RURAL PARADISE OR A CONCRETE JUNGLE?
Rhetoric of Reggae Music
April 25, 2002
Many rural and urban areas exist in the United States. Depending on where you live definitely affects who you are, how you think, dress, eat etc. Is this true for the Rastafarians?
Located in the West Indian Islands, Jamaica represents the third largest island. Jamaica is 150 miles long and 52 miles wide. The subtropical climate does not produce the extremes related to climate found in the United States. The island of Jamaica is described as being very beautiful with its rivers, harbors, and many mountains. The population of Jamaica has not quite reached three million with the majority of people living in the city of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica (Barrett 3).
The difference in wage earnings among Jamaican people is alarming. Those who have a profession make around thirty times as much as those who do not. Nearly half of all Jamaicans make less than twenty-five dollars per week (Barrett 12).
There has been a tradition of migration from Jamaican rural areas since the nineteenth century. The waves of emigration to Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba, the United States and Britain during the first sixty years of the nineteenth century represent the route taken by the more privileged workers to escape rural poverty. The less privileged have moved from rural areas to Jamaica’s cities. The growth of unionism in the sugar fields and government schemes to redistribute lands proved unsuccessful in stopping the poor from being forced to move into urban areas (Austin 9).
In 1960, the government of Norman Manley recognized the power the Rastafarians had achieved and decided to send a mission to Africa. The mission included three Rasta Brethren: Douglas Mack, Phil Alvaranga, and Mortimer Plano. They explored the possibility of Jamaicans repatriating back to Africa. Once the men returned from Africa, they brought optimistic news supporting the repatriation. Unfortunately, the Manley government lost the pre-independence election to Alexander Bustamente, leader of the Jamaican Labor Party. The new government dismissed the repatriation plan. The Rastafari still believed that the mission to Africa could happen and they could leave the white dictated society of Babylon behind (Wilson 4).
City life in Jamaica offers people a chance to obtain jobs, wealth, and possibly fame. Many people flock to the city for these reasons. People from the country go to the city because they can have better access to electricity and water. Many stay with friends and do not even care if they have a bed since they are used to not having one in the country.
It is a common phenomenon in Jamaica to distinguish between “town” and “country”. Country people are thought to be good and town people are thought to be bad. This is ironic because the majority of country people want to move to town and most town people have relatives in the country they visit frequently (Macmillan 31). An example of this is seen in Dancehall Queen when Marcia takes her brother, Junior, out to the country to visit their parents. Junior is under pressure in the city so he stays in the country for awhile where he is safe and can start feeling better.
Rastas leave the country and come to the city looking for employment but usually end up unemployed and street life becomes their only life. The street life faced by Rastafarians is rough. This type of life indicates the Rastafarians disregard for norms and etiquette. Most Rastas walk around with scars on their arms, shoulders, faces, and legs. Some Rastas work for the government or private firms, but usually they are fired because of their dreadlocks. Many sell ganja that was cultivated in nearby mountains or brought in from the country. Ganja dealers typically ride motorcycles, which suggest they are a successful dealer. Examples of this were seen in The Harder They Come and Rockers (Austin 128).
The Rastafarian lifestyle is very transient. Rastas spend their days and nights moving from apartment to apartment usually crashing wherever they can. Some Rastas have enough money to afford an apartment themselves. It is very important for Rastas to meet and greet as many people as they can on the streets and learn their names and nicknames. These people may provide them with a place to stay (Austin 126-127).
Many Rastafarians living in the city are known for scuffling. Scuffling is particularly common among Rastafarians because their stay in Jamaica is intended to be short because they believe that someday they will be headed back to Africa (Zion). They do not worry about regular work and live by picking up what they can here and there (Carley 138). Scuffling is predominantly done by the unemployed, lower class who sells small consumer items such as toiletries and homemade brooms for a living. Scuffling serves as a substitute for wage labor. It is a result of an urban environment where a lower class of people become dependent upon the wage earning capacity of a working class market (Austin 9).
