31 Oct "'Steppin' Razor' Tosh carves out his own legacy"
October 31, 2003
by Dawn Davis
Many believed reggae icon Peter Tosh would have stepped into the space left open when Bob Marley died in 1981. But it was not to be.
Up to six years after Marley’s death, Tosh, a.k.a. “Steppin’ Razor,” was still not as revered, although he was well respected overseas, especially in Europe and Africa. Then in 1987 a murderer’s bullet took Tosh’s life, marking the end of such possibilities.
Yet although many expected Tosh to become Marley’s replacement, he certainly did not agree. In a 1983 High Times magazine interview he made his point clear: “I man no deh ya fe replace nobody. Bob do his work and leave, I have my work to do. The three hands that symbolize “Tuff Gong” on the label each symbolize one of us, the original Wailers. We did pledge asa group to continue the work of Rastafari, whatever happen. So I just continue the work, I not replacing no other worker. Bob use his style to give his message, I have to continue with mine. I no want to fit in a any slot. My job is to be the `constructive awakener’ of the black masses of the world so them know themself and others know what black people suppose to be, and where. I deh pon earth to preach, I am a walking speech.”
This year marks the 16th anniversary of the death of Peter Tosh, which abruptly ended the life of a man who was determined to speak for the poor and disadvantaged. Indeed Tosh’s outspokenness was legendary. His music focused on social injustice, as Marley’s music did.
But Tosh went a step further. He badgered what he considered to be a corrupt Jamaican government system, not just in song but in live performances as well. The “One Love Peace Concert” in Jamaica 1978 was the perfect opportunity for Tosh to deride the warring political parties (he certainly had the ear of the party leaders who sat in the front row).
Tosh’s music was not just socially conscious, he aired his positions on certain issues as well. In fact, the title track from his first solo work “Legalize It” – was banned in Jamaica because of its controversial stance on legalizing marijuana, Tosh’s sacred herb.
Miami-based radio personality and newspaper publisher Bevan “Duke” Earle knew Tosh personally.
“He was a very militant singer. He was not afraid to speak out,” Earle told Caribbean Today. “He made a tremendous impact on reggae music….and if he were alive today, he would be on top right now.”
Earle noted that Tosh’s style is being copied by some of today’s well-known musicians.
“Listen closely to South African singer Lucky Dube,” he urged.
Besides his legacy of music, Tosh left a consciousness that highlighted social injustice and the need for basic human rights. This awareness was evident from early in his life. Having had close ties with both Tosh and Marley, music promoter/producer Kareem Ali recalled his first impression of
Peter Tosh as a man who was “willing to die for what he believed in.” He noted that in Jamaica in the 1960s when marches and demonstrations were held in support of the civil rights movement in the United States, Tosh was always involved, and many times was beaten by the police.
“Peter really stood firm….To me that was very admirable,” Ali said.
Born Peter Hubert McIntosh in 1944 in Westmoreland, Jamaica, young Tosh was sent to live with his aunt who eventually moved them to Denham Town in Kingston. In ensuing years, he moved in with an uncle in one of Kingston’s volatile ghettos, Trench Town. There he met Marley and Neville Livingstone
(Bunny Wailer), forming their group, the Wailin’ Wailers in the early 1960s, then eventually becoming simply The Wailers.
Joe Higgs, an up and coming name in the music industry at the time, served as a unifying force behind the Wailin’ Wailers. They often gathered at Higgs’s house to jam and rehearse. From the beginning, their music was punctuated with social commentary, with biting words against political manipulation.
The group’s first hit, under the Studio One label, was “Simmer Down”. It spoke about conditions in Kingston’s ghettos. The group produced a string of hits after that, including the popular “Rude Boy” and “Trench Town Rock”. The defiant, inspirational hit co-written by Marley and Tosh, “Get Up, Stand Up”, catapulted The Wailers to their highest level of acceptance. This song was one of two penned by Tosh on the “Burnin”‘ album.
However, with all this success, there were hints of conflict between the two strongest personalities in the group Marley and Tosh. “Catch A Fire”, released in 1973 was the group’s last collaboration. In fact, the group’s name was now “Bob Marley and The Wailers”. Although Tosh wrote two of the songs on that album (“Stop That Train” and “400 Years”), it seemed Marley was now fronting the group. Many felt Tosh had the better voice, but Marley was considered more saleable to the U.S. market.
