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Reggae As Social Change:
The Spread of Rastafarianism

D. Chad Spiker
April 23, 1998

Throughout its existence, Jamaica has experienced numerous revolutions, riots, and various forms of social unrest. From early resistance by escaped slaves to all-out fighting to end slavery altogether, not to mention riots in past years, Jamaica has been in a constant state of resistance. All these efforts to make a change have created a Jamaican religion called Rastafarianism, and with it comes a very powerful means of transporting its message: reggae music. These two forms of expression formed in the context of oppression, and in doing so they have contributed greatly to the ideologies, attitudes, beliefs, and actions of the people on the island. Rastafarianism is a religion based on social change, and reggae is the means of spreading these beliefs. For a new movement to effectively change the system that is in place, it must realize several goals. The movement must have a clear ideology that is supported by the general populace. The ideology of the Rastafarians has been put forth by leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell, and Sam Brown. The movement must then succeed in organizing people to gather together in order to support the necessary changes. At this stage, there is most likely going to be resistance from the existing forces that want to maintain the status quo. Finally it is necessary to get people from other areas to support the cause. Only then is change possible. The message of Rastafarianism has been spread worldwide by reggae artists like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, and many others.

In Jamaica, Rastafarianism emerged as a native religion which addressed issues that affected the majority of the black population."It (black religion) has been equally concerned with the yearning of a despised and subjugated people for freedom -- freedom from the religious, economic, social, and political domination that whites have exercised over blacks since the beginning of the African slave trade."(1) Early leaders, like Marcus Garvey, stressed the importance of repatriation to Africa, and along with that idea, the importance of beating the slave mentality. Garvey wanted to resocialize the black man so he believed himself to be the equal of the white man, and that he could accomplish anything he wanted."Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will."(2)

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in the parish of St. Ann, in 1887. Garvey became a prominent leader in the fight for equality. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which set about to bring all Africans in diaspora back to Africa. He wanted to see Africans become proud of being African and proud of Africa, their homeland."Our desire is for a place in the world; not to disturb the tranquility of other men, but to lay down our burden and rest our weary backs and feet by the banks of the Niger and sing our songs and chant our hymns to the God of Ethiopia."(3) Africa, he taught, was the founder of all civilizations, it was there from which all mankind had formed."His message, therefore, called for the decolonization of Africa, that is, freedom from political and military control, as well as freedom from institutional, such as religious, control."(4) Garvey's message called for this change to come by encouraging all Africans to join into one large group since they all had similar needs and goals. The idea of uniting together to cause change is essential if any movement is to succeed. Garvey realized this and used it to advance the African race to move together as one. Education and respect for oneself were two other points of Garvey's ideology of racial uplift. A"new ideology, 'liberation before migration,' has become the routinization technique of the younger members of the movement and has worked wonders in the adjustment of Rastafarians to the realities of Jamaican life."(5) This new outlook stresses that it is important to gain freedom at home, before traveling abroad to find freedom. This new ideology has gained strength through the voice of Sam Brown. To Rastafarians, like Brown,"repatriation consisted of erasing one interpretation . . . the Babylonian one--and restoring another--the African and/or Ethiopian one."(6) Sam Brown was born in the parish of Trelawny in 1925. He was a devout follower of Rastafarianism and has since become a major leader of the movement. In 1961, he entered politics as the candidate for the Black Man's Party. He was the first Rastafarian to stress that liberation before repatriation was absolutely necessary."Members of the Rastafarian Movement are an inseparable part of the Black people of Jamaica. As such we cannot and do not proclaim any higher aims than the legitimate aims and aspirations of the Black people of Jamaica."(7) Although his entry into politics proved unsuccessful, his views have become an integral part of the movement.

The beliefs which the Rastafarians hold have enabled its followers to gain strength in numbers. The movement has evolved from a small, sheltered group of followers to a world-wide pattern of shouting 'Down Babylon.' The belief in black power and the end of oppression find their roots in Ethiopianism."The national anthem of the Garvey movement--which has been adopted by the Rastafarians--expresses the mythic dimension of this ideology in military fervor. . .

Ethiopia, thou land of our fathers,
Thou land where the Gods loved to be,
As the storm cloud at night suddenly gathers Our armies come rushing to thee.
We must in the fight be victorious
When swords are thrust outward to gleam; For us will the victory be glorious."(8)

This poem clearly illustrates the desire of many Jamaicans to return to Africa and to fight there for freedom. While the dream of returning to Africa, the proclaimed holy land, was an important idea early in the movement, I believe that it is more important for the Rastafarians to look for freedom in Jamaica first. Liberation before repatriation was said to have come as an order from the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Conquering Lion of Judah, the Emperor of Ethiopia: Haille Sellassie I. He subsequently visited Jamaica, in April of 1966.(9) The Rastafarians viewed Haille Sellassie I as the returned messiah who would lead them to freedom.

