Rastafari, Reggae, and Resistance

We refuse to be

What you wanted us to be

We are what we are

And that's the way it's going to be, if you don't know

You can't educate I

For no equal opportunity

Talking 'bout my freedom

People freedom and liberty

Yeah we've been trodding on

The winepress much too long

Rebel, Rebel

And we've been taken for granted

Much too long

Rebel, Rebel

(Taken from Bob Marley's Survival album, 1979)

Jamaica is known for its white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and endless days of sun. But perhaps more notably the island is known for its reggae music, which has made Jamaican culture an internationally recognized and marketable product. However, despite its mainstream viability and entertainment value, reggae music originated as a deeply political form of protest and contestation against the colonial and imperialist forces operative in the social context of Jamaican life. Musical ambassadors like The Mighty Diamonds, the Abyssinians, Judy Mowatt, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley, and Marcia Griffiths, along with many others, can be credited with bringing reggae music to the world stage and giving it international recognition. Yet, despite its worldwide popularity, few (outside of its practitioners and followers) truly understand the cultural and political climate in which the music developed. As both a fan of the music and culture, and as a child of Jamaican parentage, I have always been intrigued by the social, political, and cultural context from which the music emerged. My annual visits to the island of Jamaica further informed my interpretation of the history of reggae music and the impact of Rastafari culture on the music as well.

Since the beginning of its rise to international popularity in the 1960's and 1970's, there has been a close association between reggae artists and Rastafari culture, a culture founded on resistance. The Rastafari in Jamaica have inhabited a marginalized place in society. Scorned by society for their beliefs and appearance, they have been, and continue to be, disenfranchised from the means of production and wealth in Jamaica. Perhaps because of this disenfranchisement, Rastafari brethren and sistren have always been at the forefront in contesting the institutionalized racism and classism inherited from the colonial system. The Rastafari in Jamaica were among the first on the island to look to Africa as the source of their ancestry and identity, and were also among the first to use reggae music as a form of protest against the oppressive social conditions on the island. Following in the revolutionary spirit of the Maroons (communities of runaway slaves who fought against British slavers in Jamaica in the early 18th century), the Rastafari sought to distance themselves from the colonial culture of the island both in appearance and in beliefs.

The brutality targeted against the Rastafari in Jamaica was manifest in the police practice of cutting off a Rastafarian's locks, an actual and symbolic act meant to strip the Rastafari of their faith and power. It is little wonder that reggae music, a socially acceptable and viable product, became a means of political resistance through performance. Reggae music's lyrics, imbued with biblical imagery and symbolism, constitute a performative act. In the process of performing the music, reggae artists were actually protesting against the oppressive forces of the Babylon system. For the Rastafari, the Babylon system represents all of the exploitative and oppressive practices in Jamaica (in particular) and Western society (in general). This oppressive system began to come under increasing scrutiny in reggae music. Reggae lyrics, like the above, are indicative of the reggae protest songs popular during the 1960's and 1970's. Marley's lyrics, similar to the lyrics of his contemporaries, illustrate the reggae artists' negative view of the Babylon system, manifest in the oppressive political policy of the Jamaican government at the time. During the early rise of the reggae protest songs the Jamaican government banned many reggae recordings critical of governmental practices, or these reggae protest songs received very little airplay. This practice of banning or underplaying the reggae protest songs reveals the social force and power of this form of protest, which the Jamaican government sought to control.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the Jamaican government's recognition of the revolutionary power of reggae protest music, by the mid to late 1970's, Rastafari symbolism and reggae music began to be increasingly appropriated by the political parties in Jamaica. This was most notably manifest during the fierce and violent political campaigns of the late 1970's between Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga, in which Rastafari religious symbolism and reggae music became an integral part of the political landscape. Rastafari symbolism and reggae music became a symbolic representation of both political parties' attempts to show their sympathy with the plight of the disenfranchised and underrepresented populations in Jamaica. This attempt by both parties to show a connection to reggae music and Rastafari culture was evidenced at Bob Marley's 1978 "One Love Peace Concert" in Kingston, Jamaica, at which Manley and Seaga both appeared on stage. Marley, flanked by the two politicians, clasped both of their hands together with his and raised them over his head in a symbolic call for unity and an end to politically inspired violence in Jamaica. Yet, despite this symbolic allegiance, the actual manifestation of political policy to improve the conditions of the majority of the impoverished Jamaican citizens and policies to stop the violence associated with politics in Jamaica were never realized. Although this appropriation of reggae protest music did not result in any structural changes in governmental practices or political policy, it did bring reggae protest music into the national consciousness as a powerful political protest tool. In many ways, the appropriation of reggae protest music by the Jamaican political parties legitimized this performative practice as a viable form of political protest and as a type of nonviolent resistance.

Reggae music and Rastafari culture continue to be revolutionary and accessible forms of performative art/speech. A new generation of reggae artists emerging in the 1990's was able to combine conscious lyrics with hardcore dancehall and hip-hop rhythms, again popularizing this form of musical protest and introducing the music to a new generation of listeners. Current reggae artists like Buju Banton, Anthony B, Sizzla, Capleton, and the Marley Brothers, along with many others, continue to usher reggae music and Rastafari culture into the mainstream consciousness of Western society. Reggae music has contributed to a worldwide youth culture in which the music is used as a commentary and criticism of social and political policies considered unjust by the artists. Reggae musicians continue to use their music as a forum for political protest and as a means for raising consciousness amongst urban youth populations. The rise in popularity of Rastafari symbolism in the late twentieth century into the twenty-first century is evidenced by the ever-broadening social acceptance (in the West) of the dreadlocks hairstyle and reggae music. Further, the inclusion of reggae music as a category in the Grammy awards in 1985 was an acknowledgement of the mainstream acceptance of both the music and the culture from which it originated.

Although reggae music and Rastafari culture continue to work as viable and accessible forms of protest, the recent trend in reggae and dancehall music towards more 'rudeboy', materialistic lyrics undermines the historical and social context out of which earlier reggae protest music originated. Despite the far-reaching possibilities for the continued use of reggae music as a platform for political and social commentary, its inclusion into mainstream popular culture must necessarily shape the form and content of the music and the culture. Rastafari symbolism, likewise, has continued to lose its meaning and significance in the face of its own rise in popularity. Reggae music and Rastafari culture, which historically constituted a performative act of protest and contestation, both in the performance of the music and in the physical embodiment of a Rastafari appearance, have come to be identified in popular culture as simply a genre of music or a style of dress and hairstyle. The diminishment of reggae music and Rastafari culture as forms of protest is evidenced in the fact that as the music and culture become increasingly more popular and mainstream, the revolutionary history of this particular performative practice is slowly being lost. The loss of the historical context out of which the music originated, coupled with the economic incentives to mass produce the music and culture, have moved this performative practice farther away from the realm of revolutionary practice and closer to the realm of performance as product and commodity. However, as long as there is a single reggae artist who continues to honor the struggle and revolutionary spirit out of which this music originated, it will continue to serve as an effective example of performance-as-protest for future generations.


Katrina Lacey is a Doctoral student in the Youth Theatre Program in Arizona State University.

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