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"I Light and I Salvation": The Rise and Impact of Rastafarianism in Jamaican Culture and Politics.




                                                                                 Jeff Philie

                                                                                    Prof. Snider

                                                                                    Rhetoric of Reggae


The cries of pain and torture ring through the cold winds and water leaking through the cracks of the urine and feces soaked floor. Stacked side by side and on top of each other, Africans were brought from their homeland to colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Life made into a commodity to be bought and sold as an animal or machine, born to serve the dominant humans marked by white skin. In this way colonialism as a political entity was created to exploit the earth and its people in order to profit white Europeans. The economic dependency established by the slave trade established a stratified socio-economic hierarchy based on racism. The inequities inherent in this system caused the exploitation of less powerful resources to be established as the means of economic growth and prosperity throughout colonialism. The lack of representation of the oppressed black majority brought about a series of uprisings against colonialism. In Jamaica the Rastafarian movement brought to the forefront the pressing issues of deprivation upheld by the socio-economic structure of the island. The ideology of Rastafarians instilled personal liberation and autonomy at the time of Jamaican Independence, helping the population deal with decolonization. This paper will deal with the implications of this thesis throughout the history of Jamaica from the colonial to post Independence years (1962-1980). The rise of Rastafarianism can be seen in response to the history of inequity of colonialism. The mentality of humanization upheld in Rasta acted as force of mental liberation. The influence of this ideology upon society around the time of Independence was reflected in politics of the time. At the time of Independence serious historical issues of lack of representation of the black majority were articulated in the words and works of Rastafarians and their liberating ideology.

              Colonialism in Jamaica established a lasting social and economic hierarchy that benefited the white minority at the expense of the black majority. The colonization of Jamaica began with the Spanish occupation of the island in the early 1500’s. The Spanish set up small-scale plantations on the island, while focusing on piracy as the key to profit. The Spanish effectively committed genocide upon the native Arawak population by the time English gunboats won the rule of Jamaica from the Spanish armada in 1655.  The British immediately increased the slave trade in order to establish a thriving plantation economy (Lake, p.17)[1]. The colonial assembly set up in Jamaica consisted of a British appointed Governor with suffrage granted only to white males with a certain amount of land and capital (Stephens, p.11). Thus the members of the assembly consisted of wealthy white planters that represented their own interests. This inequity of representation fueled the fires of discontent among slaves. In 1831 a Baptist preacher named Sam Sharpe lead a slave rebellion with Myal men under the notion that England had emancipated slaves, yet the Jamaican government failed to acknowledge and enact this freedom. Around 500 slaves were massacred and Sharpe was hung for leading the rebellion (Curtin, p.84-86). This uprising expressed volatile discontentment among the black population, which lead to the ending of slavery in 1838. The end of slavery meant the emergence of a new class structure of black people as peasants, rural proletariat and those in between. Yet despite new economic opportunities the black population still lacked any political rights or legal justice.

                        This climate of tension sparked the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. A Baptist Deacon (like Sharpe) named Paul Bogle from the parish of St. Thomas lead a violent protest against the perpetuation of slavery in “white” Jamaican society (Keith, p.66). This uprising brought about the beating and death of nearly a thousand black Jamaicans as the result of military trails. The legislative assembly handed Jamaica over to Crown Colony rule, giving nearly all power to the governor (Stephens, p.12). Fear of the revolt of the oppressed black majority caused the white elite to impose British military strength upon society. This resulted in further perpetuation of inequity of representation of the masses and continuation of horrid conditions due to lack of income and adequate housing. The rising mulatto or brown middle class expressed its desire for constitutional changes toward more effective self-government. Their voices were transmitted by teachers and growers unions that emerged at the end of the 19th century. This growing class-consciousness brought a demand for representation of the colored people of Jamaica.

 In 1927 Marcus Garvey created the People’s Political Party, the first political party on the island (Hill, p.23). Due to the restrictiveness of suffrage the explicitly racial based platform of Garvey failed to win him a seat at the assembly. Throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s various trade unions arose to represent the brown middle class. The most significant was the Jamaican Workers and Tradesmen Union, upon which Alexander Bustamante rose to fame. These organizations worked toward self-government and social and economic change in Jamaica. Yet they made little impact until the 1938 rebellion forced the colonial government to face the discontent of the majority of its people.

