Rhetoric Of Reggae
December 2nd, 2009
Babylon: Our Continuing Struggle
The term Babylon is referenced throughout reggae music and Rastafarian culture, but what does it really mean? Where did this reference originate? Does Babylon signify different things to different artists or people? And where does it fit into daily life? I plan to explore these questions and more in this paper. Babylon serves as both an icon and a myth in reggae music and Rastafarian religious beliefs. To Rastafarians, Babylon is the modern reality, or system of corruption where we are all struggling. Babylon could signify the political state, the police, the church, or any corrupt or oppressive force. Reggae music instructs listeners to “chant down Babylon.” What does this specifically mean? Babylon is the current life where we are all fighting for freedom. Both historical and psychological constructions of Babylon contribute to Jamaican, Rastafarian, and even my own understanding of oppression. Through its presence in history, law, religion, and music, Babylon embodies a contemporary struggle that defines both reggae music and its listeners.
A historical understanding of Babylon as a city contributes to its definition as a concept. Babylon was once an ancient city-state in Mesopotamia, or modern Iraq. It grew in prominence as an imperial city in the providence known as Babylonia around the 18th Century B.C.E. Babylon was estimated to be the world’s largest city from 1770 to 1670 B.C.E., and again between 612 and 320 B.C.E. Historians also claim Babylon was the first city to reach a population above 200,000.
Though it passed through several empires’ control and jurisdiction, Babylon was especially significant during the period of rule under an emperor named Hammurabi. Hammurabi ruled as the sixth king of the city of Babylon. After conquering neighboring city-states, particularly Sumer and Akkad, around 1760 B.C.E., Hammurabi claimed the title of the first king of the Babylonian empire. Eventually, this empire spanned the majority of Mesopotamia. Hammurabi’s specific reign dates from 1795 to 1750 B.C.E. Under the rule of Hammurabi, the city of Babylon flourished with the first institutions of a centralized state. Hammurabi created the first systems of taxation and brought stability to Babylon. Hammurabi is also known as the first king to establish a set of written laws. Hammurabi’s Code, as it is commonly referred to, was written around 1786 B.C.E., and included 282 laws that governed family relations, criminal and civil laws, commerce, ethics, and other aspects of ancient life. His code was carved onto a stone tablet and put on public display for all citizens of Babylon to see.
There are many reasons why Hammurabi’s Code is relevant to reggae music and Rastafarian culture. First, there is an apparent connection between the planet’s first record of written laws and the laws so many modern Rastafarians find unjust and part of the overall system of Babylon. Hammurabi’s Code is renowned as the first legal contract of its kind. The laws it instituted framed the remaining creation of laws in human existence. Arguably, every law that dictates our behavior today is stemmed from the original codes that Hammurabi created.
Though historical distance clearly separates Hammurabi’s code from the colonial injustices of 20th century Jamaica, any form of written law plays a significant role in the lives of citizens, whether in Babylon or Kingston. Hammurabi appears to have had benevolent intentions for his code. His purpose was, “to promote the welfare of the people, I, Hammurabi, the devout, god-fearing prince, cause justice to prevail in the land by destroying the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak.” This valiant claim, however, fades a bit after examining the specific laws Hammurabi instated. Striking one’s son, for example, warranted the punishment of cutting off your forearm. Stealing someone’s minor son resulted in the death penalty. Beatings and other contemporarily inhumane punishments were commonplace. Hammurabi’s code represents the earliest human conceptions of laws, institutions that inevitably play a major role of the lives we lead in Babylon today.
Rastafarian association of Babylon with evil results from the historical events of the Babylonian exile during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II. King Nebuchadnezzar was the eldest son and successor of King Nabopolassar. Before the rule of his son, Nabopolassar led expansive military campaigns throughout the western provinces of Syria. Nabopolassar defeated the Egyptian army in 605 B.C.E. at the Battle of Carchemish, bringing Syria and Phoenicia under Babylonian authority.
