Don’t Sleep—The Stepping Razor Is Still Dangerous
“If you wanna live,” sang PETER TOSH beneath a full moon at Kingston, Jamaica’s National Stadium, “treat me good.” Standing firm as lightning flashed over the stage, the man called Stepping Razor spat bitter truths and ganja smoke in the faces of Prime Minister Michael Manley, opposition leader Edward Seaga, a gathering of their ghetto henchmen, and a large contingent of well-armed police—while thousands of Kingstonians bore witness. Tribal war between gangs loyal to Manley’s socialist PNP and Seaga’s right-wing JLP had claimed too many lives since the 1976 general elections, so on April 22, 1978, a big reggae show was held with the explicit aim of easing the tension. That same night, Tosh’s former bandmate Bob Marley managed to bring Manley and Seaga onstage for a symbolic joining of hands that did not exactly bring an end to the violence. It did, however, become an iconic tableau within Marley mythology, thanks in part to the documentary, Heartland Reggae. Tosh, on the other hand, refused to allow any American “pirates” to film his hour-long set. Thankfully an audio recording survives, preserving the songs and speeches that nearly cost him his life. Story Continues After The Jump… Winston Hubert McIntosh would have celebrated his 72nd birthday last Wednesday, except for the fact that he was gunned down in his Kingston home on September 11, 1987, along with herbalist Wilton “Doc” Brown and disc jockey Jeff “Free I” Dixon. This week that same home on Trafalgar Road in New Kingston became the Peter Tosh Museum—which opened last week with a VIP reception including Tosh’s daughter Niambe, his son Andrew, as well as Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Minister of Culture Olivia “Babsy” Grange. “One thing that was clear from Tosh’s music was the resistance,” said PM Holness. “Standing up for what you believe in and being a rebel, because, sometimes, being a rebel for the right cause is good.”
Exactly what Tosh would have thought about the pomp and circustance surrounding the museum’s opening has been the subject of much debate amongst his fans. The Friday night concert featuring Luciano and Chronixx would probably have been more his speed. A complex character and profoundly gifted musician, Tosh also became an avid unicyclist and frequented toy stores when he toured the world as a signee to the Rolling Stones record label, presumably because he had missed out on these sorts of simple pleasures during his hardscrabble childhood in Trenchtown.
“Let Jah arise, and let all his enemies scatter,” Tosh declared in his majestic opening number at the Peace Concert. “Let them that hate Jah now scatter, shatter, batter, and flatter. As the smoke is driven away, Jah, drive them away. As the rocks melted, let them be melted, Jah Jah.” Accompanied only by his band, the mighty Word Sound and Power—with Sly and Robbie beating the drum and bass, Mikey Chung and Al Anderson slashing the guitars, Keith Sterling chopping the keys, and Skully percolating the percussion—Tosh proceeded into a deadly diatribe on a night that was supposed to be about peace.
“Peace is the diploma you get in the cemetery,” he mocked, revealing his own misgivings about having anything do with the concert. “Seen? On top of your grave dat is mark ‘Here lies John Strokes, Rest in Peace.’” Tosh went on decry the “colonial imperialistic shitstem” and demand the cultivation and export of marijuana as a cash crop to help feed people dying of malnutrition in desolate corners of the island paradise. Then, with a spliff burning in his hand, he addressed the prime minister sitting in the second row. “Right now Mr. Manley, I gwine talk to you personally, cause me and you is friends, so you say.” Imploring the government to unite against the “forces of Lucifer” that oppress black people, Tosh focused on the police who, he said, “brutalize poor people fi what? A little draw of herb.”
Minister Grange, Andrew Tosh, and Prime Minister Holness
While there is no doubt that Jamaica needs to do more to preserve and promote its rich musical and cultural heritage, Tosh is a particularly challenging test case. He was awarded the Order of Merit posthumously, but during his life he was not one to “skin teeth” or “beg fren’.” His musical genius and his worldwide impact are undisputed, but it has taken three decades to properly commemorate Tosh’s contributions to Jamaican music in part because he was so uncompromising in life. Now that his incessant musical demand to Legalize It has come to fulfillment, it’s fitting that his family is developing a ganja brand in his honor. But one can only imagine what Tosh would he say about all the Jamaican herb farmers who are unable to feed their families through the ganja trade due to the vagaries of government regulations.
Five months after the “peace” concert, the Bush Doctor was arrested for smoking ganja by police who taught him a lesson about brutality. “Peter was clubbed with a wooden baton for 90 minutes until his skull burst open and his throbbing brain could be plainly seen,” according to Roger Steffens, the Project Producer who wrote authoritative liner notes for the disc with the cooperation of the Tosh estate. “He told me the only reason the beating stopped was because he knew how to roll his eyes up into his head, pretending he was dead, proving for all the world to see that in Jamaica the price of free speech can be human life.” For truly, as the Stepping Razor said, “I am not a politician, but I suffer the consequences.”
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