            The social and economic climate of the late 1930’s brought about a mass uprising of the people against the white oligarchy. The greed of the elite in Jamaica (The Plantocracy) for profit caused the living conditions and nutrition of the former slave population to be horrid. No regulations on minimum wage or maximum work hours allowed plantation and factory owners to abuse their work force as much as they needed to maximize profit. One plantation owner stated that it would take a worker six days to be able to afford a loaf of bread (Lake, p.37). The desperate social and economic conditions created by the depression coupled with the rising rate of unemployment drove the marginalized black and brown Jamaicans to violent protest. Inspired by the revolt of banana workers in 1935, construction and factory workers at the Frome sugar estate began a violent protest and overthrow of factory and plantation owners in May of 1938. This conflict caused troops to be sent in to quell the demonstration that lasted five days in Kingston and burned in every other parish except Westmoreland by the next month (Post, p.276-284). This turbulent period pushed the issue of workers rights into the forefront through the creation of party politics accompanying labor unions.

In this same year Norman Manley established the People’s National Party (PNP) under socialist principles of nationalization of economics in order to instill a political education, raise standards of living and develop a unified spirit to move toward self-government. This party at first featured the intellectual and inspirational leadership of both N.M. Manley and Alexander Bustamante, both of whom were very active in the 1938 rebellion. Conflicts in ego and power caused Bustamante to split from the PNP to establish the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP)[2]. These parties clashed in the 1944 elections, which for the first time included universal adult suffrage (Manley, p.179). The PNP supported the brown urban middle class as it controlled the Trade Union Council (TUC) of Jamaica which included all unions except the BITU. The JLP on the other hand represented the black lower classes of Jamaica. The JLP won the election in a landslide victory with 41.4 percent of the vote and twenty-two seats in the legislature (Stephens, p.17). This election marked the emergence of a political scheme of appealing to the masses of people in order to gain power in the government. Bustamante and Manley promised far-reaching goals of change and improvement of the living conditions of black Jamaicans. The importance of the control of labor unions at this time marked the need to appeal to the new voting population. The violence of revolt against the inequities of colonialism caused leaders of Jamaica to control the masses through a false sense of representation in these new political/union parties, rather then violent force that was no longer working. This shift marked a change in consciousness of Jamaican society as a whole, which opened up more to the importance of the ability of black and brown (especially) Jamaicans to be a vital part of mainstream society and economics. Yet it also perpetuated the exploitation of the labor force of Jamaica to uphold the interests of the small elite.

            The key aim of political parties of this time was to maintain power, while holding down revolt from the masses in order to secure foreign investment. Both parties effectively spoke to the black majority as voters, while politically representing the brown middle class. This brought about a shift in the hegemony within the government from white to brown, leaving the majority of the population subordinate (Grugel, p.72). By 1952 the issue of socialism captured the hearts of people across the globe fueled by McCarthyism in the USA. Thus the PNP dropped its nationalization plans in support of foreign investment as the engine for industrial development. The two parties blended very much in their policy and ideology supporting political independence and economic dependence.

  The economic theory of W. Arthur Lewis upheld industrialization as the key to development in Jamaica’s as the land cannot adequately provide for the economic needs of a growing population. Thus he argued the necessity of export of primary commodities as a means of capital, while attracting foreign investment to build industry (Stephens, p.23). Throughout the 1950’s into the 1960’s the fluctuating Jamaican government (between PNP and JLP rule) upheld this economic theory as the foundation upon which to build a ‘developed’ nation. The bauxite industry thus became crucial to the economy of Jamaica causing a boom in economic prosperity throughout the 1950’s. This boom was met by a huge increase in tourism, as Jamaica was depicted as a stable and thriving colony. Yet the reality of the situation was the perpetuation of the socio-economic climate of slavery. Despite the rise in the economy of real growth rates of 8 percent per annum from 1953-1960 the level of unemployment remained the same (Jefferson, p.51-52). The growth of commercial agriculture and mechanized farming pushed the majority of small farmers and agricultural communities into the city. Thus the urban areas were filled with a reserve labor of the unemployed, keeping down wages for workers throughout the city and concentrating the mass of voters into areas of high union influence[3]. Thus industrialization greatly increased the gap between the rich and poor, calling for the emergence of a new force of representation of the downtrodden black majority of the population.

            The Rastafarian movement grew out of these desperate conditions to oppose the system of oppression perpetuated by the interests of capitalism. The interests of the two political parties did not address the needs of the black majority, giving rise to various movements against the colonial government.

            “The Mulatto leadership of the newly formed PNP and JLP embraced the cultural and political presence of the British Empire. As such, national identity during the transition period to independence did not represent the cultural or economic needs of the African Jamaican populous. The conservative rhetoric of both parties instigated the anti-capitalist rhetoric espoused by Rastafarians”(Lake, p.46-47).

