From Peace and Love to ‘Fyah Bun’: Did Rastafari Lose its Way?
By Leahcim Semaj, PhD
Chief Ideator and Resultant
Leahcim T Semaj & Company Ltd.
The Inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference
Negotiating the African Presence: Rastafari Livity and Scholarship
August 17 – 20, 2010, UWI, Mona – Jamaica WI
Published in Caribbean Quarterly: Volume 59, No. 2, June 2013
50 years after the publication of the UWI Report, 49 years after a delegation on repatriation to Africa and 44 years after the visit of His Imperial Majesty to Jamaica, serious questions arise as to the capability of the Rastafarian Movement/Religion. Rasta established red, green and gold as a cultural symbol in Jamaica, a liberating music genre, the validity of ital food long before the health food craze but are not the ones benefiting from the marketing of it. Rasta gave the name dreadlocks to the world but it was innovative African American women in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles who became ‘loctologists’ and ‘locticians’ and more recently, the creators of ‘sister locks’.
30 years ago I described a social theory that would evolve out of the Rastafarian religion. It has quietly become a significant frame of reference for many. This success may however serve to make the Rastafarian religion obsolete at worst or a quaint novelty at best, now that the society has been able to successfully extract the essentially useful core of the Rastafarian faith. It is quite possible that Rastafari has fulfilled its promise, is now a spent force, and has lost its way. As a result, the movement has become more of an empty symbol. This process of extracting the essence of Rastafari will continue until and unless the Movement produces leadership with five essential capabilities:
- Spiritual insights to unite the various houses
- Intellectual acumen to engage the Afro-centric thinkers
- Managerial capabilities to build transnational sustainable businesses
- Cultural engineers to build the necessary rituals for living
- Brand management
Rastafari Promise Fulfilled, Force Spent?
Over the past 30 years I have written a number of articles/columns/papers in which I examined the origins and development of the Rastafari movement, evaluated the present status and made some predictions concerning the future. In this the 50th year of the publication of the UWI Report, it is now necessary to review my predictions to determine accuracy, account for any discrepancies or deviations and, if possible, make some new predictions concerning future developments.
Evaluating The Predictions And Achievements
Prediction I – I had predicted that the political and cultural climate of Jamaica of the 1980s would not be as supportive of the Rastafarian movement as the 1970s had been. This change of ‘climate’ would make it harder for those who chose a Rastafarian way of life because they would have to think for themselves and chart their own path. The result would be either that they do the intellectual work required to continue defining Rastafari or cease to publicly identify themselves with the movement. The simplest method to relinquish the identity was to cut one’s locks. This prediction has been substantiated. Many individuals, especially those of middle class status or aspiration, who were publicly identified with the movement in the 1970s, withdrew their public identity in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the movement contracted further still.
Now in 2010, there appears to be a smaller core of committed believers in the religion/philosophy of Rastafari. At the same time, a growing number of persons, especially women, present themselves in the outward symbols of Rastafari, but with very little of the inward convictions. After 37 years I have shorn my locks. I felt that this was necessary in order to avoid being classified with ‘ras-cals’, ‘ras-titutes’, ‘ras-putins’ and ‘style dreads’ which now dominate the landscape.
Prediction 2 – I had predicted that there would have been an expansion of the Rasta Intelligentsia. This was the group that I had expected to transform the oral tradition into a written form and to provide answers to some of our questions about development in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. I was wrong on this one. There has been no significant expansion of the Rasta intelligentsia. The same handful of people who were attempting this process in the early eighties was still at it in the early nineties. The most outstanding among this group was Everton McPherson.
During the eleven years of my affiliation with the University of the West Indies, only three Caribbean students ever contacted me about research on the Rastafarian movement. This compares to over twenty-five (25) individuals from the rest of the world.
The anti-intellectual trait within Rastafari may not be unique to Rastafari but may be part of a broader Caribbean inadequacy. On many occasions I have witnessed serious conflicts between elders holding on to unexamined traditions when confronted with reasonable arguments by those who would wish to apply intellectual rigor. I tried to bridge this gap but could not overcome the collective inertia. Today, the events emanating from the extradition request for Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke and the resulting incursion into Tivoli Garden (The mother of all Garrisons) has elicited a loud call for a New Social Order in Jamaica. There has been no Rasta response to this call.
