The Caribbean is a distinct civilization made up of a range of culture, tradition and religious practices. In the Caribbean there are a number of books written by Caribbean authors that attempt to give insight into the way of life of Caribbean people. Let us start with Africa Foundations of Rastafarian scholarships is one such book that delves into the sphere of Rastafarianism. Let us start with Africa: Foundations of Rastafari scholarship is based on the commemoration on the inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference, held in August 2010. It provides significant unpublished work of the past fifty years of Rastafarianism. The book was edited by Jahlani Niaah: a lecturer in cultural and Rastafari studies, institute for Caribbean studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, where he also coordinates the Rastafari studies unit and Erin MacLeod: a teacher at Vanier College in Montreal, Canada, and has served as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
The editors aim is “the text meant to both commemorate and celebrate scholars and practitioners of Rastafari- our aim is to demonstrate not only a range of thinking about the movement but the ways in which the movement, a movement which takes reasoning as a key practice, has encouraged reasoning about itself, the Pan African community and the international African presence’. The main contributors to the collection are: Mortimo Planno, Roy Augier, Barry Chevannes and Rex Nettleford. Various social, political and historical issues were highlighted in the book. Consequently this paper will seek to discuss the issues that appealed to me intellectually as well as emotionally; gender disparity, repatriation and the role of reggae within the Rastafarian Diaspora.
Rastafarianism is a male dominated movement that reflects gender differences. This is enforced by various rules and practices that perpetuate a woman’s subordination and inferiority to men. For example the Nyabinghi practices tend to reinforce the patriarchal orientation to the Rastafari movement. Males dominate binghi proceedings in their roles as drummers, priests and keepers of the binghi fires. Furthermore, women are not allowed to take part in the communal ritual of reasoning: a context defined as sacred by the Rastafari. This was the context in which the brethren prayed, in which elders coined ideology, in which new members were socialized, and through which all sought the inspiration of the divine. The reasoning ritual is a key aspect of the Rastafari and the fact that women are excluded from this important ritual is endemic of the minute role women play in the larger issues of the Rastafari movement and undercuts generally their involvement in the faith. In addition to being excluded from significant rituals within the movement, a woman dress code is dictated by the men within the faith. For instance, women heads must be covered so that her locks are not exposed as a sign of modesty and obedience to her husband or Kingman.
Also her clothing must cover her shoulders and extends to the mid calf or ankle. These forms speak to symbolic subordination in the understanding that a woman’s path to Jah is always through a man. It is ironic that Rastafarianism as such a socially conscious movement dealing with the horrors of oppression and exploitation of blacks faced under the British colonial rule would invoke this kind of injustice and superiority over the women of the faith. Under British rule women were seen as unproductive and therefore paid lower wages to that of their counterparts. They were also seen as child bearers and were considered to be financial liability. It is inconceivable to me that women today are faced with the same indignities proposed to them of” Massa’ days by black men who have experience the struggle first hand to reduce to the same ideology. In my opinion women are being dictated by another form of imperialism through the Rastafari movement. Rastafarian women are as such challenging their roles and demanding greater equality. For example, one of the earliest published statements by a Rastafarian woman critiquing the position of women within Rastafari is that of Maureen Rowe.
Central to Rastafarian theology is the notion of repatriation. Thus throughout the book, the issue of and repatriation kept surfacing. Repatriation is physical movement to return to the land of Africa, the new Zion. Repatriation is a theological rather than a political concept. Rastafari attributes to Marcus Garvey the inspiration to look to Africa. In Roy Augier’s keynote lecture, he stated, “Rastafari began with Africa, from Garvey’s prophetic call to look to the east, to the commitment of early adherents to a newly crowned king in Ethiopia, it is clear that Rastafari begins in Africa”. Not coincidence with the title of the book, Let us start with Africa. The 2010 conference made the connection to Africa as it marked the eighteen anniversary of the coronation of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie and the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark publication of the report on the Rastafari movement in Kingston, Jamaica by scholars inclusive of Roy Augier. Repatriation is a topic that has caused a number of debates. For instance, at the conference Augier describes the need for a strong relationship between the Caribbean and Africa.
However his thinking, presents a trajectory that leads not physically but spiritually to Africa within the Caribbean and specifically in Jamaica. This new thinking was a topic of controversy as Augier was challenging one of the fundamental tenets of the movement. Many others regard the Rastafari as unpatriotic and anti-Jamaica because of their asserted Ethiopian identity and the stance they took on repatriation. The topic of repatriation, in my view furthers the notion of Caribbean identity: the histories of displacement brought about by slavery. It is an attempt to reconnect with a “lost” Africa. The identity with Africa because they were told that’s where they came from and may be wondering to where do they belong. In spite of this though, I believe that if this is their desire to return to their ancestral home it should be considered by the powers responsible for the disconnect between Africa and the Caribbean but more specifically Jamaica. Consideration of repatriation should also be given as they were not afforded the same opportunity as indentured laborers did in acquiring land or being given the opportunity to return to their land of origin. Many of them stayed in the Caribbean but it was freedom of choice. Therefore the controversy surrounding the issues of repatriation is reflected on the colonial view of Africans.