            This “anti-capitalist rhetoric” took shape in the 1930’s among landless peasants as a means of opposing colonialism through cultural resistance. This radical opposition to oppression caused the colonial government to consistently place Rastas under surveillance and police brutality. The rebellion of 1938 triggered wide scale oppression of Rastas despite their little involvement in the incident, causing Rasta leaders like Leonard Howell to be arrested and the movement “broken up” (Gray, p.48). Howell reinstated a large camp of Rastas at The Pinnacle camp in 1953 in order to live apart from capitalist society. The government destroyed the camp and arrested Howell and other Rastas, forcing the rest of the brethren to migrate to the “Back-o-Wall” ghetto in Western Kingston (Barrett, p.156-158). The message of Rastas of the lack of representation of the black majority in particular brought about much fear of the uprising of a black totalitarian state among white and brown elite alike. Political and union leaders at the time preached against the upliftment of the black race as a kind of reverse discrimination to divide the diversity of society. As most of the working class was brown they feared the loss of their own economic gains in the face of racial revolution and thus supported the contempt of Rastas before independence. Yet the possibity of racial unity against the common foe of colonial “white” oppression drove fear deep into the hearts of both political leaders and the Jamaican elite perpetuating the image of Rastas as dangerously violent and heathen.

            This fear was crystallized by the uprisings in from 1958-1960 lead by the preaching of Claudius Henry. Henry preached “self government under British Colonial Rule” and espoused an alternative Black Nationalism founded upon building an autonomous African nation (Gray, p.49). He called for a new social order in which exercise of one’s own agency is the only way the poor working class could escape the destruction and captivity of Jamaican society. He preached a return to Africa as essential to the formation of this autonomous realm apart from colonialism. His influential preaching inspired radical sects of Rasta to enact violent overthrow of oppression, including Henry’s own son. These uprisings in 1958 along with Henry’s radical ideology pushed the government to raid Henry’s camp finding a stockpile of arms, ganja and a correspondence to Fidel Castro resulting in the arrest of Henry and the wide spread harassment of Rastas in general (Barret, p.225-226). The government responded to this uprising politically by denouncing protest along racial lines in order to preserve the image of Jamaica as racially diverse and peaceful in order to attract foreign investment.

            “Amazingly, these developments late 1960 were a near identical replay of certain aspects of the 1938 scenerio. That is, another expression of rebelliousness by a section of the subordinate class once more had produced an intervention by the same leaders, who sought to defuse this militancy by appealing for cooperation with capital”(Gray, p.57).

            Thus politicians continued to represent the interests of the elite as the best interest of the nation. Yet the rise in consciousness of the black population meant that “stability” had to be manufactured out of wildly flowing currents by avoiding the issue of racial discrimination. This denial of the situation brought about a serious awakening of the general population of Jamaica through the expanded acceptance of and presence of Rastafarians.

            The ideology of Rastafarianism instilled a sense of identity to oppose the mental and physical bondage rooted in Western culture since the days of slavery. The dehumanization of the slave trade left the society and economy of Jamaica racially divided. Paul Freirie writes that oppression rises out of the lack of self-knowledge which in turn leads to the dehumanization of other people in order to justify the humanity of the oppressor[4]. Rastafari expresses autonomy and love of the Earth and all its creations. It emerged as a result of the repression of African culture throughout the colonial world. Rastafarianism is a blend of a conglomerate African culture maintained by slaves and Christianity imposed by the colonizers. By merging African beliefs with Christian beliefs African people throughout the Western Hemisphere maintained their own identity. Rastafarianism arose in a heated time of capitalist expansion and the increased oppression of the subordinate class.

 To confront the degradation of mind body and spirit inherent in the babylon system Rasta set an example of an identity apart from the dehumanization of colonial society. Simpson writes that unlike other Afro-Christian spiritual movements Rastafarianism confronted the intense emotional distress from this oppression through affirming their self identity and connection to the Earth, rather then releasing them through violent spirit possessions (Simpson, p.228). Rastafarianism is a contra culture to colonial rooted society upheld by mental and physical separation from the belief system of babylon. Around the time that The Pinnacle was reestablished Rastafarians began to have dreadlocks and beards, while wearing robes of Red, Gold and Green (Lake, p.44). Rastas also smoked ganja in order to connect to the highest vibrations of the earth and let them look into themselves and their conflicts with others through “reasoning”. The physical display of African identity that emerged in the movement at this time marked an open resistance to European culture as it perpetuated itself in politics and economics. Rasta addressed the problems of its people in order to liberate them by realizing their down falls so as to move past them. One Rasta elder stated:

            “Black men, you are full of sodomy, backbiting. You are liars, thieves, traitors, warmongers. That’s why you were sent to Babylon. God is a philosophy. God is in human beings. Lift up your head. Blackman.”(Simpson, p.216).

