2 December 2009
A Sociological Construct of Rastafarian Philosophies
Rastafari is a political, religious and cultural movement that began less then 100 years ago. It is based off Christian, traditional African beliefs and Pan-Africanism. It began with the first literate blacks in Jamaica relating themselves in the bible. This was so monumental because the bible was not only their only literary source but also their only religious or philosophical source (Blumberg). Rastafarians in no way believe all that is in the bible, they are aware of how their history was mostly left out and reject the idea of a white Jesus. The single most important bible verse for Rastafari is in Psalm 68, verse 32: "Princes shall come out of Egypt, Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God." (Blumberg). Jamaicans found this prophesy to be fulfilled when Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia. It is not only that he was a black man crowned in Ethiopia, but also he was the first black man crowned in the entire world. Ethiopia became a fixation for Rastafari and the 6 holy truths were soon developed. 1. Black people are the descendants and of the early Israelites and have been exiled to Jamaica by the White man 2.Haile Selassie is the living God 3.The White person is inferior to the Black person 4. Ethiopia is heaven while Babylon is hell 5.Their God will arrange for their repatriation to Ethiopia 6.In the future Blacks will rule the world (Barret, pg 104, 1988). God for a Rastafari is not just the one specific being of Haile Selassia, but a god that transcends everything. Their belief in god is not only that he exists, but that they know him. In knowing him and in knowing that he is in everything, they don’t believe in the difference between you and me. This is where I and I is derived from. I and I can be defined in Rasta patois, which has strict language rules. I and I is a complex term that can be related to many modern and postmodern day sociological perspectives. I is the most important and symbolic letter in the alphabet for Rastas. In its most basic form “I” replaces “me” in Rastafarian speech. Often instead of saying “you and I” a Rasta will use “I and I” on the terms that everyone is united under the one love of Jah (http://www.important.ca/rastafari_language.html). Buny Wailer clearly defines how bringing back I and I is important when he says “In the beginning; there was just I, then Satan brought you and I to set people against each other.” (Snider lecture 2009). A Rasta will speak of his individual developments referring to himself as just I, but when speaking in terms of Rastafari or relating to Rastafari, they use we. Mutabaruka gives us a perfect example: “So they invite we upon television programmes to defend weself and they invite theologians, scholars, but we still hold we own.”(Doumerc 30). It can be seen as a three-fold relationship between an individual, Jah and other selves (Johnson-Hill 23). Because Jah is in everything, he is always one with the individual and the individual is one with him. They are inexplicitly connected. Ernest Cashmore states that:
I and I is an expression of a total concept of oneness…so when Ras Tafari speak of himself as ‘I’ he means it in a sense of the total uplifting of oneself, total dignity of one’s self and expresses that so his fellow brethren is the same as himself. He says ‘I-n-I’ as being the oneness of two persons. So God is with all of us and we’re all one people in fact (Cashmore 316-17).
While I and I helps define the self, the Rastafarian term Livity helps define ones lifestyle. There are “three corresponding motifs of livity: a naturalistic disposition, re-creative activity in the midst of poverty, and reasoning with ganja.” (Johnson-Hill 201). Mutabaruka explains livity as: “What we try to do in all aspects of we life is through the art, through the daily living, through how we talk, through how we look, through how we perform…” (Doumerc 7). Rastafari concept of self and lifestyle causes the participants to be highly conscious and reflective. Because of this state of mind they are able to relate to many complex sociological philosophies.
I and I draws is strongest similarities to Martin Buber’s philosophy on “I and Thou.” Buber’s book, “I and Thou” is split up into three parts. The first focuses on the two modes of thinking men have, the I-thou and the I-it. The I-it mode is the one of experience. Experience in that we interact with the world in an objective sense, we take in ours and others actions, use and create knowledge and compile what we observe to form reason. I-it is how we first identify with ourselves. We identify with the experience of our physical bodies and compare them to others. On the other hand the I-thou mode is one of encounter. Instead objectifying relationships I-thou subjectifies them. When we identify ourselves in an I-thou way, we transcend our physical bodies. Buber explains that all I-it relationships have others attached to it. “Every It is bounded by others; it exists only through being bounded by others.” Where as “Thou has no bounds. When thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.” (Buber 20). This is where we can make our first connection to the Rastafarian belief of I and I. For Rastas, they have relations amongst objects, such as a car, which is nothing more but a means to do something, therefore it they view it in I-it terms. When thinking in terms of I-thou, they dis-attach all the “things” bound to people and operate in their higher consciousness. They transcend the objective sense that there is a defined difference between you and I. This unity is generally specific to Rastafari, they do not believe that the white man in government operates in the same consciousness that they do. “Downpressors” function through an I-it world. They do not try to connect to people or society in an I-thou way. “…that of the primary word I-Thou out of natural combination, and that of the primary word I-it out of natural separation.” (Buber 36).
