On 9/11 each year since 2001, Americans have a big memorial for the bombing of the twin towers by terrorists. On 9/11 since 1987, reggae fans been having a different memorial for the great Peter Tosh. That was the year Peter Tosh was murdered at his home in Jamaica.
Peter Tosh was a founding member of the Wailers, who went on to a rich solo career before his untimely death in 1987.
Though perennially overshadowed by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh was a major songwriting presence in the Wailers’ early days; writing one of the band’s biggest hits in “Get up, Stand up”. He was also an activist who crusaded against police brutality and advocated for drug law reform and equal rights.
“In places like Africa, Peter Tosh is an even more respected star than Bob Marley because of his militancy,” says reggae archivist Roger Steffens. “He was almost beaten to death on several occasions by Jamaican police because of his anti-establishment views. Unlike Bob Marley, he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk — and people respect that all over the word.”
Born Winston Hubert McIntosh in rural Jamaica, Peter Tosh moved as a kid to Kingston’s rough Trenchtown neighborhood. At a local gambling joint, he met Bunny Livingston, later known as Bunny Wailer, who along with Marley had started a band. Bunny Wailer says they asked Tosh to join because he was a self-taught, accomplished keyboardist and guitarist.
In the 1960s, Tosh was influenced by such civil rights leaders as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, whose writings were banned in Jamaica. He was arrested for demonstrating against racial murders in southern Africa. Colin Grant, author of a new book about the Wailers, says the dark-skinned Peter Tosh developed Afrocentric pride early on.
“Even though Jamaica is predominantly a black country,” Grant says, “there is a brown and white elite, and I think people took sides and aligned themselves fundamentally with one side or another. Peter aligned himself fundamentally in the black camp.”
Peter Tosh left the Wailers in 1973, as the group was gaining international fame. He’s said to have griped about the starring role given to the lighter-skinned Marley by the group’s manager, Island Records chief Chris Blackwell. Steffens says that when Tosh recorded his first solo album in 1976, he sought an alternative source of funding in the U.S.
“He approached a marijuana dealer in Miami to invest in the album, and the dealer agreed,” says Steffens. “He said, ‘So what are you gonna call it?’ And Peter said, ‘I’m gonna call it Legalize It.’ And the dealer got really upset and said, ‘No, man, you’re gonna put me out of business!’ But eventually he changed his mind and gave Peter the money.”
Legalize It was banned on Jamaican radio, so Tosh printed the lyrics in an ad he took out in a Jamaican newspaper. A year later, Tosh released a second album, Equal Rights. Herbie Miller, Tosh’s former manager and the director of the Jamaica Music Museum, says Tosh was moved by political unrest in Jamaica and beyond.
“Across the world — in Africa, the Caribbean, North America — minorities were struggling for some sort of humanity and equity and dignity,” Miller says. “A lot of Equal Rights was made in response to that, so it was not a record made solely for local consumption. It was quite global.”
The most famous song on that album is “Get Up, Stand Up,” which Tosh first recorded with the Wailers. Miller says that Tosh had to alter lyrics to that song so the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica wouldn’t ban it.
“The original lyrics say, ‘Get up, stand up, don’t be no nigger now,’ ” says Miller. “Don’t live the name that has been placed on you — don’t be a nigger. You should get up and and stand up and be a black man, be a man. That was the point Peter was trying to make.”
Peter Tosh appears on the cover of Equal Rights in a Che Guevara-style beret and sunglasses. It’s all part of a militant persona that has led Steffens to describe Marley as reggae’s Martin Luther King and Tosh as its Malcolm X. But Steffens also says this persona was deliberate and calculated.
“He kept those sunglasses on, and I think it was for protection,” he says. “If he didn’t have them on you could see the mischievous twinkle in his eye when he was talking in these deep, censorious tones, and you thought he might get violent in his expressions.”
Tosh always claimed there was a plot to assassinate him, and in 1987, he was murdered by gunmen in his own home. Steffens says some of Tosh’s musings on life were prophetic of his death.
“The French deconstructionists would have adored Peter Tosh because he made the language reveal itself,” says Steffens. “For example, he was killed by an alleged friend. He said very often that you have to look at that word: The first half is ‘fry,’ to bring heat upon, and the second is ‘end,’ elimination. So ask yourself, ‘Who are your friends?’ ”
Peter Tosh, the Stepping Razor, his music will live on forever and ever.