Marley and Me

Before he reached the stage we were on our feet.  The anticipation was fused by his growing legend and the ganja.  It was June 12, 1978 in Poughkeepsie’s (NY) Civic Center, an unlikely setting for a transformative night, but Bob Marley and the Wailers were in town.

For three hours we were transported to Jamaica and Ethiopia on Marley’s reggae riffs.  The concert left me exhausted/ exhilarated but above all curious.  From what geyser did this cry for freedom spring?  Who were these guys in dreadlocks exhorting a mostly white middle class audience to “stand up for your rights?”  This universal message seeped through our stoned craniums, but I wanted more.

That winter I went to Jamaica and hung out with a Rasta farmer named Sun who was perpetually stoned since he was a kid.  He distrusted books, couldn’t read and had no use for television which he labeled tell-lie-vision.  He put all his faith in nature and Jah (God).  He talked about Babylon (Hell) and Zion (Heaven) and it didn’t make much sense to me.  I tried to convince him he should learn to read so he could fix his tractor and increase his crop.  He looked at the sun, pointed to the earth and said that was all he needed.  He was Rastafarian, I was Jewish, and after two weeks of walking in the hills with Sun, I learned more from him than he learned from me.

Rasta’s Roots

Some have called it a cultural movement, others a religion, but Rastafarians        have avoided being categorized since the 1930s.  For decades they lived an agrarian, ascetic, primarily vegan and patriarchal lifestyle.  Today it is less patriarchal, more urban but Rastas remain a counter-cultural force.  Marley’s rise to superstardom in the 1970s provided a global glimpse into Rastas, but their culture was condensed to reggae, ganja and dreadlocks.  There is more.

Today there are around one million Rastas worldwide clinging to a belief that through selfhood, resistance to the power structure and an abiding faith in nature, it will lead to both spiritual and physical healing.  Rasta’s faith remains intertwined with Africa and their hope lies in an Afrocentricity, where people of color can live free from the festering bonds of colonialism.  “It taps into an enormously deep root—a sense of longing for a place in the world by peoples of African descent,” said Jake Homiak, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  The Smithsonian staged a four year Rastafarian exhibit from 2007-2011.  The event went a long way in peeling back the Rasta stereotypes and was the first major museum to explore Rasta’s mystical history.

King Solomon’s Heir

Rastas roots are traced to three men—Marcus Garvey, Leonard Percival Howell and Haile Selassie.  Garvey was from Jamaica but after moving to the U.S. became a beacon for black liberation.  He formed the Black Star shipping line to transport blacks from the U.S. to Liberia and attempted to end black impoverishment in the U.S. and Caribbean through industrial projects.  Garvey was seen as a religious prophet foreseeing a black king being crowned that would signify the day of deliverance.  That prophecy came to pass when Selassie was crowned Ethiopia’s king in 1930 and the fledgling Rasta movement took it as a sign that deliverance had arrived.

Selassie made the cover of Time Magazine that year and became the first black African head of state in the colonial era.  His lineage traced to King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum, known in the Abrahamic tradition as the Queen of Sheba.  Fundamental Judaic principles pertaining to diet (i.e. no pork or shellfish)   become part of Rasta scripture.  Selassie was seen as the returned messiah by the new movement in Jamaica.  It was he who will lead a golden future with eternal peace and prosperity.

When Selassie made his only visit to Jamaica in 1966, 100,000 Rastas stormed the airport to see him descend.  Selassie didn’t see his role in quite the same way and remained an Episcopalian Christian and never considered himself Jah, the Rasta’s anointed description of him as god.  Garvey also never identified himself with the Rastas and was highly critical of Selassie, accusing him of being a coward who fled Ethiopia in the face of Italy’s 1936 invasion.  Selassie returned to Ethiopia after being exiled to Europe and for three decades led Ethiopia until a coup took both his power and his life in 1974.  In the eyes of Rastas he was still Jah and they considered his death a hoax.

The Gong Show

Although jailed over 50 times and treated as insane, it was Howell, who took the Rastas from theoretical doctrine to a way of living.  He and Garvey had met in Harlem in 1929 at Howell’s tea room and when Howell returned to Jamaica he combined Garvey’s teachings and the controversial black man’s bible, The Holy Piby, published in 1924.  After acquiring a 500 acre farm in Eastern Jamaica called the Pinnacle he created a safe haven for ex-slaves.  The successful farm was self-sufficient and grew everything from bananas to ganja.  It had 4,500 members and was the first agro-industrial enterprise devoted to producing marijuana.  Marijuana was not just a cash crop, but was used for spiritual awareness, meditation and medicinal purposes.

