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Peter Tosh

A man of the past, living in the present, walking in the future

James Wyld

Peter Tosh. With the name comes a certain stigma and uneasiness in Reggae circles. Peter Tosh was a crusader and warrior in a musical forum more known for it’s mellow and passive resistance. As former college and producer Lee Jaffe simply put it "A lot of people were afraid of Peter, they did not know how to deal with him."(Stepping Razor, Red X: the Peter Tosh story, Bush Doctor Films). He traveled the globe for roughly thirty years preaching his message of equality and justice for every man. He was preaching against powerful forces and societal brainwashing and misinformation. The so called downpressorman or Babylon. He fought against these forces, with bravado, undaunting passion, and an arrogant open style that many people did not know how to deal with. He had a strong conviction of what he viewed as right and wrong. When he saw something as unjustified watch out. He attacked his viewed oppressors with the veracity of an attack dog. As reggae artist of international superstar status, this was a dangerous thing, because he reached the masses.

The way that Tosh fights these oppressors, is with Word, Sound, and Power not physical violence, as one Rasta elder asserts this the Traditional Rastafarian way, "Word, Sound, and Power, is a symbol of man. Seen? That is what we use amongst Babylon. We don’t use a stick, nor a stone, nor a gun" (Stepping Razor, Red X: the Peter Tosh story, Bush Doctor Films). He sings songs witch he believes to be divine. The message of Jah channeled through him. He gains inspiration from the sacrament, the sweet gift of Jah, Herb. Tosh does not try and make the messages sweet and trite, about love affairs and such. He makes sure each and every song is meaningful and to the point. Then like a musical architect as he describes it, he decorates the message with the musical intricacies of his trade. The blunt message is delivered in angelic harmony, surrounded by a heavy hitting bass, the ever-present drums, and the exultant trademark lead guitar that influenced a generation of reggae guitarists to come. The intent was to draw a listener in with the music, so that he or she then had to pay attention to the words. Tosh’s music was a call to arms against Babylon and a vehicle to unit the downtrodden of the world. He truly used Reggae as a Rhetorical form.

It is well established that Tosh was not afraid to fight the powers of oppression, but what is not as well documented is his rational for doing so. Where did the fury behind those infamous black shades come from? I believe the answer lies in past. The ferociousness he showed towards inequality, was a direct result of oppression suffered in his own life and the lives of his people. His views were a direct reflection of the unfavorable conditions and encounters that went along with his poverty-stricken Jamaican upbringing as well as the centuries of suffering his African ancestors suffered through slavery and misplacement.

He was mislead and abused by the "shitstem," as he would have called it, whether it was early childhood brainwashing by the Church and Schools or later dealings with the corrupt Music industry and police brutality. He even claimed to have battles with the devil himself throughout his. All of these things Peter used to his advantage. He used them as fuel to drive his message onward and through the next barrier.

The early elementary years of Peter Tosh proved to be some of the most important and influential due to the effect on his life, as Timothy White concurs, "Peter Tosh’s rages stemmed, in significant measure, from hurts and rejections inflicted in his childhood."(White, pg. 2) He was born, Winston Hubert McIntosh in the poor rural, western Jamaican countryside of Grange Hill on October nineteenth, nineteen forty-four. He was born into a family that either could not or would not take care of him. Peter’s father was unfit to take on the rigors of parenthood, as he describes in his own words, "My father James McIntosh, is a bad boy, a rascal. That’s what him do for a livin’. He jus’ go around and have a million and one children! Right now me have many brothers that me don’t know." (Timothy White, In the Path of the Steppin’ Razor). A loving relationship with his mother was lost apparently due to economic reasons, he was sent to live with his aunt when he was of schooling age. Instead of becoming a lost soul, which Peter probably had a better chance of becoming at this point, he began to construct the independent and creative personality that he would be famous for later in life. He also learned at an early age to become extremely self-motivated, because he really had no one around to do anything for him. Peter had no choice but to fend for himself. Peter also describes himself as having a very strong sense of right and wrong at an early age, "I was three years in size, but fifty years old in the mind, seen? . . . . . .And with that mind, I grew up with that mind. I like, and I love, everything that is right. Seen?"(Roger Steffens and Hank Holmes, Reasoning with Tosh). This sense of right and would guide his childhood existence and would undoubtedly be a tool of survival throughout his entire life. Without this extreme conviction for the true path Peter would never have been able to deliver his later messages with such unfaltering confidence.

Along with an inborn sense of morality Peter also describes an inborn affinity to music, which would similarly be a tool of his survival. He stated many times that he was in fact, "born in music, from ever since I could talk and exchange verbal thoughts I could sing from such time." (Roger Steffens and Hank Holmes, Reasoning with Tosh). This musical talent was first put to formal use at the piano, which Peter’s Aunt required that he take lessons on. Later in his childhood Peter describes his unforgettable first interaction with the guitar

Me just one time see a mon in the country play guitar and say, "My, that mon play geetar nice." It just attract me so much that me just sat there taking it in for about a half-day and when him done-he was playin’ on e tune for the whole half-day-he had hypnotized me so much that my eyes extracted everything he had done with his fingers. I picked up the guitar and played the tune he had just played with him showin’ me a t’ing. And when he ask me who taught me I tell him it was him!

