Jah No Dead


First Person

Peter Tosh’s tomb and the roots of Rasta.

Peter Tosh


Peter Mackintosh was born in a small seaside village in Westmoreland. He was reared, like most Jamaicans, by his mother. He learned to play piano and sing, like most of the country’s musicians, in her church. Peter’s father was little seen in the village of Belmont (“a bad boy, a rascal,” Tosh described him, who “just go around and have a million and one children”). Gainful work was scarce, too. Peter left the provinces to make a life in Kingston’s slums. When he met Bob and Bunny, his fellow Wailers-to-be, he was selling sugarcane juice from a cart by Parade. When his life later ended under decidedly “violent / tragic circumstances” (he was shot in his home at the age of forty-one), his body was brought back to the sleepy town where he was born.

Belmont is a teeny village by the turquoise sea, not far from the old Spanish slave port of Savanna-la-Mar, whose most notable site is its favorite son’s tomb. Tosh’s mausoleum is a cement box painted red, gold, and green. It sits by the water, on the road that hugs Jamaica’s sleepy south coast, in a shaded yard by the tidy little house that Peter bought his mother in the 1970s. It’s a quiet tourist trap, most days, where the young men who work the rum shop by the yard’s gate rouse themselves from their dominoes, when the few Tosh-obsessed Germans and Japanese who make it here turn up, to demand ten dollars apiece from visitors. Marley’s tomb, across the island in Saint Ann Parish, is patronized not only by scores of such pilgrims daily but also by busloads of casual vacationers who sign up, in plush north coast resorts nearby, to visit the reggae king’s home. Belmont, by contrast, remains outside the tourist circuit. But as perhaps befits its great son’s contrasting place in Jamaica’s memory, it does serve, as I saw visiting one Peter Tosh Day, as a pilgrimage site for Jamaicans. More especially, for believers of the born-in-Jamaica faith that island boosters claim is “the only major world religion born in the twentieth century”—in whose pantheon Peter resides, ever blacker and just a touch badder than Bob, too—it is the resting place of an enduring saint.

Rolling into Belmont, I turned my rental car’s radio to 107.1, Irie FM. The deejay said that Jamaica’s “roots radio” had been broadcasting live from Peter’s gravesite since six A.M. “Tha sisdren and bredren,” he said, had been arriving since dawn. He introduced a snippet of recorded speech from Tosh’s Red X Tapes, a posthumously released spoken-word album whose digressions Peter’s admirers know by heart. “I don’t smoke marijuana.” His baritone filled the car. “Marijuana is a girl from Cuba. I smoke HERB.” Tosh pronounced the last word with a hard h, emphasizing the sacrament it was. “Lawmakers make every name illegal, to incriminate the underprivileged … But herb, and music, is the healing of the nation. Key to the doors of inspiration. Without herb, any other thing cause distortion, and confusion. Seen?” 

Seen. Into Peter’s yard and through its gates, the sisdren and bredren streamed. Elder Rastas in army fatigues and colorful headwraps. A tattooed young woman wearing a gold necklace whose shape spelled BAD. A young man, shirtless and resting a flagpole on his shoulder, carrying a great banner in Rasta’s colors of red, gold, and green. On a fence outside, someone had painted a big marijuana leaf, captioned with Tosh’s most famous lyric. LEGALIZE IT. Right in front of it, a uniformed policewoman and policeman stood in their colonial-looking black caps. Jamaica’s anti-cannabis laws are far stricter than most spring breakers here think. But this pair seemed little interested in enforcing them. I stepped into the yard to see a striking woman, six feet tall and wearing burlap robes accented with Rasta-colored trim. In her arm she cradled an immense bundle, like a baby, of pungent green herb. On a dais nearby, Mutabaruka, the deejay from Irie FM, wore his own robes to describe how in the 1760s the veterans of Jamaica’s Maroons journeyed to Haiti and played crucial roles there in fomenting history’s only slave revolution. Here, in their thousands, was a great convention of the Rastafari of Jamaica. Actual followers of this faith still amount to only a fraction of the number of Jamaica’s Adventists or Baptists. But the Rastas’ particular riff on Christian scripture, and the charismatic reggae-star apostles who’ve embraced it, has played an outsized role in shaping Jamaica’s external image and internal culture. And here, by the resting place of one of their great apostles, the sisdren and bredren had come to praise their lord, Jah.