On why Tosh was not as loved as Marley, Ali explained: “He was not charismatic, he did not have mass appeal. When you are an extremist and a radical like he was, it takes time to understand people like Peter Tosh. He did not have the mass appeal like Bob Marley did. Bob was very charismatic,
flamboyant and friendly….Peter wasn’t as warm and receptive, but if you knew him, he was a good person. He was a radical, he stood up for the cause.”
Tosh went on to have a successful solo career. However, he did not get the same recognition Marley did. His political cynicism and radical views continued to be the major messages in his music.
His defiance and fearlessness against the political establishment shone through in music he created in the 1970s and 1980s: “Downpressor Man”, “African”, “You Can’t Blame the Youth”, and “Equal Rights”. His most controversial – “Legalize It” (1976) – became the anthem of the Rastafarian community.
This period was Tosh’s most prolific. He released “Mama Africa” and “Wanted Dread or Alive” in the mid-1980s, again revealing a consciousness that never wavered. He also worked with The Rolling Stones, producing albums that were widely accepted in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. did not escape
Tosh’s biting commentary. The title song from his album, “No Nuclear War”, recorded in 1987, underscored the cry for world peace, the injustices of apartheid, and the dangers of nuclear war in a time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at odds.
Recognized for its powerful messages and musical quality, Tosh was posthumously awarded the Grammy in 1988 for “No Nuclear War”, the last album he created before his death Sept. 11, 1987.
In a 1987 interview with Chris Boyle of Reggae and African Beat, Tosh explained his motivations for writing “No Nuclear War”: “The world is being held ransom by what they call two superpowers. Seen? Russia and the United States. And as defender of the universe, I don’t hope to or intend to sit down and play dumb. I am a spokesman for the Almighty.”
Indeed, if he were alive today, many believe Tosh’s music would be a major force in the music industry. Says Ali: “Peter Tosh was one of the revolutionary forces in the musical tradition. Bob is the greatest, I can never dispute that, but he (Tosh) was certainly a strong contributing force….They (The Wailers) certainly helped to change the face of music. I think he would have made a tremendous impact on music today. He was always cutting edge, motivational. His music was filled with messages, social issues with a revolutionary approach.”
Sixteen years after his death, Tosh’s protest music for equal rights and justice is still remembered. For the past 10 years, his legacy has been celebrated with a festival on the anniversary of his birthday.
This year will be no different. Besides the musical tributes planned in Jamaica, on Oct. 26 a musical tribute to the legendary Peter Tosh will be held at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater in Miami, Florida. A Tosh film festival and symposia is also planned for the week-long schedule of activities.
Praising the musical icon for “his unwillingness to back off from principles that he knew were sound,” community activist Don “Rico” Ricketts looked at the musical icon from the perspective of a staunch Garveyite. Ricketts notes with concern the fact that the U.S. tribute launch is being
held in a hotel owned by Chris Blackwell, the former manager/producer of The Wailers. Claiming that Tosh, and indeed Bunny Wailer, were philosophically opposed to Blackwell, he decried the “ideological contradiction of having a launch of a tribute to Peter Tosh in a hotel on South Beach owned by somebody who Peter and Bunny didn’t make any doubts about how they felt about him.”
Ricketts also noted that it is Tosh’s children who are making the decisions about the tribute. The problem, he explains, is “a lot of the children of the famous people who stood up so strongly, and how much they are willing to compromise the very issues that brought the fame and favor, not to mention the fortune, to their parents. This is what these young people are betraying.”
“Peter was the blade and the fire,” Ricketts added. “Any tribute to Peter ought to be looked at so that it doesn’t end up becoming something like the Bob Marley tribute where thousands of drunken, misbehaving, primarily and increasingly white young people, use it as an excuse to disrespect the very values and culture that Bob represents – what has become the commodification of culture….But I salute those who are making it (Peter Tosh tribute) happen.”
Part of the homage will include the creation of a tribute album thatpromises to bring together many of today’s music stalwarts performing Tosh’s music. Revenue from the sales of the album is expected to be used to build a museum in Tosh’s honor in his hometown in Westmoreland, as well as erecting a basic school, library and health center. The reggae icon’s mausoleum will also be repaired.
Although Peter Tosh never experienced the god-like admiration Marley did, his unflinching desire to uplift his people and tear down the walls of injustice will always be remembered.