often with a racist mindset, and continue the cycle of promise, expectation and disappointment that is the plight of oppressed peoples.  Nuclear war is just the next slavery, colonialism or “democracy.”  Still there is another view, resistance, often found in the music.

          Reggae music is built on the themes of rebellion and resistance.  The music was born of African roots, vocal tradition and social commentary.[v]  The character of reggae developed even more along with the course of Jamaican history.  The four basic themes of reggae are an embodiment of Jamaican history: exploitation, racism,  expectation and disappointment, and resistance.v  The exploitation of Jamaican people began with the founding of Jamaica as a slave colony in the 1600s.  Slavery went hand in hand with racial prejudice and racism would prove to be a dominating force through the course of Jamaican history.  After slavery, former slaves still had no property, freedom or rights.  Even today in Jamaica; whites make twice as much as browns, and thirteen times as much as blacks.v  Dark skinned people have been continually oppressed in Jamaica, since the nations founding. 

          These same people have also been filled with promise and expectation that their fortunes would change only to be disappointed in the long run.  First, there was the promise of freedom from slavery; an act that ended in the same oppression.  Then there was the promise of freedom through democracy, but corrupt governments with white leaders did nothing to change the status quo.  During these events, reggae served as a medium to express people's feelings and comment on their environment.  When asked to develop the process by which he creates a song, reggae artist Capleton captures the essence of Reggae music in his response:

No, it just come naturally.  Capleton is not a youth

that has to puzzle to write a tune, cause like how

me and you a reason right now, I could just come

up with a tune.  Just from out of the wind and

the breeze.  It's just a natural mystic.  My tunes

just come natural, and when something out fi

go down, me always find a tune before it happen.

A just dem levels.  A just Rastafari still, the truth

is the truth, and the only conqueror for the truth, is

the truth.”[vi]


Reggae musicians simply sing about what is around them, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, it was  the threat of nuclear war.

          Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is hard to understand to what degree the prospect of nuclear war enveloped the world during the latter half of the twentieth century.  Events such as the development of nuclear weapons by China and India, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the installation of medium range ballistic missiles across Europe all pointed to an inevitable global nuclear war in the foreseeable future.  A nuclear reality found its way into the core of human culture.  Books like Watermelons Not War were published to help with “parenting in the nuclear age.”  The title came complete with with directions explaining the proper way to talk to your child about nuclear radiation and cancer or recommendations on how to respond when your child expresses to you that they do not aspire have children because the possibility of a gentle death for the next generation is unfathomable.[vii]  Scientists at the University of Chicago constructed a Doomsday clock, intended to count down the minutes until the catastrophic destruction of the human race based on the current threat of global nuclear war.  Terms like game theory, acceptable failure rate, minimum deterrence, maximum retaliation and window of vulnerability were tossed around in reference to national defense and became household phrases.  This rhetoric conceded that the Cold War was in fact a game being played with people's lives.[viii] 

          Similarly, nuclear war crept its way into Reggae music.  There are songs by Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Mutabaruka, Capleton, Aswad, Herbs, Prince Allah, Ricky Tuffy, Devon Clarke, Luciano, and Soldiers of Jah Army,, that all address nuclear war in some way.[ix] [x] [xi] [xii] [xiii] [xiv] [xv] [xvi] [xvii] [xviii] [xix] [xx] [xxi] [xxii] [xxiii] [xxiv].  There are even album covers dedicated to nuclear war and the political climate that surrounds the weapons by artists like Peter Tosh, Herbs and Steel Pulse. 



These songs capture feelings of fear, hopelessness, insignificance, indifference, false security and timelessness all at the same time.  Steel Pulse describes the era in their song No More Weapons:

This has got to be the final conflict

Bestowed upon humanity

So much for a global coalition

A false sense of securityxi


But the band challenges more than the realistic nuclear threat in next line of their song.  Steel Pulse draws upon the tradition of resistance in reggae music to confront the underlying rhetorical threat that comes with the mere possession of nuclear weapons:

We are just pawns in the scheme of things

No matter what our race or creed

Survivors of this holocaust

We international refugeesxi


The rhetorical nuclear threat posed an equal or even larger danger to the Jamaican   people than nuclear war.  The rhetoric of nuclear war resembled the same discourse that came with slavery, colonialism and the promise of “democracy.  The same talk that meant more subjugation, exploitation, slavery and disappointment.

