Perfect Sound Forever


Tosh, Black Roots and a slave trade merchant no longer immortalized

Did roots music inspire Black Lives Matter?
by Eric Doumerc

(August 2020)

The recent tearing down of Edward Colston's statue in Bristol in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd's killing in the USA has refocused public attention on Britain's colonial legacy and its links with the transatlantic slave trade. Edward Colston was a seventeenth-century merchant who had benefited from the slave trade and had made a fortune on the backs of enslaved persons. The Black Lives Matters protesters chose to pull down what they considered as an offending symbol of Britain's imperial past. There had actually been a long campaign in Bristol to convince the local authorties to remove the statue, but it had not been successful.

Bristol has a very long-standing black community which dates back to the 18th century, but this community significantly increased after WWII when many Jamaican servicemen decided to settle down there . By the end of the 1970's, a reggae scene had appeared and a carnival was being organized every year in Saint Paul's, where many Jamaicans had settled down. The Bamboo Club was the venue where most Jamaican artists appeared in that area in the 1970's.

The Bristol reggae scene included many talented artists like Dennis McCalla, Bunny Marrett and Dan Ratchet, Talisman and Black Roots, the best-known Bristol reggae band in Bristol in the late 1970's. They made their first nationwide appearance on the Rockers Roadshow, a programme hosted by the deejay Mikey Dread, which scouted for new talent.

During the winter of 1984-1985, The Frontline, a TV series shot in Bristol was broadcast nationally and the theme song was composed by Black Roots, which gave the band unprecedented exposure. Black Roots released three albums in the 1980's (Black Roots, 1983; The Front Line, 1984; In Session, 1985) and they toured regularly. Some of their numbers, like "The Father" and "Juvenile Delinquent," won them a loyal following. The BBC DJ John Peel played their music on his show and even produced their 1985 album (In Session).

Black Roots' first hit, "Bristol Rock," was released in 1981 and established a link between certain well-known places in Bristol like Blackboy Hill and White Ladies Road in Clifton and Bristol's past as a slave port. The song referred to Scipio Africanus, an African slave buried in Henbury cemetery:

Rock, Bristol, rock, Saint Paul's jamming, oh now!

Rock, Bristol, rock, can't you hear the music playing?

Fire down there!

Oh, no, you can't get in there.

Fire down there!

Oh, no you can't come out there!

It's dread, well, well dread!

Over at White Ladies Road,

The spirit touched my soul,

On top of Black Boy Hill

Silent, if I make my will,

So I've got to get to every cemetery,

Read it in your history,

Scipio Africanus, Scipio Africanus,

Botha are still on yah!

Black Roots performed that song at Trinity Hall in Bristol for Mikey Dread's Rockers Roadshow and gave the band some exposure. In 1984, they opened for UB40 on their European tour. Black Roots kept alive the roots reggae tradition in the UK at a time when reggae was going through major changes in Jamaica and was being transformed by the dancehall style. In fact, Black Roots was following in the footsteps of a long-standing reggae tradition which consisted in debunking the symbols of colonial power and of pointing out the damage done by the colonial education system, as Peter Tosh had done in his "Can't Blame The Youth":

You teach the youth to learn in school that cow jump over moon,

You teach the youth to learn in school that the dish run away with the spoon.

You can't blame the youth ( when they don't learn), you can't fool the youth

You can't blame the youth, you can't fool the youth.

You teach the youth about Christopher Columbus,

And you said he was a very great man.

You teach the youth about Marco Polo,

And you said he was a very great man.

You teach the youth about the pirate Hawkins,

And you said he was a very great man.

You teach the youth about the pirate Morgan,

And you said he was a very great man.


All these great men were doing is robbing, raping, kidnapping and killing,

So-called great men were doing is robbing, raping, kidnapping and killing.

The year when the song was recorded, 1972, was the year when Michael Manley's People's National Party was victorious at the polls and the singer's confident tone might have reflected the new mood of optimism that swept the country at the time. Manleys' government was soon to announce sweeping reforms in the field of education and a literacy programme.

In "Can't Blame the Youth," Tosh condemns the colonial education system that was the legacy of British rule in Jamaica and that colonial system is symbolised by the nursery rhymes every school kid had to learn by heart ("cow jump over moon," "dish ran away with the spoon").

The other aspect of that retrograde education system was the glamourisation of the "deeds of arms" that had resulted in the colonisation of the New World by European powers like Spain and England. The reference to "the pirate Hawkins" is particularly appropriate as William Hawkins and his son John were two of the first Englishmen to be involved in the slave trade in the 16th century. They were instrumental in setting up the triangular trade between England, Africa and the West Indies and were notorious for their cruelty. "The pirate Morgan" was Henry Morgan, a Welshman who fled from a poor existence in his home country to work as an indentured labourer in the West Indies. He then became a pirate, committed many atrocities before finally being sent back to England to be tried for his crimes. He was then knighted and became Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica in 1674. In Tosh's song, the pirates Hawkins and Morgan are mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo, which leads the listener to conclude that Columbus and Polo were "pirates" too.

What is interesting in "Can't Blame the Youth" is the link which is established between Jamaica's violent history and the then-high crime rate, or the problem of youth crime. The singer implies that Jamaica's crime problem is a direct result of the island's history and that that history led to a glorification of violence and machismo, hence the lines "When every Christmas come, you buy the youth a pretty toy gun."

The song concludes with a quotation from the Gospel according to Luke (10:21) which recurs in many reggae songs from the 1970's and which implies that great news shall be revealed to little children while clever and learned men will remain in ignorance. Ending the song with this passage ensured that the final message remained one of optimism and hope, not one of recrimination and despair. Of course, the reference to "Jah-Jah" in the final line is important too as at the time, Rastafarianism was a rising force among Jamaican youths and was still considered as the pariahs' religion.

The debunking of colonial myths became a characteristic of 1970's reggae and other artists followed in Tosh's footsteps. One example is the harmony trio Culture with their song "Pirate Days" which looked at the way Jamaican history was taught back then. There's also Burning Spear who echoed Culture's viewpoint in his song "Columbus" by pointing out that Columbus was "a damn-blasted liar" who claimed that he had discovered Jamaica whereas in fact the Arawaks "were there before him."

These reggae classics were all released in the 1970's and 1980's, at a time when roots reggae was still a force to be reckoned with, and decolonising the mind was an important aspect of reggae songwriting, with the situation in South Africa and the decolonising process on many people's minds. Today, the fact that statues and monuments to slave traders are targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters could mean that the real issues, like the teaching of history, have not been addressed, and that it is time to go beyond symbols. Maybe these old reggae classics still have something to teach us.

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