Reggae Confrontation: Reggae’s Impact

On Indigenous Cultures

 

By,

Carl Skeris

 

 

When I think of popular music with global appeal, reggae is far from the first genre to come to mind. Sure, reggae has thrived quite well since its development in the 1960s, spreading across the pond to Jamaica’s ex-ruler England as well as other European countries. But, we judge this popularity solely on the commercial value of reggae music, of its respective standing on multinational charts. I believe very deeply that this is what makes reggae such an enigmatic musical form. The occasional listener may sit back in their car toe tapping to “One Love” or “I Shot the Sheriff” but what could that possibly tell us about the spiritual power of a genre of music? Now if I were to tell you that some of the oldest indigenous tribes in America and all over the word revere Bob Marley as a deity, that they have holidays dedicated to him in places as remote as New Zealand, that the only music you’d hear in the ancient Havasupai Indian village located in the depths of the Grand Canyon would be Bob and the Wailers, wouldn’t you think about reggae music a little differently?

            The Rastafarian Movement found a new life on November second, 1930: the day Haile Selassie I was crowned “King of Kings” in Addis Ababa.  Many Rastafarians saw this as a fulfillment of prophesies of both Marcus Garvey and the Book of Revelations. This coming of the Rasta Messiah or Jah had a great impact on the Rastafari faith and movement. Rastafarians believed that, after being crowned, Selassie would lead the African Diaspora and deliver Africa and its people into an age of prosperity and equality. Firstly it allowed for Jamaicans, particularly Rastas, to feel more accepted. Now that the Rastaman was no longer waiting in vain for his savior he felt a new spirit that translated into many of the popular reggae artists of the day. Musicians took up their instruments with the intention of spreading Rastafari. Bob Marley was one of the most successful at spreading the faith; his popularity afforded him the opportunity to travel the globe chanting the word of Jah.

            Marcus Garvey, who was considered a prophet by Rastas, promoted many tenets Rastafarianism but never claimed any affiliation with the Rastafari movement. He preached Black Nationalism and Black Separatism in Jamaica and in Harlem, New York. Although he never directly identified himself with the Rastafari Movement, many of his ideas are present in the Rasta belief system. It was Garvey’s fervor and Black Nationalism that struck Rasta’s so strongly, giving them hope. Hope of returning home, of being equal, of living together in One Love. This is precisely where we find the global appeal of the music. Universal love is an idea that everyone thinks of as, well really nice but out of reach. Reggae urges us to demand that we stop all this war and nonsense and love one another; this in turn gives listeners a sense of empowerment and duty.

            There is an interesting disconnect between indigenous peoples and western peoples around the world. It wouldn’t be too hard to make a case that we are completely different. It seems to me that we (westerners) are focused solely on our own progress, we want the newest this or the most expensive that. We go through life blindly, seeing only what we want to and neglecting our earth with pollution, greed, and industry.  On the other hand indigenous cultures seem to have a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, they know that we must love our mother earth and be thankful for all that she has given us, that we must also love our brothers and sisters even though they may not love us back. This is the concept of One Love. For some reason this has been lost on us who worry about material things. We care more about our material wealth than we do our fellow man. This is why the yuppster can drive around in his shiny car listening to the ital beats of Bob and the Wailers without actually hearing the songs, the suffering, and the manipulation. Instead he is listening to commercialization. Give that same tape to a Hopi Indian and it’s like listening to two different bands or songs. The meaning is so different that the yuppster may never understand where this music has come from, or where it’s going for that matter. To these folks, One Love is just that song from the “Come visit Jamaica!” commercials; little do they know that One Love is a way of life for many people.

