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"To Be Someone, To Belong":
The Black Womyn's Experience in Rastafari
22 April 1998
Upon seeing various Jamaican films and listening to various reggae artists, a constant question running through my mind was,"Where are all the womyn?"In all of the films it seemed as though there were virtually no womyn in Jamaica, and those that were there were only on the periphery, not playing a main role in everyday life. Those films that depicted the Rastafarian way of life seemed to show no womyn in them either. I was somewhat confused about the seeming absence of womyn, and it forced me to question their role in Jamaican and Rastafarian society. My questions regarding this issue were pushed further when a friend of mine returned home from Jamaica and expressed the same kinds of concerns. She said that during the few weeks she spent there she had seen maybe a dozen or two dozen Jamaican womyn altogether.
As I moved further into my studies of Rastafarianism and reggae music, I noticed how gendered the language in both the religious tenets and music lyrics was. As a western womyn, this was peculiar to me. As you can notice, I don't even write the word"womyn"with the"man"in it. I find it insulting that my identity should be bound up in that of the opposite sex. I am entrenched in the world of political correctness and gender neutrality. However, reggae music and other rhetorical pieces of literature from Rastafari do not contain the same element of neutral gender identity as the United States has been moving towards. Rather, much of it is framed in a male or masculinist language. This implanted a few suspicions within me about the possibility of Rastafarianism being somewhat patriarchal, but, I was at first unwilling to accept the idea. I felt that this was impossible due to the fact that Rastafarianism was such a socially conscious movement dealing with the horrors of oppression and exploitation of blacks.
However, it seems as though the impossible is possible, or at least mostly possible, and traditional Rastafarianism enforces rules and cultural norms that keep womyn in the subordinate, domesticated realm of everyday life. Yet, in the last thirty years or so, those rules and norms have been slowly challenged by a new generation of Rastafarian womyn who no longer accept their inferior position and are demanding greater equality. These womyn, some of whom turn to reggae to promote their own socially conscious ideas, symbolize the growing consciousness of womyn in Jamaica and other majority world countries who have experienced centuries of oppression.
The purpose of this paper is to explore what the traditional role of Rastawomyn is as well as to see how that role has changed in recent years. I will also show how those changing views are reflected in current womyn reggae musicians lyrics in their quest for equality. Due to the fact that I have read one too many law reviews, the paper is set up largely as such. Part One explores the role of womyn in traditional Rastafari culture while Part Two describes how that role has been changing through the past three decades to incorporate more of an egalitarian ethic in terms of gender relations. Finally, Part Three explores the feminist rhetorical elements of a few principle womyn reggae artists which serve as a reflection of how the views and roles of Rastafarian womyn are changing.
Part 1: Womyn's Traditional Roles in Rastafari
The traditional role of womyn in Rastafarianism is somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, womyn are very respected by their male counterparts and are given honorific titles such as"sister"and"queen"to show that respect. As Chevannes documented in his book on Rastafarianism,"womyn are respected, perhaps even feared, for their powers of fertility and command greater allegiance and love from males and females alike..."(Chevannes, 1994: 28).
On the other hand, womyn are largely subordinated to and controlled by their husbands and fathers as well as the rest of the men in the community. This kind of sexism can be seen in the practices, norms, and rules of the Rasta culture. Let us first examine those aspects of womyn's roles in Rastafarianism that reflect the positive side of gender relations, which, coincidentally, are largely forgotten in much of present-day literature on the Rasta culture.
Positive Aspects of Womyn's Roles in Traditional Rastafari
The respect that Rastamen pay to Rastawomyn draws greatly upon the history of the"Queen Omega"phenomenon. Haile Selassie's wife, Empress Menen, was referred to as Queen Omega. Leonard P. Howell in The Promised Key describes the title of Queen Omega as follows:
"Queen Omega, the Ethiopian woman is the crown woman of this world. She hands us the rule book from the poles of Supreme Authority. She is the Canon Mistress of our creation, King Alpha [Haile Selassie] and Queen Omega are the paymasters of the world. Queen Omega being the blaming mistress of many worlds, she charges the powerhouse right now"(Jahug, Pg. 37).
