Table of Contents
Editorial: Gloria Emeagwali
Bernard Steiner Ifekwe: “MALCOLM X AND PETER TOSH: THE MAKING OF BLACK LEADERSHIP IN THE UNITED STATES AND JAMAICA, 1952-1987”
Dr. Bernard Ifekwe takes us on an intellectual journey across the Atlantic, from Harlem in the United States, to Kingston, Jamaica. Two major personalities attract his attention, namely
Malcolm X and Peter Tosh. Dr. Ifekwe sees some commonalities in their struggle and rise to prominence. The circumstances surrounding their assassination are not explored in this particular issue of Africa Update but we look forward, anxiously, to the sequel. The basic argument put forward by the author is that conditions of deprivation produced forms of resistance, in personalities such as Malcolm X and Peter Tosh, and that these circumstances catapulted them to prominence in the global stage.
One of these individuals, Malcolm X, was the citizen of a world superpower- and the other, a citizen of a nation state in the Caribbean. Both regions were historically enmeshed in despicable activities of human trafficking and enslavement. Both regions engaged in discrimination against the descendants of the enslaved. Various forms of resistance to such degradation emerged in the two regions. Both were British colonies at some point in their history, namely, until 1776, in the case of the USA, and 1962, in the Jamaican context. The nature of the intersection of race , class and gender differed in the two regions, and so, too, the identity of the dominant elites, their ideological orientation, motives, influence and tactics. An earlier issue of Africa Update examined the context of such marginalization, with direct reference to the United States and Brazil: http://web.ccsu.edu/afstudy/upd23-3.html.
This article is a welcome addition to this discourse, in a biographical context.
We thank the contributor to this issue of " Africa Update," Dr. Bernard S. Ifekwe, for his illuminating,
comparative and cross - regional focus.
Professor Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor, Africa Update
"MALCOLM X AND PETER TOSH: THE MAKING OF BLACK LEADERSHIP IN THE UNITED STATES AND JAMAICA, 1952-1987"
BERNARD STEINER IFEKWE, Ph.D*
DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY/INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF UYO, AKWA IBOM STATE
This discussion examines the activities of two eminent African American and Caribbean activists, Malcolm Little (Malcolm X) and Winston Hubert McIntosh (Peter Tosh) in the making of Black history. Both personalities, of different backgrounds and orientations, shared the vision of the emancipation of the Black race until their violent deaths in 1965 and 1987 respectively.
Malcolm X was born in the United States in 1925. His father Earl Little, a Baptist Minister and a staunch Garveyist, was murdered by a white extremist group when Malcolm X was six because he was preaching about Black emancipation . Years after his father’s murder, his subsequent lifestyle led to his being jailed for ten years by the United States authorities. On regaining his freedom, he emerged as a Black spokesman for the Nation of Islam (NOI) as well as being the leader of the Organization of the Afro-American Unity (OAAU). In this latter group, he became an advocate of Black redemption.
From 1976, on the other hand, Peter Tosh, born in 1944 in Jamaica, became an outstanding human rights advocate, a Pan- Africanist, Reggae icon and Rastafarian. His belief in the divinity of the late Ethiopian, monarch Emperor Haile Selassie I, and the propagation of this belief through his lyrics, musical concerts and interviews, contributed much to the global dimensions of Jamaican culture.
His religious beliefs and his advocacy for Black redemption became the hallmark of his global tours from 1976, until he was assassinated in 1987. Reviewing the impact of the Peter Tosh phenomenon in arousing Black consciousness, a publicist, Don Letts, applauded his country, Jamaica as “one Island that has culturally colonized the world”.
Our task is to unravel the relationship between Malcolm X and Peter Tosh as low income dwellers in Harlem, in the United States and Trench Town, Jamaica, from where they literally burst out to global prominence, leading to their advocacy for Black redemption. One of their major strengths, at the prime of their careers, was their constant reflection on their experiences which unraveled for them the context of being Black. Consequently, we will deepen our understanding of their importance in Black history through a number of works about them such as their autobiographies, biographies, critical essays, interviews, lyrics and speeches. From these perspectives, their contributions to Black history and culture would be appreciated.
