23 Mar PETER TOSH REMEMBERED: A CONVERSATION WITH NIAMBE MCINTOSH
A Conversation with Niambe McIntosh
Mike Ragogna: What do you think of Peter’s impact on reggae music?
Niambe McIntosh: I think that Peter took reggae music to places far beyond the traditional topics of love, friendship and cultural amusements, and into the realms of three primary and powerful areas: (1) songs of freedom, awareness of the world around one, and the Global struggle for equality and justice, and against oppression, (2) songs for the search for truth and for personal and spiritual knowledge and enlightenment and accountability, and self-fulfillment, and (3) songs about legalization and medicinal benefits of marijuana. I will further note that as he had also written, published and performed the first song, “Apartheid,” ever released on a major record label, which specifically addressed and criticized apartheid laws in South Africa, I think that he had a major impact on all popular music, and perhaps on World opinions in general.
MR: What are some of your favorite memories of both the artist and how his music affected you?
NM: As the youngest of my ten brothers and sisters and being only five when my father passed, all of my memories of my dad are from the stories of him that have been shared with me as I grew up. Amongst family and friends, my father was a man of many facets; he was serious, loving, and very humorous. People recall seeing that tall, handsome and lanky Rastafarian on his unicycle, guitar in his arms, fresh mangoes in his pocket, and often a bird or two on his shoulder, singing and strumming and peddling his unicycle around the streets of Kingston, handing out fruit to children who flocked to behold this strange sight! And that was after he had already become a so-called international superstar! I love my father’s music, and became even more fond of his songs in my late teenage years and even now as an adult. I can listen to his songs — and he wrote many, many songs in his life — without growing weary. Maybe that is aided by the messages in his works, as they seem to have an added dimension. They have guided me throughout my life, including in giving up a lucrative young career in engineering, to become a public school teacher in inner-city schools. I saw that as a part of my calling. And the same applies to my becoming the administrator of the Peter Tosh Estate. As my father had urged, I want to “live clean and let my works be seen.”
MR: Why do you think Legalize It and his other popular works resonated with the public?
NM: First, with Legalize It, it is important to understand that marijuana grows — both cultivated and in the wild — just about everywhere in Jamaica, and every day of the year. Hemp is a very resilient plant! And on top of his Rastafari beliefs, he also saw that, as he also saw other medicinal and other qualities and benefits from and in this organic herb, and also saw the sad state of the Jamaican economy. So why was — and is — this organic plant classified as a “dangerous drug,” and so many other truly dangerous substances are not? And he also then saw how politicians and organized criminals were profiting from the laws that classified that herb as illegal, and realized there was something even larger and darker than mere ignorance at work, so he used his gifts for music and songwriting to create the all-time classic song for legalization of marijuana — as is still recognized, even today, by Rolling Stone and other modern journals.
On the second part of your question, in addition to writing repetitively on his three different powerful messages of which legalization of marijuana was one, see my descriptions above. Throughout his career, he further toyed with other songs as well — I again remind you of Peter’s sense of humor and whimsy. Peter wrote wonderful melodies, was an incredibly versatile and accomplished musician, as Eric Clapton saw fit to mention in his recent autobiography, and had an extraordinary voice and always worked along with the very finest musicians, whether in the studio or on the road.
MR: What do you think of the state of reggae?
NM: Reggae continues to grow and evolve. The level of popularity for reggae — and sometimes it becomes hard to define what may be classified as “reggae” — may ebb and flow, but there is definitely a global fan base, that is becoming more globalized all the time. And I must point out that at the Earth Strong Celebration for my father’s birthday, in Belmont, Jamaica, on October 20, we saw some of Jamaica’s very finest talent, some new and some familiar, and they are artists who are definitely world-class!
MR: Are there any artists out there who seem to either emulate Peter’s approach to music or have the same musical or topical approach?
NM: There are many, many artists who have similar, but different approaches to my father. Peter was around for the first streams of Afro-Pop music, like King Sunny Ade, Fela and Lucky Dube. Many rappers clearly were influenced by Peter and some, if not all, of his messages. Musicians, like Dead Prez, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Black Starr are a of fraction of them.
MR: Regarding Peter’s material, is there something about it that separates it from the rest of reggae?
NM: He was a pioneer, and a rebel, but above all else, he was hugely talented, and also was “a character.” People would go to his concerts, or line up to buy his latest record, not knowing quite what to expect. But his music showed you could be cool and tough, without being violent or a hoodlum. That resonates with me as a teacher of inner-city students. He sang that you could be “The Toughest,” and that swagger really still hits home for so many teens, but then he sings of righteousness: “Stop from doing wrongs; Change your foolish plans; Stop from doing wrongs; Live up like a man.”
