Peter Tosh did not joke with words

Published: Sunday | October 14, 2012 Comments 0
Carolyn Cooper
Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

Shortly after Peter Tosh made his last concert appearance in December 1983, I did an interview with him that was published in Pulse magazine. One of his most powerful declarations was this: "... me don't run joke wid words." Tosh was objecting to the way in which the term 'peace treaty' was being used so loosely. And he gave a rather irreverent sermon on the subject:

"Claudie Mashup, or weh him want to name, him came to my house once and told me about this project that they had. And dem say that dem going to call it a peace treaty. I a look fe peace. Because to me, peace should have really meant people respecting people, people loving people.

"A man becoming his brother's keeper. A man can lef him door open an go bout him business and a next man don't come pop it off. Is so me call peace. A man don't have gun over the next area an a tell you say him have a border cross ya-so and you can't come across there.

"So I mek them know me don't run joke wid words. Every time I see the word 'peace', you know where I see it? In the cemetery: 'Here lies the body of such and such. May he rest in peace.' So how a guy waan come tell me say him a go have a peace treaty amongst the living, where all the dead rest in wha? Peace? Ah-oh."

I don't know if this wicked mashing up Massop's name was a Tosh original. There are many such examples of witty word play in his lyrics. Poliomyelitis became reggaemylitis, a joyous infection that moves every muscle in the body. The words 'system' and 'situation' were cleverly transformed by the addition of a well-placed 'h' and 't'. Tosh evoked the stench of the oppressive dunghills of social injustice and moral corruption that continue to rise up everywhere in Jamaica.

In his dread lecture delivered at the so-called 'Peace Concert' in 1978, Tosh chanted down the excremental system: "Four hundred years an de same bucky maasa bizniz. An black inferiority, an brown superiority rule dis lickle black country here fe a long [t]imes. Well, I an I come wid Earthquake, Lightnin an Tunda to break down dese barriers of oppression an drive away transgression and rule equality between humble black people."

GARVEY'S AFRICAN REDEMPTION

Peter Tosh was an unapologetic advocate of what Marcus Garvey called "African Redemption". We hear this in his rousing anthem, African, from the 1977 Equal Rights album: "Don't care where yu come from/As long as you're a black man/You're an African." Not all Jamaicans would agree. Some of us don't even want to admit that we're black, let alone African.

In a letter to the editor published in The Gleaner on September 25, Daive Facey asks a revealing question, "Who are 'blacks', Ms Cooper?" He already knows the answer: "Many classified as 'blacks' based on external features and placed into the 90 per cent majority can easily trace their mixed lineages, and in terms of genealogy are no less Caucasian, Indian or Chinese."

Mr Facey is quite right. Many clearly black Jamaicans routinely claim ancestors of other races who have left no visible traces of themselves on the body of their supposed relatives. And even in cases where some racial mixing is evident, the African element in the mix is always the half that is never told. Mixed-race Jamaicans are half-Indian; half-Chinese; half-Syrian; half-white. But never half-African!

It is only people of African descent in Jamaica who do not define their racial identity in terms that point to ancestral homelands. Europeans, Chinese, Syrians and Indians are all raced and placed in their very naming. Africans are 'so-so' black. Going against the tide, Tosh deliberately chose 'African' as a marker of racial identity.

'INNA DI RACE TING'

In a witty newspaper article titled 'Perkins and black history,' the now late Eric 'Macko' McNish, former editor of the Jamaica Beat newspaper, related an anecdote that illustrates the complexity of racial politics in Jamaica: "When Chinese Jamaicans and East Indian Jamaicans used to organise annual cricket matches between an All-Indian XI and All-Chinese XI at the Chinese Cricket Club (now owned by Melbourne), all Jamaicans applauded it.

"However, when two black Jamaicans (which included this writer) asked the captain of the East Indian XI, who was a former Boys' Town player, if an All-African XI of black Jamaicans could play the winner of his match against the Chinese XI, his answer was, 'Bwoy wi doan waan get inna di race ting.'"

Tosh was more than willing to "get inna di race ting". He establishes 'African' as a racial category and then goes on to assert, "No mind yu nationality/You have got the identity/Of an African."

Furthermore, Tosh's conception of African identity is quite inclusive:

No mind yu complexion

There is no rejection

You're an African

Cause if yu plexion high, high

If yu plexion low, low

If yu plexion in between

You're an African

Though Tosh seems to assert a hierarchy of high, low and in-between complexions, it is the very notion of hierarchy that is being contested. Whatever the physical manifestation of 'africanness' in terms of skin colour, there is a rooted cultural identity that transcends the physical. 'There is no rejection' of mixed-race people from the category 'African'.

Peter Tosh was one of reggae music's greatest philosophers. In honour of his life and legacy, the University of the West Indies, Mona, will host a symposium on Friday, October 19, at 6 p.m. in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre (N1): 'Peter Tosh - Reggae Revolutionary and Equal-Rights Advocate'. Confirmed speakers include Tosh's children, Niambe and Dave, as well as Herbie Miller, Clinton Hutton and Michael Barnett. I will also participate. None of us 'going to run joke wid words'.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.



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