Stuck In My Head: Dad Rock – The Softer Side of Reggae‰’s Steppin‰’ Razor

Sean Meehan

When you‰’re a family of nine, Sunday Mass requires some serious logistical planning. Matching outfits have to be laid out the night before, multiple military-style wakeup calls have to be made, seating arrangements planned in advance to minimize fighting and goofing off, and silent discipline has to be doled out in glares and finger snaps, loud enough to get the message across but not loud enough to interrupt mass. Particularly from the children‰’s perspective, this weekly logistical battle forms a pre- and post-mass ritual that matches the repetitious rigidity of Catholic mass.

You also need a big car. We had the big red van, a Dodge Ram 15-passenger behemoth that required surgical precision to park. There was a radio and tape deck between my parents, and though requests were often shouted from the back seats, there was usually only one cassette in the big red van: Peter Tosh‰’s Mama Africa.

After mass, if we‰’d behaved, we would take the big red van to get donuts. The road to the bakery was mostly empty and full of stomach-churning ups and downs. We called it Dad‰’s Disaster and screamed and giggled every time the big red van lurched down another hill.

The soundtrack to Dad‰’s Disaster was always Tosh‰’s cover of “Johnny B. Good,‰” a high-energy ska remake set in Jamaica instead of Louisiana and with Tosh‰’s screaming, soulful guitar replacing Chuck Berry‰’s jangly riffs. I didn‰’t know at the time that it was a cover, that was a fact I awkwardly stumbled upon after asking friends why Michael J. Fox was singing an old reggae song in Back to the Future. Nor did I know how weird it was for a car full of children in their church clothes to be singing along to a musician whose reputation outside of Jamaica is more tied to his political radicalism and weed smoking than his music.

Mama Africa was a weird album for Tosh, though. It was his first album after leaving Rolling Stones Records, on which he had made three albums and his biggest international hit, a cover of The Temptations‰’ “Don‰’t Look Back‰” sung with Mick Jagger that Tosh later said was the worst song he‰’d ever made. Though his stint on Rolling Stones Records was the peak of his popularity, it was also a period during which he felt that his music and his beliefs were being distorted by the “shitstem.‰”

Mama Africa, as it‰’s title suggests, saw Tosh exploring his roots – both his ancestral and religious roots in Africa and the roots of his beliefs. Much had been made during his brief time in the spotlight about his radical politics and Rastafari beliefs, so it‰’s not entirely shocking that “Mama Africa‰” takes a gentler approach. It‰’s less topical than his previous albums and much less aggressive. Tosh replaced his brash activism and vitriolic rhetoric in favor of a larger, more theoretical and spiritual approach, one that focused less on the injustice in the world and more on the beliefs and idealism that gave him his sense of justice in the first place.

At several points in this album, these beliefs are boiled down to familiar idioms: In “Maga Dog,‰” he warns “When you jump out the frying pan / you gon‰’ jump in the fire,‰” “Feel No Way‰” (my childhood favorite) says, essentially, that you reap what you sow and what goes around comes around, “Glass House‰” is self-explanatory. Though they were common sayings, this was where I heard them first. The lessons, as simple as they may be, were like a supplement to the morals I struggled to glean from the readings in church, and they‰’ve stuck with me longer than any sermon.

Of course, they stuck with me because they‰’re so simple, but therein also lies their beauty. ClichÌ© as they may be, these statements, coming from a man whose reputation put him in the radical fringe, take on a deeper meaning. When said by almost anybody else, they are empty promises, clichÌ©s that everybody knows, but that are rarely applied to everyday life. By locating these clichÌ©s in the context of his radical reputation, Tosh not only identifies the sound morality behind his own beliefs, but also reveals the emptiness and hypocrisies of mainstream values without resorting to aggression.

In the title track, Tosh paints a picture of Africa as a paradise on the verge of freeing itself from oppression. Tosh‰’s Africa, his “sweet mama,‰” stood in stark contrast to the Africa of starving children and drought for which we put money in the collection basket in church. Both are deeply flawed essentializations of a continent that defies such lazy categorizations, but Tosh‰’s Africa stood out because it wasn‰’t backwards or desolate as so many in the West like to imagine the continent; it was just temporarily restrained.

Though the love for and connection to a continent that neither I nor my ancestors have been to may have been misguided and now smacks of potentially problematic and ignorant appropriation, it did at an early age complicate my views of Africa in ultimately positive ways. This vague maternal connection I felt made me celebrate Africa in a time when Americans were told to pity it and to feel a sense of duty where many felt a sense of charity.

“Not Gonna Give It Up,‰” the third song on the album took this feeling of connection and galvanized it, I felt the same mixture of pride and responsibility when I sang “I‰’m not gonna give it give it up / till Africa, and Africans are free,‰” as I felt in church when I sang “I will go lord/ If you lead me/ I will hold your people in my heart‰” in one of my favorite hymns, “Here I Am Lord.‰Û

When Tosh was alive, that association would‰’ve been blasphemy to him and the church. When he was fatally shot in an attempted robbery 1987, Peter Tosh was so at odds with the political and religious establishment in his country that many still believe conspiracy theories surrounding his death. The Christian majority in Jamaica condemned Rastafarianism as dangerous and in an interview a year before his death, Tosh called Christianity “the opposite of the reality of righteousness.‰”

This animosity, though, seems to have faded with time. I, evidently wasn‰’t the only person who realized the religious potential of Tosh‰’s music well after his death: in 2007, the Jamaican Anglican Church, an enemy of Tosh during his lifetime, added one of his songs to its official hymnal.