Jazz’s “Satchmo” And Reggae’s “Stepping Razor”: What Do Louis Armstrong And Peter Tosh Have In Common? Part #2

By Ras Kefim

Photos: Reggaeville\Facebook\YouTube Screenshots

The following article, part#2 of a series, by New York-based author and businessman Ras Kefim examines the similarities between Jazz giant Louis Armstrong and Reggae great Peter Tosh. Read part#1 here. Ras Kefim is the author of the book Deception In the Name Of the Lord. Read more about Deception In the Name Of the Lord in this Black Star News article.

Both of these musical giants, Louie Armstrong and Peter Tosh, had unfortunate experiences of going to jail for similar reasons, smoking marijuana. But the way they were treated, after going to jail, resulted in vastly different outcomes.

While in jail, Armstrong and his buddies were having a good time talking and laughing about the arrest–until the judge changed their demeanor with a six month sentence and a thousand dollar fine, which was later canceled.

In Peter Tosh’s case, after going to jail, he experienced brutality so severe he tried to escape, but was manhandled and restrained. The merciless assault by the Jamaican Police caused Peter to think they were trying to kill him.

It was then he decided to play possum. Tosh pretended to be dead.

The “lawmen” thought they had accomplished their mission and left him for dead. Tosh’s act of passive resistance was a deterrent to saving his life. The police thought their target was neutralized. Their objective very well could have been attempted murder.

Another aspect Louie Armstrong and Peter Tosh shared and experienced was their efforts to bring attention to human and civil rights issues by advocating for improvement in the social, political and economic lives of people. In the 1950’s, Louis Armstrong was caught up in the civil rights issues of his day. The New Orleans icon, who died at age 69 in 1971, was a loud and proud voice for the fight and cause of civil rights.

In an article, from the UK publication, The Guardian, titled, “Not a wonderful world: Louis Armstrong tapes reveal how racism scarred his life and career,” Louis Armstrong spoke frankly about childhood poverty and his experiences with racism as one of the most prominent performers in the country.

On these recorded tapes, Armstrong personally spoke of being “born with nothing” and about his disgust for racism. Armstrong “remembers being insulted by an apparent fan – “a white boy”, possibly a sailor, who approached him after a show, initially shaking his hand and telling him that he had all his records, before turning on him:

“He said, ‘you know, I don’t like Negroes’, right to my face. And so I said ‘well, I admire your Goddamn sincerity’. He said, ‘I don’t like Negroes but… you’re one son of a bitch I’m crazy about.’”

According to Armstrong, a majority of white people “dislike” Black people, but they always have one “that they’re just crazy about.”

In a 1957 interview, Armstrong spoke about issues relating to school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas and denounced both the Arkansas Governor and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This “media moment” placed Armstrong’s career at risk, being at the time he was formally, “an entertainment ambassador” on behalf of the State Department.

Previously, Louis Armstrong was criticized by the “Black Press” for being “behind the times” in relationship to the Civil Rights Movement. This perception changed when he spoke out in support of the Civil Rights Movement.

One article noted that: “In the fall of 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine Black students from integrating Little Rock Central High School.  Faubus’s bigotry provoked national controversy, leading President Dwight Eisenhower to advise Faubus not to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregation.”

In response, to the President’s attitude, Armstrong’s frustration was expressed by sending an angry letter to Eisenhower declaring his disappointment. In protest, he called the president two-faced and went on to say, “the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell…”

“Peter Tosh and Nelson Mandela are two men who dedicated their lives to fight for equal rights.” That was the opening line in a article by Jeffrey Coyne, with the headline, ‘Peter Tosh and Nelson Mandela.’

At first glance, you might think this is a real audacious complement for the once abandoned kid, who grew up battling many odds before becoming a Rasta music rebel. Peter Tosh shares brackets with Nelson Mandela. But when one examines the socio/political and cultural factors that they shared then complementary comparisons are revealed.

As a Rastaman, Tosh was not concerned with only the oppressive situations Rastas endured in Jamaica. His vision was wider in scope. He was conscious of the situations Africans, at home and those in the Diaspora, were experiencing daily. Tosh identified with that collective unapologetically.

Equal rights and justice is a mantra laced into the fabric of Tosh’s concerns and he expressed his thoughts on the subject passionately. Peter Tosh reflected on the chronic inequality in South Africa: “It was like I was born in South Africa, because of the environment I was born, because of the philosophy that they preaches inoculates the youth with inferiority complex in as much as I was taught that when your white your perfectly right, but if you are Black, stay in the back.” -Peter Tosh. (Stepping Razor Red X)

Peter Tosh took the fight against apartheid personally. He wrote and sang about the plight of, “My people” and personally participated in demonstrating against the South African system of racial segregation.

Tosh was arrested in 1967 while demonstrating outside the British High Commission in Kingston, Jamaica. The protest was against “Ian Smith’s takeover of the former Rhodesia, now the South West African state of Zimbabwe.”

“Reggae My Life, a book authored by Copeland Forbes and co-written by Clyde P. McKenzie, talks about Peter Tosh’s first and last live performance in Southern Africa, Swaziland and Mbabane.

A chaotic situation developed on the second night of Tosh’s performance, in Swaziland, when five thousand people outside were unable to come into the venue because they could not afford the fee. Tosh refused to continue the show unless the promoters open the gates and let the people in.

While some responsible for the contractual agreements were concerned with possible violation of contract, Tosh was concerned about the people who have traveled from miles and miles to see the show but could not now come in.

The enthusiastic fans outside the stadium, after hearing “Peter’s pronouncement, broke down the walls and gates to gain entry. Thousands poured into the stadium without paying. Many ran with their fists raised straight towards the VIP area in front of the stage. The security could not restrain them.”

Tosh also evoked this sentiment, “A prophet has no honor in his own country” in his response to the question of his status in Jamaica. He said, “I’ve been respected more outside of Jamaica than in Jamaica…I don’t go to jail…I’m not being brutalized by the police…And I don’t see so many bad-minded people who don’t want to see our progress but want to see our destruction.” (Walker, Tough Tosh)

After his arrest for marijuana possession, Louis Armstrong had this to day, “I just won’t carry on with such fear over anything and I don’t intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing.  No one but Jesus, and he wouldn’t dare because he feels the same way that I do about it. It’s prettier for medical purpose.”

Later, Armstrong learned that his friend, the legendary Bing Crosby, also an outspoken anti-booze cannabis proponent, had gotten a waiver to grow weed, he wanted the same opportunity. In 1954, Armstrong wrote a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower asking him to legalize marijuana. No word on whether Ike responded.”

In relation to the health value associated with the marijuana herb Peter Tosh said, “this is medicine.”  And a classic song Tosh sings “It’s good for the flu Good for asthma Good for tuberculosis Even umara composis. Got to legalize it. And don’t criticize it.” These are lyrics from the Chorus of the “Legalize It” album.

Tosh is now proven to have been right from the evidence we have today, where marijuana is not referred to as the criminalized dangerous drug it was once touted to be. Today, this herb is respectably introduced as “Medical Marijuana,”  and is now in stores near you. Marijuana is now offered as a vibrant product for stock and trade on the international stock exchange.

Peter Tosh, and Louie Armstrong, would be puffing their approval.

Editor’s Note: this is the second part of a series examining the similarities between music giants Louis Armstrong and Peter Tosh written by author Ras Kefim. Read part#1 here.

Ras Kefim, the author of Deception In the Name Of the Lord, is a New York-based author and business entrepreneur who through his various businesses (including being a master tailor and hat-maker) has done work for many local luminaries, particularly within the entertainment\cultural space. Ras Kefim can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 1-347 369 8280.

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