20 June, 2016Issue 31.2The Arts

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Rooting Rastafari

Alex Assaly


Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction
Darren J.N. Middleton
Routledge, 2015
ISBN 978-0-415-83188-5
£26.99 (paperback)


In October 2011, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) released their nominations for that year’s British Academy Children’s Awards. Amongst the nominees was Rastamouse: a popular stop-motion programme about a crime-fighting reggae band called Da Easy Crew. The programme had debuted in January and before the end of its first 26-episode series the BBC had received 200-odd complaints regarding its stereotyping of Caribbean life. One vocal opponent of the show was Keith Valentine Graham (Levi Roots): the man behind a jerk barbecue sauce called ‘Reggae Reggae Sauce.’ A dialogue between these opposing sides suddenly feels deadlocked. Even in the context of a productive discussion on mainstream media’s depiction of Caribbean culture, one finds oneself unable to avoid the reductive commercialisation of Jamaica’s Rastafari. Convenience stores across North America now stock a green tea and honey drink called ‘Marley’s Mellow Mood,’ meant to “relieve stress” in a kind of intimation of the effects of smoking marijuana. Plush toys (‘Rastanana’), clothing (‘Cooyah Clothing’), hairstyles (‘Sisterlocks’), and soaps (‘Ital Blends’) offer consumers access to the “moral and cultural capital associated with Rastafari,” as Rivke Jaffe writes (2010), without the stress of leaving the comforts of their class or the law. Consumers facilely find Rastafari, but in a form deracinated or dismembered from “the domain in which it originated.” And, in this commercialized and dislocated context, Rastafari is not discussed as a coherent belief-system; but, rather, as an arbitrary set of decorative symbols: a Lion of Judah, a marijuana leaf, or a chorus of red (‘ites’), green, and gold.

In Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction (2015), Darren J.N. Middleton makes an authoritative move beyond the commercial stereotyping of Rastafari. His study is enlivening. Middleton gives place to a number of etic (outsider) and emic (insider) perspectives and, by doing so, complicates both the mainstream and the academic discourse on Rastafari. Interviews with Ejay Khan, Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah, Geoffrey Philp, Asante Amen, Reggae Rajahs, Benjamin Zephaniah, Monica Haim, Blakk Rasta, Rocky Dawuni, and Marvin D. Sterling give life to Middleton’s rooting or remembering of Rastafari’s complex origins, its developments, and its more recent non-Jamaican incarnations. Rastafari and the Arts is a serious and comprehensive synthesis of and contribution to the current literature on Rastafari.

Middleton knows that a developed discussion of a religion’s character needs both etic and emic perspectives. He also knows that these two perspectives frequently conflict. In Rastafari and the Arts, such tensions surface from the outset. A study of the Rastafari “religion” is inevitably problematized by the very fact that insiders reject the term. “Religion” implies, as Middleton writes, “a public affiliation with an official religious institution and/or assent to authorized denominational ideas and ethical positions.” The structure and beliefs of Rastafari are too dynamic, too living, too energetic to accept such a rigid term. Rastafari is, instead, a “levity”: a way of life or spiritual lifestyle that is expressed internally (by “living in concert with the vital, pulsating energy that inhabits and animates most, if not all, natural phenomena”) and externally (by practicing rituals that both reflect and promote this energy). “Livity” captures this theological and ritual energy: while the religious worship a “dead god” in the sky (transcendentalism), Rastas worship a “living god” who animates and is accessible to “His” creations (immanentism). To the former, the dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah writes, “stop praying to polluted air” (‘Can’t Keep a Good Dread Down’).

Nevertheless, Middleton uses Ninian Smart’s “dimensional theory of religion” to define Rastafari. His intentions are constructive. Middleton wants Rastafari, as Marvin D. Sterling does, to be taken seriously as a “coherent and generationally sustained movement, which as such entitles Rastas to the human right to freely and openly practice what […] international law and so on might term as their “religion.”” Yet, Middleton’s identification of tenets that all 700,000 to 1 million affiliates (of a “religion” that lacks a central authority) can agree upon proves to be a difficult task. Rastafari is and always has been diverse. “Historically,” Middleton writes, “Rastas have affiliated to one of the three major’ subgroups or ‘mansions’ of the movement: the Nyabinghi, the Bobo Shanti, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.” With the addition of new mansions like Priest Dermot Fagan’s School of Vision and the rise of non-Jamaican incarnations of Rastafari (Ghanian and Japanese Rastas are discussed at length in the book’s closing chapter), finding points of communion is becoming increasingly strenuous.

Middleton uses Smart’s “phenomenological and cross-cultural method” as a functional starting point. Following Smart, Middleton organises his discussion of Rastafari into seven dimensions: doctrinal and philosophical, ritual, ethical and legal, narrative and mythic, social and institutional, and material. He begins with the doctrinal. The primary faith-claim of Rastafari is the divine nature of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 2 November 1930 until his deposition on 12 September 1974. Until recently, Rastas have agreed that Selassie was (or, is) “the Living God, the Returned Messiah and the Representative of God the Father.”

