REGGAE 101: Peter Tosh - Roots Reggae's Voice of Reason

When we are young, most of us are taught to speak our minds and the world will accept us.  When we get older, we realize that speaking our minds may come with more dire consequences—especially if you are a minority.   As a result, some minorities affected by crippling global issues, such as poverty and blatant inequality, chose not to speak out.  Peter Tosh, of course, was the exception.  Tosh fought to correct “the system” at every chance he got.  In fact, if there were accolades for pissing off the establishment, Peter Tosh would have won a Lifetime Achievement Award.  However, before Tosh became the M-16 guitar toting freedom fighter who millions adored, he was just a simple, musically gifted young man from a rough part of town. Born Winston Hubert McIntosh in 1944 in rural Westmoreland, Jamaica, Peter Tosh had myriad musical influences throughout his childhood.  Because Tosh could not afford formal musical training, he taught himself to play several musical instruments used in Christian churches, including the pipe organ and guitar.  This self-teaching paid dividends when he auditioned for an up and coming reggae group in the Trenchtown section of Jamaica.  Tosh auditioned for Robert N. Marley and Neville O. Livingston, who were committed to forming Jamaica’s next breakout singing group.  Sparks eventually flew among the trio, the Wailers were formed, and the rest literally was history.

The Wailers took off at lightning speed and soon became a household name among music fans on six continents.  However, gaining global notoriety came the inevitable disagreement over money.  Once the proverbial dollar sign reared its ugly head, mounds of friction emerged between The Wailers’ then manager, Chris Blackwell, and some of the groups’ members.  Eventually, Livingston left the group citing differences with Blackwell and his vision for the group, and Tosh soon followed Livingston’s lead.  After leaving The Wailers, however, Tosh tapped into his own music genius, which would serve as the launching pad for his solo career.

Tosh’s keen grasp of musical composition allowed him to create reggae masterpieces out of the gate.  His commitment to social justice also added a key element to his music—a message.  While other musicians in the 1970s sang about injustice through metaphor and innuendo, Tosh provided a raw delivery that left most conservatives tremendously uncomfortable.  Songs such as ”Legalize It” and “Equal Rights” resonated through freedom fighters everywhere.  Tosh revolutionized the way people viewed social awareness.  He forced those in power to reflect on their policies that left underprivileged people at a drastic disadvantage.  It was this sort of poetic justice that earned Tosh a great deal of attention, both positive and negative.

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger & Peter Tosh

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger & Peter Tosh

Although we reggae fans praised Peter Tosh for being the voice for injustice everywhere, inevitably, those who Tosh criticized sought to silence that voice.  In a 1986 interview in New York, Tosh spoke out against the different pockets of resistance he routinely faced.  What frustrated him the most, according to the interview, was the support—or lack thereof—from his “foreign” record distributor.  Tosh spoke ill of his label and bashed them for paying greater attention to less socially conscious music while shunning Tosh’s.  This would not be the last time Tosh spoke out against the industry and the establishment.

It was rare that an individual in the 20th century became a serious face of the revolution and lived to tell about it.  Tosh was no different.  On a quiet September 11th night in 1987, Peter Tosh’s home was raided by local thugs carrying guns, allegedly demanding money.  Tosh insisted that he did not have any money on the premises, but the suspects were not convinced.  With their frustration mounting, the gunmen opened fire killing Tosh and two of Tosh’s acquaintances.

The beauty of timeless musical pieces is that the sound lives on long after the artist dies.  Peter Tosh’s music remains an inspiration for people seeking equality where ever inequality exists.  Luckily, Tosh’s fans continue to practice his lessons and internalize his lyrics in most aspects of their lives.  Tosh’s lyrics urged us to “get up [and] stand up… stand up for your rights,” and we continue to do so ‘til this day.

Peter Tosh Interview - New York, 1986: