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Of Musical Resistance and Safety Locks: Herbie Miller on the Role of Music in Political and Social Change in Jamaica

Herbie Miller photo©David Katz. Not to be reprinted without permission.
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Photo©David Katz. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Afropop’s David Katz and Saxon Baird interviewed Herbie Miller at his home in Kingston, Jamaica on Feb. 7, 2015. A former manager of both Peter Tosh and the Skatalites, Mr. Miller is director of the Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica, and when the interview was conducted, he was about to launch the latest season of the IOJ’s annual “Groundation” lecture series, delivered by a range of practitioners each February during Reggae Month. During the interview, Miller spoke about the role of music as a longstanding site of cultural resistance in Jamaica, which has assisted its inhabitants in liberation struggles since slavery days; in exploring the turbulent 1970s and ’80s, he also explained how the music acted as a “safety lock,” easing the pressure during a time of intense instability.

About the relation between music and politics in Jamaica, can you help us trace back, when do these connections become concrete in Jamaican music? When do you begin to have a relation, or any commentary on the political scene in the music itself?

Herbie Miller: Well, you can think of music and politics in Jamaica as something that became much more noticeable by 1972, but it predates that, because I don’t want us to [just] think [of] politics in terms of the Jamaican two-party system of the Jamaica Labour Party, the JLP, and the People’s National Party, the PNP. We want to think of music and politics as far back as the plantocracy on the plantations on which Africans were enslaved, because that is a politic. And the role of music and the other forms relating to music, such as dance, for example, manifested itself among people in bondage in such a way that the music was able to sustain them, the music was able to help them to communicate, the music was able to help them to pacify, to deal with the hardship.

So you could look at music that way, as music and politics; in a specific way, you could look at the music, the singing, the chanting, the dancing, during the Sam Sharpe War—an uprising of the slaves in 1831, the New Year Rebellion—there was singing and chanting. But even more specifically so, the record tells us, was the Paul Bogle Rebellion, where again, you come across eyewitness accounts of which songs were being played, the drums were being played, the horns being blown, as in indigenous communities in the mainland of West Africa, from where the majority of the enslaved in Jamaica came; you will find that music had the same [function], or it was one of the functions of music, how music, how horns, how drums, signaled everything else, including rebellion. In fact, in one account, it is said that the planters in Jamaica banned the drums, because they were aware that drums and horns in West Africa, in addition to other things, signaled rebellion and death to the white planters. And so, we have to look at what proceded party politics in Jamaica, and the music of party politics.

Now, by 1938, the workers’ strike that took place in Jamaica was spurred on by [the] singing of songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” so the church and hymns have always played [an important role]…with the spurring on [of] these workers who struck against the Tate and Lyle sugar people, the banana [plantation workers] and the port workers were all on strike; it was a nationwide strike, but there were these hymns that were sung, there were these folk tunes that were sung, and of course, blowing of conch shells and beating of drums. And it’s out of that, that the two-party system, the PNP first and then the JLP, was founded. Now, they both had hymns which they sang at their party rallies and so on and so forth, but there were also party songs which were sung. Many times the same song was done by both parties, you just change the name, so for example, there’s one song that said, “We ah go follow Bustamante ’til we dead,” you know, “We’re going to follow Bustamante until death.” There’s another song that said, “Me ah go buy a penny coffin fi go bury Labourite, ah go buy a penny coffin fi go bury Labourite, buy a penny coffin fi go bury Labourite, Labour dead and gone forever.” So there are these party songs: “Roll, Manley roll, and do thy work thyself. Go before us, Manley, go before us…” you know?

