Black History Month: Rastafari

I like reggae. A lot. Sometimes other people tell me they like reggae too, but what they really mean is they like Bob Marley’s Legend album, but they have never heard of Barrington Levy. Or Buju Banton, or Black Uhuru, or Everton Blender, Cocoa Tea, Sizzla, Anthony B, Warrior King, or you get the point. I like reggae.

But I am not a Rasta.image1-5

I point that out because being a Rasta is an actual thing and I am not one but I regularly hear that word bandied about like it is just an adjective synonymous with pot head. I’m not one of those either.

There is a book originally written in Coptic then translated into Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, around the year 1300. It claims to be a record of when Queen Makeda of Sheba united with King Solomon of Israel. Their son Menelik carried the Ark of the Covenants back to Ethiopia, was crowned king of Ethiopia and the inhabitants began following the Lord God of Israel.

In 1910 Tafari Makonnen (Amharic name) or Haile Selassie (Ge’ez name)  was appointed governor of Harar and given the title Ras, which means head. Hence Ras Tafari. In 1930 Selassie inherited the crown and title of the kingdom of Ethiopia and as a descendant of Solomon was crowned “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Conquering Lion of Judah.”rasta

Over in New York City there was this Jamaican guy named Marcus Garvey. He was making quite a stir by telling black people to stop trying to be American and look back to Africa. He even started buying ships so black Americans could move back to Africa. Garvey was famous for proclaiming that salvation for black people would never be found in the West, but rather black people should look to a black king in Africa for their Zion.

One of Garvey’s followers was another Jamaican named Leonard P. Howell. Garvey and Howell both got deported for being loud and black. Garvey went to Europe, Howell went back to Jamaica. Once back home Howell published a tract called the Promised Key, which pointed to Haile Selassie as the promised second coming of the messiah to whom black people should look to for salvation. Marcus Garvey was the new John the Baptist who helped the world turn their eyes to a new King of Kings and that the New Jerusalem or Zion, would be Mother Africa.

Howell is considered by many to be the first Rastafarian.

Now mind you this is 1933 Jamaica. England still owns and runs the place as a colony. New York, where Powell had just spent time, was coming out of the Harlem Renaissance, a time where black thought and expression were springing up out of the everyday misery of being squashed down by American style racism. Howell called for a complete rejection of oppression, of whiteness, of imperialism and the general uplift of all black people everywhere by rejecting Europe and looking to home. To themselves. To Africa. This message got him in a lot of trouble.

But people listened and followed.

When Bob Marley came along Rastafarians were not popular. Anywhere. You would have never seen a shirtless man with dreadlocks on any tourism commercials but more likely would have been told to avoid them because they might snatch your children. Bob did not grow up Rasta nor were the other guys in the group the Wailers. If you saw and heard their early recordings they are a tin sounding R&B act. But then, in 1966, Haile Selassie visited Jamaica and Bob and the crew converted.

Bob changed everything. He became world famous and used that platform to preach his beliefs. Interestingly enough, most of what “crossed over” to the mainstream in his preaching wasn’t really the foundations of Rasta but some of the trappings. Dreadlocks and weed. Howell never wore locks.

Drowned in the haze of the biblical “herb to heal the nations” was the message of Peter Tosh singing “ I don’t want no peace. I want equal rights and justice.” Or the warning to colonial powers that while they might be a big tree, that the Rastas represent a small ax sharpened to cut them down. This isn’t exactly three little birds- but people really like that song.

Howell understandably didn’t like white people very much. His writing reflects that. I also already have a religion that I am comfortable with, I’m not going anywhere. So I am absolutely not a Rastafarian.

But I can’t help but love when a great musician puts music to the words of the Ethiopian Emperor’s speech to the League of Nation’s crying out on their inaction as his country is invaded by Italy.

