by Frank Talk Staff writers circa 1987
The Mark of the Beast
“I see the mark of the beast on their ugly faces.
I see them congregating in ugly places,
Me, say me know dem a wicked
Me know dem a wicked”
So wrote Winston Hubert McIntosh , known to us as Peter Tosh, in 1975. He wrote these lines almost immediately after being beaten with a rifle butt, and handcuffed to a stretcher by policemen who broke into his house while he was having a party. The message was clear: any militant youth, even a star, could be laid flat by the state.
Others felt the mark of the beast as well. In 1976, two days before Bob Marley and the Wailers agreed to perform in the Smile Jamaica concert, seven gunmen went out to Bob’s house and shot up the place wounding several people including Marley, whom they were apparently intending to murder.
Edward Seaga’s (widely known as “CIAga”) Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) was blamed for the shooting, but JLP rivals, the PNP probably collaborated as well. And not surprisingly, Yankee imperialism had its grubby hands in the incident: at the retreat Bob was secreted to by the Manley government after the shooting, one of the few people allowed in as ‘film crew’ turned out to be Carl Colby, the son of the then-CIA director William Colby.
Tosh himself performed at the Smile Jamaica concert and took the opportunity in front of 3 000 to dress down the entire Jamaican ruling elite, Manley and ‘CIAga’ included, lecturing on the iniquities of the political “shitstem” while smoking an outlawed cigarsize spliff.
Within a month of the concert, the beast once again sunk its teeth into Tosh. He was attacked on the street by police and assaulted. A British reporter later queried him: “You really think they meant to kill you?” In a prophetic reply, Tosh said: “if you got eight to ten guys beating the inside of you whole with wood and iron and destructive elements for over an hour what the fuck do you think they intend to do? What do they think I was made of? They got orders to do that seen? Cos’ of the thing I think I talk, like what I talk at the peace concert to government ministers and so on which them don’t like. The police take upon their head to show that is wrong, wrong speaking on behalf of poor people, people who have been humiliated on behalf of the system.”
Speaking out on behalf of the people Peter continued to do. At a concert in Swaziland, thousands of people who had traveled long distances to get to the concert were left at the gate unable to enter. In the middle of the concert Peter called a musician’s strike: “Calling all promoters a cyaam ah stage; it sound like no sense that the people outside cannot afford to pay to come in, and they’re standing out there just getting the fragrance of the music.” He left the stage, returning ten minutes later to denounce the bankruptcy of the Swaziland regime: “It sound to me like I’m down in North Carolina or down in Texas. I and I don’t come to support this ancient 15th century colonialism which depresses I and I integrity, I dignity. I want to know if the promoter open the gates YET!” The gates were opened.
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the death of Bantu Steve Biko, a stunned and outraged Azania heard that the Vampire had martyred Peter Tosh. One of the reasons why Tosh was in Jamaica on September 11, 1987 was to attend a court hearing in civil claim he had launched against the government which had repeatedly been adjourned. This claim arose out of an incident with a customs officer at the Kingston airport early in 1987. A fight broke out over a customs matter and Tosh’s pregnant wife was beaten, causing her to miscarry.
The night of the killing, Peter was at his home in Barbican, a hilly suburb of Kingston, with his wife Marlene and three friends. At about 20h00 the dogs barked, announcing visitors at the gate outside. Michael Robinson, a craft worker and friend of Tosh went down to check and discovered Dennis Lobban (also known as ‘Leppo’), an occasional visitor and friend of Tosh, and two other men in business suits. They were led past the dogs, and once upstairs the three men demanded money from Tosh. When they drew guns, Tosh laughed at them. At some point, radio disc jockey Free-I and his wife walked in on the hold up. Peter Tosh was beaten and pistol whipped.
Eventually all were forced at gunpoint to lie face down on the floor, and the gunmen proceeded to shoot everyone in the head. After shooting Peter, one was heard to say to the other, “are you sure he’s dead?” Then they shoot him twice again.