            The power of the idea that all people are God directly opposes the racial and social hierarchy of colonialism.  Salvation is seated in self-knowledge as black people must come to actualize Jah or God in their life in order to escape the punishment of slavery, and oppression for their going astray from righteousness (Nicholas, p.29).  This mentality of knowing oneself by knowing Jah within oneself is the spiritual force behind Rasta. Rastafarianism sprang from the tainted roots of Jamaican culture as a spiritual movement of liberation.

            The religious and political inflence of Marcus Garvey gave rise to the Rastafarian ideology. Marcus Mosiah Garvey preached the strength and beauty of the black race. He addressed the color based economic hierarchy instilled in Jamaica, and colonial society in general (Hill, p.26).  He started the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in order to organize black owned businesses and create solidarity among all black people through the culture of Africa. The “Back to Africa” movement emanated from Garvey’s aims to secure the “Blackstar” steamship lines in order to establish economic connections with and settlements in Africa. Although his aims failed, he instilled a sense of black identity in Africa in a very tactile way. The mentality of self-knowledge and African solidarity raised the consciousness of masses of black people looking for a way out of modern slavery. Garvey was the link between religious and political resistance through Africa (Lake, p.31). The greatest impact Garvey had on the formation of the actualization of the ideology of autonomy for Africans (Rastafarians) were his prophetic words:

            “We negros believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God, god the father, God the son, and the Holy ghost, the One god of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia”(Garvey, p.34)

            The coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah in 1930 fulfilled the prophecy (Asante, p.140). This event sparked the Rastafarian movement. The power of identifying with a black God rejected the Christian claim that God is white and thus white people are born in his image (and are thus superior). Brown writes that Selassie as a black God is closer to emanations of black people and thus provides a father figure upon which knowledge of self can be based (Brown, p.133). Rastafarians believe that Selassie is the reincarnation of Jesus and they are his archangels (the reincarnation of ancient Israelites) sent to fight against oppression despite all the advantages of babylonian weapons of destruction (Simpson, p.218-219). The power of identifying with a black God within themselves allowed Rastas to persevere beyond all the trials and tribulations of colonial oppression that continually tried to destroy the movement.

The symbol of Africa as Heaven or Zion on Earth away from babylon (Western society) gave Rastas a physical space to connect to as hope. This mentality of salvation on Earth opposes the Christian idea that Heaven is in the afterlife and all things will be leveled in death. Rastas reject this mentality as it perpetuates the lack of need for change within ones life time and thus maintains white domination through spiritual control. Return to Africa or repatriation is the hope and means of escaping the bondage of colonialism for all black people. Africa was a symbol of liberation and revolt against colonialism for Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere due to slavery (Lake, p.23). For Rastas Africa must be returned to physically as well as mentally. Jamaica is babylon, hell on Earth and Africa (Ethiopia) is Zion (Simpson, p.228). The goal of repatriation provided Rastas with a means of escaping poverty, disease, malnutrition and dehumanization that constitutes the life of the subordinate class in Jamaica. Although African nations insisted they only wanted skilled workers to settle in Africa, Rastas still upheld the glory of Africa as the land of salvation (Lewis, p.104-114). For most Rastas the goal of repatriation was to connect to the roots of their heritage in order to find the salvation of Selassie I (the symbolic and actual embodiment of God) within themselves. Rastafarianism is a spiritually based protest against dehumanization of the Western world, not a political movement.

            Rastafarianism fought the degradation of human rights by colonial forces through spiritual upliftment actualized in right mind and body. “Rastafarian religious ideology was diametrically opposed to colonial power” (Lake, p.47). Rastas used the bible, the oppressive tool of religious institutions, to declare their own history and destiny in its words. As the bible has been edited and reshaped in a euro centric view in the King James Version, Rastas are very selective about what they accept from the bible as untainted. Rastas especially emphasize the book of Revelation as “reasoning with Jah himself” as the brethren Soldgie told me. Rastas cite the wickedness of Western civilization or babylon as inherently evil in the lines: “And upon her forehead was a name written, mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the Earth” from Revelation 17:1-5 (Nicholas, p.30). Rasta also played upon societal organizations in order to reject the dominant institutions of society. Although spiritual in orientation meetings or “Groundations” of Rastafari brethren were political in the nature of expressing new social and economic means of prosperity, brethren railed against the corrupt and manipulative nature of politics.  Rastafarians expressed deep resentment of Jamaican leaders like Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante and the figurehead of British rule, Queen Elizabeth. They denounced the authority of these colonial heads and rejected tokens to address the needs of the black population such as observing Emancipation day, which they felt had not yet happened (Keith. 167-171). One Rastaman eloquently expressed the necessity of black people to move away from the dehumanizing system of babylon, saying:

