Last week, I had the chance to listen to Don Letts’ BBC Radio 4’s Documentary about the life and work of Peter Tosh.
Here’s the description:
Peter Tosh found international fame alongside Bob Marley as a member of The Wailers. As a solo artist he released several landmark reggae albums and even recorded with the Rolling Stones. But he was more than just a successful pop star: he was a revolutionary and a hero to many of Jamaica’s poor. He spent his life as a strident campaigner for civil rights and for the legalisation of marijuana. He was more militant and political than his former band mate and his uncompromising arrogance often landed him in serious trouble. For that reason, as this documentary reveals, his life could be as brutal as the way it ended. Grammy award winning film-maker Don Letts explores his career.
The documentary opens with excerpts from interviews with people who knew Peter Tosh:
Peter Tosh was the Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King. One was the arouser and one was the healer. But Peter was much more on the side of militancy. (Roger Steffens, Reggae Historian)
His songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Brown, Ben Harper, Chrissie Hynes from the Pretenders, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Sinnead O’Connor. (Wayne Jobson, DJ and producer)
Peter was adored as a revolutionary in Jamaica. He was so charismatic and he was saying very much what the people thought. (Vivien Goldman, Journalist)
Don Letts’ opens the documentary with the following statement:
Peter Tosh was not your average rockstar and as a person you probably won’t even like him. He could be arrogant, unpleasant and intimidating. But for me he was also a completely awe-inspiring performer, a revolutionary who stood up for the equal rights of the Jamaican poor and Black people all over the world. They always call Bob Marley the Reggae Rebel but Peter Tosh was far more militant and political than Bob ever was. His uncompromising attitude often caused controversy and landed him in serious trouble and as you will hear his life could sometimes be as brutal as the way it ended.
As Bob Marley archivist Roger Steffens states:
He made a guitar out of wire and a sardine can and taught himself to play by watching an older man who actually had a guitar.
According to Jamaican-American Wayne Johnson, producer of the documentary Red X, about Peter Tosh:
I think with him growing up in Jamaica during the colonial days in the 50s and so it was you know as Peter said you never saw a Black school teacher, or a Black preacher or a Black bank manager or anything like it was all English people who came down and took the big jobs and therefore you know eventually you would want to rebel against this especially with the church where he was forced to go to church two, three times a week and every day he was singing “O Lord wash me and I’ll be as white as snow.” You can’t oppress anybody worse than that you know and so Peter said it was almost like apartheid in those days.
In a 1983 BBC Interview, Peter Tosh explains:
I was the first one in the group who played music. I used to play my guitar. I used to play the keyboards. I taught Bob to play guitar and I taught Bunny to play guitar because it was a part of making your music perfect see. And in those times is like we had a good voice but we wasn’t creating music that music that much it was just singing people song and singing people son and the people been telling us that we sound good why don’t go to the studio so we got together once and we did some recording recorded the first one which was Simmer Down and the people loved it. It sold well.
As Vivien Goldman explains:
I don’t think I’ve ever had as many arguments with anybody in my life as I did with Peter Tosh.I remember once I was interviewing him, he was like “Women are inferior to men!” I was like “Why is that?” you know “Oh look at the docks , if you go down to the docks a woman can’t pick up a heavy bag and carry it the same way a man can.” And there was you know there was quite embedded in Rasta certain things for women their period was regarded to be unclean but he was really into it “Oh!!!!” you know “ Are you having your period? Should you be in the room with me know?” I was like excuse me, I’m here as a working professional matey.
The Guardian’s Review of Arise Black Man The Peter Tosh Story by Elisabeth Mahoney
Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives Website
Vivien Goldman’s Blog
The many voices of Rastafarian women : sexual subordination in the midst of liberation by O. Lake (essay available online)