Marlene said she and the others survived their wounds by playing dead in the darkened house. After a brief ransacking, the killers left everyone for dead and escaped in to the night on motorcycles of a type only available to the Jamaican police and the political murder gangs. Peter was dead ten minutes later after being taken to the hospital by neighbours. A herbal healer and friend, Wilton ‘Doc’ Brown, died instantly, and Free-I (Jeff Dixon) died several days later. The survivors of the assault were Santa Davis (the drummer in Peter’s last band) Yvonne Dixon, Michael Robinson and Marlene Tosh.
The official story was that Tosh was killed in a random robbery attempt. Almost no-one take this seriously. Literally everyone in Jamaica knew Peter, and any shooting had to be a deliberate act. This story sounded even more ridiculous when two weeks after the execution, Marlene Tosh was shot at in the street by unknown assailants as she was returning home. She was unharmed. And Tosh’s execution occurred as Jamaica lurched into election time, a time traditionally marked by bloody gang warfare between the PNP and the JLP. His whole persona rested on his refusal to be a doormat for anyone. In fact he was the one musician who steadfastly refused to have dealings with any of the Jamaican politicians.
As Tosh’s funeral was being held in the national arena in Kingston, in occupied Azania we were forcefully reminded of Mongane Serote’s message about Bra Steve in the poem Time has Run Out, as we commemorated the tenth anniversary of Steve’s murder:
“the bright eye of the night keeps whispering, when it paves and pages the clouds it is knowledgeable about hideous nights, when it winks and keeps winking like that, its like a breathing burning wood – I feel looked at walking and silent like this in the night in this strange land which mutes scream.”
Get Up Stand Up
Peter Tosh was born on 9 October 1944, in the aftermath of the 1938 Uprising and calls for self determination from Britain, which had taken over the island from Spain in the 17th century. The Spaniards had exterminated the indigenous Arawak population and gradually introduced slaves from Africa. The mass struggles that characterised the Uprising had threatened the whole plantation economy. In creating the PNP in 1938, Norman Manley – a member of the local petit bourgeoisie – took advantage of, and reaped the benefit from, these mass struggles.
In 1949, Manley expelled the left from the PNP in the wake of McCarthyite anti-communist hysteria. Sir Alexander Bustamente and Manley then engaged in strong competition which divided the working class with political warfare and escalating violence. Bustamente imprinted his authoritarian stamp on trade unionism in Jamaica by organising workers under Bustamente’s Industrial Trade Union and its political party, the JLP.
On August 6, 1960 Jamaica became independent with full dominion status within the Commonwealth. Jamaican society moved from formal colonialism to constitutional independence on the pretentious motto “out of many, one people.” Such a myth of race harmony belied the lopsidedness of the economy and the unequal division of the social product.
As Jamaica lurched from British crown colony to US neo-colony, the island’s local bourgeoisie got a lift as they hitched themselves to this new capital and the freshly stirred waves of nationalism that surged up of the independence celebration of 1962. They had a new style of rule, and a greater freedom and necessity to promote and especially try to gain control of a national culture. In the late 1950’s Jamaica was getting ripped apart by American capital more intensively than almost any other Caribbean island.
Political careerists perpetuated racial stereotypes of the Jamaican masses as a happy-go-lucky people, in a hot house effort to organise recreation for the metropolitan bourgeoisie. Public policy was influenced by the desire to provide the economic infrastructure (electricity, water, roads) and the correct hospitality (a smiling populace) in order to give the proper welcome to tourists. Incredible images of an island in the sun, its people romantically poor, were backed up by advertisements in the New York Times – Rent a Villa, Rent a Car, Rent a Nanny. Meanwhile rural Jamaicans flocked to Kingston to survive, pitching thin shacks on a reclaimed garbage dump in the harbour. Today a third of Jamaica’s population live in Kingston, and a third of Kingston live in the slums.
In 1972, Michael Manley (the son of Norman Manley), a bourgeois careerist became premier. Surrounding himself with gunmen, Manley orchestrated various strategies to suppress, undermine or rob Rasta culture of its significance. Exploiting the spiritual and metaphysical content of Rastafari he likened himself to the biblical Joshua and called his African walking stick a rod of correction, claimed it was a gift to him from Haile Selassie. Co-option of Rasta here reached its apogee.