            The main purpose of a nuclear weapon is to suppress dissent.  Along with that, nation states that hold nuclear arms often use their superior position to exploit lesser states.[xxv]  The first use of a nuclear bomb aimed to push Japan into submission during World War II.  The destruction of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was more than enough to both amaze and disgust the world st the same time.  People were in awe of the weapon's awesome power.  Yet, they were disgusted by its horrible consequences.  The resulting reaction to these attitudes resulted in a nuclear taboo. [xxvi] Nuclear weapons would never be used again, but even in their non-use, the weapons projected terrible power.  Ironically, the power behind the traditional non-use of nuclear weapons served to preserve peace and the spread of nuclear weapons. [xxvii]  The successful application of this power granted “legitimacy to the major powers' monopoly over nuclear weapons.” (tradition of non use)  Nuclear powers essentially recognized themselves and each other as the only responsible stewards of nuclear power.[xxviii]   The logic behind that reality was that the danger of a nuclear bomb lies not in the weapon, but in the people that possess it.[xxix]

            A Multi Atomic Energy Treaty signed between the United States, Canada and Jamaica in 1984 helps to illustrate this double standard.  The treaty was a fulfillment of   a request by the Jamaican government to obtain a low power critical experiment reactor, known as Slowpoke II, for research purposes.[xxx]  Although the United States and Canada were willingly transferring nuclear technology to Jamaica, the oversight and rights to the material still remained with the United States and Canada.  The Supply and Project agreement gave the United States the right to review, maintain, access, inspect, install and reclaim the nuclear reactor or any nuclear fuel..[xxxi]   It was evident that, in the eyes of the superpowers, Jamaicans did not have the qualities necessary to responsibly control nuclear technology. 

            Nuclear weapons would also set the standard in determining what level of foreign intervention a country can expect from a major superpower.  The Korean War, Vietnam War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, American invasion of Grenada, Falklands War, Israeli wars, and war in Iraq are all examples of the type of intervention non-nuclear states can expect if nuclear states disagree with their policies.[xxxii]   Although nuclear weapons were not used in any of those conflicts, the underlying message was clear: a large escalation of the conflict will result in destructive force.  After all, with the exception of China (with their no-first use policy), no nuclear state has committed to the non use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states.[xxxiii]   This policy of deterrence has been beneficial to the nuclear states.  No nuclear armed state has faced a foreign invasion or military intervention of any kind after acquiring nuclear weapons.  Once again Steel Pulse touches on the topic in their song Earth Crisis:

“Superpowers have a plan

Undermining Third World man

Suck their lands of minerals

Creating famine and pestilence

You hear what I say hear what I say”[xxxiv]


            Reggae music also recognizes that the rhetorical nuclear threat has an underlying racist and classist element to it.  The Multi Atomic Energy Treaty signed between the United States, Canada and Jamaica already puts on display the double standard between the have and have nots of the nuclear club.  A close examination of global nuclear policy show even more correlations between the way a nation is treated in the nuclear era and the dominant race of that nation.  Of the states that either possess or have come close to possessing nuclear capability, India, Pakistan, South Africa, North Korea and Iran have all had to deal with the actual imposition or threat of sanctions for pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.  These countries have a common trait in that they are all nonwhite nations.  On the other hand, the development of nuclear weapons by Israel went unnoticed and under the silent approval of nuclear armed states. 

            The racist and classist discourse that comes with nuclearism can also be illustrated by the practice of nuclear testing.  When nuclear weapons are used, they have historically been used on what nuclear states perceive to be an inferior race.  This practice began with the intentional nuclear attack on Japan.  However, while testing, nuclear states sought to detonate bombs in areas far from their homelands, often in areas with indigenous populations that had no means of resistance.  The United States tested on the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, home to indigenous Micronesians.  The Soviet Union tested in southern Soviet Social Republic, Kazakhstan.  The United Kingdom tested on Aboriginal land in South Australia as well as on Christmas Island in the Pacific.  France tested in Algeria.  China tested in the autonomous Xinjiang province, home to ethnic Uighur muslims.  And the recent nuclear tests by India, Pakistan and North Korea have all been underground to limit nuclear fallout.  The line of reasoning behind testing in an isolated region was to limit he effects of nuclear fallout on the populations of nuclear armed states.  The limited nuclear tests in Nevada during 1953 & 1954 resulted in a large area of the United States being exposed to nuclear fallout.


In the same way, far away areas around the testing sites used by nuclear states were contaminated by nuclear fallout from testing.  The most compelling example of devastation caused by nuclear testing comes from the Marshall Islands.  The test contaminated food supplies, polluted water, and changed global weather patterns. (the bomb) The Micronesian people of the Marshall Islands were forced to endure tragedies for a generation.  Miscarriages, cancer and birth defects became common on these Pacific Islands and the memory of nuclear testing lingers to this day.  If the Micronesian people from the Marshall Islands suffered such a fate from nuclear technology, it makes sense that the Jamaican people saw a similar future written for themselves.  Bob Marley understood the racial implications of war. He suggested a type of discourse that would vanquish the institution in his song War:

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior

And another inferior Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned -

Everywhere is war - Me say war.


