Apr 8 2011

Rasta, Reggae, and Revolution

On the first Tuesday of each month during the semester, the admissions department hosts prospective student for dinner.  Besides great food, a Candler professor shares her/his thoughts on a topic.  This week we had Dr. Noel Erskine speak about the “Bible and Reggae”.  I’ve taken his RastafarI class before so naturally I was excited to revisit the dynamics of this movement, music & message.

The RastafarI movement in many ways emerged as a response to numerous hardships waged on certain sections of Jamaica’s population. Obiagele Lake explains, “Rastas grew out of a complex process of slavery and slave resistance”[1].  However, well after the ‘official’ end of slavery in British colonies in 1834, institutional and mental shackles still held people captive.  Instead of being an advocate for justice, to these people, the local government and foreign forces of downpression perform synchronized dance moves.  Soon it was obvious that it would take more than tears to breakdown the oppressive social construct called Babylon.  With the emergence of RastafarI faith came a rise in reggae music that served as a sharp but gentle knife to cut through society’s ills.  Fortunately, many reggae artists realized that to effect change they would have to do more than expose systematic injustice.  Reggae music also gave comfort and hope to wounded people.

A brief look at some of Marley (and the Wailers) songs will illustrate the crafty combination of criticism and comfort in RastafarI music. In So Much Trouble in the World, Marley makes sweeping lyrical observations of global events and popular culture that warrant urgent correction.  He alludes to humanity’s preoccupation with exploring space and feeding their own egos rather than addressing the problems that exist right here on earth.  Suddenly near the end of the song, Marley sings, “Now I know the time has come. What goes on up is coming on down. What goes around it comes around”, giving a comforting hope to those oppressed that soon their oppressors will have to eat the bitter fruits they planted.  One day the balance of power will be reversed.

“No chains around my feet but I’m not free.  I know I am bound here in captivity. I never know what happiness is. I never know what sweet caress is. Still, I’ll be always laughing like a clown. Won’t someone help me, ‘cause I’ve got to pick myself from off the ground. In this concrete jungle…Life must be somewhere to be found, instead of concrete jungle”, chants Bob Marley in Concrete Jungle.  This short verse captures critique and comfort in both the lyrics and accompanying music.  Even though slavery ended, Rastas acknowledge that bondage still lives on through mental, economic, racial and social chains.  So for Marley, freedom is just an illusion.  In the midst of this though, Bob sing almost in a chuckle that he’ll be laughing like a clown.  This is a swift insertion of hope admonishing people to hold onto the small things that give them joy, rather than waste life in anger and sadness.  With the exception of this one line, the entire song is set in a minor (sad) tonality.  The sudden switch between minor (sad) and major (happy) tonality demonstrates the artist’s intent for joy and pain to co-exist in the interest of survival.  Interestingly, using minor tonality is in itself a form of protest against the European colonists music that employs more major keys.

A major theme in RastafarI music is extreme opposition to racism, classism and any other force that denies people basic human rights.  Words are powerful, but making a profound articulate speech does not guarantee that the words will reach the masses that are absent when the speech is delivered.  Printing and publishing the words in books or newspapers is a step closer to globalizing the message, but what happens when the majority of people who need to hear the words are unable, or choose not to read?  Music rises to action in this case and gives flight to an otherwise geographically motionless message.  An excellent example of music’s ability to publicize and mobilize words is Bob Marley’s song War, where he puts a speech by H.I.M. Haile Selassie I atop the wings of rhythm and melody.  Listen as Marley and Selassie chant down Babylon’s racial and economic oppression.

I doubt H.I.M. Haile Selassie I ever dreamed that a speech he gave to the United Nations would be blasting melodically through microphones and speakers around the world, as a Rastaman (Bob Marley) used the words to set hearts on fire at reggae concerts.  At any rate, Selassie and Marley deliver a bi-fold message calling down racism and classism; while simultaneously giving people hope that good will most definitely triumph over evil!

Marley emerges from his King James Bible inspired by the Israelites victorious exit from oppression in Egypt and shouts “Exodus! Movement of Jah People!”  This song is set in deep minor tonality, employs stiff horn lines, and boasts a hard driving reggae beat with a the heavy kick drum pumping every beat like a heart.  Exodus unlike other tunes does not invite quite contemplation as much as it functions as a call to radical collective action. The Wailers shout, “Are you satisfied, with the life you’re living. We know where we’re going. We know where we’re from. We’re leaving Babylon. We’re going to our father’s land!” Then Bob, Bunny, Peter and the I-Three rock us in a cradle with the words “Don’t worry, about a thing. ‘Cause every little thing, is gonna be alright.”

This short journey through a portion of Marley’s repertoire demonstrates how the RastafarI use music to simultaneously chant down Babylon, while empowering and comforting I-an-I.

-  Dalan Vanterpool

Dalan is a 2nd Yr. MDiv student from the British Virgin Islands and a Student Ambassador.


[1] Obiagele Lake, RastafarI Women: Subordination in the Midst of Liberation Theology (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1998), 17.