You know the game we played as kids? The girl with braided pigtails and awkward buck teeth gawkily whispers a message into her crush’s ear, who passes it down the spit-fueled line to the poor kid at end who has no idea what was originally said. In the game, the result gives everyone a chuckle when “Firetruck” turns into a license to say naughty and explicit words. Who knew this game would be extremely relevant in the miscommunication between cultural practices.
I use broken telephone as an example because of the nature of children. There is always that one darling child, who decides that it would be fun to twist the message, interesting to throw in some cuss words, and thrilling for no one to know where the mix up happened. The perpetrator knows that the result will be funnier, more exciting, and cause a commotion amongst their peers. These sprites grow up, and sometimes they become marketers, business persons, and the like. I’m not saying that it is always this twisted, or intentional. However, our desire to sell things and make them sexy to one culture, is done best when twisted from the perspective that it came from the source, much like a kid throwing in a cuss word and blaming it on the first person in the line.
So what am I getting at here?
There is a large divide, a canyon, between what many North Americans think of reggae, Bob Marley, and all things Rasta.
In April, North America celebrated “4/20” (April, 20th). The origins of which are more shrouded in urban myth than reality (See Lopez). For one it has nothing to do with Bob Marley, as many believe. To clarify he was born on Feb. 6th, 1945 and died May 11th, 1981. These dates, particularly his birthday, are celebrated by Rastafarian people in Jamaica.
The more I am around the Rastafarian culture, the more I realize that many people in North America who wear the Rasta colours: red, gold, green, and black have no idea what they mean, nor do they realize the immense weight that comes with the cultural identity.
Rastafarian people have experienced prejudice from Jamaicans for years, despite the tourism industry exploiting the internationally recognized colours, the wonderful music of reggae, and the well-known affinity with marijuana use.
Exploitation of the culture can be found everywhere. As criticized last month, during the 4/20 celebrations, Snapchat supplied a Bob Marley filter. Not only is this tacky, but it is celebrating Bob Marley with black face. This is extremely offensive. The history of black face is not a pretty one. Black face has specifically been used to “create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men”; Please visit this link if you are unfamiliar with why black face is not OK: Coleman.
So what is this cultural weight and identity that I’m speaking of? I would like to provide a brief overview of the Rastafarian culture as I have come to understand it, however also recognize I am not Rastafarian. Additionally, not all Rastafarians follow the same guidelines, and different variations on the practice are present. However, I think a brief overview would do this game of broken telephone some justice.
The historical aspect:
Most of the world only became aware of Rastafarianism through the elevation of Bob Marley and the Wailers to international musician status, but the cult first emerged in Jamaica during the late 1930s. The history is given here according to Barrow and Dalton (2001) in their “Rough Guide to Reggae”.
Prince Regent of Abyssinia, Ras (Prince) Tafari Makonnen had been crowned King Negus Negusta. On November 2nd he assumed the official title of Emperor Haile Selassie I (a common name found in lyrics of roots reggae music). Emperor Haile Selassie I is important for making a large impact on black people around the world with media coverage showing a powerful African king, receiving recognition and tributes from leaders of the developed world, an event forecast by Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
Marcus Garvey was a largely influential figure in the black empowerment movement, fundraising for the Universal Negro improvement Association, which he founded in Jamaica in 1914, gaining five million members by the 1920s. Black nationalists in Harlem, in particular and organization known as Abyssinians, gained impetus from the coronation of Halie Selassie I. They advised fellow black people to burn the American flag and sold certificates of Abyssinian citizenship.
These incidents echoed in Jamaica through the actions of Leonard Percival Howell (aka Gangunguru or Gong) who preached that the poor should pay allegiance to the Emperor of Ethiopia and not the the British crown. In the 1930s he sold pictures of Haile Selassie I to his followers, which earned him two years’ of hard labour, however his message lead to the establishment of the Pinnacle community, a focus for Rastafarianism. This community faced harassment from the police and after being broken up by the police in their original location of Spanish Town, they relocated to the squatter camps of West Kingston. The numbers grew to between ten and fifteen thousand Ras Tafari in the Back-A-Wall community. The tensions between the growth of the Jamaican economy and the conditions of the West Kingston ghettos lead to violence and the death of two British soldiers and three Rasta men, resulting in the demonization of Rastafarianism This was eventually cleared, and by 1961 a large public housing programme was initiated dissipating tension between the groups (Barrow & Dalton, 2001).
Many tenets of the Rastafarian philosophy, in particular the culture of the Ethiopian Orthodox church with its emphasis on Selassie as the Elect of God, were derived from the newspaper The Voice of Ethiopia; the official newspaper of the Ethiopian World Federation founded in 1937 by Malaku Bayen.
Poor Jamaicans were primed for the message of Rastafarianism, having long sought solace in the Bible – the Book of Revelations (“Weep not, behold the Lion that is the tribe of Judah”) along with the Apocrypha, provided many texts that yielded to reinterpretation by Kingston’s ‘sufferers’. Also a source for many of the reggae lyrics. Jamaica was granted independence in 1962, and Rastafarianism quickly spread, fueled by the Black consciousness movements in the US, as well as the unique situation of Jamaica as an underdeveloped Caribbean island situated close to the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation. The desire of struggling singers to jump on the bandwagon was undoubtedly an element in the explosion of Rastafarianism in the 1970s. This faith offered a positive alternative to a life of crime or the despair of the ghetto.
To be Rasta is a religious statement.
Some Rastas attempted to establish a coherent system of beliefs along the lines indicated by Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Rastafarianism is not a church with a hierarchy and official doctrine. Rather, ever since the name first came into use in the late 1940s, it has always consisted of a core of spiritual, historical and social tenets open to a range of interpretations, as espoused in more recent times by such Rastafarian associations as the United Ethiopian Body, the Ethiopian Youth Cosmic Father, the Ethiopian Coptic League and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Barrow & Dalton, 2001).