Another commonly held belief of Rastafarianism is that the values and ideologies which the western world represents are not in the best interests of the black race, or for that matter any person in the world."With them politricks and dem old religion, all it create is just war and bare friction."(10) The beliefs put forth by the Catholic church are thought to be lies, especially when taken in the context that the church endorsed slavery as a means of supposedly helping Africans become better people."I and I deal with righteousness, irrespective of what men call righteousness. 'Cause most people think say, is when you go in a church on Sunday, with your clean clothes and your jacket and tie, you're holy, seen?"(11) The Bible of the church is believed to have been changed in order to benefit the white race. The Rastafarians do not think that the Bible is full of lies, they just think that the institutions that support the Bible are filled with deceit. The youth of Jamaica are programmed into believing the faiths of the west, and the values of the west. As Marley said in an interview, there is"no one teaching the real way of life, and right now the devil have plenty influence; but as far as me is concerned, all the devil influence lead to is death."(12) Rastafarianism has been turned to as the only black religion that supports black people and their beliefs. The movement was born in colonial oppression and structured itself"in the slums. . . it was the only voice of a powerless peasant class whose numbers are still multiplying in the island. . .(it) is a symbol of the neglect of an educational system which failed to inculcate in the youth a pride in their homeland, their African heritage, and their identity as a unique people."(13) The Rastafarian movement has gone through many changes, from an early attempt at self-government, the Pinnacle commune, to a force for change in Jamaica, the Rastafarian Movement Association (RMA). These changes have brought the Rastafarians together, as a group, to work for social change. The Pinnacle commune was an effort led by Leonard Howell aimed at returning to nature in order to live outside of the realm of Jamaican jurisdiction. In the 1940s, Howell believed that it was necessary to have a self controlled government led by blacks for blacks."There were thousands of Rastas occupying the land, which Howell had been running like a Maroon nation, an autonomous state within a state."(14) The community was destroyed twice by the police before its members gave up and returned to Kingston. The Rastafarian Movement Association provides a monthly paper which covers current events, news, and information on the Rastafarians. The group also serves as help for Rastafaians who are in trouble with the law.(15) The RMA sees liberation in Jamaica as a necessity,"their aim is to bring mother Africa into Jamaica. They are intelligent, politically sophisticated, socially aware, and . . . they have the making of a strong syndicate."(16) I think that this group serves a very important function in organizing the Rastafarians into a powerful group that may eventually affect government policy. The oppressive conditions found in Jamaica, and in many other"third world"or non-industrialized countries, have brought the people on the island together in an effort to bring down Babylon. The conditions of Babylon are found almost universally throughout the world and the root of this evil system is seen in the desire for an individual to advance at the cost of many others' general well being. The greed of capitalism has caused a large number of people to live in conditions of extreme poverty, while the rich get richer off the work of the poor,"some of the rich man get their riches from the ghetto."(17) In Jamaica, the differences between those who have and those who do not are extreme;"prior to independence, about 60 percent of the land was held by 1 percent of the population."(18) Although the government has tried to claim the land and redistribute it, the practice has not created any true sense of equality.

In the past, slavery was the direct cause of inequality, but now wealth and power are the primary factors. Much of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, and worse than that, these few have no desire to help their fellow man."The rich man's heaven is the poor man's hell."(19) People are now in direct conflict with each other, and one is supposed to advance them self in order to get ahead of an other in terms of wealth, power, and prestige. Society becomes institutionalized into believing that competition is good and that this is caused by human nature, which is inherently competitive and aggressive. The ideologies that Babylon presents need to be changed in the minds of the people, before there can be any effective change. Rastafarians have seen this, and many of their beliefs revolve around empowerment, spiritual/mental uplift, and enlightenment.