The government saw the Pinnacle as a threat raiding it and frequently stealing its cash.  When government goons, backed by the British Secret Service, burned over 1000 Rasta homes there in 1954, it caused many Pinnacle members to flee to Kingston.  A young Bob Marley met some of these Pinnacle refugees in the late 1950s.  When Selassie jetted down in 1966, Marley’s first Rasta inspired hit, “Rasta Shook Them Up,” lit up the Jamaican air waves.  Howell, also known as the Gong, had his land seized and died in 1981.  The government sold off the land to private developers and if it weren’t for French journalist Helene Lee whose book “The First Rasta,” and Howell’s grand nephew, British music producer Patrick Howell, his contributions to the Rasta movement would have been forgotten.

Back to the Cradle

Marley’s magnetism and global success put a face and beat behind the movement during the 1970s.  He provided a voice for the suffering masses, the injustices of political corruption and the indignities of racial oppression worldwide while trying to infuse the all-encompassing spirit of “one love”.  Many could identify with his message.  He died at 36 in 1981 of cancer leaving 11 children and their seven mothers to carry on his legacy.

Back home in Jamaica, Rastas were still being persecuted especially in the 1980s with the rise of the posses.  Rastas got blamed for being part of the Jamaican posse gangs that sold drugs and turned the ghettos of Kingston into killing fields.

Battling the gangster image has been Bongo Shephan, a 74-year-old Rasta elder from Bull Bay, a fishing village.  It was Shephan who befriended the Smithsonian’s Homiak on his first research trip to Jamaica in 1980.  Their relationship led to the four year Smithsonian Rasta retrospective that put the movement in a positive, non-violent light.

Shephan has traveled globally speaking about who the Rastas are and, despite being beaten many times by Jamaican cops, has remained steadfast in defending and explaining his faith.  He told the Jamaica Observer newspaper in 2012:

“They (the authorities) were trying to do their best to abandon our blackness, our reality of Africa.  The Rasta say ‘No, we are not going to allow that to happen’.  That is why we stand up for Africa and the African people.  I am feeling happy now after 56 years of Rastafari faith.  I get worldwide recognition; I help educate a lot of people.  The other reason is that I help to maintain the culture of us, the black people, because what they were trying to teach us around here is the colonial system.  It wasn’t our culture, it wasn’t an African culture.  What Rasta said is, “don’t follow these people, if you follow these people you are going to be lost, ’cause truly, truly we are not Europeans.”

“You know what happen to we black people?  We underestimate ourselves, because of the things that the white man teach us.  We must exalt ourselves as the historical people from the cradle of all mankind, Africa.”

Jews and Rastas

Rasta communities have arisen in the last 20 years throughout Africa making the Jamaica-Africa connection very tangible.  The House of Judah community in Knysna, South Africa, called Judah Square is among the most successful and entrepreneurial, hosting the Rastafarian Earth Festival every July.  Botswana, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Malawi all have growing Rasta communities.  Alpha Blondy is a reggae artist from Cote d’Ivoire and among Africa’s top reggae acts.

The Rasta movement has come full circle reaching Africa, but it has also touched some Jews.  In her 2005 documentary Awake Zion, Monica Haim, a Jewish woman from Colombia, makes the case for Jews and Rastas being from the same spiritual place.  Both claim figures from the Old Testament as their forefathers and both speak of Zion.  Rastas claim to be children of Israel and both share dietary covenants.  Haim says Reggae music helped reconnect her to her Jewish roots.  Her film asks us to entertain the possibility of seeing your own culture being connected to parts of the lore of others and by doing so bridging seemingly overwhelming gaps.

As yet I haven’t grown dreads (possibly due to my balding pate), nor have I begun to worship Jah, but I have deep respect for the Rasta movement’s ability to reconnect Africa and Jamaica and to survive into the 21st century in the face of persecution.  I’m thankful for Marley and Sun for taking me to places I never would have seen nor heard without them.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my wife, although not a Rasta, was born in Jamaica.


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