In 1980 Edward ‘CIAga’ of the JLP took over as premier. The son of the white Jamaican ruling class family, raised in the USA and the product of a Harvard education, ‘CIAga’ returned to Kingston to dabble in anthropological work focused on traditional folk and music practises. He set up a small recording studio in Kingston to document his work, but soon turned his attention to the music coming out of the West Kingston ghettoes and began a career as a record producer.
His music credentials guaranteed ‘CIAga’ a constituency in the ghettos of West Kingston when he entered politics in the late 1960s. Soon guns and systematic gangster-style violence were part of his campaign to force ‘loyalty’ among this angry and volatile section of the population.
Michael Thelwell’s classic novel of Kingston ghetto life The Harder They Come captures that anger and volatility and the music that was born of it. In one passage, Ivan, a Kingston rude boy (ghetto youth in and around the Jamaican music scene), tries to visit his family’s home in the mountains after several years of living in the city. He finds the place of his growing up covered over by bush.
“There was no evidence of the passage of his generations the ancestors whose intelligence, industry and skill had created a self-sufficient homestead there. None at all”. His grandmother had died several years earlier; his mother was back down in Kingston working at starvation pay as a washerwoman; his uncles were long gone off the land and had met their ends all over the globe … He wanted to go get a machete to cut a path to the graves and clear the bush away. But what de raas is de use…What’s the fuckin use? …
He continued down the road to the former house of Maas Nattie the man who had raised him like a father, and discovered that two American tourist had taken over the backyard and were lazily smoking ganja and sunbathing, stark naked. Ivan watched while one of them tried to milk a male goat, then jumped on his motorbike on disgust and sped over the mountains and through the foothills choked with bauxite dust, back down to Kingston. “From that moment on, he refused to look back, band with nothing to lose, he shot the cops and sang his way to notoriety. He was an outlaw and a fearless hero to those being ground up in this new urban ‘promised land’-a concrete jungle where you couldn’t even find a clean glass of water, let alone a day’s work. “
It is in the context of Ivan’s story that we can better appreciate Peter Tosh’s anthem, Get Up, Stand Up:
And now you see the light.
We gonna stand up for our rights.
Get up, stand up
Don’t let them push you ’round
Stand up for your rights…
Steppin’ Razor… Dangerous
Sometime in the late 1950’s transistor radios began to appear on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. On clear evenings when the wind was blowing from the north, the thousands of people were then streaming in from the mountains could pick up the r&b and early rock ‘n roll of Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Brooke Benton, the Drifters and Chuck Berry from US radio stations in nearby New Orleans and Miami.
Youth like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, themselves recently arrived from the country to the shantytowns of West Kingston, tuned in. So did the local mento musicians who would soon merge their Jamaican style calypso with the r&b sound, along with the strains of gospel, jazz, Latin riffs from nearby islands, and the African rhythms of the Rasta Burru drummers. The new hybrid became ska – a speedy dance music with a wicked backbeat. The originators of this sound included the Skatallites, made up of the cream of Jamaica’s jazz men who had grown tired of answering tourist requests for “Yellow Bird” and bastardised calypso.
For years very little of this music was allowed on Jamaican radio, but meanwhile it pulsed through the nation as people dance to the rolling ‘sound systems’ trucks stacked with monster speakers and manned by maniac deejays who waged a rowdy war among themselves to be the first to spin a new single.
When, in early 1960’s, this pop music became slick and soft and could not satisfy the demanding appetites of Jamaican youth, DJ’s like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid opened recording studios, and produced ska, later Rock steady and finally reggae. These musical forms challenged the dominance of white American music and marked a crucial break with the sex and romance themes of commercial white music. Despite their element of spiritual deliverance, the music of Rasta was pregnant with social criticism.