            “Only Rastafari can save us. You remember the foolishness that the teacher taught us. The two wickedest men are the police and the minister. Fraud has kept us back – the fraud of religion and politics. We want no more of the whiteman’s indoctrination” (Simpson, p.212).

            The revolutionary idea of building up self-government apart from babylon posed a serious threat to colonial/capitalist, white dominant society. Rastafarians were dedicated to establishing jobs and farms of their own so as to have a place to live their life according to the words and works of the almighty and not be dependent upon babylon. This meant the establishment of agricultural based Rasta camps to provide food and shelter for the community to allow it to survive self sufficiently. Rastas also took up arts and crafts; Rasta brethren Ras Dizzy and Ras Michael Hartman established themselves as the best wood carvers on the island (Brown, p.133). The mentality of autonomy that marked Rasta provided the subordinate class of black Jamaicans with cultural means of change away from perpetual oppression. Rastas made the most of the meager means they had by sharing with each other no matter how little they had, following the wisdom of Solomon (Hausman, p.150). These ways of communal living directly opposed the privatization of resources promoted by both colonialism and capitalism.

            The message of Rastafarians became more widely accepted by society after 1960 as a result of further exposure of the wisdom of Rasta to the general population. Rasta moved from a very physical movement, to a more internally based revelation. Early Rastas were dedicated to “death to white and black oppressors” or the Nyabinghi movement in Africa started by Selassie and embodied by the Mau Mau Rebellion that emphasized liberation through violent revolt (Lewis, p.6-9). As Independence approached the protest of Rasta was expressed through resistance to indoctrination through self knowledge based in African roots. Rasta leaders like Mortimer Planno triumphed these more peaceful and realistic views of Rasta (Lake, p.48-49). The idea of physical repatriation to Africa also shifted more to a return to Africa within ones consciousness. The broader acceptance of Rastafarianism as a spiritual movement of liberation occurred due to an opening of its beliefs and a study conducted by the University of West Indies in 1960. This study was provoked by the Coral Gardens incident in which Rastas were involved in violent conflict with colonial authority, bringing about the mass beatings and arrests of Rastas (Barret, p.99-101). This study proposed the social and economic aims of Rastas in order to uplift the black subordinate class from the horrid living conditions due to lack of opportunity and representation through a strong spirituality. It listed government aid for repatriation, running water in the squatter settlements of West Kingston and the acknowledgement of Rastas as peaceful and hard working as its primary objectives for change in Jamaica (Smith, p.38). This study dispelled a lot of the slanderous myths placed upon Rasta by Jamaican society, by accepting Rastafarianism as a crucial social movement worthy of acknowledgement by the intellectual elite of the island. Keith explains that: “By the late 1960’s when the cultural renaissance was demanded, the brethren had already begun to affect the perceptions and cognitive styles of a significant proportion of the population through language, artistic expressions, and social and political consciousness” (Keith, p.168). The views of Rastafari were most widely expressed through Reggae music.

            Reggae music served as a medium for which the views of Rastafari were expressed. Toots Hibbert who coined the term “reggay” defined it as meaning “coming from the people …the majority…who are suffering.”(Davis, p.121). Reggae did not directly come about due to the rise of Rasta. In fact most early Reggae throughout the 1960’s rejected the militant stance of Rasta as too subversive and dangerous to be put on record. Most producers at the time refused to be associated with Rastafarianism. The first influence of Rasta on Reggae music was through the Nyabinghi drumming[5] of Count Ossie, who was first featured on the B side of the 45 “Oh Carolina” in 1960 and became one of the islands most popular artists by 1962 (Barrow, p.25). The music of the Rasta was accepted into the scheme of Reggae music, yet the lyrical content of Reggae didn’t express the views of Rasta until the Deejay Big Youth changed the scene. In 1971 Big Youth exploded onto the dancehall scene chanting messages of peace, love and overstanding guided by the force of Rastafari. Big Youth expressed his philosophy of life in his music:

            “I tell people to make love and not war, ‘cause war is ugly and love is lovely. Instead of saying ‘Hit me back!’ [a popular tune at the time] we send people back and we talk about Jah. Its that their sending you back instead of forward. We’re not going back, we’re going forward. We wanna go up front. Instead of ‘Hit me back’, I say do it with Jah.”(Boyle).

