Segment 7 – Rastafari Reggae

We’re heading to sunny Jamaica today, and looking at how religion and music can both be means of social change. Here’s the audio from this morning:

Songs we played: Bob Marley, ‘Chant Down Babylon‘ and Natural Black, ‘Jah Jah Bless‘ [NB: I made a mistake on air when I said that Natural Black is from Ghana, he is in fact from the Caribbean nation of Guyana.]

The Rastafari movement (as it likes to be called, eschewing isms like ‘Rastafarianism’ as Western obfuscations) developed in Jamaica in the 1930s. It is an Abrahamic faith, in that it draws on the same pool of symbols and texts as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the most part, it is a development of Old and New Testament ideas, re-imagined in the context of 1930s Jamaica.

The movement originally grew out of social and political interests. It was inspired by the Afrocentrism of thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, who articulated a common identity for the whole ‘black race,’ calling for them to assert their self-dependence and superiority in the face of ‘white’ Western society. White people were considered to have committed crimes against Africans for thousands of years. The most salient example is the slave trade; especially in Jamaica, where the vast majority of the population is descended from African slaves. There is a need to break the slave mentality and escape from white oppression (or ‘downpression’ in Rastafari speak). Bob Marley sung, “So they build their world in great confusion, to force on us the devil’s illusion.” That is, white people, blind to truth and goodness, have constructed a corrupted system and imposed it upon everyone else. Repatriation to Africa, therefore, becomes a common idea.

The Rastafari movement re-articulates those concerns using Biblical language. Western society is dubbed Babylon, with all its Biblical connotations of immorality, corruption and iniquity. Africa is then referred to as Zion, the rightful homeland of the black race; re-appropriating Jewish notions of the Holy Land. In such a way, the political and social concerns of the community are re-imagined in transcendent terms, giving them greater gravitas.

There are no real Rastafari leaders, and no Rastafari church, however there are a few other elements of its ideology. One is the belief that Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was God Incarnate, the Second Coming of Jesus, and the descendent of Old Testament kings. He was hailed by Rastafari as the one who would establish a holy kingdom in Ethiopia, to which they would return. In 1966 he was invited by the government to Jamaica, where it was hoped he refute these claims and put an end to Rastafari agitations. The crowds at the airport barred him from exiting his plane, however to the government’s chagrin, he did not reject his divinity. Although not Rastafari himself (he was a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian) he in fact gifted Rastafari elders with gold medallions. The epitome of gentle religious tolerance, he would say, “Who am I to disturb their beliefs?” His visit was monumental to the Rastafari Movement. In an important speech to the Rastafari, the Emperor said that they should concern themselves with social change in Jamaica before returning to Africa; a teaching that came to be known as “liberation before repatriation.”

Reggae was being born in the ghettoes of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, at about the same time. Poor Jamaicans – the same people most attracted to the revolutionary Rastafari movement – were listening to American R&B and jazz and blending it with traditional Jamaican folk music and drumming. The musician came to be seen as an agent of social change, bringing the Rastafari message to new audiences. As Marley sung, “Reggae music mek we chant down Babylon.” Indeed, if it weren’t for the international stardom of Bob Marley, who devoutly preaches Rastafari concepts in his music, it is unlikely that the world would have come to know both reggae and Rastafari as well as it has.

Reggae has been, since its outset, a means of spreading the word about the situation of the poor in Jamaica, and a way to challenge dominant Western ways of living and seeing the world. Cannabis use and dreadlocks are, similarly, forms of gentle protest, means of saying, ‘we don’t fully agree with how things have been run so far.’ The Rastafari movement disputed, for example, the drastic concentration of wealth in Jamaica, and called upon the emancipation of the poor. (Marxism, mind you, is derided as yet another ism, another Babylon system.) And by clothing these concerns in religious terms, they achieve an enhanced salience and importance.

A Very Short Rastafari Dictionary (with appropriate Reggae songs):

Jah – God (see Luciano, ‘Jah Deliver Us From All Evil‘)

I and I – replaces ‘I’, as the Holy Spirit is believed to be a living entity that resides in each person (see The Abyssinians, ‘I and I‘)

Babylon – Western society, deemed to be corrupt, immoral, and deceitful (see Peter Tosh, ‘Babylon Queendom‘)

Zion – the paradisiacal homeland, equated with the continent of Africa (see Burning Spear, ‘Zion Higher‘)

P.S. Hindu Jazz next week! No, we will never run out of these.


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