Prediction 3 – I had predicted that more political and economic assertion and creative experimentation on the part of Rastas would result in a sharing of state power. Implied in the concept of “sharing” was the belief that Rastafari by themselves could not in the short-run develop sufficient expertise and political power to form a government in Jamaica by themselves. But in collaboration with an established political party, one that had africentric tendencies, Rastafari could give concrete expression to this sentiment, thus earning themselves a place within the political and economic hierarchy. This prediction has not come to fruition because in contrast with the seventies, there is no political party with africentric tendencies – not by words, deeds or even manner of dress. Thus there was no viable host. Steven Golding, who presents himself as a Garveyite and Rastafarian, publicly endorsed his father as the leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). When asked if this should also be considered as an endorsement of the JLP. He assured me that it was not.
Since the intelligentsia did not expand as predicted, we see further reasons why Rasta is no closer to accessing state power even though groups of Rastas have threatened to field candidates for the last three general elections but never did so. Michael Lorne has revived the People’s Political Party (PPP), but has got little traction from among Rastafarians and even less from the broader society. This was the party founded in September 1929 by Marcus Garvey. This was Jamaica’s first modern political party, promoting workers’ rights, education and aid to the poor. Garvey was elected Councillor for the Allman Town division of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) in 1929.
Note must be made that Barbara Makeda Blake Hanna has been the first and only Rastafarian to sit in the Jamaican Parliament as a senator from 1984 to 1987. Her appointment came about as a result of the People’s National Party (PNP) not contesting the national election. The ‘victorious’ Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) then appointed an independent senate to which she was named.
Ras Astor Black and his Jamaica Alliance Movement has been a consistent, if not persistent. We can look forward to what some have described as comic relief at election time, be it local or national, or even a one constituency by-election. He has lost his deposit in every election but has stated in The Jamaica Gleaner, Tuesday June 6, 2006 that:
“I have never lost an election, I enter with issues and come out a winner, once these issues are aired,” he stated. “I want to go into the House of Parliament and speak on behalf of Jamaicans who want a hand up and not hands out, Jamaicans asking for their fair share of wealth.”
In 2000 Bunny Wailer announced the formation of a new political party, The United Progressive People (UPP) Party in The Jamaica Gleaner, October 6, 2000. He stated that would be offering himself as a candidate in the next general election. He did not.
Prediction 4 – I had predicted that Rastafari would have actualized a social theory. This refers to an organized set of values that explains not just what you are against but what you stand for. Even people who don’t share all the assumptions about a particular ideology or religion could still find aspects of a particular social theory useful to them in their own lives. What I had articulated as a framework for a Rastafarian social theory, has to a large extent taken root in the Jamaican society. The following examples support my argument.
The Rasta Social Theory
Marcus Garvey – In the Rasta religion, he is viewed mainly as a prophet who pointed us to Africa and played a role equivalent to that of John The Baptist who fore told of the coming of The Christ. In the social theory he is conceptualized as an important social activist, one who articulated models of development worthy of emulation. Scholarly works on Garvey have continued to be published and it is now agreed by many that Garvey should be taught in Jamaican schools.
The Bible and The Creator – In the name of religion, many people take a literal approach in these two areas. However, the study of all religions reveals one universal truth in that “Man makes God and God reciprocates by making man”. At the foundation of all religions lies a process by which people articulate a concept of the divine and then this articulated concept provides a framework to guide the lives of the believers. Of this fact, Rasta is no different. The Rasta cosmology drew on all the raw materials available to create a theology of liberation from the residual effects of white supremacy driven enslavement and colonization. Whereas the Jews are still awaiting to coming of the messiah and Christians are awaiting his return, the Rastafarian Cosmology accepts the first coming and also the return, in the person of His Imperial Majesty. What the religion of Rastafari does is to allow you to place the Bible in its African context. You come to understand the references to Cush and Ethiopia and the path to the Lion of Judah. It is my belief that in the same way that the early Christians expected and early return of the Messiah, early Rastafarians had anticipated a similar expedient return to Zion.
But under the social theory you are willing to expand your horizons and examine other evidence in order to further extricate yourself from Euro centric Christendom and ignorance. In Jamaica and the Caribbean more people today are falling into the latter category, understanding the process by which “CREATORS” are created, while creating personal standards binding on their consciences.
Africa – Under Rasta as religion the emphasis is mainly on repatriation
but under social theory issues of reparation and Pan-Africanism become equally important. The strong anti-apartheid sentiments, the response to Mandela’s freedom and subsequent visit to Jamaica; The increased activities of the Nigerian High Commission in Jamaica and the fact that Rastafarians have opened three book stores in Jamaica that primarily stock books that advance Africentricity indicate positive movements in this direction.