             By 1973 his chants of “Natty dread inna babylon” influenced the entire reggae community, most significantly Bob Marley. Bob spread the words and works of Rastafari throughout the world. Thus he is the true ambassador of Rastafari as he spread its conscious message to ends of the Earth that most likely would have never been exposed to this uplifting ideology. Reggae music is a catalyst for change by presenting new ideas accompanied by music to add the power of emotion behind the words. Keith writes that Reggae music most pervasively speaks of ideas in transition, viewing the world through the lens of Rasta (Keith, p.165). The feeling of Jah spirit that Reggae opens its listeners up to allow people to reflect on themselves and their connection to the Earth and all its creations. The Rasta song “King Rasta is now at the wheel; The knowledge or truth is now flowing. If Israel can’t hear they must feel”(Simpson, p.215) speaks of the power of actualizing Jah inside oneself. For I Reggae music upholds the pulsing vibes of life, the truth of the power of Jah Rastafari, Haile Selassie I. This pulse fills I up with a sense of the world around me, and my own heart; Love is Rastafari. Some writers on the subject of Rasta denounce Reggae as a bourgeois attempt at commercializing the purity of Rasta, thus weakening the power of Rasta as a spiritual force of upliftment out of a very real situation[6]. I know Reggae as a prophet, not a profit. Without Reggae music I would have never known this teaching of peace, love and respect that changed my life in a time of need. The message of Rasta articulated in the songs of its brethren introduced the world to the revolutionary ideology of Rastafari.

            The ideology of Rastafarianism had a great impact upon the political scene after Independence. The ideology upheld by Rasta that rejected Western society and development through capital expansion presented a threat to the business-oriented politicians in Jamaica. The growing influence of Rastafarianism spread throughout Jamaican society by the time of Independence, largely through the University of West Indies study and the migration of Rastas from country to Back-o-Wall and Dungle in West Kingston. Brown states that the ideology of Rasta at this juncture had the ability to offer an alternative way of living to reject colonialism in the lines: “thought is a catalytic agent that is capable of unsetting routines, disorganizing habits, breaking up customs, undermining faiths, and generating skepticism.”(Brown, p.131). In this way politicians needed to appeal to the Rastas in order to meet the needs of its people and give them more social and economic opportunity, so to keep the masses supportive of the oppressive government and its socio-economic structure. Rastas traditionally distrust politicians since the days when the British signed peace with the run away slave society of the Maroons and contracted them into destroying all other slave rebellions including Tacky’s Rebellion in 1738 (Lake, p.19). The use of the masses of black people to support the political leadership of various leaders persisted, while perpetuating the inequities that demanded the need for change in government. Although Rasta rejected the “tool” of the black majority to uphold colonial and neo colonial governments, their own faith confronted this reality in the political struggle between the JLP and the PNP from 1962-1980.

            The political conflict between the JLP and the PNP resulted in the incorporation of Rastafarian language, symbols and ideas in political rhetoric. At the time of Independence the issue of unemployment, taken shape in race consciousness, was the major issue debated among the population. The close of the colonial period revealed a new ideological crisis; the inability of the dominant classes to uphold moral leadership over the subordinate class (Gray, p.62). As Jamaica was granted Independence from England in 1962 the political scene was dominated by Alexander Bustamante’s philosophy of “Exceptionalism” in which he addressed the pressing social issues of the time in order to quell protest and thus attract foreign investment. Under this aim he coined the term “out of many, one people” to represent the racial diversity and harmony on the island (Gray, p.54-55). In the elections of 1962 Edward Seaga perpetuated this myth by appealing to the growing Rastafarian population in his campaign.

The JLP appealed to Rasta through a series of actions. In 1964 the JLP had Marcus Garvey’s body exhumed in England and brought to Jamaica, as well as introducing a national honors and awards system. They also hosted Haile Selassie’s legendary visit in 1966 (Gray, p.196). The visit of Selassie I lift all people from the island to an equal plane of humanity. It in many ways humbled the population of Jamaica towards Rastafarians, and the Rastafarians towards the island of Jamaica. Leonard Barrett quotes a Rasta elder who experienced the event: “His coming lifted us from the dust and caused us to sit with princes of this country”. He also writes that Selassie delivered a message to the Rastafarian population of liberation in Jamaica before repatriation to Ethiopia (Barrett, p.160). This event focused a lot of Rastas upon improving their situation in Jamaica, thus appealing more to their broader movements of black nationalism and labor rights on the island. The JLP even went so far as to attempt to replace the currency with the picture of Queen Elizabeth with a picture of Selassie (Keith, p.163). Yet despite these appeals to Rastas the desperate situation of poverty throughout Jamaica pushed the need for a new political and economic system.