MR: What do you think Peter thought of his having been part of one of the most popular musical acts in history, The Wailers?
NM: That’s a good question, as it’s a complicated one. In many ways, The Wailers was the most important influence on his life, and he kept and wrote about the lessons he learned about the record business and music industry, issues of trust and friendship and other changes that developed as a result of his experience with The Wailers. The Wailers was started as band of three youths — teenagers, really — who were best of friends, and so interdependent that their relationship was reflected in their three-fisted logo. They were young and naïve, and wanted to do things together, and it didn’t matter if one person had an idea for a song, as the others would join in on the writing, and help to shape it and the lyrics. They were starving, but they were energetic, young and proud, and they were inseparable friends — and they were really, really good! But things were balanced — as Bunny and Peter were more skilled at singing harmony, they were relatively unconcerned if Bob therefore more often sang the lead; after all, they were all best friends for life, right? And then, suddenly, everything had changed, and songs that had been collaboratively written suddenly were being attributed to one person or the other, and new works were no longer handled with the same degree of collaboration, and the sound wasn’t as pure, and outside forces — in Jamaica and in Europe — were pulling them apart, in different directions. I was not yet born, of course, but friends, family and others have all led me to believe that had all weighed heavily on my father’s heart. He had held The Wailers, of which he was an indelible part, as was Bunny, as almost an invincible icon, and yet it had been shattered, just as the band was emerging from poverty and into a world stage. Fortunately, both Peter and Bunny decided that it was best to interpret the forced metamorphosis of The Wailers into “Bob Marley & The Wailers” as a sign that they should move in their own predetermined directions — as Peter would later sing, as men “of the past, living in the present, and walking in the future.” And of course, Bunny and Peter continued to be friends and to collaborate long after they left The Wailers.
MR: Did Peter feel that his music was helping to create change?
NM: I think he did. I know that he hoped that it would. He saw himself as having received a gift from Jah (his voice and his songwriting and instrumental talents) and that he had a responsibility to follow through on that. He also had an extraordinary intellectual talent — he was an avid reader, followed current events very carefully, and even taught himself not only various martial arts (he ultimately received black belt certification) and aspects of herbal medicine (and not just ganja!) and Rastavegetarian diet, but even taught himself Amharic, the language of ancient Ethiopia (Abyssinia). So I think he wanted not only to write and perform songs that would change people — and accordingly, the world — but also to lead by way of personal example.
MR: If he were alive today, what kinds of topics would he be writing about?
NM: Wow, that’s a tough one. Peter had written a song called “Crystal Ball,” and that would require me not just to look into it, but also to understand whatever I saw! But one of his sons, my brother Jawara, is currently in jail in New Jersey on ganja charges, and I think Peter would probably write and sing about that. After all, in his last studio album No Nuclear War, for which he received a posthumous Grammy — the first ever awarded for a reggae album — there was the song “Nah Goa Jail” for “ganja no more.” And also, his mother, my beloved grandmother, Mrs. Coke, only just passed away on October 27, at age 96. I like to think he would write a song about the lessons one can learn, and the debts one must appreciate, for one’s family and their elders, in loving memory and tribute to her. Despite the branding of my father as a “firebrand,” he really was more like a really powerful and effective teacher and leader, in my eyes.
MR: What is Peter Tosh’s legacy?
NM: In 1978, after Peter had been severely beaten by 8-10 policemen with Billy clubs, in a locked Kingston jail, for allegedly having been found outside of a recording studio, with the end of a marijuana cigarette in his hand, which apparently he had blown away, when an officer had grabbed him, and Peter was finally left for dead, after his skull had been shattered in numerous places, most of his ribs had been broken, and his hands had been crushed. I have been told — who knows if it is true — that after that, Peter was taken to the hospital, clinging to his life; he would be there for months. Bob Marley had visited him, seen his battered body and wept. I have further been told that Bob had pleaded with Peter that he must move away from Jamaica — it was a miracle he was even alive — and that Peter had murmured “No Mon, I no leave Jamaica. I no afraid of dem, I no afraid of nobody, and Babylon no chase me away. I not afraid of dying, as Jah is with me.” To me, that sort of bravery, and harmony with oneself and with the World, is the true legacy of Peter Tosh. His harmony was based on his belief that he was not going to give up, and that he would keep fighting, whether it was until Africans are free, or there would be equal rights and justice for all, or people will not go to jail for ganja anymore.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
NM: Listen to my father’s works. It may seem odd or “uncool” for young artists to listen to songs from the 1970s and 1980s, but his works are really timeless. He was, and still is, an original, and the thousands of people who flock to the sleepy and very lovely area of Belmont (near Negril) in Southern Jamaica, to pay their unfailing respect to Peter, are testimony to that timelessness. He really is walking in the future!