By the middle of the 1960’s the church no longer had much influence on the “sufferer” youths living in the city. The value system of the church became completely irrelevant to these youths. The church continued with its traditional teachings and failed to recognize the high rates of unemployment or the severely uneven distribution of wealth. It was obvious to the sufferers that there was a contradiction between the Christian value system and the emerging capitalism in Jamaica. Rastafarian beliefs became the new way for people to fulfill their spiritual needs since Christianity could not. The Rastafarian movement mushroomed in the mid-sixties and became a powerful political and cultural force we see today (Wilson 5-6).
The following lines are from Bob Marley’s song Babylon System. The song focuses on Babylon and how it corrupts the youth. It mentions the church and that it deceives people, like mentioned in the paragraph above. Bob compares Babylon to a vampire and how it sucks the life out of the sufferers:
We refuse to be
What you wanted us to be
We are what we are
That's the way it's going to be, if you don't know
You can't educate I
Talking about my freedom
People freedom and liberty
The winepress much too long
We've been trodding on the
Babylon System is the Vampire
Sucking the children day by day
Me say the Babylon System is the Vampire
Sucking the blood of the sufferers
Building church and university
Deceiving the people continually
Me say them graduating thieves and murderers
Look out now
Sucking the blood of the sufferers
Tell the children the truth
Tell the children the truth right now
Come on and tell the children the truth
The city of Kingston contains both very nice living conditions and poor, slum conditions. The suburban communities sit high up on the hills and look down upon the slum towns. The handful of white Jamaicans remain on their estates and typically are plantation managers or hold executive positions (Macmillan 39).
In Kingston the division between the upper and lower class is obvious. The lower class typically draws in the Rastafarian population that finds their homes in the slums of the city. Besides for Haiti, Jamaica has some of the worst slum conditions in the Caribbean (Barrett 9).
One of the most well known areas that the Rastafarians once occupied was Back-O-Wall. Back-O-Wall was a section of the city that was comprised of tin can houses; literally made out of any scrap metal the Rastas could find. Near the end of 1965 social unrest, gang trouble and vandalism increased throughout Back-O-Wall. Due to the trouble that was arising and because this area was the home to many Rastafarians the government decided to destroy the area with bulldozers. This extreme government act created a lot of controversy. The bulldozing mission left the poor and needy people, many of which were Rastafarians, in an even worse condition. The national weekly, Public Opinion, wrote:
“Operation “bulldoze and burn” was executed with ruthless efficiency, indicating meticulous advanced planning and anyone who witnessed the devastation of the settlements and the devastation of the poorest of our poor people must wonder whether in the government, we have men or monsters” (Barrett 157).
After the destruction of Back-O-Wall, Rastas were forced to find new homes. Many moved to different slum towns and some went out to the country. Rastafarians are used to being mistreated by the government and are constantly adapting to the difficulties that face them (Barrett 10). Rastafarians practice their traditions, which in turn provide them a release from the drabness, drudgery and humiliation they face living everyday in an extremely depressed area (Macmillan 195).
One particular case study done in Vermount, a neighborhood in Kingston, addressed social control. Due to the lack of employment many Rastafarians started congregating in the streets and at the local shopping center in the town. Vermount had become an especially popular meeting place among the Rastas because the center of town is large and open. Rastafarians believe that the police are less likely to harass them if they are out in the open, especially in a middle class neighborhood. Many residents of the neighborhood started feeling uneasy with the Rastafarian presence. A number of shootings occurred and residents did not feel safe. They felt as though the Rastafarian presence brought a “criminal element” to Vermount. The neighborhood started a police boys’ club in order to draw youth away from the Rastafarian street life that was developing (Austin 73-74).
Sport and Leisure in Kingston
Major League Football is the most common game played by the Rastafarians. Football in Jamaica is a common sport played by those less fortunate or unemployed. Football is more than just a pastime for Rastas; it is a measure of prestige because the culture of Rastafarians focuses on personal performance and display. Sometimes the towns of Selton Town or Vermount take on the police team or the Jamaica Defense Force. The Rastas must beat these teams because they represent the society that is responsible for their oppression. The President of the Vermount team said, “The best footballers in Jamaica are dreads.”