(Roger Steffens, "In the Path of the Steppin’ Razor")

One thing that a true Tosh might have picked out of this account is the fact that Peter was drawn to the guitar because of it’s hypnotizing power. This is a fact that is extremely apparent further down the line in Tosh’s stylings as a solo artist. More to the point though, this experience prompted Peter to build his own guitar and begin practicing. He extreme creativity was shown through it construction of common item, "Piece of board, sardine pan, and some plastic line, the plastic you use for fishing … get good sound too." (Roger Steffens and Hank Holmes, "Reasoning with Tosh"). In a later interview Tosh fondly referred to the crude musical innovation as, the "Wailers’ first guitar" (Timothy White

For Tosh music seemed to be a salvation. It was an undeniable part of him, he found at an early age. Not only was it a great pastime, but he found he could use it to combat his harsh environment he lived in. As Tosh attests, "music was a concept born in me, so anytime I sit down and relax I always think or play music, or write music." (Roger Steffens, "the Peter Tosh biography"). This great closeness with Peter and music is one that would shape his professional career and those of others including the original Wailers.

Another obstacle that Tosh faced was brain washing in his early education. He was taught that many people who had been essential players in the exploitation and oppression of his people were actually good and honest men who should be view as Champions. This sentiment was echoed in the early Tosh song "You Can’t Blame the Youth" in which he sought to enlighten the masses on this topic,

You teach the youth about Christopher Columbus, and you said he was a very great man. You teach the youth about Marco Polo, and you said he was a very great man. You teach the youth about the pirate Hawkins, and you said he was a very great man. You teach the you about the pirate Morgan, and you said he was a very great man. So you can’t blame the youth of today. You can’t fool the youth … All these great men were doin’ robbin’, rapin’, kidnappin’ and killin’

(Peter Tosh, Discography)

The environment in which Tosh was educated in was also cause for dismay. There seemed to be no positive black role models for the black youth to look up to and this added to their misfortune as Tosh explains,

When I came to the planet in the forties, The black people would be recognized as nobodies. To have never seen a black lawyer, a black judge, a black preacher, we become sheep without shepherds, children without parents, students without teachers, born in the conflict of poverty. All we had was nothing.

("Stepping Razor, Red X: the Peter Tosh story, Bush Doctor Films)

Although Tosh did learn the formal tools he would need throughout life such as basic literacy and writing skills his life was molded by the experience. Tosh again had to look within himself and his experiences for guidance, and now it seemed even truthful education.

In retrospect Tosh sees his formal education through the eyes of a Rasta, as he states, " the rastaman knows that teaching is limited source of a fool, seen? Because who, taught the first teacher, seen?"(Roger Steffens and Hank Holmes, "Reasoning with Tosh"). The answer is inevitably Jah. And Tosh went on to explain that he though formal education was bullshit and that none of the things that he preached and taught today, were learned in school. He also further explain the rastaman stance on schooling, "Well, you see, the rastaman send his child to school, to learn of the general shitstem, to learn how to read and write, you see, to learn that there’s a sign marked ‘Danger,’ seen?

Perhaps the institution that had even more effect on the young of Peter was the Church. Peter was raised to go to church. He saw the adult figures in his life going there and he believed that it was the right thing to do, because at the time these people where his only model to evaluate what was right. However, he is quick to point out that this was a belief without knowledge, and that a belief without knowledge is a dangerous thing. One who believes without knowledge can easily fall prey to brainwashing. Soon though, as one would expect Peter saw the apparent contradictions and inaccuracy in the church teachings as he explains,

They teach of the Devil, of Satin, and of Hell. And they teach me of Christians, but they make sure they teach me that Jesus the Son of God was a white man. . . . Black they say, I was born in sin. . . . One of the main songs we used to sing in Church, that makes me sick, "Lord wash me and I shall be whiter than snow." . . . I go to church and hear, God made man of his own likeness and image. If I made a doll in my image, it is quite obvious that the doll must look like me. Yet still I am faced with the ignorance, lost into fantasy, seeking to find the reality of what they told me of this illusion of God.

(Stepping Razor, Red X: the Peter Tosh story, Bush Doctor Films)

When Peter began seeing the truth behind the churches brainwashing and resisted it’s teachings. The inborn morality kicked in and he soon wanted no part of the church. Tosh explains this through the vehicle of baptism; "they try many times to baptize me, many times. [And you resisted?] Yes man, physical resistance and spiritual resistance. Yes, I. Because the reason why, there is truth inside of me . . ."

Again Peter was forced to rely on his own intellect and inner feelings in order to make a path for himself. While Peter’s relationship with the church was full of deceit and abuse the church did give one gift. Through his experiences with the church, Peter began a life long love affair with the sweet sound of harmonizing voices that would later become a staple in all of his music.

Through his experiences in both the church and schools of his early childhood Peter was taught about the shitstem he lived in and how to navigate in it to some extent. He learned that he should always trust his inner feelings of right and wrong and that many of the fundamental and widespread "beliefs" in his society were not necessarily right or true.