After Nabopolassar’s death in August, 605 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar II assumed the throne. Hoping to continue his father’s legacy, Nebuchadnezzar II directed his powerful army westward in hopes of increasing Babylonian influence in Syria and Judah (modern Jerusalem). Nebuchadnezzar conquered the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar faced numerous native rebellions throughout his empire, particularly in Judah. As a result, Nebuchadnezzar deposed the then Judean King, Jehoiakim, in 587 B.C.E. King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city of Judah, burning its royal palace and the most important Temple of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar ordered prominent citizens and a significant portion of the Jewish population to be exiled in Babylon. Another seventy to eighty elite citizens were put to death. The Babylonian exile occurred in three waves. According to the Book of Jeremiah (52:28-30), which scholars generally assert to be more accurate, 4,600 Jews were deported to Babylon. Estimates claim that 3,023 Jews were deported in the first wave, 832 in the second, and 745 in the third. It is likely that these numbers only include men. Counting women and children, 14,000 to 18,000 total people were exiled.
While in exile, citizens of Jerusalem were allowed to participate in seemingly typical aspects of a fulfilling life: farming and the accumulation of wealth, as well as marriage and the raising of families. While exiles endured a relatively peaceful dislocation, the Babylonian exile marks a dark time in Jewish history, as a period of oppression and the denial of cultural and religious independence. The writings of Psalms reveal the exiles’ sentiments of imprisonment and alienation. Psalm 137 describes these feelings:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs
Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
For the Jewish exiles, Babylon was a foreign land, a place where their oppressors overpowered them. This quotation reflects the exiles’ yearning for a return to their homeland and the freedom to live as they chose. The Babylonian exiles’ experience resounds with the Jamaican identity and its displacement from Africa.
An examination of Jamaican history assists in understanding the relevance of Babylon to the experience of the Jamaican people. The first known inhabitants of Jamaica were the Arawaks, a tribe that settled throughout the island around 600 C.E. The Arawak people survived on fishing and the production of corn. It is estimated their population reached nearly 60,000 people in various villages. Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica in 1494, establishing Jamaica as a Spanish colony. In 1509, Spanish colonialist Juan de Esquivel established the first settlement and began enslaving the Arawaks. The Spanish settlement was called Sevilla Nueva, or “New Seville,” located on the northern coast. Factors such as European disease, brutal slave labor, and the decision to commit suicide to avoid enslavement contributed to the Arawak’s demise by the late 16th century. With no native population, European settlers began importing Africans to replace the Arawaks as slaves.
Several factors significantly undermined Spanish colonial rule in Jamaica. These factors included a lack of attention from Spain, conflicts with the Church, and frequent pirate raids. On May 10, 1655, Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables attacked Jamaica in the name of England. They successfully captured the island from the Spanish, who surrendered, freed their slaves, and fled to Cuba. The group of freed Spanish slaves became known as the Maroons. The Maroons lived freely and in open rebellion against British rule in the mountainous regions of Jamaica. They became known as the “wild and fierce ones,” and are revered as some of the initial rebels against colonialism.
British settlers in Jamaica began extensive agricultural industries using slave labor. The slave trade flourished. Africans were shipped to the West Indies to be sold to plantations. Sugar became the main crop of the island, starting with 57 estates in 1673 and nearly 430 by 1739 (Jamaica Information Service.) The conditions of slavery were atrocious. “A slave’s life on Jamaica was brutal and short, owing to high incidences of tropical and imported diseases and harsh working conditions; the number of slave deaths was consistently larger than the number of births (Buisseret, Ferguson, “Jamaica.”) Despite disease and harsh conditions, Jamaica’s population continued to grow. Slave imports and European immigration steadily increased. Jamaica’s population grew from a few thousand in the 17th century to nearly 18,000 by 1860. Slaves accounted for more than half of the entire population of the island.
Clashes persisted between the Maroons and the British. The Maroons utilized the rocky terrain and guerilla warfare to overwhelm British attacks. Two wars marked the bloodiest conflicts between the British and the Maroons in 1725 to 1739 and later from 1795 to 1797. The British decisively won the second war and destroyed much of the country in the process. Towns, fields, and crops were destroyed. Internal strife plagued Jamaica throughout much of its’ modern history. Slave revolts were also frequent in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A notable leader was the Reverend Samuel Sharpe, who led a slave rebellion in 1831-32. Unfortunately, British forces quickly crushed rebellions and executed their leaders (Buisseret, Ferguson, “Jamaica.”)
