Family, friends, fans and an all-star lineup of reggae acts converged in Kingston, Jamaica, to celebrate the life, music and activism of late reggae superstar Peter Tosh at the first annual Peter Tosh Music Festival last month. An uncompromising voice for equality, justice, the legalization of marijuana and the Rastafari way of life, Tosh was a founding member of The Wailers alongside the late Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer.
As a solo artist, Tosh toured with The Rolling Stones and released three albums on Rolling Stone Records and four more for various labels including the 1988 (posthumous) Best Reggae Album Grammy winner No Nuclear War (EMI). Tosh was murdered at his Kingston home on Sept. 11, 1987.
The Peter Tosh Music Festival — presented by the Peter Tosh Museum, running Oct. 19-22 — kicked off with a gala red carpet reception at Kingston’s Spanish Court Hotel on Oct. 19, which would have been Tosh’s 73rd birthday. Hosted by the CEO of Pulse Investments Kingsley Cooper, a partner in the Peter Tosh Museum alongside the Peter Tosh Estate and Tosh’s common law wife at the time of his murder, Marlene Brown, the highlight of the glittering affair was the presentation of the inaugural Peter Tosh Awards, each named after a classic Tosh song.
“It’s important for our family to recognize people who are carrying on my father’s legacy, including the younger generation who are doing important work that he would endorse,” acknowledged Tosh’s daughter Niambe McIntosh, administrator of the Peter Tosh Estate.
An Equal Rights award was posthumously bestowed on Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-Apartheid activist who became the first democratically elected president of that nation. Accepting the award was Jasmine Rand, an attorney representing Mandela’s grandson Ndaba Mandela and Tosh’s son Jawara McIntosh, a.k.a. Tosh 1, who was brutally beaten inside a New Jersey jail earlier this year where he was serving a sentence for marijuana possession; McIntosh remains comatose in a Boston hospital.
Tosh’s former manager Copeland Forbes received the Bush Doctor award for his outstanding contribution to the Jamaican music industry. Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer were honored with the Stepping Razor award and several members of Tosh’s Word Sound and Power band who toured with him in the late ’70s were recognized; they are guitarists Mikey Chung, Donald Kinsey and Steve Golding; keyboardists Robbie Lyn and Keith Sterling, singers Pam Hall, Gem Myers and Carlton Smith, saxophonist Dean Fraser, bassist Astley “Fully” Fullwood (who donated the bass he used during the Tosh touring years to the Peter Tosh Museum) and drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis, one of seven people shot, three fatally, at Tosh’s home in 1987; a bullet remains lodged in Santa’s shoulder, a grim reminder of an unfathomable tragedy.
Winners of the Legalize It award were veteran reggae singer Luciano, who lit a spliff as he reached the podium to accept his honor, and Rastafarian elder Ras Iyah V, President of the Westmoreland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association, who petitioned the Jamaica government for decades to decriminalize marijuana
“Peter Tosh is known worldwide for defending the use of marijuana; as he confronted the system through music, I confronted it from a constitutional point of view,” Ras Iyah V told Billboard.
The festival also included The Equal Rights and Legalize It Symposium (Oct. 20) exploring issues surrounding Tosh’s crusades for justice, and concluded with an Oct. 22 excursion to Tosh’s birthplace and mausoleum in rural Belmont, Westmoreland, about four hours outside of Kingston. Niambe McIntosh is currently in discussions with the mayor of Belmont to rename a nearby beach after her father and have the surrounding area designated as Peter Tosh Town.
The festival’s most anticipated component was the Peter Tosh Tribute Concert (Oct. 21) at the Peter Tosh Museum, with the artists backed by Word, Sound and Power. An interview with Tosh boomed through the speakers as the band setup onstage, with the reggae revolutionary commenting on the most renowned performance of his career, the One Love Peace Concert, Kingston (April 22, 1978). There, Tosh chided Jamaica’s politicians (seated in the front row) for their racism, classism, sanctioned police brutality, failed economic decisions and refusal to legalize marijuana (Mick Jagger was there that night and Tosh’s thunderous set cinched his deal with Rolling Stone Records). Tosh then described the near fatal, 90-minute beating he endured by police several weeks after his incendiary performance.
