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Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control (A Review)

By sorensigmar Oct 02, 2014 2108 Words

Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control (A Review) Soren Sigmar

Book By: Steven A. King

Rastafarians, Rastas, Sufferers, Locksmen, Dreads or Dreadlocks, call them what you want, what are the common themes surrounding these people? They are thought to be a dirty cult of outcasts that smoke marijuana all day in a tropical paradise. For the most part, people have an image of the stereotypical Jamaican guy with dreadlocks down his back wearing green, gold and red with a fat joint hanging out of his mouth. This is how I used to see Rastafarians as well. The common misconception is that all Jamaicans are Rastafarians and they all smoke marijuana, which is not true. The Rastafarian culture and belief system (Rastafari) is much more complex and respectable than most people can appreciate. In this novel, Stephen A. King does a great job of outlining the history and belief system of Rastafarians and also the incorporation of reggae music and social control into Rastafarian culture.

The history of Rastafari begins in 1655 when the English became the colonial rulers of Jamaica. Along with Jamaican slaves, the English began to bring in slaves from West Africa to cultivate vast fields of sugar cane. After the end of slavery in 1834, the land in Jamaica was owned by whites who could afford it and the poor Jamaicans were forced to work on the white man’s land. They were subject to horrible working conditions and extremely cheap wages as low as a penny per day. With this system, Jamaicans couldn’t make enough money to buy their own land and were at the mercy of the English land owners. In 1938 a national workers strike put into motion a series of events that led to Jamaica’s independence in 1962.

The Rastafari movement really took off in Jamaica following a prophecy made by black political leader Marcus Garvey. Garvey preached that a black king would be crowned in Africa, and this new king would be the people’s redeemer. This idea became the foundation for the Rastafari movement. In 1930, when Emperor Haile Selassie I was crowned in Ethiopia, Rastafarians saw it as Garvey’s prophecy being fulfilled. The religion took its title from Haile Selassie’s original name which was Ras Tafari Makonnen. Haile Selassie is seen as a figure of salvation and is essentially the “god” of Rastafari religion. It is believed that he would grant redemption for the blacks after what was done by the white man, that the black man will become superior, and that the West African slaves would be reunited with their homeland in Africa. The first branch of Rastafari is believed to have been established in Jamaica in 1935 by Leonard P. Howell, who preached the divinity of Haile Selassie. In the 1960’s reggae music gained popularity and made Rastafari visible to an international audience. The Jamaican government began to promote Rastafari images and reggae music as a way to stimulate the tourist industry in Jamaica and is why most people make the association between Rastafarians and Jamaica.

Common beliefs in early Rastafari were the themes of the white man being evil and that the black man would rise up and become superior. They also believed that salvation was back in their native Africa and there existed a heaven on earth in Africa. They believe that Haile Selassie is their god. Early Rastafari beliefs revolved around revenge on the white man and that the black man was superior, these have since changed in the modern belief system. The modern belief system is much more holistic in its nature and stands more for equality of all peoples. Common themes in modern Rastafari are for example, respect for nature, salvation on earth, and the belief that “god” is in every man.

Rastafarians usually meet weekly in a believer’s home or some other place, these meetings usually include prayers, songs, chants and general discussions. Marijuana is smoked at these meetings, it is used to heighten the sense of community and keep the nature of the meeting calm. The marijuana is usually rolled into a cigarette or smoked out of a pipe. The Rastafarians inhale the smoke deep into their lungs and hold it as they prepare to enter an altered state.

Rastafarians have quite an interesting appearance compared to some other religious or spiritual groups. Rastafarians do not shave because of their beliefs so they grow their hair out, spinning it into dreadlocks, as well as not shaving their beard. This gives them their poster image that everyone recognizes. The dreadlocks represent the mane of a lion, which is a big symbol in Rastafari because the lion represents Haile Selassie. As well as not shaving, Rastafarians do not get tattoos or cut their skin in any way because it is against their beliefs.

Rastafarians have some food laws that make for an extremely interesting and healthy diet. They eat natural and clean, which means they do not eat any meat except for fish 12 inches or shorter, and their diet is plant based. They do not use salt in preparing food, don’t consume any alcohol, coffee or milk. They eat huge amounts of whole fruits and vegetables because they are from the earth, and therefore good.

Reggae music is widely thought to be the music of Rastafarians, but there were other types of music that were incorporated into the religion much before reggae was. The traditional Rastafarian music is called Nyabingi and it consists of chanting and drumming and is used during meetings to reach a heightened spiritual state. There are 2 other types of music that are popular in Rastafari, 19th century gospel music, and traditional African drumming. In the 1960’s reggae music gained popularity and with the worldwide success of Bob Marley in the 1970’s, reggae music became the face of Rastafari culture. Bob Marley is seen as the man who spread Rastafari worldwide. Reggae music was used as songs of protest and became anthems for rebels who were protesting. The lyrics in reggae music commonly speak out against inequality as well as speak messages of “going home”. Reggae music is also associated with equality and being kind and peaceful.