The British abolished the slave trade in 1807. All slaves were freed by 1837. Despite these steps toward freedom, inequality still persisted for a majority of Jamaicans, particularly for those who were not white. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jamaica remained under colonial control of the British. Economic disadvantage and racial discrimination kept freed slaves poor and elite interests in power. After a long fight, Jamaica became independent on August 6th, 1962. The country still faces enormous political, economic, and social disparities. Jamaica’s historical and current environment of inequality contributes to the notion of Babylon and its forces.
The creation of laws obviously has evolved a long way from the time of Hammurabi or King Nebuchadnezzar II. Legal standards have adapted to unique cultural and political contexts around the world. Around the beginnings of reggae music, existing Jamaican laws contributed to the music genre’s sound and content. So too did the concept of Babylon. During the rise of reggae music, political oppression and racial turmoil dominated Jamaica. As a concept, Babylon figures into Jamaican history as “western political and economic domination and cultural imperialism (Murrell, 1.)” From the beginning of colonialism in Jamaica, political, social and racial oppression marked its culture. A significant portion of Jamaican culture emerged as the Rastafarian movement, or, “a conscious attempt by the African soul to free itself from the alienating fetters of colonialism and its contemporary legacies (Murrell, 21.)”
To fight oppressive forces against them, Rastafarians constructed the concept of Babylon, and “unleashed an ideological assault on the culture and institutions that have dominated the African Diaspora since the seventeenth Century (Murrell, 21.)” Babylon embodies all that Rastafarians strive to avoid. Rastafarianism is an alternative to Babylon, a different path leading to an escape from its injustices. Rastafarians, “declare their psychological and cultural rejection of the values and institutions of Babylon (Murrell, 23.)” The book of Revelations in the Bible predicts the “apocalyptic and dramatic collapse of Babylon. This is an idiom and imagery Rastas find most fitting for conceptualizing that which they wish to chant down and destroy (Murrell, 23.)”
The evils of Babylon characterize the Jamaican experience. Rastafarian intellectual Dennis Forsythe describes the Jamaican context of Babylon as “the psychic image sustained by real experiences, busted hopes, broken dreams, the blues of broken homes and of disjointed tribes of people disjointed by history…It is a desolation in which man feels disjointed and out of line with the plans of creation (Murrell, 24.)” Oppressed Jamaicans experience injustice in the form of economic, political, religious, or socially institutionalized control. The oppressive forces of Babylon remain powerful from the colonial era, and inflict suffering and alienation upon the Jamaican people.
Reggae music is ripe with references of Babylon. Analysis of lyrics from major reggae artists reveals the connection of the myth of Babylon and the struggle against it in Rastafarian culture and reggae music. Classic reggae artists such as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, and Steel Pulse discuss Babylon in their music. While recognizing the artist’s own personal reflection on their life and struggle in Babylon, their unique perspectives help collectively define the elusive and often ambiguous term.
“By the Rivers of Babylon,” originally written and recorded in 1972 by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Melodians, is an important reggae song that addresses the concept of Babylon. Covered by Jimmy Cliff in the quintessential Rastafarian film, The Harder They Come, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” is inspired by a biblical hymn of the Psalm 137 verse that was previously mentioned in this paper. The song is an account of the Babylonian exile, and recalls:
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remember Zion
It was the wicked
Carry us away captivity
“By the Rivers of Babylon,” echoes a Rastafarian parallel to the experience of the Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 B.C.E. The song conveys the experience of displaced African slaves, yearning to return to their homeland and away from this “strange land.” This song has inspired numerous covers and remains popular today.
Bob Marley, one of reggae’s most recognized and talented artists, repeatedly mentions Babylon in his lyrics. His song “Babylon System,” explicitly defines Marley’s own conception of Babylon:
Babylon system is the vampire, yeah!
Suckin' the children day by day, yeah!