The football matches are open and usually take place on empty, dusty plots of land. Matches typically occur on the weekends during the late afternoon and during the week. Rastas come to the matches and sit together in their own sections. They dress to protest the norms and values of the typical society. At the match most Rastas will be smoking ganja. It is typical of a wealthier Rasta to carry a pouch of ganja and roll spliffs during the match. Along with smoking, a lot of selling/exchanging of ganja goes on at the games. Sometimes old enemies try to end their fights at football matches. The fights may involve guns but typically just knives and stones (Austin125).
Many Rastafarians spend most of their time outdoors. Swimming and fishing are both popular pastimes. Good swimmers are admired because many people do not know how to swim at all. Dominoes and cards are also played but are not associated with the prestige that swimming or football is (Austin 126).
The housing in rural areas is not much better than that found in the slum towns of the city. The advantage to living in the country is that you are living close to nature and housing conditions do not really make a difference. Many of the houses found in rural Jamaica are known as “wattle and daub” dwellings. They are houses built with sticks, covered with wattle, plastered with clay and a little cement, and then whitened with lime. Thatch palms typically cover the roof. Only one forth of these houses has electricity or running water.
One of the biggest problems faced by those in the country is their access to cultivable lands. Before independence more than half of the land in Jamaica was possessed by only one percent of the population. Rural farmers usually only had a small sector of hilly land to make a living off of. The rest of the land was either used for grazing or owned privately and not used. After independence, the government started returning land to small farmers in hope that it would improve living conditions and encourage people to move out of the city and back into the country (Barrett 11-12).
Peter is the first example of a Rastafarian leaving the country and moving to the city in order to make something out of his life. I think Peter is an interesting example because although his city life was not the best he did not move back to the country. He found his true self as a Rastafarian and continued to follow his dreams.
Peter Broggs was born in 1954 in Hanover, Westmoreland, a peaceful area of the countryside. Peter started out singing in the outdoors surrounded by nature. Nature was his main inspiration.
When Peter turned seventeen he moved to Kingston. Leaving his home in the country, he found himself sharing a tiny shack with his brother and working a factory job. Peter said, “When you are a young Jamaican and you are smack bang in the middle of the countryside, nothing happens and you have only one desire, to leave and do something with your life. So after awhile, you head for the towns, where you can try and make things happen. And that’s what I did.”
This is similar to the feelings Ivan had in the movie The Harder They Come. In the very beginning of the movie Ivan arrives in Kingstown from the country. He left the country so he could move to the city and become famous as a singer and make something out of his life. Jamaicans believe that they can make things happen living in the city.
During the 1970’s Peter started growing dreadlocks and hanging out with some Rastas. A typical night amongst the Rastas consisted of sitting around a fire in the ghetto, smoking herb out of a challis, and discussing Jah Rastafari. After being exposed to the Rastas and reading passages from the Bible, Peter realized he had always been a Rasta but needed this spark to get him going. The Rastafarian beliefs allowed Peter to realize who he was and what spiritual voice to follow.
Once Peter was fired from his job because of his dreadlocks he submerged himself back into his music. Although he was not in the inspired by a country setting he now had the opportunities of the city to get his music career started. He recorded and distributed a few 45s but soon realized the music business was not for him at this point in his life. The pressure was too great and recording and distributing cost too much. Peter was forced back into the ghettos. He found himself enjoying his nights in the ghetto with the Rastas. He said, “Living in the ghetto was like living in shit, but we survived or at least tried” (www.peterbroggs.com/bio.htm).
James is the next example of a Rastafarian born in the country. His story is different than Peter’s and gives a better insight of life in the hills.
James was born in the 1920’s on the Northwest coast of Jamaica. His childhood was spent in the rural hills of Hanover Parish. James lived very minimally with no electricity, running water, telephone or car. He truly was living with nature. Unlike Peter, James became aware of Rastafarianism early in his life. He practiced daily meditations and gained a better understanding of the religion.
James, like Peter and many other Jamaicans born in the country, moved to the city and got a job. He got a decent job at an airport and was a very hard worker. James started to grow his dreadlocks and got fired from his job (also just like what happened to Peter). When he was informed about losing his job he said, “I prefer life over silver and gold, thank you very much.”