The roots of Rasta, like many strains of Jamaican culture, came from its makers’ imaginative interpretation of mediated images from abroad. In Jazz Age Harlem, Marcus Garvey founded and built the Universal Negro Improvement Association. His stirring rhetoric—“Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad,” he said—attracted many admirers on his home island. A few of these, watching a newsreel in Kingston’s Carib Theatre in 1930, saw footage of a black king being crowned Ethiopia’s new emperor, amid nuff pomp and pageantry. They grew convinced that one of his prophecies had come true. “Look to the east,” Garvey was supposed to have said, “for the crowning of an African king.” Developing an elaborate eschatology built from the King James Bible, the Rastafari (named for Haile Selassie’s Amharic honorific, Ras—Prince—Tafari) espoused the smoking of ganja as a sacrament (“He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man,” Psalms 104:14), and eschewed the eating of meat and the cutting of hair (“They shall not make baldness upon their head,” Leviticus 21:5). For most of the next few decades, they remained an obscure, if visible, feature of Jamaican life. And then, in April 1966, Selassie visited the island.

Among the thousands driven that day to worship Selassie as a living god were Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Marley, having joined his mother in Delaware to “work some money” as a custodian and assembly-line worker at a Chrysler plant there for some months, wasn’t present. But he received a letter from his sweetie, Rita, back home, about how when the emperor waved to her from his motorcade, she’d glimpsed Christ’s stigmata on his palm. All three, upon Bob’s return, stopped cutting their hair and began spending much of their time at the Trench Town yard of Mortimo Planno, the prominent Rasta who had hosted Selassie on behalf of Jamaica’s government. Whatever their personal reasons for embracing the faith, Rastafari gave the Wailers a liturgical language that, in an era of Black Power and African freedom struggles, bespoke connections among black people everywhere. Their success in setting those links to music made them stars—and forced Jamaican leaders like Michael Manley, in the 1970s, to embrace a sect whose adepts his father’s generation had suppressed. In 1962, military police raided a Rasta camp in the hills over Montego Bay, beating and jailing its inhabitants—a few were killed—to signal the new state’s determination that these unkempt cultists weren’t welcome. A decade later, as that nation’s dreadlocked singers won fame at home and abroad, this changed. Michael Manley traveled to Ethiopia and returned with a long staff he called the “rod of correction.” He played hard to the Rastas, who called him “Joshua,” even advocating for laws allowing the Rastas their sacred herb. His government’s main patrons in Washington, at the IMF and in the White House across Pennsylvania Avenue, put the kibosh on that. But this history may help gloss the reply supplied by the woman in burlap robes, there at Peter Tosh Day, when I asked her, as she cradled her weed amid the reggae filling the air around Tosh’s tomb, why she wasn’t concerned about the police outside. She looked at me hard. “Di music mek it legal.”

In the decades since Rasta gained something like mainstream tolerance, if not full acceptance, in Jamaica, its faithful have weathered many crises, including the dawning realization on the part of many that their “immortal” god was an earthly despot unrevered by his subjects. More challenging still was the fact that, a mortal man, and a frail old one at that, he up and died in 1975. Had the latter event occurred before reggae’s greats “went Rasta,” one wonders if Rasta would have survived. But luckily for the faithful, and Selassie’s memory, those greats were already selling millions of records in 1975, when Marley wrote his response to his Jah’s demise: “Jah no Dead.” By the time Selassie passed, the cult he’d inspired had spawned singing saints with prophecies of their own. And infelicities of earthly history aside, “the larger point of Rasta,” a musician friend told me in Kingston, was that “we needed to connect some dots—between now and our past, between here and Africa.” Which, no matter the squiggly lines it used, was true. And there in Belmont, it was plain that Rasta was still furnishing a usable language and worldview for poor people seeking ways to grasp the larger history that made them poor, and to reject the larger “Babylon system”—the entire white capitalist West—that keeps them that way. And it still offered ways and means, with the help of excellent vibes and ital goods, to live outside Babylon’s walls.