Even the classic image doesn’t always hold true. Some wear dreadlocks, some do not, some view marijuana as a religious sacrament, but others don’t smoke at all.
What all Rastafarians share is the belief that Africa is the Black race’s spiritual home, to which they are destined one day to return. The West, where their ancestors were taken in chains, is vilified as ‘Babylon’ after the place where the Israelites were enslaved. Most Rastafarians recognize a divine line of royal succession descended from King David, with Halie Selassie I as the 225th in that line. Even his death after the communist coup on September 12, 1974 failed to shake this belief, presumably since God is ever-living (Barrow & Dalton, 2001, p. 154).
The wearing of the Rasta colours by North Americans is often used in solidarity to demonstrate a culture that approves of their habit. Using it to identify their own culture of marijuana smoking, regardless of the Rastafarian views.
Many don’t stop to ask what the colours mean. These colours come from Ethiopian heritage and represent the colour of the people (black), the wealth of the land (gold), the lushness of the land (green), and the blood of martyrs (red). Yes, martyrs, Godly Christian martyrs. The wearing of the colours demonstrates your faith in Halie Selassie I.
It is appropriated and used to reinforce colonial exploitation when placed on factory/sweatshop made products in developing countries. This can be equated to the mass production of Che Guevara images, being sold in gift shops globally, the opposite of his philosophies and life ethic. Similarly Red Stripe in Jamaica produced a Bob Marley beer this year for his 71st birthday. Bob Marley did not drink, as it was against his beliefs.
Wearing hair in dread locks represent the mane of the Lion of Judah, which is one of titles given to all Ethiopian Kings. Emperor Haile Selassie was also very fond of lions and had them as pets around his palace. The lion is also seen as an animal that is gentle but powerful when provoked. He is the “King” of the jungle. Further, not cutting one’s hair is a part of the Nazarite Vow (also where the Ital diet stems from).
All Rastafarians take this vow and claim it is commanded by the Bible (Leviticus 21:5 “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh”).
Samson is believed to be a Nazarite with dreadlocks. Many Rastafarians believe that like Samson, their hair is their strength and also their weakness if it is cut off . The belief in the weakness of cutting of the dreadlocks was used as a way to intimidate Rastafarians in Jamaica in the past, as they would be arrested and their hair cut off. This was one of the reasons many of the early Rastafarians moved to isolated areas (bush) of the Island (Read More)
Ital food is derived from the word “vital food” (self-determination of the black race resulted in the Rastafarians usage of the word ‘I” to replace the first letter of many words). Ital food means it is natural, pure, and clean food. For a Rastafarian it means no salt, no chemicals, no flesh, no blood, no alcohol, no cigarettes and no drugs (although marijuana is not considered a drug but a herb). Not all Rastas adhere to this diet, but many are at least pescatarian. For more information check out this article: Ital Food
This is a large topic and for the sake of the blog I will just say that Bob Marley used marijuana to do bible studies. When you visit the Bob Marley House (Museum) on Hope Rd. in Kingston, you will find his bedroom kept as it was. In his bible you will find a half smoked joint. This has been left to demonstrate his dedication to bible studies through the use of ganja. Marijuana as a tool of the Christian religion is often not understood in North America.
Again, too complex of a topic to address properly here, the history involves folk music, Pocomania church, Jonkanoo masquerades, the adoption of the European quadrille, and a long tradition of work songs (Barrow & Dalton, 2001).The gospel tradition of the various revivalist churches that commanded a strong following on the island in the early 1900s, particularly in poorer areas, also had a large influence. Many of the lyrics of this church-grounded music were very close in their Old Testament orientation to the type of Rastafarian themes that later proved popular. Much of the reggae music popular today has references to Jah (God), Halie Selassie I, and the tenants of Rasta beliefs.
So much to learn…
In a country so rich with history, it is a shame the Jamaican culture takes on a one-dimensional form. When tourists visit the island, particularly on the North and West coast, they will be bombarded with offers of ganja. There is a miscommunication between tourist encounters with these hustlers and the vision they have of all Jamaican citizens.
It is my experience that many Jamaicans don’t actually smoke marijuana and the stereotypical character painted in North America of Jamaicans is to say the least, skewed. To spend a day in Kingston, many will learn that it is very similar to North America in thoughts and attitudes on the drug; some smoke it, some don’t, some feel strongly against the use of it, and others advocate for its medicinal properties. There are many Jamaicans who do not associate with the Rastafarian people. Only 1.1% of the island identifies as Rastafarian; 64.8% of the island is Protestant (including Seventh Day Adventist), 12.0%, Pentecostal, with a mix of other religions making up the remaining population (Jamaica Demographics 2014)
Further the depth of the culture that does advocate for the spiritual benefits of marijuana are grossly misunderstood. It is a classic method of selling you a product through exploitation. Bob Marley’s messages have been used to make products appear authentic, plastic and other environmentally harmful products like cell phone cases, bracelets, shot glasses, lighters, hats, shirts, wallets, you name it, will have “One Love” printed on it. These products are often made in facilities lacking human-rights and environmental policies, shipped across the ocean causing pollution, and will end up in a land fill. Worse many people act as though the Marley name on a product means that he himself would endorse it.
I hope this article could serve as an entry way into thinking about the Rastafarian culture, and Jamaica as a whole in a different light. Foster critical thinking and I encourage you to do further research if this is something that interests you! Let me know what you find out.
Really though, the bottom line? Don’t be this guy…