Haile Selassie’s “sacred throne,” Ethiopia, also holds a special place in Rastafari theology. For Rastas, Ethiopia is not only a holy site, but Zion, the place of salvation, “the heaven of the black man.” The first-generation of Rastafari longed for “repatriation”: a mass exodus to Ethiopia and an escape from the “Babylon system” (“late modern capitalism’s radical depersonalization of men and women through the cash-nexus alliance”) in which they lived. Rastas found in repatriation a hope of freedom from white dominance (European colonialism and post-colonial capitalism) and a chance to reclaim “a self and ethnic character denied by Babylon.” In recent years, the fight for repatriation has given way to a trust in “rehabilitation”: the “Africanization of the West, which involves opposing racial discrimination, seeking regime change, and affirming the black family as well as community life.”

Rastas supplement their central faith-claims with an assortment of ritual acts. Daily prayers, community gatherings and reasoning sessions (‘groundings’ or ‘groundations’), drumming and chanting (‘nyabinghi’), the use of marijuana (‘ganja’), distinctive speech (‘dreadtalk’), and an organic diet (‘ital’) typify the ritual dimension of Rastafari. Many Rastas also find significance in the ritual reading of the Bible. The exegetical approach of Rastafari is particularly noteworthy. A theological corollary to its anti-colonial sentiments is a deep mistrust of traditional Christian interpretations of scripture. To avoid these Christian viewpoints, Rastas approach scripture “through” the ideas propounded in the other texts they deem sacred: the Kebra Nagast (14th Cent), The Holy Piby (1924), The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy (1926), and The Promised Key (1935). The result is an Afrocentric re-shaping of the Biblical narrative. Since they consider the holy patriarchs their forefathers, Rastas understand themselves to be participants in a sacred and specifically black history. The “historical sensibility” of Rastafari (their awareness of the “presentness” of the past) wrenches Biblical “truths” from their historical stasis and brings them into the present. For Rastas, “Babylon” is not only an ancient kingdom, but also a still-oppressive regime; “Israel” is not only an ancient people, but also Rastafari; and the fight between good (Israel) and evil (Babylon) is a never-ending battle.

From the 1930s to the late-1960s, the tension between good and evil enacted itself in the hostile relations between Rastafari and Jamaica’s middle-class. Two police raids (1941; 1954) on Leonard P. Howell’s Rastafari commune (‘Pinnacle’) marked the culmination of this mutual antagonism. To quell mounting tensions, the theorist and Rastafari elder, Mortimer Planno, persuaded academics at the University of the West Indies to publish a study on Jamaica’s Rastafari. The Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston Jamaica, pressed to the public in 1960, encouraged the Jamaican population to recognize Rastas as peaceful and working citizens. The UWI Report, as Ennis B. Edmunds writes, became the “impetus for a thawing in the conflictual relationship between Rastafari and the rest of Jamaica.”

Middleton uses Edmund’s summary of the effects of the Report as a turning point in his history of Rastafari. For Middleton, while the Report may have precipitated the quelling of tensions, it was really Rastafari’s artistic or material expressions that brought about Jamaica’s “attitudinal adjustment.” He dedicates the majority of his book to describing the contents of these material expressions and their effects on Rastafari’s relationship to Babylon and to itself. Following the Report, Jamaica’s acceptance of Rastafari was accelerated by the publication of Roger Mais’s Brother Man (1954) and Orlando Patterson’s The Children of Sisyphus (1964). Only a decade later, the films The Harder They Come (1972) and Countryman (1982) gained worldwide recognition; and Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and the Wailers began playing to massive audiences both inside and outside of Jamaica. The quick success of Rastafari was double-edged: on the one hand, its true message of “peace and love” became clear; on the other, its protestations were drowned by the off-key singing of dancing white tourists.

In Rastafari and the Arts there is an implicit concern for the future of Rastafari. The “religion” is too stereotyped, too misunderstood. Middleton, perhaps, has hope. He sees, I think, in the liberalization (anti-patriarchal, anti-homophobic), secularisation (rehabilitation, the demystification of Selassie), and globalisation (non-Jamaican Rastas) of Rastafari—visible in the novels Edgar Nkosi White, Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah, Masani Montague, N.D. Williams, Jean Goulbourne, and Geoffrey Philp, the dub poetry of Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and Benjamin Zephaniah, the neo-roots reggae of Asante Amen, Blakk Rasta, and Rocky Dawuni, and the documentary films of John Dollar, Bianca Nyavingi Brynda, James Ewart, Monica Haim, Oliver Hill, and Kevin MacDonald—a new and authentic dispensation.

But, are these trends enough to sustain Rastafari? The pessimist in me feels that Rastafari is, at best, deadlocked and, at worst, doomed. These ideological changes serve no anti-babylonian purpose (an element of Rastafari that I feel is imperative) without an equivalent formal change. Asante Amen and Blakk Rasta’s music sound too much like the Arthur theme song to be affective. What Rastafari needs, I stress, is formal exploration: the kind of sampling you find in Young Father’s “Romance” (2013) or the experimentation of Sun Araw & M. Geddes Genres Meet The Congos’s Icon Give Thanks (2012).

Alex Assaly is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Cambridge.