            The Havasupai are a Native American tribe that is located in Arizona, particularly the base of the Grand Canyon. In 1882 The Havasupai Indian Reservation was formed. This reservation consisted of around 500 acres within the Grand Canyon. This essentially trapped the Havasupai within the canyon for almost 100 years.  Supai is so isolated that government helicopters deliver much of the food supply.  That being said, the essentially isolated capitol city of the Havasupai Reservation, Supai is home to some of the most prudent reggae fans in the entire world.  They understand how it feels to be made to move around by oppressive forces.  Obesity and diabetes are becoming more and more of a health concern in the community due to the amount of junk food being delivered by government helicopters (White).  This imported food has replaced in a big part the Havasupai grown food. The same has happened in Jamaica. The growing global economy has made it possible to import cheaper goods from far off places; these goods are replacing goods grown by smalltime farmers etc, etc. Corporations like Chaquita Banana, can afford to undercut prices so dramatically that they are bullying these farmers out of their own market (Life and Debt). The Havasupai also relate to the Rastafarian colors: red, gold and green,“… for them red stood for the people; the earth and the red canyon walls; green represented the trees; and gold the sun.” The Havasupai are also currently fighting a campaign against Uranium mining on their lands. In 1990 a federal court judge ruled against the Havasupai tribe, allowing the company Energy Fuels Nuclear to continue a project on sacred land Havasupai land.

 

 “We were promised that we would be able to continue to practice our religion on our ancient land. If our religion is destroyed, how can we practice? … We were promised access to our sacred sites. Right now EFN has a fence around one of them and we can only get in with permission from the mining company.” (Byrne 111.)

 

The Havasupai plight is similar to that of many indigenous cultures around the world.  Jamaicans know a good deal about broken promises themselves. Jamaica has always been a means of generating wealth for whites. Jamaicans were constantly promised freedom, at the expense of betraying their brothers and sisters. Even when Jamaica eventually gained its freedom, it was still under the rule of white men and its people were still bound in the shackles of poverty and illiteracy.  This is why I believe that reggae translates so openly to other indigenous cultures.  Maybe when these Havasupai hear Bob sing in Redemption Song, “have no fear for atomic energy” they hear his voice chant directly to them.  It’s a personal and spiritual understanding that they share. Bob isn’t considered to be just any ordinary musician by the Havasupai. The Havasupai actually believe that Bob was the reincarnation of the legendary resistance fighter Chief Crazy Horse.  It was prophesized that Crazy Horse would be reincarnated as a black man and that Bob was the fulfillment of said prophecy.

There’s a lot to be said about all of this. Firstly, take one of the oldest Indian Nations in North America and then consider that their only connection to anything truly foreign to their culture is reggae music, they get their mail by mule, and what they don’t grow themselves has to be flown in by the government. Then consider that they believe that the most popular reggae-recording artist in history, Bob Marley, is the reincarnation of a great Native American rebel leader who fought against the oppression of the white man and the thievery of lands by our forefathers. This shows without a doubt the potency of Bob Marley’s campaign for peace, love and the spread of Rastafari. 

Reggae and Rastafari have not been limited to the Western hemisphere; in fact reggae truly is a global phenomenon. Even in the deepest regions of Nepal where the population is devoutly Hindu, we find people bobbing their heads to reggae rhythms, sporting natty dreadlocks, and smoking from the chalice with their brethren. The Hindu sadhu is a type of holy man that is reminiscent of the Jamaican Rastaman.  These men are usually dreadlocked and choose to carry out meager existences in search of a pure and divine life. They spend years at a time in the forest and in the mountains fasting and meditating in hopes of achieving the fourth goal of Hinduism: moksha, or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.  Though sadhus live in poverty, they are revered in the community for their holiness and are often given donations from the people of the community to help with their meager existences.  That being said sadhus are met with a certain level of wariness in some Indian cities due to the fact that they are often impersonated by the homeless and disenfranchised in hopes of acquiring handouts.  Sadhus also smoke charas, a potent form of cannabis hashish, in hopes of experiencing the energy patterns of the universe and the presence of God (Leffel).  This is very similar to the Rastafarian practice of “reasoning” where many Rastas will gather communally and smoke ganja together, an act by which Rasta’s raise their prayers to Jah. In the Rastafarian faith ganja smoking is an important sacrament that all Rastas practice. Many cultures use mind-altering substances such as peyote or marijuana to reach higher mental planes. Bob also has a special place in Nepal, his own Bob Marley Diner. Here Bob still brings together likeminded people, in a corner of the world one would never expect (Anoop). Hindu’s have a reincarnation myth regarding Marley reminiscent of that of the Havasupai.  You’ll recall that the Havasupai believed Marley to be the reincarnation of the great Chief Crazy Horse, well the Hindi took it a step further: some Hindi actually see Bob as the re-embodiment of the god Vishnu.  Vishnu is no lower tier god, either; Vishnu is the supreme God in Hindu faith, the governor of the Universe, the master of time and space, architect of the past, present and future.