The repression of black cultural expression on the island erupted in 1968. The ban of a Guyanese lecturer in African History named Walter Rodney from speaking at the U.W.I. lead to a student demonstration supported by Rasta in the streets (Brown, p.139). This violent protest marked a rise in consciousness of the black population as a whole as to the inequity of the entire system. Rastas and the working class became allies in a new wave of intellectual thought and expression addressing the common issues of social and economic deprivation and injustice. This expression was voiced in the formation of an Afro centric newspaper entitled Abeng in 1969. This paper inspired by the teachings of Rodney gave Rastas and unemployed people a space to vent their opinions (Lake, p.53). The continued depiction of Jamaica as racially harmonious in order to secure foreign investment perpetuated the increase in unemployment and the growth of profits for the elite few. The convergence of Rasta and conscious workers, students and teachers facilitated the emergence of a new economic scheme.

            The PNP rose to power in the 1972 elections on a platform of Democratic Socialism. The PNP triumphed Rasta ethics in order to draw coopted support of the subordinate and oppressed working class. Although speaking along the lines of Rasta beliefs and values the rhetoric of the PNP served to perpetuate capitalism and the support of the white and brown economic elite. Michael Manley labeled himself “Joshua with the Rod of Correction” and in reference to a cane given to him by Selassie (Lake, p.55). He incorporated Reggae songs at the time to launch his political platform of nationalization of the economy and redistribute wealth more equitably. He interpreted conscious Rasta themes addressed in Reggae such as Junior Byles “Beat Down Babylon”:

            “ ‘Beat Down Babylon’ says: remove oppression…and let justice rise in the land. Oppression and corruption are rampant in Jamaica and I am going to beat down oppression.”(Keith, p.172).    

            Despite these noble claims to the brethren little changed for the subordinate class, while the working class grew in strength due to the affiliation with Rasta in a need for change. In many ways politics assimilated Rasta to the working class, dispelling the fears of black unity and autonomy under the ideology of Rastafari[7]. Gray writes that The PNP’s creation of national unity through Democratic Socialism was a change in the political order through controlled transformation from the top down (Gray, p.205).  This theory contradicts the idea that the emergence of this more open atmosphere of sharing and incorporating various ideologies was the result of a rising black consciousness. Democratic Socialism opened Jamaica to a new “system of narration” through the rise of representation of black culture[8]. Yet the movement lacked the real change of ideological, political and socio-economic institutions to allow Rasta to be incorporated into the socialist agenda (Keith, p.175).

 The PNP’s platform faltered due to economic sanctions placed upon Jamaica for its socialist political stance. The U.S. blocked tourism in Jamaica, while blacklisting it from all international banks and lending institutions. The desperate situation of lack of money for government reforms and threatening economic collapse forced Manley to get an IMF loan in accordance with Structural Adjustment aims (Manley, p.224). In order to receive this loan the entire system of nationalization was debunked and the dependency upon exporting primary commodities to developed nations and growth through foreign investment returned. This failure of Democratic Socialism brought about great disappointment and despair among the subordinate class. With this failure “The masses of people were stuck, as they had been since the end of slavery, with only their labor to sell – and that at horrendously low prices.”(Lake, p.56). The continued plummet in employment through the perpetuation of economic inequities inherent in the capitalist system drew support for Seaga and the JLP by the end of the decade.

These turbulent conditions caused a lot of confusion and political violence in the years between the 1976 and 1980 elections. Domestic and international pressures for stability through the ending of politically based gang warfare in Kingston caused the unification of the political class, thus ending realm ideological debate. By this time Rasta had reaffirmed its distrust of political leadership marked by a retreat from political discourse. Once in power Seaga took massive loans from the IMF under Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative causing unemployment to reach thirty-five percent in 1980 (Grugel, p.186-188). Thus the subordinate class remained unrepresented and oppressed despite the infusion of Rastafarian ethics into the political sphere. Brown cites the lack of a solid political or religious institutional structure as the weakness of the Rastafarian movement to have a broader effect on changing society (Brown, p.134). I see the lack of institutional structure as the vitality of Rastafarianism. Rasta seeks autonomy and knowledge of self to do right for humanity in this corrupt and oppressive world. The use of the message of Rastafari as political rhetoric had influential power amongst the masses, but did not express the living message that is Rastafari. The spiritual basis of this revolutionary mentality kept it from fully being coopted into the nameless voting masses, the reserve army of labor. The mentality and lifestyle of Rasta still continues to grow in the words and works of its children, even as many other black nationalist movements have faded.