Perhaps the most important and influential struggle that shaped Peter’s life also was rooted in his childhood. This battle was between Peter and the evil spirits or "Duppies" or "Vampires" he believed where everywhere and often the culprits behind most malicious actions and oppressive forces. As he explains, "vampires don’t come out and bite your neck anymore. They cause a plane to crash or something destructive to happen"(Chris Boyle, "Word, Sound, and Power). Peter’s earliest remembrances of such battles were from when he was about six. Peter recalls a run I with a barbed wire fence in which the devil unsuccessfully tried to blind him. Peter reflects, "That was one of the first major pit of destruction the devil dug before my feet, so I would not see the ills, the corruption, the filth, the shit, the destruction, and the lies and hypocrisy." It was almost as if the evil forces of the world knew that Peter would be a champion against them. This theme of battling demons is one that would remain central in Tosh’s life.

At fifteen Tosh made the voyage to the city of Kingston after his Aunt died. Here he saw and experienced many things that would also influence and shape his worldview. Tosh looks back on Kingston and more specifically the Trenchtown area, which he lived rather bluntly, "The most dangerous things I ever heard or see in my life, is when I find myself in Trenchtown. Many youths in general become victims of the shitstem. I see them die. I here them cry." Instead of the being a place where Tosh could put his sharp mind to work, Kingston proved to be another testing ground for his confidence, self-determination, and morality.

After having lived in Kingston for a couple of years Tosh had another run in with devil this one proved to quite a bit more significant. Tosh explains an Incident that occurred while in bed one night,

I was attacked by evil forces, seen? Spiritual evil forces that cause my mouth to cease from function, cause my hands and legs to cease from moving. Is only my mind that was in function and my two eyes. As close as four of my friends was to me, which was about 12 inches away, I could not tell a man nothing, or ask a man to do anything to help me; and I was on the brink of what you call "death." Seen?

(Roger Steffens, "Rebel With a Cause")

Tosh goes on to explain that he finally got out of the situation through his own inner-communication. His inner spiritual self told him the only way out was to shout the Jamaican curse, Bumbaclot. He concurred and the evil spirits were released. This encounter gave Tosh a greater belief in the fact that there was a part of the creator in all of us. He also found the true power of the word "Bumbaclot" as a way to counteract the powerful demons and evil spirits of oppressors.

While Tosh had many experiences with spirits throughout his life this encounter ultimately proved to be most significant.

Another avenue that the devil chose to attack Peter Tosh in was through the both the Jamaican police force and the recording industry. Each took advantage of Tosh and abused him in one from or another.

The police used physical force and intimidation to fight Tosh. If they could find a reason to arrest and beat up Peter they did. In most of these occasion the obvious alibi for police brutality to hide behind was Tosh’s extreme love of the illegal drug marijuana. Tosh openly smoked herb and was not about to stop, which constantly viewed as a threat to the system. However, what received even more attention from officials in Jamaica and what was the reason behind the fiercest of all encounters between Tosh and the police was his on stage diatribes or "livatribes" as he liked to refer to them. The most infamous of all Tosh speeches the one he delivered to the crowd at the One Love Peace Concert, which promptly resulted in the worst beating of his life as Tosh recalls, "this time is 10! They locked me in a room and tried to ... ummmmm, what you should say . . . fracture my skull."

(Roger Steffens, Rebel With a Cause)

Tosh also suffered greatly at the hands of the collective music industry not only in Jamaica but worldwide. Tosh has been bounced around between producers and labels more times than one would like to count. From his early days with the Wailers at Studio One, to his infamous days at Island, to his mismatch with the Rolling Stones Peter Tosh has dealt with a lot of misrepresentation and deceit at the hands of the record industry. Much of Tosh’s music had been bought and sold without any of the money getting into his hands. For example, there was a few albums released in England under the false identity of "Peter Touch" (Roger Steffens and Hank Holmes, "Reasoning with Tosh"). Perhaps the most well known incident of conflict with the record industry is the alleged push by the Island label and specifically Chris Blackwell for Marley to become the focal point of the Wailers. Tosh makes his point simple,

I taught Bob Marley music, seen? And when my student is promoted and reach a potential of acceptance . . . well, it’s very good, but at the same time, remember the teacher. And they always tend to forget the teacher. They pretend as if the teacher never existed, seen?, and pretend as if the student’s potential is bigger than the teacher. And that is wrong totally wrong

(John Walker, "Tough Tosh")

All of these factors together, the suffering and tribulations that Tosh went through at the hands of the schools, church, state, recording industry and encarnates of Satin himself, all came together to form the public indenitiy so closely identified with Peter. Peter’s unusually strong stage prescense, song topics, and frequent on stage speeches and displays are a direct reflection of a life marked by oppression and deceit. Peter Tosh is an advocate of the little person the downtrodden man, because he is essentially one of them. He knows first hand what it is like to be abused and mislead. He made his goal to combat the roots of this oppression, because he could see the potential in people, he could envision a more perfect world where equal rights and justice were of the most importance, and where people lived as one. I believe that Tosh is best described in his own words, "a man of the past, living in the present, walking in the future".



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