So you have all these party songs, and they are patriotic songs that they sing. But by 1972, that’s where it all comes together, where pop culture has been asked to play a vital role in the election of a candidate, of a party, and this is done when Michael Manley takes over the leadership of the People’s National Party—the PNP. Keep in mind that, before that, songs were being made without it being party-sponsored or party-usurped, to speak on their behalf, because things were happening that made the artists speak on behalf of the people. So, for example, there were a bunch of strikes during the 1960s, post-independence, when Hugh Shearer was the prime minister, and there was one song about “Everything Crash”: “Look there now, everything crash.” Everybody strike: nurses strike, teachers strike, even the policeman strike. So the singers were singing about these things that were taking place under a particular government and a particular type of leadership. You also had songs like, of course, Delroy Wilson’s “Better Must Come”; it wasn’t made as a PNP song, but you have other songs, like, say, Prince Buster’s “They Got to Go,” it wasn’t really a political song, but it’s how songs can become political. You know? People take songs and put new meaning to it, meaning that the author and the performer of the song did not necessarily mean when they made these songs. But, such is the way art can be interpreted and reinterpreted.

So by 1972, Michael Manley pulls together all the artists that would come with him, and he did an around-the-island bandwagon; it included people like the Wailers, Ken Boothe, Toots, among many other top-name artists. Of course, Delroy Wilson was there, singing “Better Must Come,” and so this rallied the people, people could relate, through the articulation of these performers who were putting back to the leadership what the problems were. So that’s the crystalizing moment in terms of these songs, 1972, at which point Manley and someone like, say, Clancy Eccles, who was like his musical director, or whatever you want to call it, musical campaign manager, started to now recruit specific artists who would step forward to make music that was pro-PNP and celebrating Michael Manley’s efforts. So you have people like, say, Max Romeo, who comes first with these powerful songs on behalf of Manley, reinterpreting “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”

But just the same way as Manley got more and more ambitious as a democratic socialist, and the position got more and more militant—not only in action, but in the rhetoric—the operation of the CIA, how it played a great role in undermining Manley, made people feel as if he was going too far. And so the same Maxie Romeo, among others, who were supporting him, now said, “Hey, caution!” So now Maxie come with “No Joshua No,” Ernie Smith comes with songs about that [too]. Bob Andy comes with “Fire Burning”: “But if the sign is on your door, then you will be saved for sure, but if you are in pretense, you are on the wrong side of the fence, fire burning, burning, burning.” And it got very personal at times, because Bob would later report that he was called into a meeting by Manley and warned that, “Hey, look, it’s one leader this place have. So watch it!” You know? The music, however, is also, for me, a sort of safety lock, so to speak, on what could have happened in addition to what did happen, cause in the ’70s, it was very volatile. Many political killings and atrocities [took place], from Green Bay to Eventide Home, among others. But it also worked as a safety valve, to temper the mood of the people, or else it could be a greater explosion.

You just mentioned two important events that were widely commented on in song. For listeners who might not be familiar with the Green Bay incident and the Eventide Fire, what happened?

The Eventide Home was a place for the indigent, and it mysteriously burnt; it is claimed to be politically motivated, as it was located in a particular political stronghold, and many lives were lost. It was a huge tragedy, something that should never have happened to anyone, in spite of which political persuasion one has. So the Eventide Fire was something that should never have happened anywhere; I mean, these things happen today, all over the world, and it’s sad, but this one was right here. There is also the Green Bay Killing where a number of young men who were encouraged by undercover officers, it is alleged, to accompany them to a place in the Hellshires called Green Bay, where guns would be distributed; it was a sort of entrapment in the long run and I don’t recall how many, but [they were] shot and killed by a barrage of machine-gun fire, and this guy [escaped] through swamps and forestry, made his way back to his community and sounded the alarm, and Manley Buchanan, the great man also known as Big Youth, made a very stinging commentary on that in his chant, “Green Bay Killing.”