Although Babylon has been exposed to the eyes of many, there are far more people who still have not opened their eyes."So they build their world in great confusion, to force on us the devil's illusion."(20) The in-class struggles that Babylon has put forth are designed to keep the poor at each others necks, thereby diverting their anger from the true source of their problems. Bob Marley referred to this tactic as tribal war."See they want to be the star, so they fighting tribal war."(21) These attempts by Babylon to keep the poor in place use the weapons of racism, sexism, poverty, and hatred as means of separating the people and keeping them fighting each other. Yet as the conditions grow worse,"then economic pressure will, compel all sections of down-pressed people--for example, police, soldiers, and the ghetto people--to look in one direction."(22) When all eyes are focused on the evil of Babylon, then the walls will crumble. The police and the army are good examples of poor people being used by the system, in order to keep the system that does not work for them, in power. On July 12, 1966, 250 police came from all over Kingston and proceeded to destroy the homes of the inhabitants of Back O Wall, a ghetto in the city. After three days, hundreds of people were left without a place to live or sleep. Many saw this as"another incident of government's brutality to the poor and needy."(23) I think that this destruction was unnecessary, and it only served to make the people of Jamaica angrier at the government. Yet it was not the institution that tore down their homes, it was other Jamaicans that were working at the behest of the system to hurt people that were otherwise like themselves. Another aspect of Babylon's control of the disimpoverished can be seen in the isolation of the poor. By confining the poor to a small area, there is less popular dissent about the conditions of poverty, because it is unseen and it affects only the people who live in the ghettos. Sam Brown identifies the conditions found in Trenchtown in his poem, Slum Condition,"Tin-can houses, old and young, mangy dogs, rats, inhuman stench, unthinkable conditions that cause the stoutest heart to wrench. . .Tribal warfares, rapings, inhumanity, police brutality, daily occurrences, . . .Corruption to achieve material, graft, bribes, high and low, official-mantled crooks, gunmen equal, the innocent have no place to go."(24)

Oppression and corruption can be found in many other places, besides Jamaica. Apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Somalia and Rwanda, the repression of a popular movement in Mexico led by the Zapatistas, and the untold working conditions found in multi-national"third world"factories endorsed by the United States are all just a few examples of the everyday brutalities perpetrated by Babylon.

Reggae music is an important means of transporting vital messages of Rastafarianism. The musician becomes the messenger, and as Rastafarians see it,"the soldier and the musician are tools for change."(25) Reggae' message crosses international borders and deals with themes that cut across all aspects of humanity. Reggae evokes a message of universal suffrage, and in doing so spreads a theme of class consciousness to the poor, illiterate, and oppressed."It still serves as a social safety valve through which oppressed peoples express their discontent."(26) This theme of unity is matched with the idea that social change is not long in the coming, and that the change will be for the better of all. Reggae also states that it is possible to enjoy life even in the presence of tragedy, since there is always a hope for improvement. Music is an important part of the Jamaican way of life, and reggae music has become a means of expressing the discontent found in Jamaican society. As a social commentary, reggae is a powerful means of attacking what is wrong in Jamaica, as well as the rest of the world. Police beatings, jail time, love, gang warfare, poverty, downpression, ganja, and rastafarian beliefs are all dealt with in reggae music."The music of Rastafarians is not only an artistic creation in the Jamaican society, but an expression of deep seated social rage."(27) Early reggae artists, such as Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, and Burning Spear, brought the message of Rastafarianism into the musical world. It is hard to image that Rastafarianism would have spread outside of Jamaica without the aid of reggae music."Bob Marley gave the poor a voice in the international arena of ideas."(28) The voice Marley and others represented said that the time for change had come, and it will be soon that the walls of Babylon fall. The message of change has been more recently carried on by newer artists like Buju Banton, Tony Rebel, Luciano, and Capleton."When the messages are heard, each and everyone will take head and listen to the master's call."(29)"Reggae music make we chant down Babylon."(30) Early reggae artists were set on opening the eyes of Jamaicans to the goals of the Rastafarians. They showed, through their music, the sufferings of the people of Jamaica, and believed the end of this suffering to be the final showdown. The songs issued warnings to the oppresors that the end of their unfair rule was about to come,"woe to the downpressor, they'll eat the bread of sorrow."(31) The message of Rastafarians was broadcast world-wide by the rise of Bob Marley as an international star. When he entered that arena, Marley opened the door for other reggae artists to further advance the ideas of Rastafarians. Another member of Marley's band, the Wailers, was Peter Tosh,"the angry rebel who was increasingly conscious of black history."(32) His views were far more drastic than Marley's; he strongly believed that Babylon must be physically thrown down before there could be any type of freedom in Jamaica."I and I step to this planet they call Jamaica, not to be condemned by men, but because of the illegal shitstem designed by the slave drivers. Sounds like a joke, but the facts are what is joke to you is death to him."(33) The viewpoints that Tosh held were highly revolutionary, but they clearly showed his ultimate goal."What's in the darkness must be revealed to the light, we're not here to judge what's good from bad, but to do the things that are right."(34) The message of chanting 'Down Babylon' was introduced by these and other early artists, and it has continued to be carried on by newer artists. As reggae music evolves, the message that it carries has been returned to song after song. After all, the conditions have not been vastly improved, and the cause of them has not disappeared either. With a new approach to music, artists such as Sizzla, Tony Rebel, and Capleton have emerged as the next generation of reggae artists. Their style has since been named dancehall. They have consistently broadcast their beliefs in Rastafarianism, and the final fall of Babylon."This is a warning to all pharaoh, all false leaders, all downpressors. Them have the whole world under severe pressure, and them don't love people, them only love more power. But your days are numbered."(35) It seems as if the theme of resistance has become more important, as more artists are realizing that it is necessary for the people of Jamaica to work together to achieve their freedom."Unity and strength, we have to combine, this is a collective mission, everyone have to join, any means necessary, a method we have to find, to stop all the war poverty, and the crime."(36)