Beginning in 1963, an historic collaboration took place in Coxsone’s Studio One between the Skatallites and the Wailers (including Bob Marley and Peter Tosh) who were one of the expert harmony groups then springing up in the government yards (housing projects). The astonishing music that issued from these sessions would soon put the new generation of rude boys like Ivan on the stage for the first time:
Jail house keeps empty
Rudie gets healthy
Baton sticks get shorter
Rudie gets taller
Dem a rude rude people
What has been hidden
From the wise and the polluted
Will be revealed
In the heat of the summer sun
Oh Rudie, be wise
– from Jailhouse (aka Rudie) The Wailers c. 1965.
Rarely has a song so captured the brooding and insolent confidence of youth coming of age in an inhabitable place which is itself ‘new’, but already a virtual bombsite. The musical response at the end of each line came like a threat and a statement of fact – sung in the sweetest of harmonies. One of Peter Tosh earliest works, I’m the toughest (cut originally to a ska beat), virtually canonized the swagger of the Kingston rude boy in the mid- 60’s.
This type of thing was not at all what the local bourgeoisie had in mind for their “post-independence” Jamaican culture, and all along the way they tried to redirect it – with ‘CIAga’ often as pointman. At first the Skatallites was ridiculed of playing ‘Bongo’ music, but as early as 1964, ‘CIAga’, as minister of development, tried to take over ska, introducing it to a New York World’s Fair with a hand picked delegation of musicians passing over the universally acknowledged rude boy originators.
The official policy on these unruly “seeds” was clearly to “Kill it, before they grow.” as one famous song would put it. But in the next few years, as ska slowed down into the rock steady style and finally reggae, the music became dominated by the rude boys. Banned from the radio, reggae took over the sound system, dances and jukeboxes, selling huge numbers of singles and the rude boys with their thick natty dreadlocks became the symbol of a divided national culture, in which a polite society (to say nothing of the tourist board!) expressed horror at these rebels while the rude boys chanted down Babylon.
While reggae, like any musical form, has also produced its share of insipid love songs and boring pop re-makes, the best reggae musicians (and the pioneers on this side of reggae history are Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh) have always considered themselves ‘warriors against Babylon’. And the sound of the music has from the beginning attracted the ears of thousands of youth like Ivan who know from tortuous experience that “there is no going back to simpler times.”
1984: It was seven in the morning and the sun was just peeking above the sea in Montego Bay, Jamaica. A crowd of several Jamaicans, Americans and assorted travellers were assembled before the empty stage at the water’s edge. They had spent four days at this World Music Festival – the finale promised to be worth waiting for. Dreadlocked Jamaicans began moving up towards the stage chanting: “Teacher, teacher” The musicians took their places, the groove set in, and a deep and familiar baritone sang out from backstage:
Better watch your step/
I’m dangerous, dangerous
Peter Tosh strode in elegant and menacing in martial arts gear. A roar went up. As he stalked the stage, brandishing a scabbard, light broke and a rainbow suddenly materialised behind him. There were ahs, cheers and laughter. He ended the song into rap: “Every time I drive ten yards Babylon try to stop you! What kind of ting is dat? And in this twenty first century they lock you up for a spliff.”
As he moved back into the music, the crowd broke into a spontaneous “WE want the truth!” The set ended with a hypnotic twenty-minute rendition of Get Up, the sun dancing brightly now with a jubilant crowd singing along with their anthem.
Tosh was well-known for his real-life ferocity against the powers-that-be and any feckless representative of the authorities (he used to swing a machete in the face of reporters he didn’t like – just for fun). When he took the stage you came face to face with an “arrogant Blackman who made no apologies to the oppressor”. One simply cannot image Tosh in white suit graciously serving drinks poolside!
His Steppin’ Razor provided the backdrop for one of the unforgettable sequences in reggae cinema, the gathering of dreads from all corners of Kingston as they embark on an anti-Babylon caper in the film Rockers.
Culture from America, both what’s helpful to the oppressed and especially what isn’t, gets beamed out to all to points of the empire and beyond, with the hope of spawning simpleminded sycophants of everything Yankee. Instead, it’s been met with the blistering reply of those they oppress, who have more than once transformed these sounds into new art forms – in the case of reggae, creating music as untamed and inspiring as much of the early r&b and rock ‘n roll, and even fiercer, to match the intensified heat of the teeming ghettoes thrown up on this colonized island.