Me say: de Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,
Suckin' the blood of the sufferers, yeah!
Building church and university, woah, yeah!
Deceiving the people continually, yeah!
Me say them graduatin' thieves and murderers;
Look out now: they suckin' the blood of the sufferers.
Marley’s song personifies Babylon as a vampire, feeding off of innocent people and their work. Babylon victimizes children and those already suffering. The song mentions institutions including the Church and higher education that promote Babylon and continue its destruction. These institutions perpetuate the process of mass deception, and only create more “thieves and murderers.” The song’s overall message urges the listener to rebel. This command is echoed and qualified throughout the song, and asserts the validity of the Rastafarian movement.
“Exodus,” is another classic Bob Marley and the Wailers song. The lyrics of this song solidify the African return to the homeland and departure from Babylon. Marley begs the listener to evaluate their own life and principles, and uncover any sources of Babylon they might be susceptible to. He sings,
Exodus, movement of Jah people, oh yeah
Open your eyes and let me tell you this
Men and people will fight ya down (Tell me why?)
When ya see Jah light
Let me tell you, if you're not wrong (Then why?)
Everything is alright
So we gonna walk, alright, through the roads of creation
We're the generation (Tell me why)
Trod through great tribulation
Exodus, movement of Jah people
Exodus, movement of Jah people
Open your eyes and look within
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 fatherland.
“Exodus,” is the definitive anthem against the oppression of Babylon. Marley asserts the coming liberation of the Jah people, who are returning to the fatherland. The song is also reminiscent of the Psalms 137 verse previously analyzed.
“Babylon Makes the Rules,” is a song by the reggae group Steel Pulse that also constructs a vision of Babylon. The song addresses the beaten down, “lowest of the low,” circumstances Babylon has imposed on the Rastaman. It is Babylon that causes conditions “where my people suffer.” The lyrics try to reassert Rastafarian validity by recognizing the injustices they’ve endured, and remembering their cultural worth. Rastafarians “must create a scene, we must recapture our culture by any means.” The song acknowledges the power Babylon has held in the past, but remembers that the love of Jah will triumph. The holy sacrament is “what keeps us together, Jah Herb that we smoke.” The song concludes with call and response between, “Babylon makes the rules,” and, “but Jah love will carry I home.” This part of the song affirms and instructs the listener that Jah is the superior force over Babylon.
More contemporary artists have been inspired to discuss Babylon in their music. As an ideology, Rastafarian is extremely relevant in modern movements, as the concept of Babylon has, “broadened to include all oppressive and corrupt systems of the world (Murrell, 7.)”Reggae and other genres tackle the current conceptions of Babylon, and keep the concept relevant with human struggle. A good example of this evolution is Thievery Corporation’s song, “The Richest Man in Babylon.” This modern reggae-dub inspired song calls for the end of Babylon. Personifying Babylon with a “wicked walk,” the song is an account of its injustice and inevitable demise:
The wicked stench of exploitation
Hangs in the air and lingers on
Beneath the praise and admiration
The weakest man in Babylon
There is no hope left in your kingdom
Your servants have burned all their songs
Nobody here remembers freedom
The richest man in Babylon
Later, the song addresses the downfall of Babylon and the glory of Rasta and freedom:
Babylon this is your final day
Babylon this is your final call
Read the writing that's on the wall
See divided we stand
And together we fall.
Thievery Corporation takes a step away from traditional reggae music and moves toward an electronic, dubbed vision. Despite the change in musical style, the message regarding Babylon remains the same. This suggests the power of Babylon as a concept, and it’s relevance to musicians over time.
Sizzla is another modern musician who frequently discusses Babylon in his music is. His song, “Babylon A Use Dem Brain” details the present state of Babylon, it’s past abuses, and its eventual downfall:
Oh what ah agony and oh what a shame
To see my black brother goin all down the drain
Man made to suffer and woman to feel pain
Dey rape me mommy me sister I say oh what a shame
Brother and me father afi chop sugar cane
Pon the plantation under stress and shame
Pon dem hand and dem foot I just see chackles and chains
Well this is one thing I cannot overstand
dem nah teach me nothin bout me Asian plan
Inna the school and the college and the institution
the curriculum that I get is European
Ah teach me bout Marco Polo and Napoleon
Nah teach me nothin bout the river Nile bank
where civilization it began
You say thou shall not steal and should not kill no one
yet you steal treacherize and then you teach wrong
yea yea slave and you murder all me dad and me mom
But wicked Babylonian and you will love to burn!