Malcolm X and Peter Tosh: A Profile
In his reflection on the emergence of individuals from obscurity to prominence, Frantz Fanon writes that “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Malcolm X and Peter Tosh typified this statement, respectively, by rising from low income localities in Harlem and Trench Town, to becoming global icons. Moreover, in the course of their activities as Black leaders, both had composite visions of tackling the Black problems in the United States and Jamaica between 1952 and 1987. The emergence of democracy and its attendant hope of granting equality to all had been a charade all along, especially as practiced in the United States and Jamaica. This therefore justified their determination to confront these issues through the Nation of Islam as well as the Muslim Mosque, Inc., the OAAU in the United States, and Reggae and Rastafarianism in Jamaica. They used these institutions to focus on the Black predicament in world history, and also as vehicles for Black resistance to racism and alienation, in various parts of the world.
Malcolm X and Peter Tosh were not eminent personalities from birth. Both were products of low income areas in Harlem, the United States and Trench Town, Jamaica, where Black men resided in abject poverty, where many survived through rascality.It is from these environmental factors that we will appreciate their transformational journey to Black leadership from the period under review.
There are two phases in Malcolm X’s life as a Black American leader: (a) the first was when, through the platform of the Black Muslims, he preached Black separatism from the United States; (b) the second commenced after he left the Nation of Islam and he formed the Organization of the Afro-America Unity (OAAU) as a preparation to his foray into politics, the internationalization of the race question in the United States and his acceptance of Pan Africanism from 1964, as a link between Africans and their Diaspora brothers in the global struggle for emancipation.
For Peter Tosh, his arrival at Trench Town in the 1960s , where he met other youths such as Bob Marley, and Bunny Wailer, changed his life from being lowly and penniless to the realms of leadership. By embracing Rastafarianism as a Black religion, as well as using Reggae music to campaign for Black freedom, Peter Tosh undoubtedly enshrined his name in Black history.
Harlem, in New York City, was very critical to Malcolm X’s transformational journey from obscurity to Black American leadership. It was a segregated neighborhood whose history was a straightforward reflection of White prejudice against the Blacks. It was a district characterized by violence, drug trafficking, criminality, poor social services, dilapidated housing, chronic unemployment, and environmental degradation. In short, Harlem was the very representation of palpable poverty. Malcolm X’s vicissitudes of life from depravity to prominence began here within the sociological complexity of discrimination, poverty, and criminality in Harlem.
When his father was murdered because of his Pan-African beliefs, Malcolm X and his siblings were confronted with real misfortune. The interview he granted Alex Haley in 1963 in Playboy magazine narrated this unfortunate incident as well as the trajectory of his transition from his past shady activities to political leadership, made possible by his Islamic faith and, much later, his acceptance of Pan-Africanism from the early 1950s. For instance, he said that after his father’s death:
We were so hungry we were so dizzy and we had nowhere to turn. Finally the authorities came in and we children were scattered about in different places as public wards. I happened to become the ward of a white couple who ran a correctional school for white boys. This family liked me the way they liked their house pets. They got me enrolled in an all-white school. I was popular, I played sports and everything, and studied hard, and I stayed at the head of my class through the eight grade. That summer I was 14, but I was big enough and looked old enough to get away with telling a lie that I was 21, so I got a job working in the dining car of a train that ran between Boston and New York City.