Reggae is by no means a very popular form of music in Nepal or in other Hindu nations. The amount of respect shown to Bob Marley by other cultures is indicative of Marley’s power and passion, of his spiritual strength. Marley’s spirit translated effortlessly into other cultures, his message of peace and brotherly love is universal. He was truly the embodiment of One Love and is a prime example of the power of love and unity. Another culture that has openly accepted Bob Marley and reggae music are the indigenous people called the Maori. The Maori settled the Polynesian islands of New Zealand around 800 years ago. Here the Maori developed a unique warrior culture around horticulture. The Maori fought minor wars between themselves until the arrival of the Europeans. Eventually Europeans brought weapons and disease. The flooding of New Zealand with rifles and muskets greatly unbalanced the tribal hierarchy. Many Maori were killed in the resulting Musket Wars. In these wars the Maori were pit against one another by the English, enslaving one another and using said slaves to manage the new potato fields (Musket Wars). Queen Victoria annexed New Zealand in 1840, later in the year England signed the Treaty of Waitangi that guaranteed the Maori property rites and tribal rites as long as they declared themselves British subjects. The signing of this treaty coincides with the birthday of Bob Marley, February 6th. This treaty treated New Zealand much like it did Jamaica, using it as a trade hub, it promised the Maori much but delivered little. Bob’s influence stems from the only concert appearance he ever made in New Zealand in April 1976. Marley’s songs entranced concertgoers in Auckland, the listeners were intrigued by the message of Rastafari and many Maori were converted. In New Zealand there is a Maori man named Ruia Aperehama who has spent a lot of time translating Bob Marley’s music into te Reo, the Maori language. “The impact that I have seen was very moving and very touching…” said Ruia of the influence that Bob’s music has had on the Maori, “There are things in Bob Marley’s life that bear strong similarities, say, with my life and many rural Maori communities… not only the social and economic background that Bob Marley came from… but also the cultural and spiritual.” (Ellison). The Maori have a very similar colonial history to Jamaica, wrought with shady politics and colonization. Ruia is using Bob’s music to preserve the Maori language for future generations. The Maori are trying to maintain their unique culture and heritage much the same way that Jamaicans are attempting to preserve their African heritage. The Maori are saving their language and in doing so saving their identity.  Bob as a Rastafarian and a rhetorician would appreciate this, I think.

Because of the similar past socioeconomic climates of New Zealand and Jamaica and the comparable naturalistic life styles of the Maori and the Rasta the two cultures were immediately fascinated by one another. Of course the Maori would love Bob, he was the voice of the politically disenfranchised and the financially exploited. Now New Zealand has nurtured a growing reggae scene with multiple great roots reggae bands like Cornerstone Roots and Tigi Ness. Tigi Ness is an accomplished politician, musician, and dread Rasta. He was born in a mostly Maori neighborhood in Auckland and was raised a Christian. Eventually racial stresses in his community led him to the realization of the corruption of Babylon. He joined the Polynesian Panthers, which was a group of Maori with an assertive political stance who stood for equality and individual rights. The Black Panther Party in America directly influenced the Polynesian Panthers; the Panthers aimed to overthrow the capitalist government in New Zealand with hopes of ending oppression and exploitation of Maoris.  Today New Zealand is a peaceful place that is home to many different races and cultures. Because of the passing of the Treaty of Waitangi Act in 1975, Maori’s are now able to make claims to a tribunal regarding breaches of the original Treaty of Waitangi by the government. This was a big step for the Maori, since it’s inception the Tribunal has been responsible for a variety of findings that has helped to remedy some of the misdeeds of the English colonial government ('Waitangi Day 1970s').