The song condemns slavery’s evils that Jamaicans have faced such as rape and plantation labor. The lyrics then shift toward the hypocrisy of Babylon in the present. Educational institutions focus on European history, and deny the legitimacy of African heritage, “where civilization began.” Babylon’s contradictory nature persists as it preaches peace but practices corruption and murder. The final echoing line foresees the apocalyptic fall of Babylon, as it will, “love to burn.”
As a fan of reggae music, I have developed my own sense of Babylon. Being a privileged white college student, I luckily have not experienced oppression in the forms of slavery or racial discrimination. While reggae music has such a vast audience, few truly know the evils it warns against. I am grateful for the advantages I’ve grown up with, but still recognize Babylon as a force that I fight against in my own life. As a young woman of the millennial generation, I can firmly admit the disillusionment I feel toward my culture. I disagree with the much of the politics, policy, and standards currently controlling society. I see Babylon in the bigotry, xenophobia, and ignorance of American culture. I know I am unavoidably a part of it, and do recognize that our society is not all bad. However I cannot avoid feeling the same alienation and mistrust that exiles in Babylon must have felt, or the outrage of the displaced Africans brought to Jamaica as slaves.
Laws seem to target my generation, assuming our worst and doubting our best. I disagree with an extraordinary amount of what our government has done. Growing up, I have realized that I am against my own government’s policies concerning international relations, drugs, gay marriage, abortion, crime, poverty, and the climate crisis. Only recently has my deep apathy for government slightly subsided. The election of President Obama in 2008 was the first politically gratifying moment I have felt. His policies, so far, have not greatly disappointed me. But Babylon is more than who is in power, or what agenda they’re trying to push. To me, Babylon is the state of having no means to change society. Babylon is being voiceless, powerless, to the larger forces in control. I recognize there are some means for change, at least in my own life, and that while Babylon is very real, my existence is not at all bad. I am very lucky with what I have and can only hope to make that possible for others. Focusing on Babylon is a negative path; reggae music has helped me come to this realization. There are greater freedoms worth striving toward. I feel that at some point, every young person has felt this way toward their generation, the circumstances they were born into, the mistakes the previous generations made. But there is no controlling the past, or Babylon. Moving beyond the corruption and negativity in society make life worth living. Babylon is the past and present, but not necessarily the future.
I’ve attempted an interdisciplinary approach to better understand of the concept of Babylon. From the Code of Hammurabi, the Maroon wars, Jamaican independence, and the present, Babylon has evolved as an ideological construct that many live their lives in opposition of. Originating from the exile of Israelites from Jerusalem, Babylon has come to incorporate notions of evil, oppression, and corruption for Rastafarians and reggae music. Babylon has different definitions for different people. It is a concept that is dependent on context; what Babylon was for Peter Tosh is drastically different than what Babylon is to me. Yet the concept remains consistent. Babylon is relevant and relatable for anyone facing a society that they disagree with. Babylon is a strategically envisioned concept that names a common enemy of the Rastafarian movement and its followers. As believers in Rastafarianism and reggae music continue to “chant down Babylon,” they inspire new movements for liberation as well as music to supplement these ideas. Lyrics from both classic and contemporary musicians show the prominence of Babylon in a collective cultural consciousness, whether in reggae music or other genres.
While Babylon does have negative connotations, it does not necessarily imply pessimism. Rather, Babylon is an extreme where we ought to focus on moving away from. As a concept, Babylon teaches us to defy our oppressors, rebel from their control, and assert our own freedom. To understand evil, one must identify it. The past suffered under Babylon. The present still does. With hope for the future and an understanding of the past, however, we can concentrate our energies, continue moving beyond Babylon, toward achieving a better existence for all.
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