Hence, Queen Omega was taken to mean the crown empress of Ethiopia at the given time, i.e. Empress Menen. The above quote shows that the title is honorific and respectful. Moreover, the quote shows that Queen Omega is a strong woman who challenges oppression and the 44 powerhouse"(ibid, pg. 38). The Rastas believe that the Rastawomyn are the daughters of Queen Omega. Hence, they see the positive qualities associated with Queen Omega in every Rastafari womyn, and the title of Queen Omega can be extended to womyn of the Rasta culture to be a symbol of the deep respect held for that individual. This is the highest title that a womyn can be given.
Just as the Rastamen modeled themselves after the Emperor Haile Selassie, the Rastawomyn took on Empress Menen, Queen Omega, as their own role model. Similarly, the religious tenets of Rastafari dictated that the men should treat their womyn with the same respect that is due to the Queen Omega Empress Menen. Furthermore,"the psychological effect upon the black womyn to have an Afrikan womyn reigning as empress in regal splendor and being paid homage"(ibid, pg. 38) was extremely significant. It gave Rastawomyn an esteem and selfrespect that they had never before been granted. In this respect, the idea of Queen Omega took on a more abstract meaning in that it became a symbol of the esteem and honor that is due to all Rastawomyn. This not only affected the way the Rastawomyn saw themselves, but it also affected how they were seen and treated by their male counterparts. However, Empress Menen's early death led to a decreased focus on the Rastawomyn and her important role in the community.
In addition, the titles men use for Rastawomyn symbolize the respect they have for them. If there is one thing I have learned in this class it is that rhetoric and the use of specific language in certain ways can have very powerful effects. It is often noted that much of the language used in the Rasta culture as well as in reggae music is masculinist and sexist. However, one must not overlook the fact that amidst that sexist and patriarchal ideology also lies a deep respect that Rastamen have for their womyn. The titles that Rastawomyn are given reflect this respect. The womyn are called either"Sisters,""Daughters,"or"Queens."These titles are distributed regardless of one's age, status (sexual, marital, or familial), or appearance. Each of the"roles are accorded the natural familial connotations of respect, love, protection, and support"(Nicholas, 1966: 64). Respectful titles may not seem like a very big deal to many westerners, but they are very important in the Rasta culture. The titles reflect the fact that, regardless of the way that many dancehall musicians refer to womyn (which is usually in a degrading manner), traditional Rasta culture views womyn with respect and honor.
In addition to honorific titles, another positive aspect of men's treatment toward womyn is their desire to keep womyn relaxed and contented at all times (ibid, pg. 64). Rastamen feel as though womyn should never have to worry or be upset for any reasons; rather, they wish them to be at ease with themselves and at peace with the world at all times. This is reflected in Bob Marley's popular song lyrics"No woman, no cry"(ibid, pg. 64). However, as we will see later, this may also have negative effects such that the desire to keep womyn at ease may push them out of socio-political thought and reasoning for fear that it would put them at unease and discontent.
The Rastafarian emphasis on nature, love, and peace also has positive effects on the Rastawomyn. In contrast to much of western culture, Rastawomyn are not socialized to believe that their worth lies in how they look. Rather, their worth lies in who they are and how they conduct themselves. Furthermore, the Rasta culture is also relatively free from the competition among womyn for the affection of men that is so common to the minority world."A womyn is what she is or isn't born with, and her worth in life is relative only to her acceptance of Rastafari, the resultant peace and love within herself and her contribution to her family and community"(ibid, pg. 65). This content with one's natural being and life course fosters a community with relatively little jealousy or competition among Rastawomyn.
Negative Aspects of Womyn's Role in Rastafari
It is quite paradoxical, yet nonetheless true, that, while the traditional Rastafari culture commands utmost respect to be paid to womyn, the culture's practices, rules, and norms at the same time are geared towards deeming womyn as evil and inferior. Furthermore it seems inconceivable due to the fact that Rastafarianism is one of the most socially conscious and
progressive social movements of our time. The prophets of this unprecedented religious movement speak of equality and justice in ways that no others have done this side of the century. Poets and musicians such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh sing about white oppression and exploitation of the black man in serious and powerful ways so as to unite the black race to overcome that oppression. However, the Rastafarian practices of their preaching are somewhat called into question when one considers much of their treatment and views of womyn.