An interesting test over the past years has been on two contrasting views of Columbus. Rasta theology and ideology was the first to condemn him as a major source of destruction, first in words, then in song and later in writing. The Jamaican government had tried to get the nation involved in the Columbus Quincentennial celebration but with very little support from the majority culture. A poster that was sent to Spain as part of the Jamaican government’s Columbus celebration was withdrawn following protest from Rastas and other Afro-centric Jamaicans. The poster depicted images of Columbus, a Rasta man looking like Bob Marley and a lion of Judah. The caption read “TWO CULTURES, ONE LOVE”. We saw this as sacrilege. The question was asked, “How can a group that has no legal standing at home in Jamaica be used to represent Jamaica abroad?” The paradox of love/hate relationships. Since then we have seen what some have come to classify as the Spanish re-invasion of Jamaica. This time it is in the form of mega hotels with very special concessions from the government.
Food – This has been one area of major achievement. The social theory advocated more natural foods and eating lower on the food chain. The last twenty years has seen a significant increase in the number or restaurants and shops that cater to this particular lifestyle. Health food is now big business and a part of the consciousness of many Jamaicans.
Herbs – The social theory argued for wider exploration of the useful medicinal and psychological effects of natural substances. Jamaica has experienced a surge of increased interest in herbal preparations, shampoos, lotions, foods and remedies. This has been accompanied by the publication of many books and the presence of a number of naturopathic physicians. These achievements are not just supported by Rastafarians but by many other Jamaicans. Marijuana is now the largest cash crop in the USA and available in 13 states with a medical prescription. Jamaica is still however way behind the times, proudly ignoring the recommendations of a Government sponsored commission.
Personal Appearance – Under social theory, we identified dreadlocks as just one of the aesthetic options open to Black people, Rastafarians have no monopoly on the look. This has largely been actualized in North America, in Jamaica and on an even smaller scale in the wider Caribbean. In the U.S.A. there are people advertising themselves as Locticians, specialists in getting your hair to lock and grooming it in that way. More recently, with the creation of ‘sister locks’, there are many individuals who do not share the religious tenets of Rasta who are choosing to wear their hair in dreadlocks. This is now a major fashion statement in both Jamaica and the US.A.
The music tracked this transition. We can begin with the strident affirmation of Bob Marley in “Natty Dread” in 1974. Dialectically, this elicited the reaction noted by Junior Byles in “Curley Locks” in the same year. “Now that I’m a dread locks, your daddy say you shouldn’t play with me. None the less, more and more people began adopting dreadlocks as their personal style prompting Sugar Minot in the 1980s to release “Dread upon your head”. He reminded the world that locks don’t make you a Rasta, not without the livity. By 1999, Morgan’s Heritage confirmed the obvious in “Don’t Haffi Dread”… to be Rasta. Rasta no longer had the ‘patent’ on dread locks.
Power and Resources/Income Distribution – Under social theory, we argued for an alternate path which we called Human Economics, putting people before profits. This was to be achieved by combining the benefits of social living, capital living and communal living. We argued for an approach to economics, as if people mattered. The fall of communism resulted in a national consensus towards the capitalist path, but with a social conscience. Our people are still trying to find a way to mold and shape the economic forces instead continually being the victims of “market forces”. It was Professor Rex Nettleford who reminded us that the reason why market forces work is because
‘the same people that control the market also control the forces.’
Rasta And Economic Development
The production and distribution of goods and services are two of the most important activities in every society. In every society the resources used to produce goods and services are scarce. This means that most people, in fact, every government has to make choices regarding what they do with natural resources, capital, labour and technology.
Many religious groups aspire to facilitate their own economic development, especially if their beliefs state or imply that the wider society is hostile to their existence. In Jamaica, the Seven-Day Adventists have developed their own schools (up to the university level), hospital and food processing and distribution operation. The Orthodox Jews in New York own a significant portion of the jewelry, computer, camera, and audio business, not to mention media, health care and entertainment conglomerates.
What Has Rasta Achieved?
In the 50 years since the publication of the UWI Report, 49 years since a delegation on repatriation sent to Africa and 44 years since the visit of His Imperial Majesty to Jamaica, serious questions arise as to the capability of the Rastafarian Movement/Religion. Individual achievements have occurred but what about the collective? Rasta established red, green and gold as a cultural item in Jamaica but were not the ones to market it, nor benefit from it. The Japanese buy our coffee, package it in a red, green and gold can and name it “”Reggae Coffee” and successfully market it around the world. In Dominica, they package “His Imperial Majesty Potato Chips”. Rasta developed a liberating music genre but who has made the real money from the industry? Rasta established the validity of ital food long before the health food craze but are not the ones marketing it. Twenty years ago, one could hardly find vegetarian food in Jamaica, today it is everywhere. Rasta gave the name dreadlocks to the world but it is innovative African American women in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles who are loctologists and locticians. The Jamaican hair care practitioners who spend hours producing ‘sister lock’ rarely have anything to do with Rasta consciousness. The pattern is consistent; Rasta initiates the concept, others reap the economic benefit.