This natural separation brings me to the second part of Buber’s book; how man interacts in modern society. Buber states that modern society has built itself on the mode of I-it and in this people have become alienated. The I and I concept fights against this alienation and rejects the idea that we must see everything as an It. Peter Tosh shows this need for unity in his song Come together:
You better come together
Learn to love one another
We got to come together
Learn to love one another
We got to come together
Learn to love your brother
We got to come together
Learn to love your sister
One eye can't see
One ear don't hear
One hand can't clap
One foot don't run
Where do we go from here
Here, there or nowhere
I said where do we go from here
Here, there or nowhere
An eye just as an eye is an I-it for Rastafari, but eyes together in the act of seeing become I-thou’s. This is the same as a person is just a person, they are an I-it, but when you come together you enter the I-thou.
The third part of the book, Buber gives his solution to the modern troubles of man; to experience the world through I-thou. “Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou…the inborn Thou is realized in each relation and consummated in none.”(Buber 77). This is the threefold relationship in I and I with individual, god and other. “Every real relation with a being or life in the world is exclusive. Its Thou is freed, steps forth, is singled, and confronts you. It fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing else exists; but all else lives in Its light.” (Buber 80). The it here is referring to God. There is a direct link between Buber’s belief that “all else lives in Its light” and Rastas belief of unity under the one love of Jah. Again Peter Tosh gives us an example of this in his song “In my Song”
In my song Jah is the melody
In my song he is everything to me
In my song he is the musical beat
In my song he is the rhythm and tempo
W.E.B. Du Bois is one of the most important sociologists to take into account when reviewing Rastafari. I and I is not just a mode of relating to the world, but also a speech pattern, a realization of self and a way of rebelling against the dominant society. Du Bois was the first black sociologist, and the first sociologist to observe society through racial bounds. Sociologists before had taken a macro approach (looking at society as a whole instead of individuals) based on religion and economics. One of Du Bois’ major tenants is that of language. “…for the words I long for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine.” (Du Bois 44). When he says “theirs” he is referring to white peoples language. For Du Bois and for Rastafarians the English language is symbolic of the oppression of black people and the African language stripped from them. For Jamaicans the mastering of the English language is seen as snobbish and alienates people from their community (Campbell 124). Du Bois recognizes that English has no regard for African decedents; it is not their language and it is foreign and alienating. Rastafarians also recognize this but they take it a step further. Through the concept of I and I they revoke the western use of I and me and also create new words, making the language their own. For example the word university is changes to “I-niversity”.
Another of Du Bois major tenants was the need for education. The Rasta belief started as a liberation movement, and education was the center of it. “The first Rasta were avid readers, and they saw it as their duty to be informed on the politics, economics, geography and history of both Jamaica and Africa.” (Campbell 124). Both Du Bois and Rasta believe that education can lead to liberation which leads to the finding of ones self. Mutabaruka uses education in the sense of conscience “So my intention is to really awaken the conscience and the consciousness of the people. What can I do to make people more aware of themselves and what dem supposed to do as African people inna Jamaica?” (Doumerc 8).
This brings us to Du Bois last point; the concept of true self and the veil. For Rasta the finding of ones true self lies in being one with Jah. “When your Jah-I shall have complete control over your existence, then can you say, ‘I know myself.’” (Babatunji 52). To get to this point one must transcend all stereotypes or biases they have. For Du Bois this transcending has many obstacles to overcome. The first is that black men have no true self-consciousness. He believes in a double-consciousness, which is, black men see themselves through the eyes of others. “One ever feels a twoness, -an American, a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.” (Du Bois 45). This connects directly to Jamaicans in that they are torn between and Jamaican and African identity. Rastafari is the attempt to bridge this gap. “Jamaicans… developed a set of beliefs which sought to build upon the foundations of the race consciousness of Marcus Garvey…black people should never forget their African heritage.” (Campbell 89). For both, the taking in of their history and looking towards their future, the understanding of what is allows them to transcend their identity crisis. For Du Bois the veil is a block stopping white men from seeing black men as they are, and black men from seeing white men as they are. Neither side is conscience of the true other. Rastafari pushes to eliminate this veil. Mutabaruka’s above quote shows how in achieving a general conciseness you are able to overlook the veil. “Peering through and beyond the world of men into a world of thought.” (Du Bois 249).