Some Rastas believe that womyn are inherently evil. The roots of this can be found in many Biblical passages and references. Since much of Rastafari is based on the Bible, it is no wonder that they incorporated the Christian ethic of womyn's inferiority into their own religion as well. The Rastas modeled the Rastawomyn's role after the womyn portrayed in the Bible. Hence, similar to western culture, the Rasta womyn fall upon the Eve syndrome in which"The Adam and Eve myth justifies womyn's generally unequal place in the family and in society. This and other myths from the Bible reinforce the peasant worldview that womyn are treacherous by nature"(Chevannes, 1994: 29). Therefore, the Rastas see womyn as naturally inferior and subordinate. Their treatment of them reflects this Biblical view.
The patriarchal aspects of Rastafari can be seen in the fact that, traditionally, womyn could not join the Rasta faith through their own volition. Rather, they had to be led into the religion by one of the Rasta brethren (Nicholas, 1966: 65). Furthermore, before the 1970s, womyn of Rastafari faith were referred to as a Rastaman womyn. There was no such term as Rastawomyn. This gendered discourse reflects the sexism that the traditional Rasta faith entails. Rather than recognizing a womyn as a separate entity, she was seen only as an extension of her man. This clearly shows how the traditional Rasta culture portrays womyn as inferior and subordinate to men.
In addition to this, a Rastawomyn's role in the community is largely centered around her family. Specifically, her main duties are to bear and rear her children, cook and prepare ital (natural, organic) food (in most Rasta communities), and serve as a positive role model to other womyn and girls in the community (ibid, pg. 64). Hence, the Rastawomyn have some authority over domestic issues while the Rastamen have sole control and authority over all issues outside of the home and family. This is not to say that the men do not have any say in domestic affairs, which they do; rather, that authority is somewhat counterbalanced by the authority that the womyn enjoy. Also, the men are supposed to share half of the burden of raising the children but rarely do. In spite of this, however, men are still regarded as the"physical and spiritual head of the female as well as the family"(Carroll, 1997). Furthermore, there is no reciprocity at all with regards to non-domestic issues. That is, outside of familial issues, the Rastawomyn have virtually no say in what goes on.
This is enforced through various rules and practices that guarantee that a womyn will not step out of her domestic role. These practices and rules perpetuate womyn's subordination and inferiority to men. One of these rules is that a womyn cannot lead any Rastafari ritual. Furthermore, she is not allowed to even take part in many of the Rastafari rituals, one of which is the reasoning session. A reasoning session is"a communal undertaking in which one shares beliefs about liberation and justice and relates them to the black experience of slaver, colonialism, and racism"(Lewis, 1993: 25). As one can tell, the reasoning session is a key aspect of the Rasta's fight against oppression and racism. The fact that womyn are excluded from this important ritual is endemic of the minute role womyn play in the larger issues of the Rastafarian movement. Moreover, a Rastawomyn is also prohibited from partaking of the chalice (i.e. smoking ganja) in public situations. She is only allowed to smoke from the chalice with other womyn in a private setting. This also demonstrates the womyn's inferior role because partaking of the chalice in the public realm with the Rasta brethren is a key aspect of the Rastafari faith through which the Rastas are spiritually united with each other and the earth. The exclusion of womyn from this practice not only shows how they are viewed as inferior, but it also undercuts their involvement with the Rasta faith in general. That is, it is almost if they are not true members at all because they are not allowed to take part in the key practices and rituals (Chevannes, 1994: 256). This view was furthered by a researcher who studied the Rastas and found that Rastawomyn"will listen but rarely offer more than a playful aside as the brethren sit around and caucus over the affairs of the world, Jamaica and Rasta. If serious business is at hand, it is likely that womyn will not be"(Nicholas, 1966: 65).