Moreover, when reggae gets carried around the planet to places where there are only batteries to power the rare tape recorder, it is beyond doubt that a very chord has been struck among the masses.
No artist of the stature of Peter Tosh could exist outside the swirl of controversy and among reggae fans and critics, this extended to tempestuous debate over his style of music. The tired bromide ‘gone commercial’ got trotted out here usually in reference to Tosh’s habit of incorporating funk, soca, blues, disco and especially rock into his brand of reggae, which some condemned as “abandoning the roots.”
When this came out of the mouths of certain American and British pop critics (“The music lacks its simplicity raw power that was its most attractive quality”), it sounded like a scolding for over stepping the bounds of some notion of third world sensibility – and rephrased, might well have read “What’s become of our noble savage?”
As Tosh’s audience broadened out, and had come to include some people whose idea of liberation did not extend much past Legalise it (marijuana), Tosh was accused of some of becoming whitewashed. Apparently it is the fate of any artist with something profound to say that the minute they create art of such universal beauty and depth that it attracts a large and contradictory audience, they will face charges of “treason” even from the very folks who are dramatically represented in the art, and therefore have every reason to defend such artist.
Rasta as Political Doctrine
It may strike some revolutionaries as peculiar, or even unbelievable, that some of the most rebellious people in the cultural arena on the planet today read the bible for daily guidance and regard a daily despotic Ethiopian ruler as leader and holy man. That this is the case reveal something about our moment in history: the world at a treacherous pass, the way forward not very clear…many roads of resistance are taken. The doctrine of Peter Tosh was the Rastafarian religion.
The Pan Africanist call of ‘Africa for the Africans’ rang from the white highlands to the goldmines of Johannesburg. One of those who heard this rallying call was Marcus Garvey, one of the 126 000 workers who between 1902 and 1919 escaped the drudgery and abysmally low wages in Jamaica and migrated to Britain.
Garvey organised the Universal Negro Improvement Association(UNIA) on his return to Jamaica, and later in the US, to cement the bonds of racial consciousness. Garvey and UNIA stood in confrontation with capital, hence his newspaper, the Negro World, was banned.
UNIA’s mushrooming economic enterprises were economically sabotaged, and Marcus Garvey was first incarcerated and then deported from the US in 1927. He returned to the poverty stricken society that was Jamaica with a call for the poor to struggle and free themselves and channelled organised opposition and resistance into the Peoples Political Party. The Party called for self government and for breaking with the fawning imitation of everything British.
To many workers and farmers Garvey was a prophet, one of whose important prophecies concerned the crowning of a Black King in Africa.
When in 1930 Ras Tafari, son of Ras Makonnen of Harar, was Emperor of Ethiopia as Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of Judah, those for whom the Bible held all the answers concluded that the Emperor was literally and biblically King of Kings.
The crowning of Selassie came as a welcome diversion from the constant reminder of the white king George and his wife whose portraits were on the walls of all public buildings. The fusion of the bible, where the works of Ja were praised in the Psalms, with the exploits of King Ja, the message of Garvey and the crowning of the Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah was to provide the framework for a new deification, replacing the white god in heaven and his white representatives in Buckingham Palace with a Black King and a God held to have been prophesied in the Book of Revelations in the New Testament.
As the colonial answer to the Black Consciousness of Rastafari, the first Rastafarians were sentenced to imprisonment in mental institutions for their continuing cultural resistance. To compound the ‘insanity’, the men began to wear their hair like the Masai warriors of east Africa and called themselves locksmen or Nyamen. In a society where Black women spent hours straightening their hair with hot combs (fryhead), where black girls were given white dolls and where schoolchildren instantly recreated a white image when called upon to draw a picture, these first Rastafarians were branded as violent criminals whose communes could be raided with impunity in the search for ganja.