Rastafai beliefs and Marx’s early writings are undeniably similar. Marx was a conflict theorist, in that he believed that different parts of society were in constant conflict with each other causing ciaos and depression. Rastafari started in conflict with the greater society. Both are critical of and withdraw from the modern western capitalist society. “As capitalist relations in the society deepened, and the people had the distinct feeling that capitalism was destroying their personality, the Rastas were a section of the working poor who wanted to break the spirit of competition and individualism.” (Campbell 121). Marx’s concept of alienation in the work place explains why Rastas feel capitalism was destroying their personality. Marx believed there were four steps in alienation; 1-alienation from the product of labor, 2-alienation from the process of labor, 3-alienation from co-workers and 4-alienation from oneself (Marx 327). Capitalism, for Rasta and for Marx, objectifies the worker. Labor is no longer seen as an expression of people’s purpose. It puts him in a system where they are only valued for their material worth. This objectification leads to the bourgeois oppression the poor. Capitalism creates a system that the oppressed to do not realize they are oppressed and find others in the same situation as their rivals. It is a system that makes the poor compete with each other. This competition clouds the participants of the reality of their situation, allows for more oppression. The Rastas saw how competition in the labor force would eventually destroy their culture.
Rastas have an interpretative concept of Babylon and Ethiopia. “Babylon is the evocative of everything that is wrong with the white Western capitalist world.” (Johnson-Hill 257). For Rastafarians, there is a Babylon self, which is alienated and objectified.
Mikey Smith describes in “A Waan Free Up De System” how the self is alienated in the capitalist system:
A waan free up de system
Cause it meck me feel
Dat we cyan get no satisfaction
Until we chop off we right han (Johnson-hill 261)
Like Marx, Rastafarians see the capitalist system as distancing themselves from reality and love of life. Bob Marley’s “Babylon System” exemplifies this point:
Babylon system is the vampire, yea!
Suckin' the children day by day, yeah!
Me say: de Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,
Suckin' the blood of the sufferers, yea-ea-ea-ea-e-ah!
Building church and university, wo-o-ooh, yeah! -
Deceiving the people continually, yea-ea!
Me say them graduatin' thieves and murderers;
Look out now: they suckin' the blood of the sufferers.
Just as Babylon is Marx’s capitalist system, Ethiopia is his true communism. “In Rastafarian poetry, repatriation to Ethiopia is expressed as a collective consciousness of going forward to a new social order.” (Johnson-Hill 279). This social order pertains to dignity, religious communion, equal rights, justice, and transcendence of economic and political domination and of a negative self-image (Johnson-Hill 30). The concept of Ethiopia also does not just pertain to Jamaicans, but to the entire world. Marx describes true communism as the “complete restoration of man to himself as a social, i.e. human, being” (Marx 348). For both Marx and Rastafarians, if man is restored to his social self, he is not concerned with racism or economic injustice. This is true communism, not the communism we have seen fail throughout the decades, but communism where people are treated equally and fairly and not dominated by their economic needs. Once in this new social order, or true communism, man returns to his “species-being”. For Marx the species-being is:
The human essence of nature exists only for social man: for only here
does nature exist for him as a bond with other men, as his existence for
others and their existence for him, as the vital element of human reality;
only here does it exist as the basis of his own human existence. (Marx 349)
This means that when men transcend the worries of surviving, they are able to bond with other men and nature in a way that is not objectified. Marx’s species-being is what Rastafarians strive for. I and I is a way of bonding with people in a non-objectified way. When a Rasta interacts with another person, it is not meant to be for material gain, but for social gain. Rastafarians have achieved a sense of being that Marx strived for because their lives are based on social situations and not economic need.
Along with distrust for capitalism, Marx and Rastafarians share a distrust for organized religion. Marx famously stated, “religion is the opiate of the people.” He believes that religion is an “inverted consciousness of the world,” it produces a reality that is no the true reality. Religion for Marx justifies the injustice of capitalism. It creates a world where distress and oppression are products of capitalism and given a religious form which then becomes a test of faith for the individuals. Religion leads people to accept life as is and look for salvation after death. Rastafarians saw straight through this. They believe that heaven or salvation can be reached in life, not after death. Rastafarians saw religion as not only another institution oppressing them, but one lying to them and cheating them out of money. The Wailers explain this in their song “Get up Stand up”
You, preacher man don't tell me
Heaven is under the earth
You a duppy and you don't know
What life is really worth
It's not all that glitter is gold
And half the story has never been told
So now we see the light
We gonna stand up for your rights
We're sick and tired of this game of technology
Humbly asking Jesus for his mercy
We know and we know and understand
Almighty Jah is a living man
You fool some people sometimes
But you can't fool all the people all the time
And now we see the light
We gonna stand up for our rights
Rastafarian distrust for religion is clearly seen when the Wailers use words such as “fool”. The Wailers saying “Humbly asking Jesus for his mercy” connects directly with how Marx feels about religion defeating people.