Undoubtedly, the circumstances of his father’s death drove him to violent behavior. When he got that job in Harlem, that Black city by then was peopled by many Black writers, journalists, and musicians whose exploits went down in history as “ The Harlem Renaissance”6. The neighborhood emphasized toughness and deviance as part of escapist measures against racism. In trying to resist these pressures, inhabitants of Harlem adopted strategies that gave them psychological leverage, to alleviate their plight. In such a setting, criminality became simultaneously a means of survival and a strategy for vengeance against the system that had held them aground for centuries. These situations played into the hands of Malcolm X. According to him:
On my layovers in New York, l’d go to Harlem. That’s where I saw in the bars all these men and women with what looked like the easiest life in the world. Plenty of money, big cars, all of it. I could tell they were in the rackets and vice. I hung around those bars whenever I came in town, and I kept my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut. And they kept their eyes on me, too. Finally, one day a numbers man told me that he needed a runner, and I never caught the night train back to Boston. Right there was when I started my life in crime.
Against this background, Malcolm X’s escapade into crime had begun. He colored his head red and was known in the underworld as “Detroit Red”. His accomplices went with dreadful names such as “Fabulous Forty Thieves Gang,” “Shorty”, “Dollar bill”, “Jump steady” or “St. Louis Red”, “Chicago Red”, “West Indian Archie” and many more. They were involved in the collation and distribution of drugs as well as in violent crimes. Above all, Malcolm X graduated from selling these drugs to a major consumer at the age of seventeen and got hooked on the use of different drugs. When he became a notable African-American leader, he reflected on these wasted years:
Opium had me drowsy, I had a bottle of benzedrine tablets in my bathroom: I swallowed some of them to perk up. The two drugs working in me had my head going in opposite directions at the same time …
Shorty had originally introduced me to marijuana, and my consumption of it astounded him. … When awake, I’d play records continuously. The reefers gave me a feeling of contentment. I would enjoy hours of floating, day- dreaming, imaginary conversations with my New York musician friends.
The loss of his father, compounded by the racist system in the United States, he contended, habituated his behavior to violence. However, his life in jail, and the massive reading and debating skills it generated, was a major transformational journey which he fully utilized from 1952, until his violent death in 1965.
Peter Tosh and Trench Town
Peter Tosh, until his assassination in 1987, was a product of Trench Town, a Black town in Jamaica which emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. One of the manifestations of enslavement in Jamaica was that it created “an identifiable social hierarchy complete with racial and occupational distinctions” producing a plural society which comprised Whites and Blacks, dominated by Whites, the descendants of former settler colonists, as a result of their political and economic power in this Island nation. However, the Blacks were at the lowest rung of this social hierarchy, and in order to escape from the terrible deprivation this connoted, they began to search for outlets that would lead in new and rewarding directions. Consequently:
… the country experienced a massive migration [of the blacks] to urban areas such as Kingston and St. Andrew. Many of these formerly rural agricultural workers settled in squatter camps and ghettos. Experts believe that nearly one-fifth of the entire rural population – 200,000 people migrated to cities.
On their arrival in the urban centers, especially Kingston, they settled in cluttered and unhygienic environments for lacking the financial resources to acquire a decent living. This was the genesis of Trench Town, formerly called Trench Pen. Hélène Lee, narrated the trajectory of the evolution of this Black suburb:
In 1939 the government built the ghettos’ first low - income housing. These “government yards” were one-floor dwellings. The kitchens were outside, with fourteen families in each yard. But most people preferred to cook inside their rooms, and the outdoor Kitchens became hangouts for homeless youths like Bob Marley, who, when his mother left to work in the United States – took refuge with his young singing companions ‘‘in a government yard in Trench Town” in 1959 -60. Trench Pen, renamed Trench Town, was on its bitter road to planetary fame.
From Trench Town, a musical renaissance began to unfold assuming different names until “reggae”, its current name, acquired a global acceptability. As a teenager, Peter Tosh was attracted by the allure of this musical renaissance and its Afrocentric lyrics. Born out of wedlock, and in the grip of intense deprivation as a result of his Black color, Peter Tosh arrived there with his large ambition, not mindful of the hunger that had gnawed his stomach and the violence that made the place uncontrollable. Through dint of hard work, he helped to transform reggae music and its religious variant, Rastafarianism, from a Caribbean musical genre to global prominence.
