The curious tale of how Peter Tosh became an emoji
It may sound a tiny bit bizarre, but reggae icon Peter Tosh is an emoji. Dubbed by one writer as “perhaps the most enigmatic emoji of all”, the levitating man emoji, which depicts a cool guy dressed in a business suit, standing tall and slim, with the ability to jump off a page, is none other than Tosh. And to add to the tale, the emoji also immortalises the rude boy of Jamaica’s ska era as much as it does Tosh himself.
Although it sounds like one of the best-kept secrets in Jamaica’s music history – and Tosh’s children didn’t even know until recently – the story of how an icon became an emoji and how an emoji is now iconic has been in the public domain since 2016, at least. In March of that year, writer Joe Veix titled a newsweek.com article, ‘The Secret Ska History of That Weird Levitating Businessman Emoji’. Veix notes that the image of a man in a suit was inspired by a picture on a label called 2 Tone Records, which was formed in 1979 by The Specials keyboard player and songwriter Jerry Dammers. The Specials was an English ska revival band.
“Their logo depicts a man dressed in the rude boy style of the British ska revival, complete with sunglasses, a black suit and a pork-pie hat. Dammers loosely based it on a photo of reggae musician Peter Tosh from the cover of the Wailers’ 1965 album, The Wailing Wailers, and named him Walt Jabsco, a name he lifted from an old T-shirt,” the article stated.
The original iconic photo shows Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in their youth, all looking fresh and suave like they were just getting up out of the barber’s chair – a seat all three would later shun as they embraced Rastafari and grew their locks. The black-and-white 1964 image shows the 6ft 4ins Tosh and Bunny Wailer standing with their backs to Marley and dressed in suits and bow ties. Tosh is the only one wearing shades.
Elaborating and answering the question of how did a reggae legend become an emoji, a recent article on bb.com delves into the history of the creator, Vincent Connare, a type designer who was working in the Microsoft typography department in the 1990s and who just happened to be a huge ska fan. Incidentally, he also designed the font, Comic Sans.
“It’s a story which takes us from Kingston, Jamaica, to rainy Seattle in the United States; specifically, to the Microsoft headquarters in the mid-1990s. Back then, the personal computer revolution was just beginning, and typographer Vincent Connare was working on new fonts. Among the scripts he designed was Webdings; a picture-based font which was intended to be used on early webpages.”
The Specials was reportedly one of Connare’s favourite bands, and it was their 2 Tone Records’ logo that gave him the big idea.
“In his version, the suited man is jumping; or more precisely pogoing – popular among Specials fans – and it was intended to represent the ‘jump’ from one page to another. Years later, many Webdings symbols were encoded as emojis and released on every single smartphone and technology platform in the world,” the BBC article stated.
DAD STANDS TALL
In their interview with Tosh’s children, Niambe and Andrew, both said it was the first time they were hearing their dad was not only an icon, but he was also an emoji. “I did not know that … but I do know that picture it’s based on, of Bob, Bunny and my dad in suits, and my dad stands really tall,” Niambe said.
Her brother’s response was, “Oh, cool! I actually know that picture. The young version of Peter Tosh.”
The newsweek.com article states that in 2014, the non-profit organisation that manages the Unicode standard and determines which emoji get approved announced that Version 7.0 would add some new icons. Many were said to be adaptations of Wingdings and Webdings characters. “Thus, the jumping rude boy became the levitating businessman, receiving the official Unicode designation U+1F574.”
Whether or not Peter Tosh would have been pleased to know that he is an emoji is a question that will perhaps never be answered, but there is surely one thing about this emoji that surely would not have gone down well with the militant, black conscious, reggae icon. As Veix notes, “Weirdly, there’s still no option to change the character’s skin tone, even though he was based on the image of a black man. Hmm.”