Island People

Beneath the breadfruit and mango trees in old Tosh’s yard, vendors peddled some of these. In front of ital food stalls, they hawked low-salt corn porridge and green callaloo. A juice stall’s bottles were tagged with aphrodisiac names like MANNISH WATA and FRONT-END-LIFTER, and bore ingredient lists rich in Irish moss, ginger, and ra-moon bark. Next door, the turbaned proprietor of I-Nation Books and Necessities stood over tables stacked with not a few of the titles one sees lining the racks of “black book” peddlers on 125th Street in Harlem. Perusing a comic-book biography of Marcus Garvey and another of Nanny of the Maroons, I passed over Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery and Elijah Muhammad’s Fall of America. Eschewing a few others pertaining to numerology and Candle Burning Magic, I picked up a volume called Olympic DNA: Birth of the Fastest Humans. Its cover was done in the colors of the Jamaican flag. Its argument, I found when I read it, posited that all of Jamaica’s world-class sprinters, for a complex mash of reasons pertaining to chromosomes and history, owed their gifts to the runaway Maroons whose resistance to slavery, and physical feats in Jamaica’s jungle, helped their progeny develop insuperable speed—and become the modern-day heroes of people like the man dressed in flowing golden robes who stopped me as I walked by with my purchase to point at USAIN! on its cover.

I inspected the ital “jewels” the man in gold robes was peddling, and complimented the tray of necklaces he’d laid on a cloth on the ground. They were made from dried bits of carrot and mango, accented with fish skin, and covered with clear rosin. His golden robes, he told me, signaled “uplifment, yuh know.” His name was Rasta Shaw, and he had come here from Sav-la-Mar, just up the coast, “where di slave ships come,” because “Peter a revolutionary. Seen?” Seen. “Him stand up for equal rights. Equal rights … and justice.” He sang the last words, as Peter did in a famous song whose chorus continued where Marley had left off in “Get Up, Stand Up.” Tosh demanded not just equal rights now, but redress for past wrongs as well. This may have been what distinguished Tosh, most of all, to his admirers here. The flyer Rasta Shaw handed me agreed. COMMEMORATION CORAL GARDENS, it read, in gold ink. ATROCITY AGAINST RASTAFARI. Coral Gardens is the name of the old Rasta camp by Montego Bay that was devastated by the “Bad Friday” massacre in 1962. In a couple of weeks, many of those gathered here would reconvene for “cultural presentations, drumming,” and a stage show featuring a pair of performers called Mackie Conscious and Ranking Punkin. On the flyer, an outline of the African continent was overlaid with a slogan that was also a statement of faith. VICTORY OF GOOD OVER EVIL, it said.

I took the flyer from Rasta Shaw’s hand, with thanks, and moved on.

Down by the stage, a few dozen Rastas sang and drummed along with one of Peter’s sons. Dressed in camo pants and a black T-shirt printed with the block-lettered phrase BABYLON CAN’T WIN, he mouthed his dad’s songs into a mic. At the yard’s other end, I approached a small house on whose porch a stooped old woman sat. She was dressed in a high-necked gray blouse and an ankle-length skirt. I mounted her porch’s stairs to pay respects. This was Mrs. Coke: Peter’s mum. Her unseeing eyes were mostly shut; whiskers ringed her chin. I told her how pleased I was to meet her, touching her hand, and she smiled gently. I asked her how it felt to welcome all these thousands of people to her yard, to honor her son. “Bless,” she nodded. “Joy.” Which seemed about right for a ninetysomething woman. As I took my leave, I pressed a small bill into her palm, as seemed to be the custom here, and turned to greet a man, standing on the porch nearby, whom I’d noticed before.