The Rastafarians are advocates of a need for social change, they call for it and demand it. When the inequalities of a country cause many people to live in conditions that are less than adequate for basic survival, there are going to be movements that emerge calling for change. Many times, the movements are violent and the expression of its members comes out as revolutionary,"but is better to die fighting for your freedom than to be a prisoner all the days of your life."(37) While most Rastafarians desire a peaceful change, it is the individual believers who are likely to engage in acts of crime."The Rastafarian movement with its unorganized militancy could be fertile ground for guerrilla resistance."(38) These crimes and other acts of violence seem to emerge as the only means of protest that a poor and overlooked group of people can use. Since they have no direct control of the government or any other manners of teaching, the Rastafarian's only way of making an impact is through deviant behavior. This behavior emerged as smoking marijuana, a peaceful means of non conformity, growing dreadlocks, a means of causing fear into non believers, and protesting about inequalities, a way of causing change.

As part of the social change that the Rastafarians require, a redistribution of the land and wealth is much needed. The rich have to much control of the wealth in Jamaica, and they are not spreading it around. As Sam Brown put it,"this is definitely a struggle against class bondage; the only solution of which the society is well aware is more equitable distribution of the wealth."(39) If this were to occur on the island, poverty might become eliminated and thereby driving away many of the problems that are associated with it. The Rastafarians believe that the end of the world, as prophesied in the Bible, is coming soon. At this time, the forces of good and evil will meet and the fate of the world will be determined. I think that this Armagedeon may be interpreted, in these times, as the revolution that will change the world for the betterment of all mankind. The Rastafarians see it as the final fall of Babylon, and the beginning of Zion, which is seen as the promised land. This change will only come as a result of worldwide unity and support for the end goal. As Bob Marley said,"let's get together to fight this Holy Armagedeon, so when the man come there will be no no doom."(40) This final revolution should not be thought of in terms of capitalism versus socialism, or for that matter any other -ism. It should be looked at as a world wide effort to defeat oppression of all forms. When asked what his greatest desire was, Peter Tosh responded:"To serve Jah through passing on his message and to see the brighter day when 'Right is Right' and 'Wrong is Wrong,' and when every man gets pay according to his work -no more, no less. To keep on working as long as you work for the right, because payday is not far away!!"(41)

The Rastafarians do not want this change to come only for themselves, but for all of mankind. Their end goal is to bring heaven to Earth, creating a promised land for everyone. The land of Zion will be the replacement of Babylon, and wickedness will be driven from the promised land."Zion is a bountiful place, I chant that the wicked aren't chaste, I trample inna dem face, but when it come to sufferin' dem found dem place."(42)

I believe that Rastafarianism is a powerful force that must be listened to and that actions must be taken to meet their demands. Although their ideas are not unique from a suffering people, the attitude they take towards life is. They look oppression in the face, and laugh as they chant 'Down Babylon.' Their forms of expression range from acts of violence towards the Jamaican government to a peaceful means of protest through reggae music. Reggae music has become popular internationally, and as such the message of resistance has spread with it. The only thing left for people to do is to,"try try and try 'till you succeed at last."(43) The Rastafarians have a noble cause on their hands, and the journey to Mt. Zion is hard and treacherous. Many warriors have fallen to the mercy of Babylon, early fighters like the Maroons, and later the tools of the system who kill and are killed without even knowing why. As the atrocities continue, the situation will rapidly become explosive, and more people will join the struggle. Eventually, the final trumpet will sound and the fall of Babylon will be imminent.