Garvey also foresaw that if Selassie did not end the exploitation of his own people, he would be swept away by them: ” As far as we can see the Emperor’s term of usefulness is at an end for the present in Ethiopia. Abyssinia must be saved by the Abyssinian youth.” Forty years of the contradiction of feeding meat to the lions while people starved culminated in the slave master Selassie’s overthrow and thrust Ethiopia into a long class struggle. It was this type of foresight, derived from a revolutionary perspective, which led many Jamaicans to regard Garvey as a prophet, a perspective whose continued relevance is evidenced in the words of the reggae group of Burning Spear: “Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass, can’t get no money to spend.”
The Rastafarian movement can be compared to the movement of the Jewish people at the time the Book of Revelations was written ie circa 60 AD. This book of the New Testament, often quoted by Rastas, predicted the destruction of the Roman Empire and reflected the position of the Jewish people then- a people sorely oppressed but in many ways marginal to the Empire.
Similarly, the Rastafarians movement today to a significant degree finds its basis among sections of society that have been reduced to a largely marginal existence by the workings of imperialism – particularly peasants driven off the land in Jamaica into the cities, or even into other countries such as imperial Britain or the US, finding themselves in declassed or a semi-declassed situation.
The response of Jamaica’s ruling class to Rastafarianism provides a vivid example of the ad hoc sophistication of neo-colonial politics in the Caribbean. In the early days, the state characterised them and treated them as lunatics and criminals. It first institutionalised the murder of Rastas. But then later studied them, cleansed their public image and, with university cultural reports, attempted to co-opt and woo them. This certainly did not succeed in subverting the emergence of the ideology, but it has definitely diverted its development.
The work of Walter Rodney in the gullies of Jamaica was a direct continuation of Marcus Garvey’s, but using the tools of historical materialist analysis. Rodney talked to and grounded with the Rastas: elucidated, informed and strengthened the progressive content of Rastafari.
After attending the historic Black Writers Conference in Montreal during October 1968, Rodney was barred from returning to Jamaica by the Shearer regime. Michael Manley of the PNP, once in power, maintained the ban.
Despite this, by the mid-1970’s Rasta had become in many ways the culture of masses. Everyday church goers spoke of the liberation of Africa and denounced the eating of the pig. Rastafari taught the people about Ital food, condemning the high levels of chemicals used in food processing and promoting self sufficiency. They also challenged the colour-class gradations of the social hierarchy and opposed the distinctions between town and country. It spread throughout the eastern Caribbean: the Dreads of Dominica were a variant of Rasta which, since it emerged after Selassie’s fall from power, did not deal with the issue of his deification. In 1975 the Dominican leadership passed a law entitling every citizen to shoot on sight any suspected Dreads found on their property. Desmond Trotter was framed and given a death sentence for murdering a white tourist: Trotter was the leader of the Dreads. In Grenada over 400 Rastas were involved in the peoples liberation army of the new jewel movement which overthrew the Eric Gairy dictatorship.
From Fort de France to Paris, from Kingston to Brixton, Afro-Caribbean youth, alienated and oppressed by the racism and imperialism of societies that bred the Nazi, don the red, gold and green as the symbolic identification with Rastafari.
To see the Rastafari world view as limited to some religious proclivity is to ignore the vitality of the culture in Jamaica, in the eastern Caribbean and in the metropolitan cities where the children of black immigrants are alienated from the servile culture of consumption.
The struggle of black people inevitably appear in an intensely cultural form because the social formation in which their distinct political traditions are now manifest has constructed the arena of politics on ground overshadowed by centuries of metropolitan capitalist development, thereby denying them recognition as legitimate politics. Blacks conduct a class struggle in and through race. The BC of race and class cannot be empirically separated, the class character of black struggles is not a result of the fact that blacks are predominantly proletarian, thought this is true. Classes are not static or continuous subjects of history, they are made and remade in continual struggle. The struggle for hegemony cannot be reduced to economistic determinations or vulgarised to refer solely to cultural phenomena, and class analysis cannot be restricted to those positioned in the immediate processes of production.
Indeed, avowed Rastas maintain that all black people are Rastas whether they realise it or not, pointing to Rastafarianism being a district expression of the contradiction between black people and the power bloc (Babylon). Certainly, Rastafarianism is an authentic oppressed class ideology, the property of the oppressed masses of the Caribbean. To preoccupy oneself with Rasta’s negative paradoxes is to blind oneself to the fact there was no other way for an oppressed ideology to emerged among people who were left to fend for themselves and build their own livelihood.