He wasn’t the only other white person here. Ganja Man—a Nebraskan pot lawyer I’d encountered often in Jamaica—was also on the scene, naturally. He was everywhere. He’d spent much of the afternoon on the dais with Irie FM’s deejay, reasoning with passion on air about the ital importance of ensuring balance in your endocannabinoid system. There were also a few aging bohemians, led by the ex-wife of the novelist Russell Banks, who kept winter homes in the area and whom I recognized from meeting at a restaurant down the way. This fellow, though, was different. He was youngish, but with a proprietary air. He had the shabby-chic facial hair and skinny stylish girlfriend of an LA hipster. James Baldwin wrote, “One Negro meeting another at an all-white cocktail party … cannot but wonder how the other got there.” The same, but different, could have been said about us. But this man’s alibi, and larger hustle, became clear when I shook his hand. He was the person now in charge of Tosh’s estate. It was his dollars, rather than Peter’s mum’s, that were underwriting this free celebration of a figure whose brand’s star, he was convinced, could rise even higher than Bob’s. He’d worked closely with the family since winning the estate manager’s role a couple of years before, to get a new “Peter biopic” off the ground, and, more generally, to leverage the departed’s memory, and tunes, for good and for cash. “The Beatles had McCartney and Lennon,” said Mr. LA. “But one of them—Lennon—will always feel cooler. Peter is that. Marley is McCartney; Peter is John. That’s what we want to do.” I wished him luck.

I wasn’t sure if Tosh’s avowedly black act, and message, had the same crossover potential twenty years after his death as the mixed-race Obama-ite figure his old friend Bob became. But at this party, where, Peter’s estate manager told me, everyone was performing for free, the reverence accorded “the Toughest” by the sisdren and bredren singing his songs, anyway, was clear. For them, the question of how the great Peter Tosh could be sold to kids in Peoria was as irrelevant as Babylon’s impertinent queries about their god’s end. And up onstage, the Rastas were pounding their drums, dozens strong, with open palms. The elders waved their flags in time, and then parted behind them to allow a new party to come to the fore.

A diminutive figure, stepping from between two bearded drummers, shuffled onstage. He was spectacularly attired. He wore a mock policeman’s outfit, made of pink cloth, topped off by a matching pink sailor cap with gold and green piping. Down his back, a single cord of braided dreadlocks hung, reaching nearly to his knees. It was the last of the Wailers. Bunny. In a pink sailor cap and all. Burdened with the weight of being both the least charismatic and the least successful of Jamaican culture’s holiest trinity, Bunny is also the only Wailer not to have been martyred before middle age. When he left the group, he took their name as compensation: he has gone, for forty years, by “Bunny Wailer.” He is a tricky figure. Given to reclusive paranoia and mad pronouncements, he is a man more warily respected, even among his fellow Rastas, than actively loved. But on this day, his pro bono appearance at what felt like a family reunion shook with meaning. Bunny embraced Peter’s son, in his black T. Taking the mic in hand, he extended a pink-sleeved arm.

“Get up, stand up!” The elders beat their drums, good and slow. Bunny growled. “Stand up for your rights.” The song is known as Marley’s, but it was one of the last songs the original Wailers recorded together—and its most searing verse, as all Jamaicans know, and as Bunny sang, loud and strong, by its author’s grave, was penned by Peter Tosh.

We’re sick and tired of your ism-schism game
Dyin’ ’n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus name, Lord
We know when we understand
    Almighty God is a living man

The last living Wailer, his sailor hat bobbing in the fading light, conducted his flock.

You can fool some people sometimes
But you can’t fool all the people all the time

We all sang along.

So now we see the light (what you gonna do?)
We gon’ stand up for our rights!

As the sun dipped into the waves, I piled back into the rental car with Ganja Man and pair of new Rasta pals who I watched flick their half-smoked spliffs into the sea. The music might have legalized the herb for the afternoon, but not now. “Too much Babylon on di road.” We pulled out into traffic. And then, after pausing in Sav-la-Mar, where old Tosh’s forebears were unloaded as slaves and our friends took a pee break by a seawall scrawled with the phrase “Don’t Piss Yah,” we hopped back in the car and rolled on toward Jamaica’s western tip.

From the book Island People by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, copyright 2016 by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a geographer and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Review of Books, New York, Harper’s, the Believer, Artforum, and The Nation, among many other publications.