The Aboriginals of Australia also have had a tumultuous history regarding land rights and the colonization of Australia by the English. Australia was originally founded by the English to act as a series of prison colonies where dangerous criminals could be segregated from the general population in England.  Australia experienced a gold rush in the 1850s that brought many thousands of English immigrants to the continent. In the 20th century the population of indigenous people in Australia had declined dramatically due to disease brought by these immigrants. Smallpox was the leading cause of death among the Australian Aboriginals.  The English appropriated Aborigine lands in order to create new farms and grazing land to support the growing influx of European immigrants. In the 1970s and 80s the Aboriginals were facing very serious economic struggles. The Australian government estimated in 1976 that of the 30-35,000 Aborigines in the Australian workforce, about 14,000 were unemployed, that’s nearly half of the Aborigine workforce (O’Lincoln). Jamaicans were experiencing a very similar economic downturn in the 70s with an estimated unemployment rate of 30-40% (Jamaica - History).

Much like many other cultures across the globe, Aboriginal music has become a means for protest against unsavory social and economic conditions. Bob Marley is often credited with the revival of Aboriginal music through his inspirational songs of freedom and unity. The movie Wrong Side of the Road linked Aboriginal land struggles with reggae bands struggling to make their music while making a name for themselves. In Aboriginal mythology the time before man was called Dreamtime. During this Dreamtime ancient spirits wandered the Australian land singing creation songs. So, in this way music is entwined into the very creation story of the Aboriginals (Wikipedia).  Today in Australia there is a strong campaign against Marijuana. Political parties in Australia are attempting to link Aboriginal suicides and violent crime with the use of cannabis.  One doctor actually believes that reggae music plays a role in substance abuse in Aboriginal communities (Lambe).  In my opinion it is the cultural disempowerment of the black man that has caused this depression. Some Aboriginals believe it will take black empowerment in Australia to stop these suicides and that the campaign against marijuana is subversively a campaign against the empowerment of Aboriginal people. Rastas believe that herb is the healing of the nation and that it induces a peaceful, meditative state. It seems impossibly ignorant for anybody to claim that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, the argument could be made that the criminalization of marijuana is based solely on economic and sociological factors that benefit those in power. I believe that by keeping marijuana illegal the system intends to keep the peoples collective mind in shackles. The fact that marijuana is linked so closely with reggae and black empowerment frightens those in power, thus we see today’s failing “War on Drugs”. To spite the fact that Aboriginals are not descendants of African people, many Aboriginals are adopting Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean culture as their own. Aboriginals identify with Reggae because it is a music that evokes rebellion and because they can identify with the oppression that faces indigenous cultures all over the world.

Reggae has influenced many cultures and peoples around the world, helped them to unite and to fight for their freedom. Truly, Africa itself has found a new image in the verses of reggae musicians like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear. Their words are wrought with luscious descriptions of the heaven they dreamed they would someday return to in Africa, Zion.  Their songs gave hope to Africans all over the continent, hearing that people on a far off island dreamed of someday returning to Zion, the heavenly Africa, gave the impoverished and those fighting for them hope and fuel to continue on. Bob Marley said in an early interview, “Too many people going on like England and America are in the world.  But there is a better life in Africa. I feel for Africa, I want to go there and write some music. Instead of New York why can’t we go to Ghana? Go to Nigeria-meet some people, learn a new language. You see, people are only seeking material vanity. Black People are so stubborn. They stay here because white people give them a big hotel and a floor to vacuum." (Wright).

Reggae music has come full circle. What began as African tribal rhythms and songs evolved into hopeful and rebellious variations of the original tunes. From the beginning these songs were hopeful, they boasted of the salvation and freedom that awaited slaves in their distant future. Escaped Jamaican slaves fled to the hills and started up their own societies. These “maroons” continued to carry on their African traditions including many forms of African drumming and dancing.  These songs evolved into the modern Reggae and Rock Steady rhythms that have carried Jamaican hopes for so long, through so much hardship and poverty. Isn’t it fitting that now this music and its prophets are helping people all over the African continent understand their disposition and how it came to be as such. Bob Marley himself was a true revolutionary and freedom fighter, though he didn’t fight with guns or sticks he instead used words to chant down his enemies and to rise up his followers. “Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny, and in this judgment there is no partiality. So arm in arms, with arms, we'll fight this little struggle, 'cause that's the only way we can overcome our little trouble.” So goes Marley’s song, “Zimbabwe” which was chosen as the national anthem for the Pan-African freedom fighters during the Rhodesian civil war. The lyrics ring of hope, urging the fighters to liberate themselves and to claim their country for their own. 