Other rules and norms that discriminate against womyn and portray them as inferior include rules regarding adultery, clothing, birth control, and cooking during menstruation. With respect to adultery, both Rastamen and womyn are not supposed have affairs outside of their marriage. However, the penalty for womyn if they do not obey this rule is that of death, while there seems to be no delineated rule for a man who commits the same infraction. This is clearly discriminatory towards womyn. Rules regarding dress and clothing are similarly biased against womyn. While men are free to walk around with nothing but a piece of cloth over their genitals, womyn must have their knees and legs covered at all times when they are outside of their home. However, they are not allowed to wear pants either. The former rule of covering one's legs was made because it was thought that if a womyn did not cover her legs, she was inviting"lust and crimes of passion and infidelity"(ibid, pg. 64). In fact, Rastas believe that all crimes of passion arise out of invited solicitation. Hence, if a womyn is raped, it is seen as her fault because she invited it. Moreover, Rastamen are given more freedom than womyn to expose their naturalness
and sexuality. Womyn are forced to hide their body and sexuality. Similarly, Rastawomyn are also compelled to keep their dreadlocks covered when going outside of the house while men are allowed to let them flow free. This is rooted in the book of Corinthians in the Bible where it suggests that a womyn dishonors herself when she uncovers her head. Although this law may not seem overtly sexist, the fact that it only prohibits womyn from wearing their locks free of cover and does not prohibit men from doing so speaks to the fact that womyn are largely excluded from the important aspects of the Rasta culture. This exclusion insures that they will play a subordinate role and furthers their being perceived as inferior. Therefore, the effects of the rule are sexist and oppressive. In addition, another rule that perpetuates subordination and inferiority of the Rastawomyn is that which prohibits her from using birth control. This keeps her from being able to have any control over her reproductive cycle and perpetuates her domestic role. Furthermore, the fact that the womyn cannot take initiative to control her own body shows how the womyn has little authority over anything-not even her own body. Finally, Rastawomyn are prohibited from cooking while they are menstruating because there is a supernatural fear that while the womyn is"under the influence and control of extensive powers that are potentially dangerous to all males above seven years old,"and those dangers are thought to be"transmissible into food through her vibrations"(Chevannes, 1994: 259). This tenet also shows the negative views that are held about womyn in traditional Rasta culture in that the natural cycle of menstruation is seen as a sign of danger toward the man. Furthermore, those womyn who attempt to disobey these rules may find themselves subject to severe beatings by their husbands or fathers which only further perpetuates womyn's subordination and oppression.
Part II: The Changing Role of Womyn in Rastafari
In the 1970s, Imani Tafari conducted a study of 80 Rastas who were well-distributed throughout the four principle Rastafari sects on men's and womyn's views regarding domestic roles, sexuality, self-image, and ideology. The study found that the womyn"expressed resentment at the Rasta male opposition to their self-expression, the use of the title"Daughter,"and the insistence on covering their locks"(Chevannes, 1994: 259). The elder womyn, however, felt that covering their locks was essential to"one of the highest principles cherished by Rastafari"(ibid, pg. 259). The reason for it being essential however, was not stated. In addition to this, the womyn expressed serious concern over the frequent infidelity of their spouses, especially their tendency to engage in extra- marital affairs with non-Rasta womyn. Furthermore, the Rastawomyn were divided on the issue of polygamy. Some of the womyn and most of the men thought that polygamy was justified as long as it was grounded in economic reasons and did not compromise the position of the original wife while other womyn were overwhelmingly opposed to it altogether (ibid, pg. 258). The study also found that, although the Rastafari religious tenets prevent men and womyn from using contraceptives, some of the members use them anyway while others remain celibate rather than risking having children. Still, Tafari found that many still do risk having children by using no contraception even if it is dangerous to the mother's health. In addition to this, with regards to a womyn's self image, the study found that, although some of the men felt as though the womyn's role in public life should not be so limited, they still defined her role as"essentially domestic"(ibid, pg. 259). Finally, the study found that whereas the men's ideologies firmly defended the authority of the Bible, the urban womyn"unhesitatingly blamed the negative Biblical sources for the imposition of an inferior status on
them. This system of authority, they said, required sorting out"(ibid, pg. 259). The rural womyn, however, were slightly more likely to believe that they truly were inferior to men than were the urban womyn.
This study along with others suggests that as early as the 1970s, Rastawomyn were beginning to question their inferior status in their culture. The womyn's comments regarding the Bible and how it locks them into such a status as well opposition to covering their locks certainly points to this. Similarly, the men's concession that womyn should be able to enjoy a greater involvement in public life points to the idea that perhaps men were starting to debunk the patriarchal nature of Rastafari as well. Hence,"as the Rastafarian movement evolved within the context of a changing wider society ... so too have the characteristics and role of the Rastafarian womyn. From the late 1970s on, the Rastafarian womyn have become increasingly self-aware and assertive with changes in appearance coupled with attitudinal changes"(Carroll, 1997). One aspect of this increasing social consciousness among Rastawomyn is their recognition that they experience"double jeopardy"(Chevannes, 1994: 257). That is, not only are they oppressed by white society because they are black, but they are also oppressed by males because they are womyn. This realization has led them to call for greater equality and unity within Rastafarianism pointing to the fact that the oppression of womyn is completely inconsistent with the Rasta beliefs about white oppression and exploitation of blacks.