Peter Tosh and other great reggae musicians have created startlingly beautiful art which rages against four hundred years of slavery and the draconian new order of the neo-colonial US master and their dogs in Jamaica. At the same time, their doctrine holds tight to and even resurrects certain traditions and mystical trappings from the past in an attempt to explain and do battle against the savage assaults of this modern world.
The contradictory position leads the Rastas on the one hand to throw out the basic Christian pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-routine, while demanding and fighting for black redemption here on earth. The anthem ringing in this new creed, by Tosh and Marley, today stands with perhaps a handful of songs which have been taken as their own by rebels around the world and stands as ample warning not to underestimate the degree of political transformation represented by Rastafarianism:
Most people think that great good will come from the skies,
Take away everything, and make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You will look for yours on earth.
And now we see the light
We’re gonna stand up for our right
– Get Up , Stand Up (1978)
Rastafarianism had no patience with Christian promises of the good life when you’re dead and gone. If the times were ‘dread’, the possibility of overthrowing the whole order was also alive in the world, if presently out of reach. The denial of God flowing from the believe that “God is I and I and has always been” are the kindling of the process in which: “The criticism of heavens turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”
Taking the circumstances of the 1930’s with the complete blocking of socialist thought from the colonies, Rastafarianism is a profound and forward looking response to the sickness of colonialism. Those who preached the divinity of Rastafari were rejecting the link between Christianity and whiteness, and were inexorably breaking with the philistine white West Indian society, thus linking their cultural and spiritual roots with Ethiopia and Africa.
As a first step this was undoubtedly progressive. African traditions do not recognise the separation of politics from other spheres of life. Armand Mattelart reminds us that: “Acquiring and developing class consciousness does not mean obligatory boredom. It is a question of transforming what used to be used exclusively for pleasure and leisure into a means of instructions.”
The negative paradox about Rastafari lies in the fact that using the past to overturn the present can mire one in the swamps of ‘anciency’. Rastafarianism is bound to rely on mysticism and non-scientific explanations which bind one’s origin and to some degree one’s destiny to a Creator and his emissaries on the planet earth.
Rastafarian culture remains, however, an indelible link between the resistance of the Maroons, the Pan- Africanist appeal of Marcus Garvey, the materialist and historical analysis of Walter Rodney and the defiance of Peter Tosh’s reggae.
Bury the Shitstem
The Jamaican left and right are popularly considered to be limited to pedagogic “do-gooders” or US lackey dictators, both of whom enforce neo-colonial rule ultimately for real revolutionary leadership. Tosh and other reggae musicians were “recruited” to fill the vacuum, and their songs, performances, interviews, and lives are scrutinized by the people as though they were the works of political leaders. This had made for headaches all around.
While of course all art has political content, and all artist objectively represent different classes on stage – and artists of the calibre of Tosh represented quite a fierce section of the masses internationally – this still begs the question: in order to bury the shitstem the people need revolutionary leadership which artists (who generally have another job to do) can never wholly or mainly provide.
Artists as artists are simply not equipped to lead the revolutionary movement. To demand that they do so only undermines the process by which actual revolutionary leadership is developed, and simultaneously drags down their art to the level of tedious pedagogy: people need real propaganda and agitation on the political problems of the world, and instead get an article set to music.
Art fulfills a different human requirement from political education. Marley put it best: “these songs, people understands them, but ya have fe sing them just the same. What the people want is just the beauties, mon.” In Jamaica , however, the situation is further complicated by the fact that many reggae musicians are also looked upon as spiritual guardians, and their art as spreading the message of Jah to people cast out of their homeland. As Tosh once said: “the singers and players of instruments are the only true prophets in this time.”