So you have to also add these external things to how music and politics interact, because the musicians are very, very sharp at picking up all the nuances of politics and reworking those situations into their music. But we can also look at Jamaica’s involvement with music and politics on a broader level. While it might not have had direct impact in the communities that the commentary referenced, it still meant that Jamaican musicians were in touch with international affairs that had political implications on Jamaica. And so, for example, Prince Buster, way back in the ’60s, recorded a song where, when the Chinese and the Indians had a border dispute, “Red China, why won’t you leave the Indians…” The Skatalites also recorded many songs of political overtones, [such as] “Fidel Castro,” “Cuban Blockade,” “Red China,” “Marcus Garvey,” “Malcolm X,” among many, many, others, even to the point of songs like “Christine Keeler,” which [referenced] a British political scandal to do with prostitutes and parliamentarians. And all of these things can have implications, because not only are we coming out of a colonial system, where we are a sort of British protectorate—our budgets, our whole lifelines are tied to Britain—so if Britain falls, then it means that we get cut out of the deal. But the Americans are also very close to the economy and the lifeline of Jamaica, and so, if Kennedy is assassinated, then it has repercussions here. If there is a war between Cuba and the United States, Jamaica is only 90 miles away from either one, from the tip of Florida to the shores of Cuba. And so we are involved, one way or another, as we were during World War II.

What happens when we come into the ’80s, ’90s, and into the new millennium? Is there a continuum, or is there a shift, and if there is a shift, why?

I think that by 1980, what we recognize as conscious music, that kind of music that was led by people like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear—music about history, music about social developments, social consciousness, spiritual development, music about herb, which had positive connotations—I think by 1980, that whole thing changed with the new style of government, the new faces of government, and the new direction of government…if you look at the change in musical styles in Jamaica, you see it’s around [the] 1980s that we get Shabba Ranks, that we start getting jheri curl instead of dreadlocks, we start getting freebase cocaine instead of ganja. We start getting a certain way of expressing yourself in a personal way; how you carry yourself…and so, you find that the emphasis changed. You start getting the gun lyrics, “Shoot out the brain, dog come lick it up, man come scrape it up.” You get the under-the-frock lyrics, you get the disrespectful [to] women lyrics, you get the machismo, the “I can kill you in bed and make you bawl out and run” lyrics. That’s not lovemaking, that’s really violence! But that’s what now what gets promoted, and the emphasis shifts from “My people” to “Trailer load of girls”; it’s allowed to prosper, and [was] promoted, and it now becomes the new genre of Jamaican music, so [the music] lost its political sting. At the same time, young people, after Michael Manley, lost their political consciousness. By then, the Twelve Tribes of Israel started to disintegrate, that as a Rastafari organization that attracted a lot of middle-class youth to Rastafari, and it kept that fire of hope burning, and as much as Rasta will say they are not political, groups like the Twelve Tribes of Israel, among others, did carry a sort of political weight.

Do you think part of the reason was also because there was a realization that the gunmen, or the bad men, the “Dons,” were bigger than these politicians? So, the self-aggrandizing, “We’re the ones with the guns, we’re the ones that are actually controlling what’s going on.” Did that also contribute to the shift?

See, you must also understand that there were known political thugs, bad men [in the early days]; they weren’t yet called “Dons,” they were just “rude boy” or “bad man”—people like Zackie the High Priest, Nyah Keith, Busby, right down the line—who would approach musicians, [and] who kept dances, who named the dances, and who attended the dances and exalted themselves. It is reported that some even approached musicians to tell them, “Make a music about me”…to make music about them and glorify them. Now, also keep in mind that many artists themselves, in particular after the 1980s, you had many, many artists, especially during the deejay era, who, had they not gotten an opportunity to be DJs, we would have more criminals on the street. Indeed, you see it manifest even as they are performing artists, that they just couldn’t shake the criminal vibe, and then find themselves promising, perhaps even on the verge of making it, but get destroyed by their inability to shake the bad-man attitude. They get shot down, or they shot somebody else, or they find themselves in all kinds of problems.

And every time there’s a regime change in Jamaica, it has this hugely transformative effect on the arts. Lots of people leave the country, lots of artists leave the country.

Yeah! And sometimes it’s not even [due to] physical violence, it’s the violence of…look at Miss Lou, there is no physical violence against Louise Bennett, it’s just the violence of disenfranchisement, because you’re seen as something, then all of your life’s work is thrown out of the radio archives. It’s almost like Nazi Germany.

