By Patrick Conway
As anyone who is familiar with “Toots” Hibbert’s near 60-year career could testify, he was an artist who wrote songs that were guaranteed to transcend the contexts of their particular place and moment.
For many, the music of Frederick Hibbert and his band Toots and the Maytals serves as the entryway into reggae beyond listening to Bob Marley. With a performing career that spanned six decades, Hibbert is credited as being the first artist to use the word reggae (then, reggay) on a recording. His vocal stylings combined gospel, R&B, soul, and country, often blended together in combination over syncopated backbeats. To fully evoke his influence in a short appreciation is foolhardy, but one particular song of his has been on my mind since I learned of his passing on Friday. It’s one from early in his band’s career — one of their first hits — and yet it’s a song that very much speaks to our current cultural moment.
Toots wrote “54-46 (That’s My Number)” after his arrest in 1966 for marijuana possession. He spent over a year in prison as a result of the charge, a crime that he maintained for the rest of his life had been a frame-up. The song is a stark portrayal of distrust between police and common citizens. It starts in a disorienting fashion, in the middle of a stick-up:
Stick it up, mister
Hear what I said, sir
Get your hands in the air, sir
And you will get no hurt, mister
We soon learn that the one performing the shakedown is not a “criminal” at all, but instead a cop. The victim of the shakedown is the singer of the song, pleading to be heard (less so by the police, but instead by the audience itself). He wants his chance to explain his innocence, to describe how the charges against him were not only illegitimate, but nonsensical. He wraps up his case succinctly: “So I was innocent of what they done to me, they was wrong / Listen to me one more time, they was wrong.”
It is the fight to maintain control of one’s own voice that propels the song forward. The victim of the police shakedown is quickly reduced to a prison number by the authorities: “54-46 was my number,” he moans before adding, “right now someone else has that number.” The lyric highlights the ways in which incarceration works, automatically, to deprive prisoners of their individuality. The victim in Hibbert’s song is not unique: his number has now become someone else’s, someone else who also may have been wronged by a corrupted system — and so the gears of that system continue to churn.
From my experiences, both as a criminal defense investigator for public defender offices and now as an educator involved in higher education programs in prison, Hibbert’s lyrics embody for me one of the most troubling aspects of being jailed: once a person is deemed “guilty” by the law their identity is stripped away — they are, in a way, officially erased from society. There are entire communities who feel as though their voices will always pale in comparison to the say-so of a single police officer. Yes, there are plenty of “good” officers, many more than are depicted these days in the media. But when the weight of the word of one “bad” officer can inflict so much damage (not just via the heinous acts that are grabbing headlines, but also by way of ordinary, everyday interactions that rarely gain attention), there is bound to be loss of faith in the system.
Hibbert’s song, however, avoids indulging in victimhood. Instead, he mocks the deceitfulness of the police officers who framed him. As they dole out his punishment, he calls for more of it:
Give it to me one time
Give it to me two times
Give it to me three times
Give it to me four times
In concerts, Hibbert would often perform this as part of a call-and-response with the band and audience, in which he would ask the audience to call back in laughter to the count: “Give it to me one time (Ha) / Give it to me two times (Ha Ha).” The song itself ridicules the idea that the police or the authorities have any power to stifle the singer’s spirit, or to suppress the joy he finds in his own voice. The system, he recognizes, has been expressly designed to reduce his identity to a number. But, by the end of the song, that idea seems about as absurd as the possibility that the charges reflected the truth.
This, for me, encapsulates the reason I enjoy teaching writing and literature in prison. In an environment that often seeks to dull the human spirit, the arts enliven it. There is considerable pleasure in exploring the power of your own voice. There is joy in observing others exploring theirs. In many of his songs, Fred “Toots” Hibbert often embraced the theme of resilience in the face of difficulty (the tune “Time Tough,” for example). “54-46” details his own path toward overcoming adversity, finding it in the creation of his art.
His song, of course, doesn’t just pertain to the context of incarceration. Many face quiet, but no less challenging forms of adversity every day, whether from experiencing grief, anger, or, especially now, under the quarantines of Covid-19, a debilitating sense of isolation. Written in Jamaica in the ’60s, Hibbert penned “54-46” without any way of knowing what the dynamics would be between police and many of our communities in 2020 America. Nor could he predict what life would be under the specter of a pandemic. But, as anyone who is familiar with Hibbert’s near 60-year career could testify, he was an artist who wrote songs that were guaranteed to transcend the contexts of their particular place and moment.
Patrick Conway is a former criminal defense investigator at public defender offices in Washington, DC, and Boston, and a current doctoral candidate at Boston College researching the implementation and expansion of higher education programs in prison. His writing has received recognition from the Best American Essays anthology, and an article of his on the involvement of higher education in prison will be included in a forthcoming issue of the Harvard Educational Review. He can be reached on Twitter @PFConway30.