This confluence of contradictions was epitomized by the singer when, after the Uprising of West Indians and punks in Brixton, England in 1981, some baiting fool of a music critic asked him if he though his music “encouraged violence with its militant image”. Tosh shouted back, “Militant? Me don’t join the army, I’m missionary not a military. When you’re talking about military you associating me with guns and missiles and those kinda things…when you call me, you must say missionary, ‘cos I deal with righteousness.” This is no plea for pacifism. Tosh is simply laying claim to being a teacher and preacher who believes that the movement that will bury the shitstem is a spiritual one: “No politician can stop the prophecy, they all die at 78”.
The contradiction cuts both ways. Under pressure to ‘lead a movement’ or at least to be more than an artist, Tosh and other reggae musicians have nonetheless created soaring works of art. How can this be? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the very strivings of these musicians for something better than more ackee and breadfruit have had an effect of lifting the music out of the boring and depressing litany of complaints and explanations so typical of protest music internationally.
At its best, reggae music presents a rejection this degraded brand of art and the contemptible welfare worker politics which inform it. Tosh: “They know I don’t support politricks and games, because I have bigger aims, hopes and aspirations.” But if the sights of many reggae musicians go beyond the “fussing and fighting” of Jamaican bourgeois politicking, they still largely figure in the class struggle there exactly because they command battalions among the masses on the basis of their political and spiritual authority.
Reggae musicians are caught up in the see-sawing grip of a ruling class which must try to associate itself with the Rasta movement, emphasizing only its nationalistic aspects, but simultaneously must try to co-opt or annihilate its most radical expressions, particularly as the society gets stretched to its economic and political breaking point.
The international press and even the international music press does not usually find the harassment, detentions, banning of music or outright murder of reggae musicians newsworthy. As Bob Marley said in 1972: “These things are heavier than anyone can understand. People that are not involved don’t know it…”
The ruling class hypocritically claims artists like Marley and Tosh as national treasures but their only hope in doing this is to reduce these artists and their powerful messages to mere icons and to protect themselves from the wrath of the masses for their role in snuffing these artist out.
Rise Up Fallen Fighters
rise up fallen fighters
unfetter the stars
dance with the universe
& make it ours
oh, make it/ make it ours
– Ntozake Shange ( From Okra to Greens)
Tosh’s Equal Rights album cover wryly depicts that the spirit of those who refuse to back down simply cannot be suppressed. It depicts a Tosh profile in rude welder glasses, repeated over and over. Back in 1976, Tosh put it this way: “So all o’ thousands o’ people. So when you see I mek a tune, man, is just action and reaction. Reality.”
Closing the book on reggae music is manifestly absurd. G. Piekhanov, when he was still a Marxist, commented in 1898: “A given trend in art may remain without remarkable expression if an unfavourable combination of circumstances carries away, one after another, several talented people who might have given it expression. But the premature death of such talented people can prevent the artistic expression of this trend only if it is too shallow to produce new talent. However, the depth of any given trend in literature and art is determined by its importance for the class or stratum; here too, in the last analysis, everything depends upon the course of social development and on the relation of social forces”.
It is sure bet that Tosh and the rest of the reggae greats, the creation rockers will find their way into the hearts and cassette players of the Ivans of Azania and the world, right on through to when the right time really does come, and when we can give meaning to the lyrics of Where You Gonna Run:
Where you gonna run/ Where you gonna hide?
Who you trying to seek? What you trying to find?
We’re all in this race, everybody, trying to keep the pace
You cant get away, there is no escape.
The power of Tosh music flows in the final analysis from the understanding that there is no painless movement forward, and no way out either – not in some mythical afterlife, not in phoney promises offered by Babylon to keep us shuffling in deadly confusion, and not even in Africa. Peter always paid tribute to the African struggle (witness Fight Apartheid) but never called upon Blacks to retreat to Africa. The spirit of Tosh will walk into the future, the Azanian people and their allies on this planet will see to that. We have work to do bury this shitstem, and we will do it.
In commemoration of our 20th year, we will be digging through our extensive archive.
This story, and others, features in the very first Chimurenga publication – Chimurenga 01: Music is the Weapon! (April 2002). In this edition we discuss artists that have demonstrated militancy in response to neo-colonial powers, fighting their “own” governments– rather than fictitious oppressors. We try to achieve what people like Fela Kuti and Tosh attempted with their music.
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