Do you know the one good thing about music? “When it hits, you feel no pain.”
At least that’s what Bob Marley sang with the Wailers back in 1975’s “Trenchtown Rock.” With Bob gone and the 30th anniversary of former-Wailer Peter Tosh’s death this year, does that still ring true?
Does suffering begin to intermingle with a melody? Can grief effortlessly seep into lyrics of specific songs?
For most people, the answer is probably yes. For one particular family, it’s a resounding no. For the Tosh family, their late father’s music is now serving as a pillar of fortitude, stamina, power, and resistance—resolute strength.
Unfortunately, for the nearly 7 million men and women currently supervised by America’s correctional system, this type of physical, mental, and emotional fortitude is not just beneficial, it’s downright essential for survival. Some people in the system find strength through prayer and religion. Others find it through education or vocational programs. Most lean heavily on family and friends for stability and guidance, in turn compelling the folks in his or her life to become their very own pillars of strength.
Niambe McIntosh emanates bravery and determination. One glance at the Boston public schoolteacher, and you know she’s tenacious; spend more than three minutes speaking with her, and you realize she’s the strong, empowered, congenial woman you always wished you could be.
“I’ll be the tall black girl with pink glasses, blue jeans and luggage,” she described via text before meeting for drinks. She could have said she looked like Cleopatra—only prettier—and she would not have been missed.
“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection,” Thomas Paine wrote in his 1776 essay The [American] Crisis. “’Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.”
Not many people can live up to a Thomas Paine quote in real life. Niambe is the exception.
When she was 5 years old, her father, the legendary reggae singer Peter Tosh, was assassinated in his Jamaican home. While the case was ruled a standard, run-of-the-mill home invasion, most believe that his death was the culmination of a conspiracy to silence Tosh’s openly militant and outspoken critiques of the ruling class, as well as his beliefs in equality, justice, and the legalization of ganja.
Then, in 2013, her older brother was arrested in New Jersey after police found more than 65 pounds of pot in his rental car. Jawara McIntosh, himself a reggae performer, who goes by the stage name Tosh1, spent six months in jail before being released on $200,000 bail. Facing 10 to 20 years in prison for marijuana, Jawara was urged to take a plea deal his family says—he would spend six months in prison, and after his sentencing, similar charges against his friend Carlotta Leslie, who was with him at the time of the arrest, would be dropped.
He took the plea and in January 2017, began his six-month stretch at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey. According to his family, on Feb. 21, 2017—not even two months into his sentence—Jawara was attacked from behind, beaten and had his head kicked in, as reported by a fellow prisoner, leaving him in a coma with severe brain damage at the Hackensack University Medical Center.
Multiple attempts for a comment from the Bergen County Jail have gone unanswered.
According to his sister, one of the reasons she thinks Jawara accepted the plea deal—he originally was eager to take the case to trial—was because of “Bergen County’s terrible reputation in regard to their judicial system’s treatment of marginalized populations (i.e., black males).”
Unfortunately, you can swap out almost any U.S. county for Bergen, and the sentence would be the same. One look at the numbers, and it’s extremely easy to see that America’s criminal justice system is way beyond fucked up.
With less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its incarcerated people, the U.S. has, by far, the highest rate of jailed adults in the world—largely due to the country’s misguided War on Drugs.
Just how misguided is it? Incomprehensibly vile might be the appropriate answer.
According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in five incarcerated people are put away for a drug offense. These non-violent offenders are then locked up with all types of other criminals—40 percent of whom are there for violent crimes.
Of course that doesn’t make sense, but here’s where it actually gets worse. The War on Drugs isn’t simply illogical and dangerous—it’s also based on reprehensible policy and systemic racism.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit organization with the main goal of ending the War on Drugs, “Black people comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population and are consistently documented by the U.S. government to use drugs at similar rates to people of other races. But black people comprise 31 percent of those arrested for drug law violations, and nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations.”
The data doesn’t lie, but in case you’re “not a numbers person,” there’s also proof straight from the mouth of the administration that declared America’s first War on Drugs back in 1971.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” the late John Ehrlichman, top adviser to President Richard Nixon, explained to writer Dan Baum during a 1994 interview. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Weak—it’s how you could describe the inadequate and craven rationale behind policies that drive mass incarceration, disenfranchise nearly 8 percent of black people of voting age, and tear families apart.