             The mentality of liberation that is Rasta gave black people personal spiritual independence in the face of Jamaican political Independence. The degradation of colonialism upon the social, economic and religious autonomy of Africans in the Western Hemisphere had great psychological effects. The loss of humanity through continual oppression caused Rastafarianism to rise up in self-affirmation and love and assert the humanity of black people. Jamaican history is marked by a continual pattern of mass uprisings of oppressed black people in order to escape the oppression of colonial authority. Each uprising was met with a violent reaction from the colonial authority, yet lead to an improvement representation of black people. The emergence of politics as the dominant authority caused the manipulation of the masses through ineffectual policies of improvement. Thus politicians repressed uprisings of black people against the inequities of the economic realty in Jamaica by coopting them into organizations and gangs. While party politics in the 1940’s and 1950’s played upon labor unions to stay in power, politicians of the 1960’s and 1970’s used the unity of Rasta and the conscious middle class to control the masses.

All that politics and colonial authority has ever wanted is the growth of profits. The capitalist system places the Earth and even Human beings as commodities to be used in the most efficient way to maximize profit. Rastafarianism emerged in this climate as a possibility of change for the majority of oppressed people. This possibility was reflected in the change in politics of Democratic Socialism. Yet even this movement perpetuated profit over life upholding the role of black people as the exploited, subordinate class. Rasta offers a space apart from the oppression of capitalism through spiritual upliftment. Rasta continues to grow. King Selassie I was dedicated to democracy in its purest form, power for the people when they are mentally ready to lead themselves. Rastafarianism gave black people in Jamaica the spiritual force to be able to affirm their African identity and actualize it in their own words and works. Rasta is a revolution in day-to-day life that must be actualized within oneself, not by an institutional system or organization to bring about its ends. A good brethren connected to the Reggae industry for more then twenty-five years named Soldgie related to me “If you have Jah you have everything”. Rasta gives us all life as all life emanates through the I. Beyond all promises and false hopes of society and economy the overstanding of the divine within each and everyone of us is eternal. Life is not a commodity despite man’s desire to make it so. 






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[1] Multinational corporations like Tate and Lyle (sugar) and banana companies owned by United Fruit Company as well as large-scale growers controlled the means of production thus perpetuating the relations of production from slavery days (Lake, p.27).

[2]  Bustamante was expelled from the JWTU as the result of an attempted forced takeover of the union. He then established the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) gaining a lot of popular support despite his direct personal control over the inner workings of the union (Stephens, p.16).

[3] Of those that were employed nearly half of the lower class black population worked in the informal sector as street vendors and ganja traders. The former perpetuated capitalism through the black market sale of imported manufactured commodities, while the latter was the mainstay of the Jamaican economy in the 1970’s (Grugel, p.76) (Lake, p.56).

[4] “This struggle is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed…In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity in both.”(Freire, p.28)

[5] This form of drumming emerged from the mix of Rastas in Kingston with the “burru” people. These people used African akete drums and the sansa (like a rhumba box) deeply influencing the Rasta brethren to continue African culture through musical expression (Barrow, p.25).

[6] Lake states that Reggae served to hold Rastas and black people in general down by conforming to capitalism. She cites the persistence of gang violence and the lack of institutions established by Reggae artists as proof of its ineffectiveness in the movement. Although I agree that the use of Rastafari in Reggae did open the ideology to be commodified into a musical production. Yet the space that music creates apart from all sufferation is an actualization of Jah within oneself. Reggae is not the ultimate end of the message of Rastafari, but a stepping-stone to allow people throughout the world to express their humanity.

[7] “Since many workers did not have stable ties to the workplace and feared falling into the ranks of the unemployed, the possibility existed that workers might come to recognize themselves in Rastafarian ideology, and perhaps link its themes to labor’s discontent in the workplace. The potential for linking the grievances of black laborers with the Rastafarians’ global, racially-empathetic critique of the society constituted a real danger.”(Gray, p.55).

[8] Michael Manley embodied the rise in black consciousness by wearing afro centric clothing and speaking in more “rootsy” dialects. This acceptance of blackness created a much more open discourse about representation and change of the socio-economic structure (Keith, p.172).