One of his influential teachers during these years in Trench Town was Walter Rodney who toured these Jamaican low income areas and taught them African history and the decolonization processes going on in Africa. This inspiration from Rodney shaped the perceptions of many Rastafarians then who began to link African experience in enslavement and colonialism with their music. Peter Tosh’s link with Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and their band, “The Wailers”, gave him a formidable base to jump into international stardom. In 1976, when he became a solo artist he produced highly acclaimed record albums such as Legalize It (1976), Equal Rights (1977), Bush Doctor (1978), Mystic Man (1979), Wanted, Dread And Alive (1981), Mama Africa (1983), Captured Live (1984) and No Nuclear War (1987). His lyrics in these albums captured the essence of Rastafarianism, his religious belief, his constant advocacy of the use of marijuana as a sacred tenet, his Pan–African sentiments and African liberation. His belief in African freedom through Reggae music was conveyed by him thus:
Death to Disco, man. I am here to make reggae the international music, because disco doesn’t have the spiritual potential of reggae. The devil created disco, telling black people to get down all the time. But I–mon seh to black people, “get up stand up for your rights”.
Within these contexts, both Malcolm X and Peter Tosh, living at different times and places, had similar temperaments of tackling the Black predicament for positive change. Through such visions, their positions as Black leaders were recognized. Their speeches, lectures, interviews and lyrics were spiced with militancy that pointed at Black liberation.
Malcolm X and the First Phase of Black leadership, 1952 – 1963.
In his abode at Harlem, Malcolm X’s misdemeanors were quite legendary. When he was finally caught, he spent 77 months in three different prisons. These prisons became places of self-discovery from a life of crime, rehabilitation and the road to Black leadership mainly as a prominent Muslim leader. According to him:
After becoming a Muslim in prison, I read almost everything I could put my hands on in the prison library. I began to think back on everything I had read and especially with the histories, I realized that nearly all of them read by the general public have been made into white histories. I found out that the history-whitening process either had left out great things that black men had done, or some of the great black men had gotten whitened.
This transformation from deviance to Black leadership was not easy for him. He realized his follies while in prison in Harlem. The books he read on his road to recovery revealed to him of his wasted years in the underworld when he lost his sensibilities. For a new twist in life through reading, he started from the scratch to scrawl on alphabets in order to learn. From such efforts, he began the search for his Black identity. Manning Marable, in his biography of Malcolm X, called this “A Life of Reinvention.”
Such books he read were many and of diverse subjects like Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, H. G. Well’s Outline of History, W. E. B. Du Bois Souls of Black Folk, Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History, J. A. Roger’s Sex and Race, among others. These, among others, exposed him to the horrors of slavery and the slave trade, and they helped him to understand“… how the whole world’s white men had indeed acted like devils pillaging and raping and bleeding and draining the whole world’s non–white people …” In the way, according to him,
Book after book showed me how the white man had brought upon the world’s black, brown, red and yellow peoples every variety of the sufferings of exploitation. I saw how since the sixteenth century, the so-called “Christian trader” white man began to ply the seas in his lust for Asian and African empires, and plunder, and power. I read, I saw, how the white man never has gone among the non – white peoples bearing the Cross in the true manner and spirit of Christ’s teachings – meek, humble, and Christ – like.
His readings and approaches to them were roads to self–discovery, which eventually led him to embrace the Nation of Islam (NOI), under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, as the only outlet for survival and emancipation. One of his siblings, Philbert Little, in a letter to him in 1948, had introduced him to the Black Muslims, as “a natural religion for the Black man” and called upon him to embrace it for his salvation. Subsequently, he corresponded with his leader, and Elijah Muhammad, according to him, “gave me something to think about”, which included, among others, that:
The black prisoner … symbolized white society’s crime of keeping black men oppressed and deprived and ignorant, and unable to get decent jobs, turning them into criminals. He told me to have courage. He even enclosed some money for me, a five dollar bill. Mr. Muhammad sends money all over the country to prison inmates who write to him.
