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Indecent Language: Peter Tosh as Law Reformer (by Hubert Devonish)

04 Jun 2017 7:41 PM | Clive Forrester (Administrator)

Headlines in Jamaican newspapers during May, 2017, screamed variations of the following headline, ‘Cop accused of killing pregnant woman goes free’. This is the end point of a saga which began in 2012.  A pregnant woman who had been accosted by the policeman for using indecent language in public was allegedly shot to death by the officer. It ignited a discourse in the latter half of 2012 and in May, 2017, around the issue of the appropriateness of laws in Jamaica related to indecent language. An understanding of the issue is best framed against the background of the following report in The Atlantic (29th June, 2017) on the inherent violence which lies behind any and every law.

‘Earlier this week, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter argued that “every law is violent.” He advises his law students to “never to argue for invoking the power of law except in a cause for which they are willing to kill,” because “even a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; if he resists… the sheriff might have to shoot him.”’

Original Article: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/the-law-is-inherently-violent-a-debate/489104/

The legitimacy of laws on the possession and use of marijuana (ganja), and the implied violence associated with its enforcement were most famously challenged by Peter Tosh in his song, “Legalise it’. He, however, even more trenchantly, in ‘Oh, Bombo Klaat’, attacked the laws related to indecent language. In that song, righteous indignation in the form of the chorus, ‘Uo, bombo klaat, Raas klaat’, occurs at the end of the first verse in which he questions the failure of people to show him love. In the second verse, it is in the form of an exclamation coming out of the mouths of children horrified by the lies that surround them. In the third verse, chorus is a shocked verbal response to the ravages of an unequal and oppressive social system which he dubs ‘the shitstem’. In the final verse, the chorus is uttered on the injunction of Jah, to free the singer from an evil spirit which is holding him down, profane language expressing righteous anger in the face of the work of the devil.  

In the ‘outro’, at the tail end of the recording, Tosh utters the phrase ‘Sekshan Chrii’, here a reference to the relevant part of Section Three of the Town and Communities Act of 1842 which states, 

“Every person who-- …(l) shall sell or distribute, or offer for sale or distribution, or shall mark on any fence, wall or any building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw an any indecent or obscene work, figure, or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language; … shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding four dollars”.


Tosh’s challenge to the law comes in the form of creating a series of contexts in which it would be perfectly socially acceptable to use such words, as exclamations in the face of extreme events or situations. Coincidentally, the current discussion about the law against indecent, obscene and profane language use relates to the killing of a ‘heavily pregnant’ woman in 2012, “… who was heard mouthing a string of choice Jamaican 'cloths' in Yallahs, St Thomas”  http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/That-damn-badword-law.  According to reports, the pregnant woman was overheard by the policeman ‘… using expletives while telling her cousin about how she had been robbed of her money and cell phone while shopping in the city’  http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Grief---St-Thomas-community-in-mourning-after-police-shooting-of-pregnant-woman_12429200. The fact that she used the same ‘klaat’ expressions as featured in the Peter Tosh song, and in precisely the same context, one of outrage, is significant in dealing with the issue of how Jamaican law can and should be modified and updated. The New Zealand Summary Offences 1981 Act which replaced the Police Offences Act of 1927, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1981/0113/latest/whole.html#DLM53500, can serve as a model. 

According to Section 4 (2) of the New Zealand Act,

‘Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $500 who, in or within hearing of any public place, uses any indecent or obscene words.’  

However, it goes on to state,

(4)3 “In determining for the purposes of a prosecution under this section whether any words were indecent or obscene, the court shall have regard to all the circumstances pertaining at the material time, including whether the defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that the person to whom the words were addressed, or any person by whom they might be overheard, would not be offended”. The legislation goes on to say, in (4)4, “It is a defence in a prosecution under subsection (2) if the defendant proves that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his words would not be overheard”.

Let us test the two defences provided by the New Zealand law against the circumstances of the contexts provided in the Peter Tosh song. The first three verses provide the context for a chorus which is an exclamation of horror and/or indignation. Exclamations are involuntary and, by definition, are not addressed to anyone and cannot take into account anyone who might overhear. The defence under (4)3 and (4)4 above can, therefore, apply since exclamations have no addressee and, because they are involuntary, are uttered by speakers oblivious to the existence of anyone overhearing. In the fourth verse, where the chorus is uttered in obedience to a divine injunction to say the word, the only addressees and ‘overhearers’ are Jah and the ‘evil spirit’. Since Jah enjoins the singer to ‘say the word’, one can presume that Jah ‘would not be offended’ by its use, as required of a defence under (4)3, with the ‘evil spirit’ being the only possible offended party under 4(4), except that offending that spirit and driving it away was the very point of using the offending word in the first place.

In the case of the pregnant woman killed in the 2012 incident in Jamaica, she was expressing her anger at being robbed of her money in downtown Kingston. She was speaking to a relative who, under the defence provided in (4)3, would not have been offended. In fact, that relative was also reportedly shot by the policeman, apparently while acting in support of the dead woman. Because of the fact that she was in distress mode, complaining about the traumatic experience she had been held up in Kingston, the pregnant woman would have been oblivious to the presence of anyone overhearing her, including the policeman. Under the New Zealand act, she would also have had a defence under (4)4. Finally, like Tosh, she was exclaiming against an ‘evil spirit’, this time who had held her up in Kingston. As was the case of the ‘evil spirit’ in the Tosh song, this spirit could not in the circumstances be deemed to be an offended party under the act.

All of this brings us back to where we started. Should the use of language, involuntary in the form of exclamations or expressions of indignation, directed at no one and not intended to be overheard, be the subject of sanction by the law? The fact that a pregnant woman was killed in the process of upholding such a law reminds us again of the inherent violence which is hidden behind every law. ‘Since words are wind’, do we as a society wish to take human life to enforce laws governing how we use wind? The answer ‘… is blowing in the wind’, in the phrase, ‘Uo bombo klaat, uo raas klaat!’

Uo Bombo Klaat

Peter Tosh   

Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
I said I came upon this land
To guide and teach my fellow man
One thing I can't overstand
Is why them don't love dis brother man
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Sometimes I sit and look around
And listen to the daily sound
But when I check, there's so much lies
And that's the reason why the children cry
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
It's been so long
We need a change
So the shitstem we got to rearrange
And if there's obstacles in the road, we got to throw them overboard
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
One night, an evil spirit held me down
I could not make one single sound
Until Jah told me, 'Son, use the word'
And now I'm as free as a bird
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Anda Sekshan Chrii

Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat
Oh bombo klaat, oh raas klaat

Link to Youtube version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYDfqIhPxCw

Hubert Devonish

Professor of Linguistics, 

Dept. of Language, Linguistics & Philosophy

University of the West Indies, Mona

19th May, 2017.

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