Creating and Destroying, but Never Destroyed: Rastafari Mission and Survival
The Divine Plan to Destroy and Rebuild
The Rastafari see themselves as Jah's chosen, “peculiar” people (Price 107). Being chosen by Jah, however, does not mean that one's troubles are over. Rather, awakening to a consciousness of this holy identity is the beginning of travail, but also the beginning of redemption. As the Rastafari become aware of who they are, they also become increasingly aware of where they are: in the clutches of a cold, hostile system. This system seeks their destruction because they are Jah's agents of its destruction. The Rastafari, however, know that they will survive, because they are not fighting alone. Jah is with them, and so they can never be destroyed. They will succeed, with Jah's help, both in destroying the system and in creating something to replace it. This is the picture painted by Bob Marley's Survival album, summarized on the track Ride Natty Ride:
Dready got a job to do/And he's got to fulfill that mission/To see his hurt is their/Greatest ambition . . .but the stone that the builder refuse/shall be the head cornerstone.
The “head cornerstone” imagery alludes to Biblical prophecy, placing the Rastafari in a pivotal position within the divine scheme of history. In this divine scheme, it often turns out that the Rastas not only survive despite opposition, but they are aided by opposition. Charles Price refers to such unforeseeable outcomes as the element of “surprise” in ethnogenesis (Price 57). For example, the trial of Leonard Howell, intended to harm the Rastafari movement, gave it unprecedented publicity (Price 60). Also, when the Jamaican government arranged for Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica, hoping that he would publicly deny his own divinity (CDB 256), it led to what Price called “the most significant event in Rastafari experience” (Price 88). Additionally, the cornerstone image suggests the role of the Rastafari in creation. Jah is going to raze the current house (Babylon) and build a new one, and the Rastafari are his foundation.
At Work in the World
While Ride Natty Ride frames the Rastafari in terms of a divine plan, it does not suggest that the Rastafari may thus play a passive role, relying entirely on divine intervention to actualize their survival and redemption. Instead, the song speaks of a “job to do”. In this sense, Rastafari is unlike mainstream Christian apocalypticism, in which the ultimate overthrow of evil and the establishment of millenarian harmony is entirely in God's/Christ's hands. The “Zion” of Christianity is thus a pristine paradise, created by God, who hands it down to the overcomers for their enjoyment. This “pie in the sky” doctrine is foreign to Rastas, however, whose concern is with this world, and how they must work to bring about Zion in this world: in their individual persons, in their collective, and in the world at large. When Marcus Garvey saw that blacks had no King or kingdom, he declared, “I will help to make them” (Price 114). Corequisite to the emergence of Zion is the destruction of Babylon. The this-worldly orientation of the Rastafari makes for social activism, reuniting “prayer and protest”. Rasta pacifism must never be conflated with passivity. “I did not come to bow. I came to conquer”, said Marley (Time Will Tell). While Rastas look towards the final, calamitous fall of Babylon, they recognize that the fire of Babylon's destruction is already at work in the world through themselves. From Ride Natty Ride:
There is something they could never take away/It's the fire . . . Jah says this judgment/Could never be with water/No water could put out this fire . . . Now the fire is burning . . . Wicked weeping for their gold
Economy, Oppression, and Spirit
Part of becoming Rasta is realizing just how much has been taken away through slavery, deracination, miseducation, and economic/political/cultural oppression (Price 103). One thing that can never be taken away, however, is the holy will to rebel, to define one's own identity. While the final state of justice has yet to be realized, it is not a far-off dream: “Now the fire is burning”. Although this fire is from Jah, it is not cast down from heaven directly upon the wicked. It burns within each Rasta. The Rasta's mission is to let loose the fire within, wreaking havoc upon systems of oppression. The fire is both punitive and rectifying, as is portrayed by the “wicked weeping for their gold”. This divestiture both inflicts sorrow on the unjust and reverses the fortunes of the haves and have-nots. The mountains are leveled and the valleys raised. The first become last, as the system burns which once enabled economic oppression.
Economic oppression is a grave concern for the Rastafari, who provide scathing critiques of “predatory capitalism” (Price 142). However, capitalism is more than a potentially oppressive economic system. It is a manifestation of a deeper spiritual dynamic. To the Rastafari, capitalism represents a spirit of cold competitiveness, whereby each individual takes all they can take at others' expense. The tragedy of this situation is that it prevents humanity from attaining the unity that Jah ordained for it. Survival, as the Rasta sees it, should be collective, rather than individual. Ride Natty Ride says, “We will survive in this world of competition”. Unity is about more than empowerment, however, and survival goes beyond physical survival. For many Rastafari, everything is ultimately spiritual. Unity is a sacred bond between souls. In Top Rankin', Marley sings about the elites' divide-and-conquer "polytricks", which turn the sufferahs against one another. With great emotion in his voice, Marley reveals that the loathsomeness of these tactics lies in the deadly effect they have on what he holds most sacred:
And our hearts, heart of hearts divine . . . The brotherly love/The sisterly love/I feel this morning
Top Rankin' focuses on the holy communion between brothers/sisters that is plundered by factionalism.