The womyn's calls have not fallen on deaf ears. Although the Rastafarian culture is still largely patriarchal, there have been serious changes recently in the sexist practices and traditions of the culture. For instance, since the 1970s, an increasing number of womyn have come to the Rasta faith on their own rather than being led into it by men (ibid, pg. 260). This practice increases the womyn's independence and leaves them less vulnerable to exclusion and subordination than did the previous practice of having to be led into the faith by a man. In addition to this, it has become more socially acceptable for dreadlocks womyn to display their locks in public. Womyn have also been allowed to participate in more Rastafari rituals such as chanting and dancing than they had in the past. Furthermore, womyn are physically present at Rastafari public celebrations today a great deal more than they had been in the past. Still, however, their main role at these celebrations has largely been to look after the children, and in situations where the womyn are chanting and dancing, the womyn dance behind the males rather than by their side suggesting that they are still unequal to the men (ibid, pg. 256). This suggests that although the role of the Rastawomyn is changing, it till has a ways to go before it will be egalitarian. Yet, this can only be expected, and we must remember that womyn have made tremendous progress in their quest for equal rights and justice. One of the events that symbolizes this sentiment the best took place at the Black Rock tabernacle in July of 1988 where the Nyabinghi were celebrating Selassie's birthday. On this day, a young Rastawomyn entered the celebration carrying a rod, which is the symbol of male authority. The womyn proceeded to carry the rod up behind the males and started to dance. This seen-tingly simple act carried with it a great deal of symbolism of the Rastawomyn's increasing chant for equality. The fact that no one objected to her actions, including the males, suggests that the Rastas are beginning to accept this notion (ibid, pg. 262).
Teresa Turner suggests that this demand for womyn's equality among the Rastawomyn of Jamaica as well as in East Africa has given way to a larger eco-feminist movement around the world. She terms this movement the"New Rastafari."Turner maintains that this new Rastafari movement has taken principles that are essential to the Rasta faith (such as protection of and respect for the environment as well as demand for equal rights) and extended them to encompass a broader range of global issues. Turner suggests that the"new Rastafari is a global cultural practice, an expression in particular of black people and especially black womyn, but one which is also inclusive of revolutionary white men and womyn"(Turner, pg. 15). In this sense, the new Rastafari has made global demands for greater equality for black and other majority world womyn as well as a greater respect for the ecological system as a whole (ibid, pg. 55). Furthermore, the effects of this process have been reciprocal in that the wider movement of black feminism has helped to foster changes in moving towards a more egalitarian Rastafari culture as well.
Hence, we find that the Rastawomyn's role in the Rastafarian culture has a very optimistic future. The culture whose traditions at one time excluded womyn completely and forced them into inferior and subordinate roles has begun to change due to a growing awareness and consciousness among womyn of that culture. Those traditions are being challenged and many of them are being abandoned for new ones that foster a more egalitarian role for womyn. However, in light of all this, there is still a significant number of womyn who are opposed to these recent changes. Many of these womyn are elders in the Rasta community and feel that essential to a womyn's role is her support and service to her husband and family. It is hard for me as a western womyn to understand why these womyn are contented with subservience and subordination to their husbands and fathers, but I must nevertheless give credence to this argument such that these practices are part of their culture and giving them up may greatly sacrifice that culture. Therefore, although it may seem fitting to rejoice at the recent developments in the changing role of Rastawomyn, one must also consider the other side to those changes and not blindly accept them as the right and just progress.