The Day the Music Fell From Heaven

I was in 8th grade. Old enough to have my own opinions but not quite experienced enough for them to be worth much. I was walking down the street, in the gutter. My dad used to hate when packs of teenagers would do this, leaving the sidewalks empty and daring cars to run them over. But I wasn’t a pack, it was just me, and I wasn’t all the way out in the street, just the gutter.sledding

I was on my way home from school, or maybe Kirk’s house, I’m not really sure. I am sure that I was kicking rocks. Little landscaping pebbles that had escaped from a flower bed or a driveway. Off to the side in the gutter I didn’t have to look up to see who was in the minivans as they drove by or which blonde little kids were laughing as they played on swingsets in their back yards. I kicked rocks because they were there and because the rubber soles were coming off my Converse. I was trying to wear them out quicker in hopes for a new pair.icecream

As my shoes made that scuffing sound on the pavement and the little kids laughed on the swings my mind drifted off to wherever it is the minds of bored suburban kids go when they walk. I wandered on in this mindless state for at least another ten years, but on this day I was startled out of my trance by the shallow clacking sound of hard plastic.

I looked down and saw an unmarked cassette tape. It was dirty, scratched up, but the tape was intact. I picked it up and slipped it in the pocket of my Bugle Boys.

Once home I went down to my room, closed the door, and went right for the tape deck. I hit eject and tossed the Thompson Twins off onto a stack of the Cure, Depeche Mode, and Unforgettable Fire.chess

When I closed the deck and pushed down the play button a ray of light burst through my shuttered windows.

Then I saw the angel with the seven seals
Babylon your throne gone down gone down
Babylon your throne gone down

A conduit straight to heaven opened up before me and I was carried away to some celestial world.

I said fly away home to Zion
One bright morning when my work is over
I will fly away home

It was as if the sounds of angels came bursting from the speakers and I was changed.
I was also confused.

I’m sure death and the passage into the next world would be confusing, or should I say will be? One day you are the same you have always been and then bang, hit by a truck, and now everything is different. That is what happened to me when I put that unmarked tape into the deck.
I had no idea what it was. I had never heard anything like it. I did not understand it.

I loved it.

You teach the youth to learn in school
That the dish ran way with the spoon
You teach the youth to learn in school
That the cow jump over moon
So you can’t blame the youth, when they don’t learn
You can’t fool the youth

There was a back beat. It made me smile. It was raw and unpolished. I had no idea what they were singing about but I felt like it mattered. I was convinced they meant whatever it was they were saying and hat I needed to be on board.

It wasn’t just the music. Between every song there was this guy talking. It sounded vaguely like English but I couldn’t make it out. Completely incomprehensible. But I was young and this was love. Love has never needed to make sense. This idea made perfect sense to me. I was in the height of puberty, everything felt big and important and I didn’t understand any of it.

Why should this music be any different?

Then came one song; instantly my favorite.

I went downtown
There I saw miss Brown
She had brown sugar
All over her booga wooga
Kinky reggae
Kinky reggae now

I rewound it over and over. Kinky reggae. I had never touched, never kissed, never seen a naked girl, and my new favorite song was kinky reggae. I knew in some vague way what that word meant, I have no idea how, and I didn’t care. I had my theme song. This one was mine.
It was years before I figured out who the artist was. I played it for my friends and they all just laughed. They couldn’t handle more than one joke and told me to turn that trash off. “That junk is non-sense, put R.E.M. back on.” Because of that one word, kinky, I didn’t play it for my parents. It wouldn’t have helped. I knew it wasn’t Chubby Checker so I knew Dad wouldn’t know who it was.

Every time I hear the crack of a whip
My blood runs cold
I remember on the slave ship
How they brutalized my very soul

Slave driver
The table is turned
Catch a fire
Yer gonna get burned

Decades have passed and I have never smoked a joint. I do not like the Grateful Dead and find tie dye repulsive. I have never owned a pair of Birkenstocks. But to this day Bob is by far my favorite. Writing that just now doesn’t really do it justice.

Every man thinks that his burden is the heaviest
Every man thinks his burden is the heaviest
Who feels it knows it Lord
That’s why yer runnin’ away
But you can’t run away from yourself

I am still in love.02rastaresize