Mead was one of the first micro sociologists; he looked at the effect society had on the individual. Because of the complexity and variation of Rastafarian beliefs, it is best to study it with a micro approach. Rastafarian beliefs are individually focused; it is up to the individual to achieve consciousness. For Mead it is up to the individual to achieve self-consciousness. This self consciousness is derived from the generalized other –“The organized community of social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called ‘the generalized other.’ The attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the whole community.” (Mead 154). The self is derived from this generalized other, but also helps shape it. The concept of the generalized other is very important to Rastafarians because their collective consciousness is what unites them. This does not mean that they have no diversity in thinking. They believe that “different vantage points are helpful, via reasoning together, in attaining a deeper understating of Rastafari itself.” (Johnson-Hill 24). If one were just compiled of all the beliefs of the generalized other, they would have no self. So just as Rastafarians use their differences to attain a deeper understanding an individual uses his or her difference to understand him or herself. For Mead the self emerges when one reflects upon an action. One reacts to some kind of need by the generalized other, they are expected to react in a way which the generalized other would. The self emerges when one reflect on how they reacted, how they were different from the generalized other. I and I is unity under Jah, therefore the generalized other.
Subject vs. Object
A major component of Rastafari is how they differentiate from the western world on their concepts of subject and object. Because they generally think in terms of consciousness they are much more aware of situations, people and things. This allows them to think more subjectively instead of objectively. The western world has been based on an objective culture. By this I mean we create institutions and objects, but these things come to dominate us. One the best examples is money. We gave money is nothing more then a piece of paper, but we gave it meaning and value, we defined that value, we simply created a thing to helps us reach a means end. But money soon dominated us, we are no longer in control of the value, we lose sight that we created this and begin to believe that it operates under some higher power. By living simply Rastafari avoid the problems of overbearing and dominating structures.
We live we life a certain way, you know. When we talk, when we
walk, when we speak, when we eat, when people look at we, we
don’t divert, we are not a artist and something else. What is my art
is what is me; so I don’t separate what I say in my poetry and how
I live my life
Mutabaruka shows us that his art is a subject to him, not an object. He does not objectify his work, but lives through it. In his poem “Dis Poem” the poem itself is the subject.
dis poem is no secret
dis poem shall be called boring stupid senseless
dis poem is watchin u tryin to make sense from dis poem
dis poem is messin up your brains
makin u want to stop listenin to dis poem
but u shall not stop listenin to dis poem
u need to know what will be said next in dis poem
dis poem shall disappoint u
dis poem is to be continued in your mind in your mind
in your mind your mind
by talking about the poem as a poem, Mutabaruka, makes people realize that we generally see poems objectively, they are objects and foreign to us. But “Dis poem” transcends that and makes itself an immediate subject.
Rastafari is a set of beliefs that for an outsider may seem simple and “primitive”. But through comparing them with many famous sociological philosophies we can begin to understand exactly how deep and progressive Rastafari is. Some people believe Rastafari is an escapist culture, but we can now see they are simply removing themselves from all the problems of the traditional western world. They have a deep meaningful concept of self and a consciousness of life that the western world struggles to reach. Although Rastafari have no specific book or doctrine to fallow the participants involved are dedicated. Each person contributes to the movement; helps shape it and change it. This creates a movement that will escape staticness of many old religions and one that will change for the people because it is by the people. Rastafari have deep thought provoking philosophies that we can only begin to understand, or as the Rastas say, Overstand.
Doumerc Eric. From Page-Poet to Recording Artist: Mutabaruka. 2009The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 2008.
Blumberg Jess. One Love: Discovering Rastafari. Smithsonian. January 01, 2008. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/discover-rastafari-200801.html?utm_source=relatedarticles&utm_medium=internallink&utm_campaign=SmithMag&utm_content=One%20Love:%20Discovering%20Rastafari!
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Babatunji. Prophet on Reggae Mountain. GTNN Press, New York. 1994.
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Campbell. Rasta and Resistance. Africa World Press Inc. Trenton New Jersey. 1987