These letters exposed him to the Black predicament the experience in Harlem, and having embraced Islam, he promised to use the platform for Black redemption when released. In 1952, he left the prison, joined the Black Muslims, and dropped his surname ‘Little’ for “X” to reflect his new image. According to him:
For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slave master name of “Little” which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed on my paternal forebears. The receipt of my ‘X’ meant that forever after the nation of Islam, I would be known as Malcolm X.
In the Nation of Islam, he was made a Minister. There, the oratory skills which he had built in the prisons drove him to all corners of the United States, where he preached and lectured on Black history, politics, economy and religion. In Colleges and Universities, this former deviant became an advocate of Black redemption punctuating his speeches and interviews with signs of loyalty to his leader and benefactor, Elijah Muhammad. Every comment or statement would begin with: “Mr. Muhammad teaches us that … ” to underscore this influence.
Under this setting, his unbending approach to and fiery speeches about the Black problems in the United States pitted him against other African American leaders who had championed the Black cause before he came on the scene. He adopted a militant approach and saw their moderate approach outlined through strategies such as boycotts, freedom-rides and sit-ins, as inadequate to address the Black predicament. Malcolm X called the Black leaders like Roy Wilkins, Whitney M. Young, Martin Luther King, Jr, among others, as the “Big Six” .The Black Muslims constantly asked these leaders such questions like: “why would any proud African American … ask, beg, and boycott to be integrated with former slave-holders?” Furthermore, the Muslims’ campaigns for liberation in the United States involved a call for a separate state for Black Americans in the country. Malcolm X, at the head of this campaign, would stress that their population of “20,000,000 black men” was quite enough to sustain an independent Black nation “here in the wilderness of North America”. In 1963, he elaborated on this subject:
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches separation simply because any forcible attempt to integrate America completely would result in another civil war, a catastrophic explosion among whites which would destroy America – and still not solve the problem. But Mr. Muhammad’s solution of separate black and white would solve the problem neatly for both the white and black man, and America would be saved. Then the whole world would give Uncle Sam credit for being something other than a hypocrite.
Malcolm X’s disagreements with the moderate African–American leaders deepened on August 20, 1963 when they demonstrated under the banner of a “March on Washington” where Martin Luther King Jr made his famous “I have a dream speech.” This demonstration attracted an estimated 250,000 people comprising both Black and White. Malcolm X berated this event as a circus show because, through the intervention of the government of John F. Kennedy, the defiance underlying the need for Black revolution was reduced to mere demonstrations. He pilloried them saying:
Yes, I was there. I observed the circus. Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing “We Shall Overcome … Suum Day …” while tripping and swaying along arm–in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against? Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lilypad park pools, with gospels and guitar and “I have a Dream” speeches?
But then, contrary to his pessimism about this historical march, it had major impact on American history such as the passage of the Civil Rights legislations and huge influence on anti war, feminist and environmental movements in the country.
Against this background, the first phase of Malcolm X’s leadership at the Nation of Islam in a nutshell, was devoted to the building of the image of his leader, Elijah Muhammad, the call for a separate state for Blacks in America and his disagreement with other Black American leaders on the Civil Rights movements. Most importantly, this phase elevated Malcolm X as one of the foremost speakers in the United States then. According to him:
About a month before the “Farce [March] on Washington”, the New York Times reported me, according to its poll conducted on College and University campuses, as “the second most sought after” speaker at colleges and universities. The only speaker ahead of me was Senator Barry Gold-water.
The former criminal from Harlem had elevated himself on the side of Black leadership.