Part III: Womyn in Reggae
Reggae is intimately intertwined with the Rastafarian faith and beliefs. Almost all reggae artists are members of the Rastafari religion. Therefore, it is not surprising that womyn have encountered the same hardships and inequalities in the reggae industry as they have in their Rasta communities. It is an industry plagued with sexism and discrimination. A womyn who makes it in reggae probably has to work 10 times harder than any male in the business, but this is not exclusive to reggae. Most music industries worldwide are still largely controlled by white males, and womyn that try to make it in them experience the same sexism that the Jamaican womyn do. However, music industries such as the United States and the UK have seemed to be more widely receptive to womyn artists than is the Jamaican music industry. The emergence of significant womyn solo artists has only come about in the last two decades. Yet, slowly but surely, womyn are making into that world and receiving more and more acceptance. Similar to the Rastafarian culture, womyn seem to be making progress in their quest for equality and recognition in reggae as well. Although, with the former, that quest began about 20 years earlier (about 1970) than it did in the reggae industry, which did not see a significant change in the acceptance of female solo artists until the 1990s.
The purpose of this component of my paper was to find out whether or not there was a feminist-type message within womyn's reggae lyrics that coincides with the recent movements and growing consciousness of Rastafarian womyn towards a more equal society in terms of gender relations. As stated above, the reggae industry as a whole did experience an opening of opportunities for womyn in light of the increasing equality that womyn were beginning to enjoy in the Rasta faith. Furthermore, I would argue that any Rastafarian womyn who sings about cultural, political, and social issues is stepping out of the traditional Rastawomyn's role, and regardless of whether or not those lyrics are explicitly aimed toward womyn's rights, the mere fact that she is singing about social issues is a feminist statement. This is due to the fact that womyn were traditionally not allowed to take part in discourse of this nature. Therefore, all those womyn who take the initiative to sing about such issues are promoting womyn's rights to do so and should be credited with that honor.
With that said, however, in my search for explicit feminist lyrics, I found that many womyn artists shied away from using such rhetoric to further womyn's rights. In fact, I found that many of the womyn who have made it in the reggae industry as solo artists have been widely criticized for"acting like males"and singing lewd and sexually explicit lyrics. This occurs largely in dancehall music where the womyn cultivate"the forceful, 'hardcore' stage presence"(Oumano 1996). These artist's music contained what might be considered as the antithesis of the feminist movement-a return to lyrics which place the womyn in largely subordinate and inferior roles and base their worth on their sexual endeavors. In light of this, I was able to find a couple womyn artists who still sing the roots and used their music to promote social consciousness. These two artists, Judy Mowatt and Sister Carol, are two of the most renowned womyn in reggae. The former, Ms. Mowatt, came on the reggae scene in the seventies while the latter, Sister Carol East, is relatively new to the scene. It is to these artists that we now turn.
Judy Mowatt made a name for herself as one of the I-Three's which was a trio of womyn back-up singers for Bob Marley and the Wailers. However, her solo career started as early as 1970 when she sang the hit song"I Shall Sing,"and she has come to be known as one of the most respected and venerated womyn artists of her time (Infusino, 1986). In spite of this, Mowatt as well as other critics felt that her solo career never reached its full potential because of her choice to have children in the middle of her stardom. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that"Mowatt's status as a reggae queen is secure"(Oumano, 1996), and she has taken advantage of that security to promote feminist issues that were controversial at the time she was singing them. Her album"Black Woman,"(1980, Shanachie Entertainment label) which was probably her most famous and renowned, has come to be known as a statement of the black womyn's problems and struggles. The title song has numerous feminist rhetorical elements which speak to those issues. Let us now explore this.
Light me up
You trod one of life's roughest roads
You got the heaviest load
To be someone
Too near mile and a half furlong
Don't give up now
Just pray for strength now
For you I dedicate my song
We had forsaked once(?)
In the plantation
Lashes to our skin
On auction blocks we were chained and sold
Highly abused and used for refuse (?)