The 1980s transformation is really interesting…

Remember, it was polarization. It’s wasn’t like [it is] now, with the two parties, [where] it’s like Bob’s song again, “You can’t tell the woman from the man”; with these two parties [now], you can’t tell the Labourite from the PNP.

You managed Peter Tosh for a time and you knew him intimately. So, when I think about this crux of politics and music in Jamaica, he kind of crystalizes that, because he was somebody who never held back in his songs. So I wondered if you could speak a little bit about what songs come to mind for you with Peter that he did of political relevance, and also, his courage or his willingness to do those things at that time.

First of all, remember this: Peter Tosh comes from Westmoreland; that war that Sam Sharpe led was in the west, that area that Peter comes from. [And] there were a lot of oral history, or word-of-mouth passing down about Africans and their survival tactics, that Peter talked about from a Rastaman point of view. And so he has that sort of courage that led people like Sam Sharpe and his soldiers, enslaved as much as they were, to wage that war against the plantocracy that was the last big war before emancipation came, throughout the Caribbean; the only one before that was the Haitian revolution, so Tosh embodies that spirit.

Keep in mind also that when Ian Smith seized Rhodesia, that Peter Tosh stood up outside the British Embassy and demonstrated; he ended up in jail for it. The [Walter] Rodney demonstration, he was very active in that as well; [and] when His Imperial Majesty came here, he was the first one to record [a song about] it: “All Babylon tremble when them see the father’s face, Rasta shook them up.” Tosh was always a brave warrior. And so, as he grew as a more sophisticated lyricist, musician, composer, and as he grew as a more politically aware, conscious individual looking at politics in its broadest sense from a diasporic point of view and from a point of view that would take him right back to the politics that were sweeping south and southwest Africa, and before that East Africa where people like Jomo Kenyatta [were leading liberation movements], these are the kind of images that Peter Tosh has in his mind as he composed songs such as, “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.” As he composed songs like “Equal Rights” or “Apartheid,” among many others.

If you get to local politics, the Peace Concert, which he did not necessarily endorse, [he] used it as a stage to really launch into a very long lecture, [a] great political oratory; he also made a song saying, “Remember the peace treaty, I told you it wouldn’t worky-worky.” So he paid a lot of attention to that sort of politics. And other political ends, he would do songs like “Jahman Inna Jamdung, have some faith my brothers, I know the tribulations you’re going through,” and so on. But the great thing about Tosh is that he could articulate these points and punctuate them with the music. And so, at his best, a performance by Peter Tosh was sort of, like, part political rally, part concert. He would do songs like “You Can’t Blame the Youth,” but he would use it to talk about the relationship we have to colonial history, and how that colonial history taught us to respect and admire pirates, as he would call them, such as Walter Rodney, Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, among others. So they teach the youth to respect these pirates, [but] now that they behave as pirates, you turn against them. So he understood the politics, he understood the educational system, he understood the colonization and the neo-colonization process with more clarity than most, which is why he was able to speak about it as a part of a reggae concert.

He also understood, as I mentioned earlier on, the politics of what was taking place in Africa, and again, he would talk about these things. [And] he might have perhaps caused or even cultivated some enemies along the way. I recall vividly that he performed at the No Nukes concert…and it was a high Jewish holiday, but it was right at a moment when the Israelis had attacked some Palestinians, and unbeknown to everyone, Peter went out and got himself a Palestinian burnoose—that kind of Palestinian thing that you wear from the head to the toe—and that’s how he came out on the stage; he didn’t mention anything about what took place, he just present himself like that. So he understood symbolism, and he used the symbols; he uses his oratorial skills, his lyrical skills, and he had a way of composing and performing music that had a caustic edge to it, the way he used his rhythm guitar with a wah-wah pedal, that cracking sound. The way he uses keyboards, especially the clavinet to get that biting, textured sound, which represented a sort of aural…how you would hear the sounds of disturbance, and so on. So it might not have been a pretty mellow sound, but it did convey the message he wanted in a very militant way, that caustic edge that he appointed.

 

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