Malcolm X and the Second Phase of Black Leadership, 1963 – 1965
Malcolm X’s sojourn in the Nation of Islam lasted from 1952 to 1963. Within this period, “Mr. X”, as some of his admirers would call him, had become an outstanding Black American leader. In 1963 he was axed from the Nation of Islam for making a remark about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when his leader, Elijah Muhammad, had asked his Muslim ministers not to comment about it. In a public function where he delivered one of his fiery speeches entitled “God’s Judgment of White America,” someone had asked him for comment about the assassination of President Kennedy. According to him,
Without a second thought, I said what I honestly felt – that it was, as I saw it, a case of the chickens coming home to roost. “I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country’s Chief of State.”
This comment offended his leader, Elijah Muhammad, who had him suspended. After this suspension, he noticed that the Nation of Islam had been infiltrated by spies and assassins and consequently he began to plan for an alternative organization with himself at the head. As he reminiscences:
It was a big order—the organization I was creating in my mind, one which would help to challenge the American black man to gain his human rights, and to cure his mental, spiritual, economic and political sicknesses. But if you ever intend to do anything worthwhile, you have to start with a worthwhile plan. Substantially, as I saw it, the organization I hoped to build would differ from the Nation of Islam in that it would embrace all faiths of black men, and it would carry into practice what the Nation of Islam had only preached.
The new organizations he founded were called the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), as well as a secular one called the Organization of the African- American Unity (OAAU), fashioned after the defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU). His religious and political horizons expanded as he made a holy pilgrimage to Mecca, which deepened his understanding of orthodox Islamic teaching, contrary to what he had learnt with the NOI. Therefore, after the pilgrimage, he changed his name to El-Hajj El-Shabazz to reflect his new identity as an orthodox Muslim.
The pilgrimage gave him a new image and philosophy about race relations because his sojourn in the Nation of Islam had imbued in him hatred towards the White Americans whom he called “devils” in his lectures, interviews, and speeches. When intermingling with other pilgrims from different races in Mecca, this image changed because he noticed the humanity in every being. To underscore this transformation, he wrote a letter entitled “A Letter from Mecca”, where he stressed his new belief this way:
America needs to understand Islam because this is the only religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered “white” but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought – patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experiences and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth. During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blood, and whose skin was whitest of white. And in the same words and in the actions and in the deeds of the “white” Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.
After this pilgrimage, he made extensive tours of several African countries to deepen himself of his new role in Black leadership. In Nigeria, for example, he delivered a lecture at the University of Ibadan where he advocated Pan-Africanism:
… African independent nations needed to see the necessity of helping to bring the Afro-American’s case before the United Nations. I said that just as the American Jew is in political, economic and cultural harmony with world Jewry, I was convinced that it was time for all Afro-Americans to join the world’s Pan–Africanists. I said that physically we Afro- Americans might remain in America, fighting for our Constitutional rights, but that philosophically and culturally, we Afro-Americans badly needed to “return” to Africa – and develop a working unity in the framework of Pan–Africanism.
Due to this pilgrimage, we can surmise that Malcolm X transited from a philosophy of separatism to that of integration and Pan-Africanism. One can only wonder how the formation of his Muslim Mosque, Inc, and the Organization of African-American Unity (OAAU) would have demonstrated his new philosophy for Black leadership had he lived to lead these two organizations. Regrettably, he was assassinated in 1965 when he was nearing his fortieth birthday anniversary and his two organizations went into oblivion.
The Peter Tosh Phenomenon: His Reggae Music, and Black leadership in Jamaica, 1976 – 1987
Peter Tosh, born in 1944, became an eminent Black leader whose lyrics recounted major themes in African history such as slavery, racism, underdevelopment, colonialism, neo-colonialism, among others. Like Malcolm Little who adopted the letter “X” as a replacement for his “slavery” name, Winston Hubert Mclntosh also chose to become Peter because, as a Rastafarian who was deeply versed in the Bible, the Biblical Peter, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ, had tremendous qualities, especially his outspokenness and boldness, which appealed to him. According to John Masouri, his biographer:
… When others [disciples] are silent Peter speaks up! Peter was always quick to say exactly what he thought, even if what was on his mind was not always correct. Time and again Peter speaks first and thinks later. Peter may have to answer for his actions, but he certainly seemed to have made up for his error by quickly speaking up for Christ later.