It is my hypothesis that all these observations can be explained by the millenarian belief of the Rasta religion, the belief in a future paradise on earth. This belief often develops in response to threats and serves to preserve cultural and individual identity. The result is usually an obsession with the past or fantasies about the future, and a significant reduction in the motivation that fosters economic development and other long term activities because you could be leaving for PARADISE at any time.
What Is The Evidence?
Any examination of the lyrical content of Rastafarian musicians reveals the same message:
- Rasta was pleading “I’ve got to go back home” – Bob Andy – (1967)
- Rasta is going “Back to Africa” – Alton Ellis – (1969)
- Rasta was waiting for “7 miles of Black Star Liner” – Fred Locks (1975)
- Rasta has defined paradise, “Dreamland” – Bunny Wailer (1976)
- Rasta was telling “Africa (to) unite, your children want to come home” – Bob Marley – (1979)
- Rasta was ready “If tomorrow I was leaving for Zion I wouldn’t wait a minute more” Black Uhuru. – (1979)
- Rasta was asking, “Give me a one way ticket”- Luciano – 1994)
How many “Rasta” artists are still making songs with similar lyrical content?
The Lesson From New York
For Jamaicans in metropoles, it is the island of Jamaica that they envision when Bob Andy’s big tune is played. (“I’ve got to go back home”). The result was that for decades they resisted citizenship, political participation or any symbols of permanence. For nine years in New York, I refused to buy a winter coat in any place but the second hand Army and Navy stores. For nine years, I resisted buying winter shoes. These items could not be used when I go home to Jamaica. From Day One I had made it clear to my parents that I was going home as soon as I completed my education. (When I got to Ithaca I had to change my position)
The present second and third generation of Jamaican immigrants having accepted the reality that most will never come home (as passengers), have begun the process of economic integration and political involvement. They have been converting their presence to economic and political power. But even though they have become US citizens, their identity is still Jamaican. Guess who they cheer for when Jamaica meet the US in track and field or in soccer?
Until Rastafarians make the same transition and accept their endowment to claim all rights and privileges as Jamaican nationals, with African as their identity, Rasta economic development will not occur. Some will visit Africa, as many have been doing since 1961. Few may even migrate to Africa. But there is no reasonable possibility that wholesale repatriation will occur BEFORE economic and political development. I challenge the Rasta leadership to address this issue. Until then the growth of Rasta philosophy will remain in the dormant state it has been in for the post-Marley era.
There is good evidence that this shift in philosophy can work. It is the Jews at HOME in New York and Hollywood who provide critical support for the Jews at HOME in Israel. So too can Africans at HOME in Jamaica develop economic and political models to assist African brothers and sisters anywhere, especially in Africa. Today, the most visible sign of Rasta economic development is the Bobo Shanti manufacture and sale of brooms. This mode of production is obsolete. Some are moving into farming and food production. Unless significant economic development occurs in Jamaica, Rasta will continue to be identified as just another group of religious fanatics. Persons obsessed with a fantasy world called Africa, but who are unable to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and heal themselves, and take their place of leadership in the world.
The Essence Of Rasta
What was described twenty years ago as the social theory that would evolve out of the Rastafarian religion has quietly become a significant social theory in the Jamaican society. Interestingly, Rastafarians have not been directly credited with this transformation. This success may however serve to make the Rastafarian religion obsolete at worst or a quaint novelty at best, now that the society has been able to successfully extract the essentially useful core of the Rastafarian movement.
The important question now is can the Rastafarian movement survive this “success”? Rastafari has permanently transformed Jamaica’s image both at home and abroad. Much of the world has come to know Jamaica through the visual or musical image of Rastafari – RED, GREEN AND GOLD or REGGAE MUSIC.
The internal conflicts and contradictions of the movement which surfaced in the Centenary Celebrations illustrate the problems of the last twenty years. Relations have sometimes been so poor that one night when two Rastafarian groups met at a radio station to do a programme on the movement, one group decided to leave if the other was allowed to speak. Some groups are more willing to speak to white foreigners than to each other. Leading up to and during the centenary “Houses” forgot about areas of common interest and focused more on idiosyncratic differences and personal feuds between the leaders. Each leader struggled to contain the movement under his vision, while projecting religious rituals over intellectual arguments. The result is that the movement devolved closer to empty symbol status while the society continued to extract the useful substance of the social theory.
