Late Reggae Icons Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer Receive Jamaica Honor
Twenty-five years after his murder, Jamaica’s government on Monday formally and officially honored the contributions of firebrand reggae musician and songwriter Peter Tosh, one of the Caribbean island’s musical giants.
Tosh’s daughter Niambe, an educator from Boston, Massachusetts, received the posthumous “order of merit” – the country’s third highest honor – on behalf of her late father during an annual national awards ceremony on the lawns of King’s House, the residence of Jamaica’s governor general.
Tosh was a founding member of the Wailers, forming the three-man core of the group with Bob Marley and Bunny “Wailer” Livingston. Hard-hitting solo albums like “Equal Rights” and his work with the Wailers helped make Jamaican homegrown reggae music known internationally. He was cut down at age 42 in 1987, murdered by robbers in his Jamaican home.
The always outspoken, defiant Tosh was known for forcefully denouncing apartheid, government corruption and calling for the legalization of marijuana. The tall, slim baritone singer and guitarist was a mesmerizing performer with a charismatic, larger-than-life personality. Where Bob Marley was peaceful, Peter Tosh was political.
Tosh has long been reggae’s most politically controversial and militant figure. During the government-organized One Love Peace Concert of 1978, Tosh publicly accused Jamaica’s political leaders and the middle class of backing police brutality and politically charged gang warfare amid a legendary 20-minute diatribe. The conservative Jamaican media severely criticized Tosh for the speech, delivered to an audience that included 200 foreign journalists and the prime minister.
For his uncompromising views and his insistence on the open use of marijuana, the Rastafarian musician was severely beaten by police on several occasions, sustaining 32 stitches in his head, a broken rib, a fractured arm, and a punctured spleen during these altercations, according to former manager Herbie Miller.
For Miller, curator of the Jamaica Music Museum, the honor for Mr. Tosh was long overdue. Miller lobbied Jamaican administrations for years to formally recognize Tosh’s accomplishments.
“When you are about truth and rights and bucking the system, government recognition comes after a long wait,” Miller said Monday.
Roger Steffens, a noted reggae historian, author and archivist, who interviewed Tosh on several occasions, reported that the musician believed that awards from “Babylon” – the Rastafarian religion’s unflattering term for the Western world and the inadequate realities of life – were meaningless to him during his lifetime.
Tosh “believed that ‘Babylon have no fruits’ and awards from the oppressors were meaningless. Whether the past 25 years would have mellowed (him), or made him even more unyieldingly militant, is difficult to predict,” said Steffens, who described Tosh as the “Malcom X of reggae.”
For the family of Peter Tosh, the Monday ceremony was a significant moment. Andrew Tosh, a veteran reggae musician who was 20 when his father was killed, said the award will help keep his musical and cultural legacy alive.
“I’m feeling really good that he’s finally getting honored,” said the younger Tosh.
With the Wailers, Tosh co-wrote the black power anthem “Get Up, Stand Up” and penned songs like “400 Years,” a scathing song about ancient slavery and modern oppression. After he left the group in 1973, just as the Wailers’ album “Catch a Fire” was creating a global audience for reggae, Tosh formed his own band – Word, Sound and Power – and wrote more songs filled with stronger political content. “Mama Africa” denounced apartheid in South Africa; “Legalize It” called for the legalization of marijuana. Tosh was prominently featured in the 1979 anti-nuclear power plant “No Nukes” concerts alongside Bruce Springsteen. Tosh delivered a powerful rendition of his amazing “Bush Doctor” at the concert.
Receiving lesser government awards on Monday were reggae luminaries Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, dub pioneer Lee “Scratch Perry, and Tosh’s former Wailers bandmate Bunny Livingston a/k/a Bunny “Wailer”.
R.I.P., Peter Tosh. Much Respect.
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