And thrown in garbage bins
But no need for that now
Free us, stand on back now
And help me to sing my song
When you're fighting stand up for the right thing
And not that which is wrong
I heard Rachel mourning for her children
When Herod and Pharaoh took their little heads
But just like Mary and Joseph
Mother of Moses too
Overcame its evil devices
I dedicate my song for you
I know you've struggled long
I feel your afflictions
To you I dedicate my song
This song does not address issues of womyn's oppression in the Rasta faith; rather, it addresses the global oppression that black womyn face. Mowatt's message is one that tells the world how hard and rough the life of black womyn has been. She asserts the idea that they carry"the heaviest load,"suggesting that black womyn are the most oppressed in today's society. This parallels with the idea that had been surfacing in the late 1970s that black womyn experience double jeopardy, i.e. oppression for being black as well as for being a womyn. Furthermore, the second verse urges womyn to not give up, and to"pray for strength."This suggests that Mowatt sees a bright future ahead and that womyn should not give up their quest for equal rights. Moving to the fourth verse, Mowatt sings"Free us, stand back now/and help me to sing my song."This seems is one of the most powerful lines in the song. The first part is an assertive demand for freedom and equality for womyn while the second part calls upon other womyn to join her in her struggle. Finally, the next verse contains the line which speaks to the fact that Rachel, Mary and Joseph, as well as Moses' mother all struggled, but they overcame it. This suggests that Mowatt feels that although womyn are now struggling, if they fight hard they can overcome it.
Mowatt's album came out in 1980 which corresponds with the time in which more and more womyn in the Rastafari culture were realizing their oppression. Mowatt effectively uses the lyrics of her song to not only tell the larger world of the struggles that a black womyn experiences, but also to call upon her fellow sisters to help her in the further struggle towards equality. This is a message that was neither heard nor would it have been accepted before the 1970s. Mowatt's songs and lyrics contributed greatly to the wider acceptance of these ideas. Although she does not address specific problems that Rastawomyn face, she does show that a problem exists, and her songs helped pave the way for later artists to address some of those specific issues. Sister Carol is one of those artists for whom Judy Mowatt paved the way.
Sister Carol is a reggae DJ who has been on the reggae circuit for about 15 years, and has enjoyed great success in the past ten years or so. She, like so many other reggae artists, was a member of the Twelve Tribes sect of the Rastafari religion, and much of her music is"dedicated to the Rasta ethic"(Cooper, 1997) of spirituality and chanting down Babylon through socio-political lyrics. In addition to this, elements of a feminist statement can also be found in her lyrics. Sister Carol tends to address specific issues that are harmful to womyn in today's society. One of those issues is domestic violence. Another issue she often addresses is how dancehall and other sexually explicit forms of expression degrade womyn by making them into sexual objects. Specifically, on her"Call Mi Sister Carol"album, which came out in 1993 on the Heartbeat label, the title song contains a good example of the type of feminist rhetoric that she uses in reggae music. Let us examine these lyrics and then discuss their implications.
"Call Mi Sister Carol":
... Natty dread ah mi dat, Jamaica native
And everything dat mi talk is well selective
Nuh negative mi positive
Yet still mi active
Incline to oppose but mihave a motive
A don't want to sound oversensitive
But I have to put some thing into perspective
To be effective and most productive
Upfront defensive with an incentive
Dem say black woman is most attractive
And when it comes to beauty we're well
If a love dem ah defend we're seductive
Bound to excel and well attentive
Ah now dem go and seh dat mi inquisitive
And a ask question like a real detective
Why in da world yuh so offensive
To the woman dat yuh love yuh are abusive
From the influence which is addictive
It's time to detox and get progressive Nuff respect is due to the massive
And I thank yuh for being most supportive...
Although I do not purport to be a genius at explicating lyrics, I believe that Sister Carol's lyrics are pretty explicit in this verse of the song. At the beginning of the verse she tries to get people's attention by saying that she has a few things that she wants to put in perspective. She goes on to talk about how womyn are seen as seductive and are valued for their beauty and being"well attentive."The first two characteristics are common of dancehall culture where there is great emphasis put on how a womyn looks and how sexually seductive she is. The latter characteristic of being well attentive is tied up in traditional womyn's roles of subordinance and subservience where the womyn is attentive and subservient to the man. The verse goes on to say that Sister Carol, on the other hand, as well as other modern day womyn, are becoming"inquisitive,"i.e. they are becoming aware and asking questions and challenging the patriarchal system. Finally, she asks"why in da world yuh so offensive/ to the woman dat you love you are abusive..."This touches upon the domestic violence that many womyn experience in modern day Jamaica, and Sister Carol alludes in this instance that it is attributed to drug use. In any case, the fact that she is addressing the issue of domestic violence and suggesting that the men have got to"get progressive"speaks to the fact that men need to change their abusive ways and give womyn more respect.