I would never have imagined that reggaes message was so potent that it has rubbed off on cultures from America, to Nepal and everywhere in between. It is astounding that only a few decades after Bob Marley’s death he is considered to be a musical prophet all over the globe. Bob Marley’s image is synonymous with freedom and rebellion all over the Third World. Writing this paper has been an interesting process, especially writing from a westernized point of view. How can we relate at all to this music, considering that a majority of the matter covered in these songs refers to our oppression and enslavement of the African Race? It is the diversity of Reggae music that allows everybody to connect to it, even if on a commercial level.  As much as we all hate to admit it, our lives are ruled by materialism. But maybe reggae makes us think a little about this. It isn’t wrong to want things, we can only be asked to act within our social expectations. We were raised wanting and receiving, we knew as children that if we asked enough we’d eventually get what we wanted. In this way it’s hard for us to think of life from a Third World perspective, we could never imagine what it must be like to starve and wonder where your next meal may be coming from, or to wear the same clothes or no clothes at all.  Reggae music has helped lift people in these very conditions up since its development.

It is no wonder then that Bob Marley is considered a mystical prophet and deity among many cultures in the world that are not his own. Bob’s music carries a message that speaks to the entire world and seeks to tear down the oppressive inner-workings of the Babylonian “shitstem”. In songs like “Get up, Stand up” Bob begged his audience to rise up and take the fight to the oppressors. Bob preached that only you could improve your lot in life, so get out there and do something about it. He knew that freedom wouldn’t come easily and it hasn’t. So reggae continues to spread and inspire people around the globe it’s positive message has resonating through many cultures, uniting those who understand its message under three colors and three goals: peace, love, and unity among all people on earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Lambe, Mick. "Aboriginal people and Marijuana, two popular scapegoats in the Northern Territory." Help us end this crazy War on Drugs! ~ Network Against Prohibition (NAP) ~ NT Chapter. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. <http://www.napnt.org/pages/Aboriginal__People_and_Marijuana.htm>.

 

White, Judy. "Havasupai Indian Tribe History." Access Genealogy: A Free Genealogy Resource. Ed. Dennis Patridge. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. <http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/havasupaiindianhist.htm>.

 

Life and Debt. Dir. Stephanie Black. Perf. Documentary. Tuff Gond Pictures, 2003. DVD.

 

Leffel, Tim. "Smokin' Sadhus: India's Wandering Holymen Make Puffing Hash Their Sacred Ritual." Gonomad.com. Web. <http://www.gonomad.com/features/0301/smokin.html>.

 

Byrne, John. Hoffman M., Steven. “No One Ever Told Us.” Governing the atom: the politics of risk. Transaction Publishers, 1996.

            Pandey, Anoop. "The Raja of Rasta and Reggae." Nepali Times 1 Jan. 2005, Liesure sec. Nepali Times. Nepali Times, 28 Jan. 2005. Web. <http://www.nepalitimes.com/issue/232/Leisure/1314>.

            'Waitangi Day 1970s', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/treaty/waitangi-day/waitangi-day-1970s, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 25-Sep-2007

            O'Lincoln, Tom. ""If we all stand together"" Bookmarks, Melbourne, 1993. Web. <http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/aborigines.htm>.

            Ellison, Brett. "The Maori Bob Marley." The Critic. 30 July 2004. Web. <http://www.critic.co.nz/archive?type_code=a&page=26&archive_id=442>.

            N/A. "Jamaica - History." Encyclopedia of the Nations. Web. <http://http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Americas/Jamaica-HISTORY.html>.

Wikipedia. "Aboriginal music of Australia." 7 Jan. 2004. Web. <http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=r&p=a&a=i&ID=1637>.

"Bob Marley and Africa : Marley Music Was Not Only Admired But Was The Source Of Inspiration For Many African Musicians." Ed. Jon Wright. Web. <http://www.rasta-man-vibration.com/africa.html>.

 

“Musket Wars.” http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/new-zealands-19th-century-wars/the-musket-wars, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Oct-2009