In June of 2010, the Jamaican society went through a major upheaval initiated by the government’s inept handling of the extradition request for Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. There has been a broad based demand from Civil Society for a New Social Order. The Rastafarian contribution to this process has been significantly absent.
This process of extracting the essence of Rastafari will continue until and unless the Movement produces leadership with five essential capabilities:
- Spiritual insights to unite the various houses,
- Intellectual acumen to engage the Afro-centric thinkers,
- Managerial capabilities to build transnational sustainable businesses
- Cultural engineers to build the necessary rituals for living
- Brand management.
Rules For Living – Missing
One major sign of the stagnation in the evolution of the Rasta culture is the absence of Rites of Passage. A cultural universal common to the majority of stable societies are rituals that signify important life transition points. These rituals serves to demonstrate what values and beliefs are important in a specific culture. . The minimal three areas that such rituals cover are generally classified as marriage or the union of a couple, the birth and naming of a child and death, the end of the physical life. Based on the lack of specific rituals around these markers of human existence, it would appear that these three areas have not yet become part of the culture of Rastafari. Does this mean that Rasta sees no value in these transition points? Or is it a sign of cultural laziness?
In Rasta culture, marriage is either by common-law unions, the laws of the state (Babylon) or a series of casual, undefined relationships. Some Brethrens express the above confusion as a form of polygamy, but without the informed consent of the sisters who find themselves in something other than what they had initially agreed to. Over the years, I have heard the pain of numerous Rasta sisters in turmoil when the relationship with a Rasta man becomes toxic, for whatever reason.
- She does not want to expose him and their relationship to the scrutiny of “Babylon”, but she has no alternative.
- There is no Council of Elders to adjudicate such issues.
- She either suffers in silence, appeal to his friends/bredren or eventually bring the state into their relationship.
I have offered reconciliation or arbitration services when asked. I have been exploring the possibility of becoming certified as a Marriage Officer. I have been informed that the laws of Jamaica stipulate that you must first be a pastor of a recognized religious body in order to be so designated. I am still investigating alternative options that would allow me to facilitate Rastafarians and other individuals who would wish to participate in a culturally appropriate marriage ritual without the trappings and assumptions of Christianity.
It has been my observation that largely the birth and naming of children is unceremoniously neglected. Having created a ritual for the naming of all my children, I have gladly assisted anyone who requests my help in conducting a ritual for the naming of their child.
The rituals for the inevitability of death have still not yet been developed. I feel personally embarrassed each time I hear a Rastafarian end of life transition being facilitated at the church of their parents or the one that they had abandoned when they answered the calling of Rastafari. I have designed my own end of life ceremony, including my music list.
In The Jamaica Observer of- January 26, 2004, Basil Walters shared some important observations on this issue reminding us that:
“So strict has the Nyahbinghi been on their unwritten policy of not attending funerals, that they stayed away from the funeral rites for prominent Rastafarians such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller – all internationally acclaimed entertainers – and Sam Brown, aging pioneer and elder of the Rastafari community who died in 1998.
From all over Jamaica, members of the Rastafari brethren poured into the Dovecot Memorial Chapel near Spanish Town, St Catherine, filling the sanctuary to capacity and overflowing onto the expansive grounds, for the memorial service for departed Rastafari matriarch (mother), Sister Rema Veronica Sappleton on January 21.”
This represented a significant break in the Rasta tradition of ‘let the dead bury their dead’. The signs are evident, clarity and consensus is required on this matter.
Today the evidence suggests that Jamaican society and much of the world has subsumed the social theory of Rasta. This process is being articulated and motivated by Afri-centric persons who, though inspired by Rasta, do not necessarily share the Rasta religion. They use their knowledge of history, politics, economics, branding, marketing, media and education, seasoned with the spirit of Rastafari. Twenty years ago I proposed that if a Rasta Intelligentsia did not emerge and take hold of the transformation process, “then Rastafari would move from being the most powerful ideological force in Jamaica to take its place beside, if not behind the other systems of escape, ignorance or solace that influence the … lives of our people”. I still hold this view today Rasta in Jamaica today is much less of a cultural force than it was 30 years ago.
Could this be the reason why the consistent greeting and refrain of the Rastaman in the first 30 years of ‘peace and love’ has transitioned to ‘Blessed’, and now given way to the confrontational ‘fyah bun’ of the last 10 years? It is quite possible that Rastafari has fulfilled its promise and is now a spent force, one that can only be further utilized by Afro-centric individuals who are able and willing to go beyond the dictates and limitations of religion, any religion. It is possible that the UWI conference: “Negotiating the African Presence: Rastafari Livity and Scholarship” could be a critical catalyst in this process. If this is not possible then it may be concluded the Rasta has lost it’s way.