Mon | Jun 14, 2021

Palestine, protest and Peter

Published:Wednesday | August 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Peter Tosh

Two weeks ago, recognition of Palestine’s statehood made a rare appearance in reggae when Jewish singer Matisyahu was cut from the 2015 Rototom Sunsplash Festival in Spain after he declined the organisers’ request to endorse recognition of Palestine as a nation.

After protest by the World Jewish Congress, for what they described as anti-Semitism, and the Spanish government also expressing its anger, Matisyahu was reinstated and the Rototom organisers apologised to him.

It was an unusual case of the matter of a state for Palestine coming up on the reggae radar. In stark contrast to the slew of songs about apartheid, even 28 years after his death, Peter Tosh's Equal Rights, the title track of his second studio album which came out in 1977, is a rare statement in Jamaican song about the Palestinian issue.

Coming up to the end of the song, Tosh starts with Palestine in naming the places where the struggle (often armed) for equal rights and justice was then ongoing:

"Everyone is fighting for equal rights and justice

Palestinians fighting for equal rights and justice

Down in Angola equal rights and justice

Down in Botswana equal rights and justice

Down in Zimbabwe equal rights and justice

Down in Rhodesia equal rights and justice

Right here in Jamaica equal rights and justice"

Over three decades since Tosh released that song, despite a multiplicity of communication channels providing much easier access to information on world affairs than would have been available to the Stepping Razor, Palestine has not been a major issue in Jamaican popular music.

Conflict centering on Gaza has come and gone in live and living colour, with nary a peep from the singers and deejays of the music which once had protest against injustice as a core value. Give the man serving a life sentence his due - it may have been devoid of true content and context and even a corruption of the cause, but, at least, Kartel kept the name Gaza alive.

It may have been a case that apartheid was a natural cause to latch on to. For one, it involved African people in Africa - those feeling the bullets and dog bites looked like those singing about their suffering. It is always easier to support those who look like us, so the diaspora sung and spoke about Africans in Africa. The Palestinians do not look like the majority of persons in this country who ply their trade to a reggae/dancehall beat.

Second, world opinion was overwhelmingly against apartheid. True, there were nations which refused to bring sanctions against South Africa (there are many reasons why people like me shed no tears when Margaret Thatcher died), but, on the whole, the country became increasingly isolated. With Israel, however, the United States has firmly been in its corner for as long as I can remember, and what America is for, he or she who stands against it publicly, may just stand the chance of his or her visa to the land of Uncle Sam being summarily withdrawn.

Added to these factors is the fine job Israel has done in painting itself as the victim of terrorism. This has carried over into popular culture - a few of the novels I read as a child had the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the nefarious, cowardly terrorist, and Israel as the peaceful nation forced to react. I still recall one book I read well over 30 years ago about the Mossad, in which Golda Meir instructed the military to send out your boys.

That approach has been pursued until this day, when Israel is annihilating a physically isolated Gaza with sophisticated weaponry and the Palestinians have only unguided rockets. Not that the Palestinians are totally helpless, but there is a reason why there are different weight classes in boxing.

South Africa tried the terrorism label in the apartheid era - do not forget that Nelson Mandela was named a terrorist.

To what extent does Jamaica's generally strong belief in Christianity also lead to this muteness on the Palestinian issue in its popular music output? Only a structured research project can determine that, but, instinctively, I believe that it is a factor. Israel is the Promised Land and the Jews chosen by God; it is an entrenched belief that is hard to fight.

So Jamaica's popular music has been silent on a nation for Palestine and, since apartheid, has not taken on a pressing international issue on a wide scale. It may mean that in the era of plenty within poverty, where tablets, phones and clothes are cheap, and debt to access the trappings of prosperity easy to get into, there is no point of protest in music.

But it could also mean that there is a lack of knowledge in a situation where information is more easier to access than ever.