The Freedom to Be and Become
There are other spiritual values that suffer under oppression, and survival involves the nurturing and maintenance of these spiritual qualities as much or more than it involves physical or economic survival. Life without these qualities, after all, is a sort of living death. From the track, Babylon System:
We refuse to be/What you wanted us to be/We are what we are/That's the way it's going to be (if you don't know)/You can't educate I/For no equal opportunity/Talkin' 'bout my freedom/People freedom and liberty
The first lines point to identity, the latter to liberty. Both of these can be conceived of as spiritual. Identity largely consists of one's answers to the question: Who am I? Babylon originally wanted blacks to be subhuman property. Freedom fighters like Sam Sharpe showed that black people would not accept this identity. So the system offered nominal freedom, while continuing to assert a cultural, economic, and political hegemony that barred genuine, spiritual freedom. European oppressors wanted blacks to be Quashie, searching for their “self-image in the mirror of [their] abusers” (CDB 110). So they devalued black phenotypes, history, and culture, and uplifted their own. Through the educational and religious institutions—Babylon System refers to “church and university”—, blacks were socialized into using European appearances and values as their reference point. Through this mirror, blackness seemed bad, so blacks strove to emulate European hair, dress, diction, and values. Accepting the miseducation of Babylon, they received a distorted view of history, in which whiteness had always been superior, and black cultures had produced nothing of value for humanity (Price xiii). The Rasta's job is to reject miseducation—“You can't educate I for no equal opportunity”—, becoming the living embodiment of truth, a new “mirror in which [blacks see themselves] and run away or . . . return 'home' to self-consciousness” (CDB 116). Their mission, per Babylon System, is to “tell the children the truth”. Due to widespread miseducation, Rastas were long wary of formal education, or “head-decay-shon”. Bob Marley said, “If I was educated I would be a damn fool” (Time Will Tell). This rejection of education is no longer in vogue among the Rasta, however, as exemplified by Asento Foxe's statements: “I-n-I must arm ourselves with modern education and technology” (Hepner 224-225).
Connected to the concept of identity is the ideal of freedom, as true freedom can only be obtained when one is free to define one's own identity. Freedom and liberty, for the Rastafari, are deeply spiritual rights, given by Jah to every person. This sentiment echoes our own Declaration of Independence, which speaks of liberty as one of the rights given to all men by their creator. When a system of government is destructive to freedom, the duty of Rastafari, as the injunction is sung in Babylon System, is to “Rebel! Rebel!”. Having assimilated the experience of slavery into their identities (Price 35), the Rastafari live with an awareness that freedom and identity are the essence of every human being, the very life-blood. Babylon, a vampire, drains people of this life-force as it plugs them into its profit-generating machinery. Vampirism is parasitism; the system takes everything, and gives nothing. Like those bitten by a vampire, those who succumb to the system become the living dead, going through motions of life, but lacking the spiritual qualities that make life worth living.
Love is the Livity
For the Rastafari, who say, “Man free”, freedom should pervade all spheres of life, reaching even to doctrinal beliefs. Rather than requiring adherence to a creed or formulation of dogmas, most Rastas passionately promote “epistemological individualism”. This freedom of belief both prevents sectarian discord and highlights the Rastafari de-emphasis of doctrine in favor of praxis, or “livity”. Rastafari is more a lifestyle than a belief system, as shown in these lyrics from Survival:
So I I-dren, I-sistren/The preaching and talkin' is done/We've gotta live up
The rest of the song suggests what this livity entails. First, it entails loving, that is, an active stance towards relieving suffering in the world; the first stanza implicates care in-word-only with the unchanged state of suffering in the world. Second, it entails living with a sense of urgency; their very survival is at stake. The song repeatedly refers to time and the need to “hurry”. Third, it entails rejecting weakhearted coping styles involving “pride and shame” or “plots and schemes”, reminiscent of the Quashie and Anancy approaches to survival (CDB 112). One must rather be bold, entrusting one's survival to Jah, by whom justice is assured and inevitable (CDB 259). Finally, Rasta livity entails fleeing idolatry. Both the examples of Daniel and of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refer to Israelites in the Babylonian diaspora who refused to worship the State (the Babylonian monarch). In each of these Biblical examples, Babylon tried to destroy the Israelites who eschewed its values. They survived due to divine intervention. The moral of these stories, for the Rasta, is that one must refuse Babylonian idolatry—notions of things that deserve worship, such as wealth/power, or even European ideals of fashion and grooming—and trust that they will survive the inevitable repercussions by the power of Jah. These forms of livity are among the most salient commonalities of the Rastafari, howsoever they may differ in doctrine. Moreover, this livity sets the Rastafari apart as a peculiar people even after such cultural forms as dreadlocks and Reggae have been fully routinized into society. People who love actively, urgently, boldly, and radically will always be revolutionaries.