Unquestionably is the role music played on the Rastafari movement? The power in the music is an important part in understanding how Caribbean society is shaped and structured. Many societal thinkers have pointed to the importance of music as representative of the soul of a society. This can be said of the genre Reggae, synonymous with Jamaica and Rastafari. That reflects the lyrics of oppression. The rhythm of reggae occurred from the Ska in the 1950 ‘S, rock steady in the 1960’s and later roots reggae in the 1970’s… Bob Marley gained popularization with his lyrics of redemption, which demonstrates the power of reggae music to fight for human rights, freedom and unity. Reggae music encapsulated the spiritual tone of Rastafarianism and poverty. Reggae music is an important means of transporting the beliefs of Rastafarianism. According to Rex Nettleford, in his writing; From the Cross to the Throne, “the influence was very strong, and this reflected in the music. I keep telling people that the music, from ‘Ska’ right through to reggae and I presume dancehall, appropriated the Rastafarian movement not the other way around”. Reggae music was able to perform important persuasive functions, such as recruitment and legitimation of the Rastafarian faith.
Furthermore it reconceptualized the notion of Rastafarian from “criminals” and Drug addicts” to the movement which sought for social change. The musician became the messenger in particularly Bob Marley whose messages was able to cross international borders. Maybe due to the themes of his songs that cut across all aspects of humanity. Reggae evokes a message of universal suffrage, and in doing so spreads a theme of class consciousness to the poor, illiterate and oppressed and a medium through which one can express their discontent. As a social commentary, reggae is a powerful means of attacking what is wrong in Jamaica, as well as the world. The music of Rastafarians is not only an artistic creation in the Jamaican society, but an expression of rejection of the white man’s Babylon.
Reggae’s increasingly politicized lyrics addressed Rasta concerns with social and economic injustice, the rejection of white culture, and the pressures of life in Jamaica. Early reggae artists, such as Jimmy Cliff, Peter tosh brought the message of Rastafarianism into the musical world but it is my opinion that the movement was popularized by Bob Marley. Therefore it is hard to imagine Rastafarianism without reggae and by extension Bob Marley. The contribution made by BOB Marley was delivered by Mortimo Planno in a bush Radio Interview; “So that was the purpose of having Bob Marley in Trench town, that we use him as our MessenJah who carry the messages around the world that today I can able feh be talking to my brethren and sistren in South Africa”.
In writing this paper I discovered a few things. The first is that Rastafarian women have experienced a great deal of denigration and oppression by the male counterparts and women are speaking out on the issue of biases with the movement. Although it has been changing significantly women still have quite a long way to go in order to achieve equality within the movement. However, I am also sympathetic to the fact that the Rasta culture is something that I can never quite understand due to my not being a part of it. I must look at it more objectively and see that many Rasta women finds content in their position and they may find content in this position and feel that it is an integral role to their family life as well as to their community. This leads me to the conclusion that I should not be quick to judge the Rastafarian faith and their beliefs. Despite their negative treatment of woman, Rastafarian has an abundance of positive and socially conscious ethics. These should be preserved. In my own opinion, I feel that those elements of the Rasta faith can be preserved while still allowing woman a more prominent and equal role in the family and community.
Another aspect that was discussed was is the issues of repatriation. In the early years of the movements development, one of its tenets were Haile Selassie was the embodiment of Christian divinity(the Black Christ or Black Messiah) and the entire African race shared in his divinity; and there would be a mystic return to the African homeland(known as Repatriation) as a redemption). This was met with controversy as it was seen as an unpatriotic. Undoubtedly, was that reggae music played an integral role in the global spread of the Rastafarian movement? With the lyrics rooted in fighting social and economic injustice. Bob Marley was one of the major contributors to the expansion of the faith. I found the book to be useful, particularly in debunking the myths of Rastafarian culture. Despite the fact that upon purchasing when I read the book covers in its entirety I was disappointed to Rastafarian which meant the book was about Rastafarianism, which as a Christian was not really interested. I wanted to purchase another book but financial strains would not allow me to. However I am glad that I read the book and would recommend it to students of Caribbean studies, anyone with an interest in culture and history. The Language of the book was a bit challenging; especially in the first chapter but as you continued reading it was read with more ease.
Gebert Paravisini Lizabeth Olmos, fernandez, Margarite,. Creole Religions of the Caribbean. New York: New york Press, 2003. Print.
Niaah Jahlani, Macleod Erin. Let us start with Africa, Foundations of Rastafari Scholarship. Mona, Kingston, Jamaica: The University of the West Indies Press, 2013. Print.
The Encyclopedia of Caribbean Religious. Vols. volume 2 M-L. n.d.