Books and Articles:

Barret, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. Reggae The Rough Guide. London: Penguin Books, 1997. Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari Roots and Ideologies. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Clarke, Peter B. Black Paradise: The Rastafarian Movement. San Bernadino, Ca.: Borgo Press, 1994. Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of The Music and Culture of Jamaica. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.

Wilmore, Gayraud S."Black Religion and Black Radicalism."Monthly Review. 36(3) July- Aug, 1984.


Burning Spear."Mek We Dweet."Tuff Gong Studios, 1990.
Capleton."I Testament."Rush Associated Labels Recording, 1997.
Cliff, Jimmy."The Harder They Come."Island Records, 1973.
Luciano."Where There Is Life."Island Records, 1995. (album cover)
Marley, Bob."Confrontation."Tuff Gong Studios, 1976.
Marley, Bob."Exodus."Tuff Gong Studios, 1977.
Marley, Bob."Natural Mystic."Island Records, 1992.
Marley, Bob."Survival."Tuff Gong Studios, 1979.
Marley, Bob."Songs of Freedom."Island Records, 1990. (album cover)
Rebel, Tony."Vibes of The Time."Rebellious Vibes, 1993.
Sizzla."Praise Ye Jah."XTerminator Productions, 1996.
Toots and The Maytalls."Time Tough The Anthology."Island Records, 1996.
Tosh, Peter."Equal Rights."Columbia Records, 1977.
Tosh, Peter."Legalize It."Columbia Records, 1976.

Web Pages:

Bagga Brown."High Times Interview with Peter Tosh."April, 1983.

Peter Tosh. Sunsplash 1980.


1Wilmore, Gayraud S."Black Religion and Black Radicalism."Monthly Review. 36(3) July- Aug, 1984. pp121.
2Burning Spear. Garvey."Mek We Dweet."Tuff Gong Studios, 1990.
3Barret, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. pp79
4Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari Roots and Ideologies. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994. pp95
5Barrett. pp160
6Clarke, Peter B. Black Paradise: The Rastafarian Movement. Borgo Press: San Bernadino, Ca., 1994. pp51
7Barrett. pp148
8Barrett. pp80
9Clarke. pp51
10Capleton. Nah Bow."I Testament."Rush Associated Labels Recording, 1997.
11Tosh, Peter. Sunsplash 1980.
12Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of The Music and Culture of Jamaica. Da Capo Press: New York, 1992. pp39
13Barrett. pp110
14Davis. pp73
15Barrett. pp177
16Barrett. pp180
17Toots and The Maytalls. Living In The Ghetto."Time Tough The Anthology"Island Records, 1996.
18Barrett. pp 12
19Tosh, Peter. Burial."Legalize It."Columbia Records, 1976.
20Marley, Bob. Ride Natty Ride."Survival."Tuff Gong Studios, 1979.
21Marley, Bob. Iron Lion Zion."Natural Mystic."Island Records, 1992.
22Barrett. pp164
23Barrett. pp157
24Barrett. pp9-10
25Davis. pp97
26Barrett. pp vii
27Barrett. pp 197
28White, Timothy."Songs of Freedom."Island Records, 1990. (album cover) pp45
29Luciano."Where There Is Life."Island Records, 1995. (album cover)
30Marley, Bob. Chant Down Babylon."Confrontation."Tuff Gong Studios, 1976.
31Marley, Bob. Guiltiness."Exodus."Tuff Gong Studios, 1977.
32Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. Reggae The Rough Guide. Penguin Books: London, 1997. pp133
33Tosh, Peter. Sunsplash 1980.
34Tosh, Peter. Downpressor Man."Equal Rights."Columbia Records, 1977.
35Rebel, Tony. The Voice and The Pen."Vibes of The Time."Rebellious Vibes, 1993.
36Capleton. Steep Mountain."I Testament."Rush Associated Labels Recording, 1997.
37Marley, Bob."Songs of Freedom."Island Records, 1990. (album cover)
38Barrett. pp262
39Barrett. pp163
40Marley, Bob. One Love."Exodus."Tuff Gong Studios, 1977.
41Bagga Brown."High Times Interview with Peter Tosh."April, 1983.
42Sizzla. Inna Dem Place."Praise Ye Jah."XTerminator Productions, 1996.
43Cliff, Jimmy. You Can Get It If You Really Want."The Harder They Come."Island Records, 1973.