The festival’s emcee Copeland Forbes shared several anecdotes related to working with Tosh before introducing the evening’s first act, Tosh’s eldest son Andrew Tosh. Andrew delivered faithful renditions of his father’s songs, including, “Coming In Hot”, sung with his son Dre Tosh. Jawara’s Tosh’s 11-year old daughter Jazarah Tosh made her stage show debut with “I Believe,” a song she wrote and dedicated to her father.
Veteran singer Freddie McGregor reached back to Tosh’s Wailer years performing the ska singles “Maga Dog” and “Burial”; Queen Ifrica brought spirited interpretations to the mystical “Creation” and the foretelling “Crystal Ball” and expressed her appreciation to be performing with Word, Sound and Power. London based Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son, drummer with The Who) joined the band, playing guitar, as his wife Sshh Liguz coaxed audience members out of their chairs with her searing rendition of “Get Up Stand Up” (co-written by Tosh and Marley). Mick Jagger, via video greeting, sent congratulations to the Peter Tosh Museum, which was followed by a clip of Peter and Mick performing their hit duet “(You Gotta Walk And) Don’t Look Back” on Saturday Night Live in 1977, backed by Word, Sound and Power. Luciano puffed a cigar-sized spliff as he delivered impassioned versions of the Tosh’s anthems “Legalize It” and “Equal Rights.” “Peter Tosh was not just a singer, he was a freedom fighter,” Luciano told the audience.
Nadine Sutherland sang back up on Tosh’s No Nuclear War album at just 16, and was preparing to tour with him at the time of his murder; she remembers Tosh as a gentle, patient soul, but uncompromising in his beliefs. “I don’t see people like Peter Tosh anymore who authentically stand up for their truth; that’s the greatest aspect of his legacy, apart from his brilliant music,” stated Nadine who performed “Mama Africa” and “Stepping Razor” (the latter written by Wailers’ mentor Joe Higgs, its formidable swagger synonymous with Tosh). “I am not a Rastafarian,” Nadine continued, “but at the time when Rastafari started (with the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor of Haile Selassie I and his wife Empress Menen on Nov. 2, 1930), everything told to black people was you are below par, so if you can find something that celebrates blackness, as Rastafari does, and as Peter did without apology, then I have to pay homage to you.”
Upcoming reggae artist Jesse Royal, 28, delivered stirring interpretations of Tosh’s “Lessons in My Life” and “Na Goa Jail”, the latter an envisioning of legalization. The song’s lyrics imagine Tosh, getting his herb from a policeman as Jamaica’s leaders set ganja prisoners free while acknowledging the economic benefits marijuana can generate for the island; that scenario, far-fetched during Tosh’s lifetime, is now closer to reality with the Jamaican government’s 2015 decriminalization ruling and the granting of the first two licenses to medical cannabis providers on the island in October 2017.
“Finally we have taken on that light in Jamaica, but this fight has gone on for years so it’s important to show where the real struggle comes from, to sing out them songs to honor Peter and others who have been fighting for this for so long. It’s also important to perform the song in front of certain leaders who were there because the struggle nah really over,” cautioned Royal who celebrated decriminalization with his own song “Finally”. Royal recalls hearing Tosh’s music for the first time at six years old. “As a youth, to me, his delivery sounded like the voice of God on songs like ‘Equal Rights’ and ‘Vampire’. The messages of Peter Tosh are up there with any great philosopher. He is revered (among my generation) but still so many more people need to taste the messages of this great man.”
Veteran sing-jay Tony Rebel, also the promoter of Jamaica’s 25-year old ganja-friendly Rastafari reggae festival Rebel Salute calls Tosh “a fearless promoter of Jamaican and African culture; he was very rebellious against the system which was required to make change.” Rebel performed Tosh’s “Glass House,” which he called “the baddest bad boy tune made in Jamaica” and “Jah Guide”, cited by Rebel as significant to his artistic development, and further described Tosh as “prophetic in his predictions. Songs like “The Day the Dollar Died,” and (we don’t want no) “Nuclear War,” is what we are going through now but he wrote them decades ago. That’s why we give thanks for the Peter Tosh Music Festival because it can play a significant role in introducing Peter to those who haven’t heard him and in promoting all that he stood for”.
The second annual Peter Tosh Music Festival will be held Oct.18-21, 2018.