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The Stepping Razor and the OM - Peter Tosh Symposium 2012
Since it was announced that this year the Order of Merit, the third highest honour of Jamaica, would be posthumously conferred on Reggae Legend Peter Tosh, the court of public opinion has held numerous petty sessions about whether Tosh deserved it or whether he would have accepted it.
Those sessions had not yet come to a close when the honour was conferred as a part of Heroes Day 2012, October 15. The controversy comes because Tosh, who raged tirelessly against the machine, struck an uneasy chord with many and iconic pieces such has ‘Legalize It’ and ‘Oh Bomboclaat’ made him persona non-grata in some circles.
The 2012 Peter Tosh Symposium chose to tackle the issue looking at the man, his music and his advocacy. The symposium took place at the University of the West Indies, Mona, on Tosh’s birthday, Friday October 19, 2012. Notably, this year is the 25th anniversary of Tosh’s death. The singer was slain on September 11, 1987.
Herbie Miller, curator and director of the Jamaica Music Museum and Tosh’s former manager spoke to Tosh’s multi-faceted personality, his humour, his diplomacy and his knowledge of herbal medicine, extending far beyond his status as a “herb specialist.” Miller used much of his presentation to illustrate Tosh’s struggle for equal rights and justice.
He illustrated that Tosh did not merely sing about revolution but was sometimes an active participant. This razor sharp stance allowed him to become the victim of police brutality on numerous occasions. Miller recalled instances where Tosh had to receive numerous stitches for head wounds, and suffered from broken bones after altercations with the police.
Dr. Clinton Hutton also spoke to Tosh’s activism. Miller had earlier pointed out that Tosh was the first artist of international repute to openly speak against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Hutton noted that Tosh was also supportive of resistance efforts in Angola and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
However, according to Miller, despite Tosh’s numerous confrontations with what he dubbed the “shit-stem” his staunch nationalism would have influenced his reaction to the OM.
“I believe Peter would have been moved for the gesture,” Miller said. “But he would have been reluctant to accept it.” Miller explained that Tosh would have been reluctant because the injustice in the society that Tosh fought against still obtains.
“It is bittersweet,” Miller continued. “It comes from a system that Tosh was mad at.” Miller however, went on to point out that Tosh understood that achievements can inspire others, and he may have struck a compromise by having a proxy receive it.
Professor Carolyn Cooper explored the Tosh’s pan-Africanism through the lyrics of his song ‘African’. Prof Cooper pointed out that the word ‘African’ is so de-humanised in Jamaica that many Jamaicans do not want to be associated with it.
“Mixed Jamaicans are always half-white, half-Indian, half- Chinese but never half-African,” she said. Indeed, one of the most confrontational issues for Tosh was the treatment of black Jamaicans. Hutton, who also tackled the issue of race, noted that while many often mis-read Tosh as exclusionist, he was not, he was merely advocating for justice for the majority of the people. His arguments, resonated with those of Prof Cooper. Cooper illustrated that Tosh’s definition of African embraced all black people from all over the world regardless of where their complexion fell on the colour wheel.
Two of Tosh’s children Iambe and Dave Tosh also spoke. Iambe, who did most of the talking while Dave stood stoically, explained that the family had faced several problems in righting Tosh’s estate and were only now getting on track. She explained that they had been misled by their former attorney but have recently formed a management company for the estate and are pursuing several projects. These include plans to create a museum, a documentary and feature film, development of the Peter Tosh memorial park as well as licensing of his music.
In her closing statement, Cooper fully illustrated the impact of Peter Tosh’s message and music.
“From the security of his rasta castle, that innermost chamber of consciousness and conscience, Peter Tosh launched a full-scale war against the forces of injustice,” she said. “Generations of voices will chant his praises: generations of voices will ride their own riddims of resistance.”