When Peace Plunders War
In Survival, both the Biblical allusions and the use of neologisms such as “misenergy” display another motif in Rasta praxis: the co-optation and inversion of the oppressor's culture. The Bible, a symbol of white, colonial religion, is reinterpreted in Rastafarian light. Likewise, the language of the oppressor is modified at will to assert Rasta values, as in Survival, where neologisms reveal a distrust of technology.
The Rastafari, who love both peace among men and harmony with nature, are wary of the technological modernity that threatens human existence—Survival refers to “lifelong insecurity”—and destroys the environment. Some, like Ras Jayze, advocate a complete, monk-like “return to nature . . . to 'save the human race'” (Price 67). Others, however, recognize the need to use the tools of modernity to achieve higher aims, as my earlier quote from Asento Foxe demonstrates. The fact is, the very globalization of Rastafari has depended heavily on technology and other cultural remnants of oppression. The English language, globalized by colonial expansion, allowed Bob Marley to speak to audiences in Jamaica, the U.S.A, and Zimbabwe alike. This dynamic further exemplifies Price's “surprise” factor. Additionally, Marley's global ministry wouldn't have been possible without modern transportation, as well as sound production, recording, and transmission technologies.
One Love, One Drop
The topic of sound production should serve well to lead this discussion to a close. After all, this is a review of a music album, so it only seems right to end on a musical note, with lyrics from One Drop:
So feel this drumbeat/As it beats within/Playing a rhythm/Resisting against the system . . . Fighting against ism and skism
This highlights a number of salient features of Rasta music. First, it is percussion led; the drum plays a truly central role in Rastafari, as it has in many African and Afro-Caribean religions (Hepner). Next, as with all Rastafari cultural creations, the music is spiritual. It beats “within”. Like Rasta neologisms, it is a unique cultural form expressed with sound, and as such, it is a weapon. The Rastafari believe that words and sounds have tremendous spiritual power (Price 72). This power is both negative and positive, destructive and constructive. It destroys by “resisting against the system”, but by also “fighting against ism and skism”, it constructs unity and concord. So while dissonance within Reggae ridims is interpreted by Leonard Barrett as reflecting “conflicts within the society” (Barrett 167), I will suggest that it also represents the divine power of destruction that Jah has entrusted to his Souljahs, with which they destroy impediments to the unity of mankind. In contrast, the fundeh, which “carries the steady ridim, or 'lifeline'” (CDB 233), can be seen to represent divine constructive power, by which the Rastafari create forms of Zion—peace, love, and unity—to replace fallen Babylonian strongholds.
The Beat Goes On
So the discussion has come full circle. The rhythms of Rastafari, beating down Babylon, are one aspect of the fire mentioned in Ride Natty Ride: destructive energy Jah has given his chosen for the destruction of the system. But the Rastafari create as well as destroy. Their neologisms and Biblical reinterpretations accomplish both destruction and creation simultaneously, destroying one set of meanings and replacing them with new values. Likewise, their identity transformations involve “immersion and emersion” (Price 120), which to me evokes a sort of baptism. Baptism is symbol of death and resurrection, destruction followed by new creation. Through the baptism of their identities, Rastas shatter the distorting “mirror of the oppressor”, replacing it with a new mirror: their own collective. They destroy the cultural hegemony of whiteness and create a viable black identity, providing the people with a new frame of reference for defining themselves. Having seen themselves in a new light, they work to spread their dream worldwide, as Wake Up and Live suggests, “putting their visions to reality”.
While the Rastarari engage in their mission, both creating and destroying, they are assailed by the system that they fight against, but they themselves are never destroyed. They are the black survivors. While they recognize that unity is essential for their survival, they also cherish unity as a sacred end in itself. While they recognize that modern technology threatens the survival of all mankind, they also recognize a need to adapt to modernity—both modern education and technology—to some extent in order to ensure their own survival. Ultimately, however, they entrust their survival to Jah, who assures his harried fighters that they will triumph over the nefarious Babylon system, as did Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Jah's means for ensuring the survival of his faithful are all the forces of the universe itself, as So Much Trouble in the World implies by mentioning “Jah's sun”. So the overall message of Bob Marley's album is: “Take heart, Souljah. Jah has ordained that you will survive, that you will conquer, and that you will rebuild. That is your place in history.” That is a message in which I, personally, found great reason for hope, for which reason Survival is now one of my favorite albums.
- Barrett, Leonard E. (1997). The Rastafarians. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0-8070-1039-6.
- CDB, Nathaniel Samuel Murrell; William David Spencer; Adrian Anthony McFarlane (1998). Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader. Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-56639-584-7.
- Hepner, Randal L. (23 April 1998). R. Stephen Warner & G. Judith Wittner (ed.). Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration. Temple University Press. pp. 224–225. ISBN 978-1-4399-0152-6.
- Price, Charles (1 September 2009). Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica. NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-6768-9.
- Time Will Tell (1992). Directed by Declan Lowney. Island Pictures. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105596/?ref_=ttrel_rel_tt
© 2012 Justin Aptaker