That until there no longer

First class and second class citizens of any nation

Until the colour of a man's skin

Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes -

Me say war.


That until the basic human rights

Are equally guaranteed to all,

Without regard to race -

Dis a war.


That until that day

The dream of lasting peace,

World citizenship

Rule of international morality

Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued,

But never attained -

Now everywhere is war – war.


Marley understood that war, racism and classism went hand in hand.      

            In the beginning, the rhetoric of nuclearism promised a bright future filled with high expectations for the world.  Nuclear energy was supposed to be clean, affordable and safe.  Nuclear research was held to be the next frontier of science.  The technological advancements of atomic energy were expected to yield great developments in medicine, astronomy and even food preparation.  Nuclear weapons also promised a sense of security.  Mutually Assured Destruction ensured that no country would commit nuclear suicide and thus prevented nuclear war.  Deterrence ensured the continuous peace and stability of the globe.  Nuclearism did successfully reach many of these goals.  Still, reggae artists pondered the cost of these benefits.  Instead of reaping the rewards of nuclear technology, poorer nations faced disappointment from the effects of nuclear proliferation.  As the third world was struggling with poverty, disease and hunger; the first world was obsessed with military defense.  Peter Tosh's song  No Nuclear War expresses the sentiment:

“We can't take no more 

I said the rate is high 
So much sick people 
I'm sure they gonna die 
So much mad people 
Gettin' ready to explode 
'Fore somebody 
Come help them carry this load” (tosh youtube)


In Earth Crisis, Steel Pulse agrees:

“They carry the symbol

Of the eagle and the bear

Across the globe

Far east to far west

High tax and cutbacks for military defense” (earth crisis youtube)


The expectations that nuclear technology promised never materialized in the developing world and Jamaica.  Once again, Jamaicans were left disappointed.

            The realistic and rhetorical threat of nuclear war was handled by Jamaicans in typical fashion: resistance through music.  Reggae music took the role of to resist the oppression caused by nuclear weapons and their rhetoric through the entire cold war.  Yet despite the fear and oppression, people would live on and resist.  Reggae legend Bob Marley put it best when he said in his song Redemption Song:

Have no fear for atomic energy,

'Cause none of them can stop the time.”

[i]   Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966

[ii]  "On This Day." Birmingham Post 19 Oct. 2000: 6.

[iii] "Peter Tosh - No Nuclear War." Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[iv] Greene, Jo-Ann. "Peter Tosh: Biography." n. pag. Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[v]   Snider, Alfred. Rhetoric of Reggae Music Lecture.

v   Et. Al.

v   Et. Al.

[vi] "A link with the Prophet - The Capleton Interview." Feb. 1996. Unified Broadcasters Association, Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[vii] Cloud, Kate, Ellie Deegan, Alice Evans, Hayat Imam, and Barbara Signer. Watermelons Not War. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1984. 25, 53.

[viii]    Farrell, James. The Nuclear Devil's Dictionary. Minneapolis, MN: Usonia Press, 1982.

[ix]  "Bob Marley -War." Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[x]  "Bob Marley -Redemption Song" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xi]  "Steel Pulse – No More Weapons" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <hhtp://

[xii] "Steel Pulse – Earth Crisis “Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xiii]      "Steel Pulse – Wild Goose Chase" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xiv]      "Jimmy Cliff – Nuclear War" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <


[xv] "Burning Spear – No More War" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xvi]      "Mutabaraka – Any Which Way Freedom" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xvii]       "Capleton – Put Down Your Weapon" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xviii]    "Aswad  - Nuclear Soldier” Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xix]      "Herbs -  Nuclear Waste” Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xx] "Prince Allah – Nuclear Race" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xxi]        "Ricky Tuffy – Nuclear War" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xxii]       "Devon Clarke – "Nuclear Bangarang” Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xxiii]    "Luciano - Bombs" Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.

[xxiv]     "Soldiers of Jah Army – Nuclear Bomb” Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.



[xxv]       Paul, TV. The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[xxvi]      Paul, TV. The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[xxvii]     Paul, TV. The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[xxviii]    Paul, TV. The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[xxix]      DeGroot, Gerard. The Bomb. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

[xxx]       "Multi Energy Atomic Treaty." 1984. Print.

[xxxi]      "Multi Energy Atomic Treaty." 1984. Print.

[xxxii]     Paul, TV. The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[xxxiii]    Paul, TV. The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[xxxiv]   "Steel Pulse – Earth Crisis “Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.