Sister Carol's latest album,"Lyrically Potent"(1996, Heartbeat label), her song"Milk and Honey"also speaks to the issues of domestic violence. Let us examine those lyrics:
Talk God, Think God, Hear God now
Remember unto him you did make that vow
Domestic violence it nuh necessary
But it really have a hold upon the society
Them study arts, science, and technology
But wi nuh fi use the knowledge fi hurt anybody
Woman fi cool just like a lady
And the man fi tek care of the baby
Keep it together in the family
Yes! This a the roots with quality
Every Jack have a Jill, and every Jill have a Jack
Loving together, mi she right round the clock
Now stick together like a stamp to a letter
Like a birds of of a feather ... love you forever
This verse discusses the contemporary issues of domestic violence and infidelity. At the beginning of the verse, Sister Carol speaks to the fact that domestic violence is unnecessary, and that men should treat their womyn with more respect. Furthermore, the line that says"And the man fi tek care of the baby,"addresses the issue of fatherhood such that men have a responsibility to be good fathers and help out with the children. The last few lines of the verse address the issue of infidelity. Here, Sister Carol asserts that the family should stick together, and she also says that"every Jack has a Jill"and vice versa. This suggests that the husband and wife need to make efforts to stay together, and that each is meant for each other and no other. I would argue that these address today's womyn's concerns about their husbands being with other womyn.
The issues that Sister Carol addresses are somewhat more contemporary than those that Judy Mowatt addresses because she is singing at a later time than Mowatt was. Hence, she is not only addressing the hard time that black womyn have had, but she also addresses specific issues that black womyn face today. Earlier artists, such as Judy Mowatt, tend to focus more on the broad issue of womyn's oppression, but they do not necessarily address the specific issues that contribute to that oppression.
Although the use of feminist rhetorical elements in womyn artist's reggae music is sparse at present, I expect that as the Rastafarian culture becomes infiltrated with more feminist ideas so too will those womyn artist's lyrics. For now, however, we must realize that any womyn in the reggae industry is making a feminist statement merely by being there and making a place for herself in what is traditionally a man's world. Furthermore, womyn have only began to play a significant role in the reggae industry in the past decade or so, so the level of recognition and acceptance that these and other womyn artists have received is by far a great accomplishment. I hold nothing but optimism for the future of womyn in reggae music, and I feel similarly about feminist rhetoric being incorporated into that as well.
In writing this paper I discovered a few things. The first is that Rastafarian womyn have experienced a great deal of denigration and oppression by the male counterparts. Furthermore, I found that although that has been changing significantly in the past twenty to thirty years, these womyn still have quite a long way to go in order to achieve even the type of equality that I enjoy in the United States (which is not complete equality either). However, I am also sympathetic to the fact that the Rasta culture is something that I can never quite understand due to my not being a part of it. This leads me to the conclusion that I should not be so quick as to judge that the Rastawomyn's situation is bad, therefore it must change. Rather, I must look at it more objectively and see that many Rastawomyn are content with what seems to me as an inferior or subordinate position. They find content in this position and feel that it is an integral role to their family life as well as to their community. They also contend that if that role was to change, then the culture of a whole would be thus changed. This may compromise a great deal of Rastafarian values and traditions and could lead to the downfall of the Rasta faith. This would be terrible because, despite their negative treatment of womyn, Rastafari have an abundance of positive and socially conscious ethics. These should be preserved. In my own opinion, I feel that those elements of the Rasta faith can be preserved while still allowing womyn a more prominent and equal role in the family and community. However, it really is not for me to say.
With regards to womyn in reggae, I found that very few womyn artists sing about feminist issues and womyn's rights. Those womyn who do sing about those issues, however, do so in a very powerful and meaningful way. Furthermore, since both of these womyn sang in the post- 1970 era, there seems to be a correlation between their feminist elements and the movement of the Rasta faith towards one that is more equal. Moreover, Sister Carol's lyrics, which were written later than those of Ms. Mowatt's, suggest that contemporary womyn are starting to address more specific issues that black womyn face in their struggle today. This shows that today's womyn are not only fighting against their oppression, but are also starting to tackle the issues that keep them oppressed. This suggests that black womyn are becoming increasingly assertive and demanding in their quest for equality. In this quest, they must remember the words of a very wise womyn whose name I have since forgotten, but nevertheless speaks a poetic truth:"There are glass ceilings only if you are living in someone else's world."Let us be a lesson to us all.
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