James did exactly what one would expect. He knew he belonged in the hills and gathered his belongings and moved back to the same hills he spent his childhood in. His brothers and sisters could not believe he left his job in the city to move back to the country. They also did not understand his Rastafarian beliefs that he had become devoted to.
James found himself alone in the country and stayed in a small cave. One day another Rasta came to help him out. They built a two-room bamboo “gate” and lived together. As one can imagine living life as a Rastafarian was not easy. Rastafarians were looked down upon. They were known as dirty, nasty, bug hair crazies. Along with being fired from your job because of your dreadlocks, Rastas were constantly being persecuted by the government and police. Even their neighbors in the hills acted fearful and suspicious. People could not understand why James would choose to live on a dirt floor out in the bush just because of a devotion to Jah Rastafari.
Although not many people understood James, he was far from crazy. When James heard or saw injustice he would try to stop it. James was not a violent person and used only his words to fight. James was extremely persistent and got himself into trouble speaking powerful words of truth. He was arrested and beaten many times. One example of this was when he was trying to save a mango tree on the side of the road from being cut down. His perspective of the mango tree was that it was a source of food for travelers and provided them with shade from the hot sun. He was beaten so badly for trying to save the tree that he was brought to the morgue. James regained consciousness and walked away.
By the 1960’s and 1970’s the lifestyle of the Rastafarians was catching on with the youth and getting very popular. Many of these youth left the city, Babylon, and moved to the hills with James and built gates. James had become very well known at this point and acted as an elder to all the youth. He preached day and night and helped people realize the natural life they were missing out on living in Babylon. It did not take much time before James had developed an International Rasta community living alongside him in the hills. Their life was peaceful and respectful. If neighboring people were fearful and suspicious when James was living by himself, imagine how fearful and suspicious they became when there was an entire community of Rastas living near them.
It was only a matter of time until one Sunday morning twenty-five police raided the hills. The Rasta community was charged with running a ganja production ring. They were all beaten and taken to jail. James was sentenced to three years in jail. The other Rastas were sentenced from six months up to one year. The foreigners that joined James in the hills were sent back to their countries and told never to return. James made it clear to the judge that Babylon could not take over the power of Jah Rastafari.
While in prison James got the name “Jah Lightening”. When the barber shaved his first dreadlock off a bolt of lightening struck the water tower at the prison and water gushed out everywhere. James quickly gained respect from fellow prisoners and was seen as a very powerful man.
Three long years in prison went by and when let out James returned back to the hills he was torn away from. The Rasta community that once existed was totally destroyed. This time James moved further into the bush so he would not be as easily found and built another gate. He did not receive the amount of visitors he had prior to prison but some came seeking his great wisdom and words of truth. The years after prison James remained in the hills and meditated and praised his leader Jah Rastafari (http://homepage.mac.com/ianib1/RastaGuide/Biography.html).
Luciano said, “Nature is the essence of my being. I am a culture man, born in Davidtown, Manchester, the more rural part of Jamaica. And I grew up in a natural habitat. I use natural vibes to really keep my spirit in tune. I realize it is important to keep a natural vibration. Even with my profession, my recorded works, I try to keep as much to nature as possible.” Luciano finds inspiration to write songs whenever there are trees or water nearby. He believes that where there is water there is quietness which is why the countryside is so perfect (www.africana.com/DailyArticles/index_20010404.htm).
Luciano’s song Over the Hills talks about leaving the city and going to a place in the country to get away:
in this jungle created by mankind?
Where will I lay my weary head,
tell me, how will I find a peace of mind?
man and man must insure them head
But I feel like running instead
And find me a place I'll be free
I will take me over hills and the valleys, yes
I will find me a place, I'll be free
Yes I'll take me far away from the city
Mother Nature is calling me
These lines reflect how nature inspires Luciano’s songwriting. He associates moving to the country as a way to get free from the jungle of the city. The song continues:
and I can't find a thing to 'nyam'
sometimes I contemplate and wonder what is wrong
Though I drive so hard I just can't get along
Man to man is unjust and I don't know who to trust
Still I say living is a must
So I'll find me a place where I'll be free
These lines refer to the starvation and poverty experienced while living in the city. It seems that the conditions in the city are getting so bad that in order to continue living you need to move to the country where you can finally be free.
