Consciously controversial, Peter Tosh (born McIntosh) was Jamaica’s best-known lyrical agitator. Born an only child in Belmont on October 19, 1944, he was raised by an aunt in the west Kingston tenement yards dominated, at the time, by the explosion of harmony groups that transformed post-independence Kingston into a hotbed of aspirations. Every newly arrived country “bhuttu” (or bumpkin) wanted to be a singer and Tosh followed suit, embarking on a mission to reveal home truths from a ghetto perspective. He saved to buy his first guitar and in 1964 formed vocal trio the Wailers with teenage allies Bunny Livingstone and Bob Marley. In 1972 they signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island label, and recorded Catch a Fire and Burnin’ together while Tosh put out tracks on his own Intel Diplo HIM label (Intelligent Diplomat for His Imperial Majesty), all the time becoming increasingly bitter over pay and personal disputes with the man he referred to as “Whiteworst”. By 1974, he and Bunny Livingstone had gone their separate ways.
Roots Reggae Revolutionary
Having already earned a reputation as the Wailers’ social conscience and an uncompromising egotist, Tosh took on the mantle of chief critic of what he called Jamaica’s “Babylon shitstem” (system), publicly berating politicians for double standards and hypocrisy, and lighting spliffs on stage with a cool disregard for the law. His bellicose militancy did him no favours with the island’s police; in 1975 he was busted on a trumped-up ganja charge and beaten to within an inch of his life. As soon as his wounds had healed, he answered back with Whatcha Gonna Do, a cocky release chiding the futility of police brutality, smokers’ anthem Legalize It and the defensive Can’t Blame the Youth – inevitable airplay bans ensured record sales and Tosh cemented his position as the roots reggae revolutionary.
Tosh stayed in Jamaica, but his status and fortune – collaboration with the Rolling Stones in 1978 and a deal with EMI attracted global recognition – drew awkward parallels with the sufferers’ lot he espoused. In a country where money and fame draw a barrage of demands from old friends, causes and shady characters, the intensely spiritual and suspicious Tosh began to display signs of paranoia, believing himself both a victim of an establishment assassination conspiracy and haunted by duppies. His prophecies of destruction were fulfilled on September 11, 1987, when gunmen opened fire in his living room, killing him and two friends, and wounding five others. Rumours concerning the motive spread, some arguing that renowned “bad man” assassin Dennis “Leppo” Lubban was exacting financial retribution for a prison stint he saw as Tosh’s rap, others muttering of a government-backed gagging.
Remembered by Jamaicans as a formidable ladies’ man with a razor-sharp wit, Tosh himself provided his best biography: the “Red X” tapes, shot on scratchy film in a darkened room, show him philosophizing on his mantra, reggae and Rastafari and form part of the essential Tosh documentary Stepping Razor Red X.