Turn Dem Back: the Political Story (and song) of Pearnel Charles!
Michael ‘Joshua’ Manley was the man of change—a progressive ‘socialist ‘, he seduced most reggae artists, and many of them recorded spontaneous songs to support him or his party, the People’s National Party (PNP). On the contrary, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) was more conservative, and very few songs were recorded in its favour, except for those sponsored by the party itself.
Well, the song Turn Dem Back by Pearnel Charles (Pearnel Charles, circa 1976) is in-between as it was produced, sung and distributed by a Member of Parliament! Pearnel was described as a ‘little Seaga’ (Edward Seaga, the controverted leader of the opposition) by Michael Manley. ‘I am not a controversial politician,” he writes, “ but I am a confrontation man. Meaning that I am not a coward.” He started his career among the Bustamante Trade Union, already opposing the young Manley during the fight over the bauxite exploitation sites on the North coast. One day, he had to kill a PNP supporter in front of Manley to defend his life—an incident related in an incredible book, DETAINED (Kingston Publishers Ltd, 1977). Published right after Pearnel was released for 283 days in detention following the State of Emergency of 1976, it was published by another JLP member, Mike Henry (an influent JLP Member of Parliament, he was later responsible for publishing Bob Marley’s manager, Don Taylor’s memoirs—translated into French by DREAD Editions). Thus, this is a straight JLP book, but it gives an insight into this detention centre where many people labelled ‘dangerous’ by the government—mostly JLP activists, but some PNP as well, and it created tensions and violence inside the camp—during the State of Emergency that gave their titles to so many reggae songs or LPs, including Joe Gibbs’. It was seen by the JLP as a political move to rig the 1976 elections—the PNP claimed it was to prevent political violence. Pearnel was seen as one of the main actors of tribal wars in Kingston—and thus considered as a threat, although he claims his innocence in this book (of course).
Pearnel Charles is a multitalented man (born in 1936, he’s still alive today) and he recorded this surprising song against the PNP that came out on his own short-lived label with a picture of his face. We can also see a bell, on the left—the JLP symbol: Hear what the people dem say, them don’t want no communist on dem / Say dem want dem freedom again / Turn dem back, Eddie / Cause the time has come... It was released for the 1976 elections, when ‘Eddie’ (Edward Seaga) was running against Manley for the first time. Pearnel portrays the PNP as a ‘communist’ party, which was the official position of the JLP to discredit it both nationally and internationally (in fact, Manley grew radical at the time, and even some PNP members wondered if he would turn communist). This is a reggae song with a ‘country’ feel about it—the lyrics put aside, it is very well written and sung. As a matter of fact, you can still hear it on the official JLP website today!
Eddie ‘didn’t turn them back’ in 1976 (but he did in 1980), and Pearnel was sent to a detention camp in Up Park Camp for 283 days ! His book gives a lot of details, including that among the few who escaped form this camp was the very famous JLP Don Biya Mitchell, who shot Tappa Zukie in the belly a few months later (The Shower Posse—Blake).
A JLP book and a JLP song? Reggae and politics in the 1970s!
Read more about Pearnel Charles and the 1976 State of Emergency in REGGAE AND POLITICS IN THE 1970s, by T. Ehrengardt (DREAD Editions).