With such inspiration, Peter Tosh became quite outspoken, militant and bold, a reputation which he built when he sojourned in Trench Town. From 1976 when he became a solo artist, Peter Tosh clamored for social change, and used his lyrics to explain major causes of Black predicament which were akin to Malcolm X’s days as an eminent Black leader in the United States. Consequently, his critics called him “the Malcolm X of Reggae” because through Reggae and Rastafarianism, he popularized his philosophy of Black redemption globally and spoke forcefully in this regard, imitating Malcolm X in the process.
He built his image and reputation, as said earlier, through Reggae music which retold the history of slavery, colonialism and post-colonial eras in Jamaica and Africa. Reggae music, according to Eric Bennet grew:
… most directly from the Rhythms and the Blues (R and B) music of the United States. In the 1950s Jamaicans often listened to R and B songs that were broadcast from Miami, Florida. Local musicians soon covered songs by acts such as Fats Domino and Louis Jordan and wrote new tunes in a similar style. The fusion of R and B with Jamaican music, or mento, yielded a new form called Ska. … Unlike R and B, which emphasized the first and third beats of a measure, ska hit the second and fourth or “back” beats. In the early 1960s ska evolved into rock steady, a slower, more bass driven form. Amid a quickly changing Jamaican political climate, rock steady soon developed into reggae. During the 1950s and 1960s many Jamaicans migrated to the cities, especially Kingston, the capital in search of better job opportunities. The demographic shift contributed to the proliferation of Rastafarianism. Inspired by the Black Nationalist philosophy of Marcus Garvey, the Rastafarian movement began in Jamaica early in the twentieth century as a way to cope with the oppressive conditions of colonial Jamaica. Rastafarians adopted the Bible as a sacred text but rejected Christ couching their faith in the divinity of Africa, the homeland. A return to Ethiopia – whether spiritual or actual – became the highest goal, and Rastafarians considered Ethiopian King Haile Selassie I as messiah.
Against this background, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, one of the earliest musical groups which professed the religion of Rastafarianism, adapted it as a philosophy of Black redemption. When they split in 1974 as a group, Peter Tosh became a solo artist and became an outstanding and fearless reggae artist. His first album, Legalize it, called the “marijuana anthem” by critics for openly campaigning for the legalization of the substance, showed the direction of this musical icon as an anti-establishment campaigner. It would seem at this point that Peter Tosh reveled in marijuana usage, but his central argument in his advocacy for its legalization stemmed from its religious importance as a Rastafarian. Accordingly:
… Peter Tosh wrote all his songs after smoking marijuana because it gave him spiritual enlightenment. Moreover, he believed that marijuana (ganja) was the healing of any nation, sent by JAH to set the captives free. Captives in this sense were the Rastafarians. It was also his opinion that the substance gave the small man, [perhaps Rastafarians], a brief solace from the problems of every life and a source of inspiration for him and that was why the government of Jamaica had declared it illegal so as to continue keeping the black people down.
Peter Tosh was a Garveyist, and so some of his songs were written in praise of Marcus Garvey. He read some of Frantz Fanon’s works such as The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks which deepened his understanding of the Black predicament. Both Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon drew him closer to Pan-Africanism. From his 1977 album, Equal Rights, he showed his commitment to Pan-Africanism, chanting:”Don’t you know where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.” He equally advocated such sentiments in his Mama Africa album released in 1983.Like Malcolm X, he was concerned with the liberation of Africa, most especially South Africa and Zimbabwe and expressed such in albums such as Equal Rights and No Nuclear War where he condemned apartheid and White minority rule. In another album, Mystic Man, he endorsed armed struggle:
Fight on Brothers, Fight on, Fight on, and free this land, Fight on and free your fellow man. Africa got to be free by 1983 come and make us see Brothers fight on, cause if Africa is not free then we will be Back in shackles you see my Brothers Fight on …
At the height of his career, Peter Tosh saw his music from the perspective of messages to the oppressed peoples globally. According to him:
I like the way things work out irrespective of the humiliation, because after humiliation, is power and majesty, and every day I get the inspiration to write some exclusive tunes the world will have to listen to and I don’t mean just black people, but everyone who is oppressed.