Family, the source of strength for many, is not easy to maintain while behind bars; some 2.7 million U.S. children are growing up in households in which one or both parents are in prison. Two-thirds of these parents are being jailed for nonviolent offenses. And quite obviously the racial disparities are too flagrant to miss. One in nine black children has an incarcerated parent—compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.
Fortunately for Jawara, who has four children of his own, nine siblings, and his mother Melody Cunningham by his side, his family isn’t going anywhere. Niambe, his teacher sister, stopped going to school after the incident on Feb. 21. For over two months, she and other members of their family rotated weeks traveling to New Jersey to sit at her brother’s side. On May 3, Jawara, who’s in critical condition, was finally transferred to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to be closer to his family; his prison sentence stayed due to his medical condition.
Naturally, the country’s shameful criminal justice system didn’t make the past few months easy on the McIntosh family. According to Niambe, who also administers her late father’s estate, she had to jump through hoops with the police officers every time she visited Jawara while he was still in New Jersey.
But despite it all, she remains positive and upbeat. Strong. She says the family plays her father’s music for Jawara—and “occasionally some Bob [Marley].”
Before his incarceration, Jawara was following his father’s footsteps as a musician, and also was an outspoken advocate for justice, equality, and marijuana legalization.
In 2014, Jawara appeared at a 4/20 demonstration in New Jersey after Governor Chris Christie scandalously obstructed the state’s medical marijuana law.
“It’s time to stop the hypocrisy,” he reportedly said after singing a few verses from his father’s ever-popular hit song “Legalize It.”
The irony given the type of charges brought against Jawara is mind-boggling.
“My father, Peter Tosh, was known for being staunch in his beliefs and outspoken about what he perceived to be inequities and injustices. This applied to his general outlook about the world, as well as his family,” Niambe explained. “The original charges faced by my brother stem from his possession of cannabis. As you know, my father made his belief about this sacred herb known to all. So, I believe my father would see Jawara’s current situation as an outrage of epic proportion.
“Sadly, I also feel that if my father was alive today this would have never happened to my brother,” she continued, furthering the rhetoric that the War on Drugs tears families apart. “My father was murdered when Jawara and I were 7 and 5 years old, respectively. If my father were here today, I absolutely believe that he would have and would be doing everything in his power to bring a voice and attention to not only Jawara’s case, but to the many like him, who have been victimized by our society and the judicial system.”
Niambe’s strength never wavers. Her smile never disappears. Her presence is warm and inspiring. With a single conversation, she’ll make you want to go out and change the world—but not only that: She’s convinced you that you can.
She maintains that Jawara sees it as his duty to share his father’s message of equal rights and justice for all. It’s also quite clear that Niambe is carrying on Peter Tosh’s legacy.
Speaking about the controversy surrounding her father’s death, Niambe says: “Oftentimes my father has been compared to the likes of freedom fighters and voices for social change such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. In spite of his sometimes unpopular opinions, my father was uncompromising in his demand and did not bend to the pressure to conform,” Niambe explained. “My father’s untimely assassination on Sept. 11, 1987, has been the subject of much speculation. I, like many others, believe that his death was the culmination of a conspiracy to silence this openly militant and outspoken critic of a corrupt worldwide, colonial, social, and political ‘shit-stem,’ as he would call it. Due to the execution-style circumstances of his death, we strongly believe his murder is another example of a revolutionary silenced by a corrupt ruling-class that has treated many, particularly blacks of African descent, unequally and unjustly. I also believe that his constant refrain that equal rights and justice are basic human rights, due to all, that cannot be silenced. People can be killed, but ideas live on forever…”
With each smile she beams at just the mention of Jawara’s name, it’s easy to imagine that her energy has healing properties.
“As a person, my brother Jawara has a strong personality and presence, just like our father. As a performer, Jarawa was heavily inspired by my father and sees it as his duty to honor and carry on his legacy,” She says. “Based on his personality and his acceptance of this responsibility, people gravitated toward him; he always had something to say and was loving and funny. Coupled with this loving and funny side, he also had a spiritual side and loved to discuss the Bible and his beliefs. These attributes poised him to be a freedom fighter, just like our dad.”
Niambe McIntosh is profoundly determined. And it’s her and her family’s perseverance that will see them, and hopefully Jawara, who remains in a coma, through this difficult time.