Toots Hibbert: ‘I think The Clash were as black as me’

In the 1960s, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert didn’t just give the emerging genre of reggae its most soulful voice – he also gave it a name. A slip of the tongue while rehearsing with his group the Maytals one day and “streggae” – Jamaican patois for someone in ragged clothes – became “reggae” in Toots’s mouth. When the Maytals released “Do the Reggay” in 1968, they intended to name a passing dance craze. Instead the newly minted word stuck to the sound they and the Wailers were helping to shape: a faster, brighter evolution of the rocksteady beat. “I never knew it was gonna be so prevalent, or so good,” says Toots, now 77, of reggae’s worldwide success. “But it feels good to know I was the one who put the ‘R’ in the music.”

Today he’s at home in the yellow-walled studio he calls the Reggae Center, part of his pink stucco compound in the Red Hills area of Kingston. Endearingly he’s listening to his own new record, Got to Be Tough, his first in a decade. Who can blame him? The album is a joy: a riotous platter of not just reggae but also R&B, funk and soul that showcases Toots’s impressive range. He says the album comes with a timely message. “I’m giving a warning and telling you that you gotta be tough,” he explains. “Towards this Corona thing that’s going around, you have to be tough. To overcome it, you have to be strong.” He’s a little hazy on the specifics, and avoids even calling his songs protest music. “I don’t call it political,” he says. “My music is just a story that tells the truth.”

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