On his leadership:
I don’t look at myself as a singer. I look at myself as a missionary who comes to preach, to teach and to awake the slumbering mentality of black people, because this is nothing new. From thousands of years ago, there have been preachers who go around and preach and teach and tell the people of the true and the living, seen? And tell the people how to live. To teach the people what is right from wrong but whenever you start to deal with good, it becomes so political that bad gets jealous and tries to put obstacles in your way. They try everything to stop you.
Within this context, Peter Tosh was seen as the “most fearless revolutionary” artist of his time for promoting emancipation and equality in his albums. For instance, he described his Equal Rights album as a message against “colonialism, imperialism, exploitation, and victimization, here, there, and everywhere.” Besides, while playing in various countries, he internationalized Reggae music and Rastafarianism. His 1987 album, No Nuclear War, revealed his concern about nuclear holocaust. In September 1979, for instance, in New York City, Peter Tosh was invited to play at the Madison Square Garden under the auspices of MUSE (Musicians Unite for Safe Energy) to commemorate an accident at the Nuclear plant on Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, in March 1979, which brought out the dangers of nuclear power. Peter Tosh was the only Reggae artist who was invited to take part in the concert and this propelled him to release the album, No Nuclear War later.
Against this background, Peter Tosh from his humble beginnings as a youth in Trench Town, Jamaica, rose from the vicissitudes of life and became an international celebrity through Reggae music and Rastafarianism. His various record albums addressed themselves to major problems which confronted Africa and the Diaspora leaving behind major themes in history such as slavery, racism, underdevelopment, colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Malcolm X and Peter Tosh exhibited outstanding leadership qualities that were in contradistinction to, but was influenced by, their experience of deprivations at Harlem and Trench town respectively. From their humble beginnings, punctuated by crime for Malcolm X, and Rastafarianism for Peter Tosh, they were social rejects within their countries of birth for being Black. However, having found their bearing, they exhibited much courage and defiance to racism and injustice until they laid concrete foundations for Black leadership lasting between 1952 and 1987.
In assessing Malcolm X from this perspective, Manning Marable describes him as “America’s strongest voice for Black Nationalism” because:
Malcolm extensively read history, but he was not a historian. His interpretation of enslavement in the United States cast black culture as utterly decimated by the institution of slavery and framed slavery’s consequences in America as the very worst forms of racial oppression. … For Malcolm the strategic pursuit of Pan–African and Third World empowerment meant addressing new constituencies who looked to him for inspiration and leadership.
He never went to school but his oratorical skill drew many audiences around his themes of Black liberation and pan-Africanism. One listener was so much captivated by him that he asked Malcolm X: “‘What’s your alma Mater?’ I told him, ‘Books’”. Peter Tosh, on the other hand, was seen as “an African Knight who came to do war with his words and his band” and equally as “a poet of the utterance” . He was a protest singer whose Black identity gave him enough leverage to understand the Black predicament, expressed in his lyrics.
The activities of Malcolm X and Peter Tosh are quite interwoven because of their approach to the resolution of the crisis of Black identity through concrete actions. Both came from different climes, the United States and Jamaica but the circumstance of survival in harsh and competitive societies in which they were born and bred, imbued in them the instinct for survival and defiance. Their messages of hope to the Black people globally have reverberated as major themes in Black history. They became two of the most significant Black leaders to emerge in the twentieth century.