For Pete’s Sakeby Sihle Mthembu / 06.07.2011
Hip hop is the illegitimate brother of reggae. And before UB40 was drinking Red Red Wine, reggae actually had a message. Sadly there are few mainstream debates about the ongoing cultural impact of ska and rocksteady has been reduced to a fringe social term meaning “party like a suburban rock star”. Dub now rules. How those dreadlocked sounds are all rooted in Kingston and the early jazz poets is a trail gone cold. Reggae is becoming about as attractive as Bollywood boy bands.
When you hear talk about this music it’s always about spliff, hash and Bob Marley. There is nothing wrong with that. Marley did for reggae what Elvis did for white rock. He took a genre that had been stomped on and made it “ok” for everyone to like. Hell rundown men on the verge of divorce still quote “No Woman No Cry”. But as good as he was and as much as he could easily rival Che for being the quintessential T-shirt icon, Marley did not make all the greatest records in reggae. That accolade, for many reggae aficionados, must go to Peter Tosh.
Who is Peter Tosh? He’s the reason why Johnny Nash kept singing. It’s a little known fact that Tosh composed a few songs for Johnny with the Wailers. Which means Reggae is behind Nash’s incandescent anthem I Can See Clearly Now. Tosh is to reggae as Pink Floyd was to rock. An innovator, an extender of possibilities, a musical force that raised standards and remains to this day, still, a very hard act to follow. His 1977 record Equal Rights is reggae’s Dark Side of the Moon. Minus millions in revenue and white consumer love.
Peter Tosh wears a beret, black round shades and looks away from us on the cover. Rejecting our eyes, our approval, as much as the establishment. Behind him in bold red letters are the words “Equal Rights”. The fact that this album produced by CBS made it to the shelves was a victory on its own. It was militantly pro-black consciousness. Equal Rights signaled an advocacy fearless and essential at a time when the civil rights movement was practically dead. Equal Rights was the soundtrack to civil disobedience. Formal equality by law.
“Everyone is crying out for peace/ Yet none cry out for justice!”
Equal Rights is almost too controversial to be controversial. And maybe the reason why CBS took on the record was to control the output. Tosh even complained that the album was accessible to everyone accept the people it was intended for. Still it stands as a high and mighty achievement.
Tuning into the 40 minute thriller for easy “Sunshine Reggae” listening gets you slapped upside the head. It rushes you with the rousing collab between Marley and Tosh. The classic “Get Up, Stand Up”. A song that has righteously soundtracked many protest marches ever since and its clarity and force is undiminished. What gets missed though is Tosh’s guitar. It’s an absolute master class in alert skanking. Propulsive and swaying. Impossible not to feel energized by. And so smartly produced. Marley’s warm popular voice draws you into the album only to ambush you later with strident songs that will have your stomach turning with their truth.
One of the best tracks on the LP is “Stepping Razor”. Best described as a back handed klap to anyone afraid of people of colour.
“I beg you treat me good / I’m like a walking razor / don’t you watch my size / I’m dangerous”. The song outthinks and parodies racial stereotypes of violence associated with Jamaicans while deconstructing political correctness. Yeah Tosh is that fucking on it.
So the next time you see some grinning rasta selling a shirt at the flea market, think of Equal Rights and remember Peter Tosh, and have some respect. It’s powerful music made in the name of great ideas.
“To have truth in your possession / you can be found guilty / and sentenced to death.”