The I-tals are one of Jamaica’s premier Reggae groups. They are also from the countryside of Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica. When asked about the countryside they grew up in they said, “ Well we really not like the environment of the city. We like to live in the country and do our work and go back. You get more better food fe eat out there, you know…more fresher food and fresh air and t’ing like that” (www.nghthwk.com/Artists/2/itals_bio.html).
Luciano and the I-tals are two more examples of Reggae artists that prefer rural life over urban life. Born in the country, they have stuck with their roots and use the country for inspiration in their music.
Rastafarians believe that they are African and need to live the way Africans do. Africans are known to live in harmony with nature, therefore, Rastafarians must do the same. This includes making their own food, not using the land in any way to make a profit, and consuming foods without chemicals. Rastafarians are able to live naturally this way and although they are not in Africa, they are able to live like they are.
Daily meditations, gatherings, and praying are typical in the routine of a Rastafarian. At the gatherings the Rastas discuss their meditations and tell stories about their dreams, which they consider as their prophecies (http://members.aol.com/Kaya4Dokx/rasta2.html).
Marijuana in Jamaica has a long and unique history. Ganja was used as a medicine by the indigenous Arawak tribes and they were the ones who taught the African Jamaicans how to use marijuana. Both scholars and Rastafarians see marijuana use as one of the most powerful forces in the Rastafarian movement and as a way to bring Rastafarians together. Ganja is known as “wisdomweed” and aids Rastas in their daily meditations.
The Rastafarian use of ganja cannot be compared with the use of ganja in the West. The Rastafarians strictly emphasize living in harmony with the world and nature. Ganja fits into the context of the Rasta Ital diet, which involves being a vegetarian and also not eating food that contain salts, preservatives, or condiments. Rastas avoid coffee, alcohol, and other drugs and live off the land whenever possible.
Smoking ganja is also seen as a political act. It symbolizes the refusal of Rastas to live by the laws and customs of Babylon. Instead smoking ganja abides by the Bible, which says to use all the herbs of the earth.
The government views the Rastafarian rituals of smoking ganja very negatively. These views have no effect on the Rastas. The only effect the government could have on the Rastas relating to ganja is arresting them for selling, smoking or growing it. Ganja is considered a divine herb and is the core of the Rasta religious experience, meetings, prayers, and biblical interpretation (http://www.beliefnet.com/story/38/story_3843_1.html).
There are obvious differences between the rural and urban settings in Jamaica in which Rastafarians call home. Sometimes Rastas are forced to live in the city because that is where they are born and are stuck there. Other Rastas are born in the country and move to the city because of the opportunities that exist. Some Rastas are born and raised in the country and decide to stay there and live with nature. For some Rastas where they call home is their choice and for others it is not. The four examples in this paper show the Rastas having a choice as to whether they were going to live in the country or city.
I do not think the differences in rural and urban life have as much of an effect on the Rastafarians as it does on people in the United States. Rastafarians are an oppressed society of people that make the best of their situation. Their beliefs, rituals, foods, etc. do not change when they change where they call home.
Living with nature is a strong belief among the Rastas. This is easy to do when living in the country but what about in the city? After doing research my interpretation on nature has changed. I now think nature in this situation does not always mean the hills of the country and can apply to the slums of the city. The Rastas living in the city are still living close to nature. They do not live with any luxuries and literally build houses out of what they find on the ground.
Regardless of where Rastafarians live, they are still looked down upon by others. Their habitual ganja use and dreadlocks have given them a negative stereotype. Despite the harassment they endure, the Rastafarians deal with it and continue to lead their lives.
Rastafarianism is a political, social, and religious movement. Whether living in rural paradise or a concrete jungle, Rastas stay true to their beliefs and continue to hail Jah Rastafari.
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Two Neighborhoods. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1984.
Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
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<http://homepage.mac.com/ianib1/RastaGuide/Biography.html> Rasta Guidance.