When a child is born into Rastafari, they are blessed by an elder during a nyabingi session of drumming, chanting and prayer. Rastafarians are opposed to abortion and contraception by their beliefs. Surrounding marriage in Rastafari culture there is no formal marriage structure, a Rastafari man and woman who live together are considered to be husband and wife, unless however they are related. As far as death goes, there is no funeral ceremony at the end of one’s life. Instead the Rastafari believe in reincarnation following ones death and there is a strong belief in eternal life, as is shared with other religious and spiritual beliefs. The role of women in Rastafari is unique and there are certain rules that only apply to females. For example, women are seen as queens and their job is to take care of their king. Women tend to have more freedom in modern Rastafarian society but their role is very much subordinate to men. Women are regarded as housekeepers and child bearers and cannot be in leadership positions. They also cannot wear makeup or use chemicals in their hair, as well they must dress conservatively. Women cannot use birth control or get abortions because in Rastafari culture it is considered to be murder. A couple of points that stood out to me were that women must cover their hair in order to pray as it is seen as a disgrace to her husband, as well women cannot cook for their husbands while they are menstruating which I found to be interesting.

There are some prominent symbols in Rastafari, the first being the lion. The lion is a representation of Haile Selassie who is seen as god, Rastafarians dreadlocks and beards are a representation of the lion’s mane. Another symbol in Rastafari is Zion, it is considered to be heaven on earth. Zion, in reference to Ethiopia, is seemingly the most prominent theme in Rastafari and is seen as the original birthplace of humankind. There are some commonly occurring colours in Rastafari culture and they are gold, green, red and black. Gold symbolizes the wealth of Ethiopia, green represents Jamaica’s vegetation and the earth, red symbolizes the blood of those who dies for the cause of the Rastafari movement and lastly black represents the colour of the Africans who initiated Rastafari.

In conclusion this novel did a great job of illustrating Rastafari and that it is a relatively young religion whose members are for the most part, peaceful. The common themes are equality, salvation and respect for the earth. The most common beliefs are that of repatriation and Haile Selassie as the figure of “god”. This African rooted religion is one that is very interesting and I think the themes are ones that are shared by other spiritual and religious groups and are easily relatable to a lot of people around the world. My Perspective

When I started reading on the topic of Rastafari I had the same stereotypical view of this religion as I think most people do. The association with Jamaica, marijuana and reggae music, but I learned that there is a lot more to it. The roots of Rastafari are much deeper and complex that I had imagined. It’s not just a bunch of Jamaicans with dreadlocks that smoke marijuana all day on the beach. As well I learned about the use of reggae music as protest music and anthems for human rights and equality, and also its history and popularity internationally.

I found that the themes of Rastafari were really cool and are for the most part ones that I support, especially those of modern Rastafari. I see the negative stigma that surrounds marijuana, well maybe not on Vancouver Island, but in a lot of places and I don’t see why it is perceived as such a bad thing. The more you look into it and learn about the different ways that it is used for spiritual, cultural and medicinal purposes you gain a respect for it. All though I do not believe in a “god”, I found that I really connected with the prominent modern Rastafari themes such as the belief in the supremacy of life and that human nature is important and should be protected. As well as the theme of salvation on earth, I don’t believe in a heaven in the sky that we go after we die. I can relate to the idea of heaven on earth and the idea of reincarnation and eternal life. I don’t believe that when we die we are sent to the fluffy white clouds of heaven but rather the idea that our spirit lives on in other forms on earth after we are gone. The main things I like about Rastafari are the underlying themes of equality and love for humankind and the earth. I also found that I really connected with the theme of respect for nature and that the earth is our provider, which is the influence for the Rastafarian diet. Given my area of study and knowledge of the topic of nutrition I really support the Rastafarian diet. If you consider the global diets that are seen as ideal or the healthiest such as the Mediterranean and the plant based idea, the Rastafarian diet is in harmony with those diets. The Rastafarian diet is plant based with a large consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well they do not eat meat other than small fish and don’t consume alcohol, coffee or milk. The copious amounts of fruits and veggies as well as lean protein and healthy fats from coconut oil are all components to a healthy diet. This is the way that I try to eat and the model that I try to base my diet on. I think anybody who is mindful of diet and health could easily relate to this diet and adopt it for themselves.

The more I read into Rastafari the more I loved it, I was already intrigued by this group and thought they were interesting but now I have a better understanding and respect for their history and belief system. This has been an interesting venture into the world of spirituality and religion and there are a couple of other belief systems that I would enjoy reading about. I may not be able to grow dreadlocks but I can definitely identify with the main themes of Rastafari and continue to incorporate them into my life.

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