PRINT May 1996


Return of Rasta

AFTER THE DEATHS of Haile Selassie and Bob Marley and the subsequent “repeal” of roots reggae in the Reaganomic Jamaica of the ’80s, Rastafarianism receded from the world stage. Today it is thriving again in the international music market, commanding respect in roughneck dance-halls from Montego Bay to Toronto. Moreover, the “roots and culture” revival of the last eighteen months seems to be more than a passing trend, more than the belated recognition, in a slow cycle, of the performers and communities who kept the Rasta faith through the lean years. Historians have long acknowledged the profound impact of the Rasta movement as the voice of Black Power in the Caribbean in the ’70s. Indeed, at a large conference on Caribbean culture in Kingston in March (“the first such occasion in 500 years,” as a keynote speaker remarked), the audience, treated to renowned intellectuals like George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite, Stuart Hall, Lloyd Best, Rex Nettleford, and Edna Brodber, reserved its most sanctified applause for Mortimer Planno, the legendary Rasta elder and Marley mentor who had greeted Ethiopian emperor Selassie, whom Rastafarians consider their religion’s messianic leader, off the plane on his epochal 1966 visit to Jamaica.

To gauge the current Rasta relevance, however, you need to listen not to the postcolonial intelligentsia (with whom the elders have always had fractious relations) but to the booming sound systems that rule every Jamaican village, and to every budding street-corner DJ youth spinning rhymes as compulsively as young rappers do in urban America. The heroes of these youth—DJs and singers like Capleton, Luciano, Terry Ganzie, Everton Blender, Tony Rebel, the late Garnet Silk, and the newly dreadlocked Buju Banton—have been leading the march away from the X-rated, gunslinging arena of dancehall slackness (lyric lewdness) onto the higher ground of “conscious” (morally responsible) preaching and spiritual teaching that typified roots reggae in its ’70s heyday. In their performances, unruly sexual banter and raggamuffin swaggering are being edged out by solemn declarations of righteous uplift and hymns to Jah and Selassie, rocked by nyabinghi drum patterns with deep African roots.

The roots revival prompts many interpretations, and these being still early days, I will only suggest a few.

1. Public criticism of slackness and rude-boy gun lyrics is taking its toll. Spiritual reggae is relatively free of controversy, and for all its conscious politics it’s more appealing to middle-class morality than were the Glocks and genitalia of dancehall. In the States, a similar outcry against gangsta rap on the part of grandstanding politicians and morality brokers has prompted a major reinvestment of hip-hop energies in the crooning swingbeat of urban R&B.

2. The increase in suffering and misery among Jamaica’s poor majority has begun to exhaust the capacity of the community and the market to sustain party music at the expense of songs of uplift and positivity. Combine this with the profile among influential DJs of coming to maturity after their boisterous youth, and you have the seeds for a powerful generational narrative about the return of wayward sons to the prophetic life of the fathers.

3. In response to the uncertainties of global economic integration and the corresponding migration of regional musics, resurgent forms of nationalism are on a growth curve. In Jamaica, these ideas are now sonically associated with conscious reggae. Dancehall, on the other hand, has become increasingly tied to North American hip-hop (which itself, from Kool Herc on, owes an immense debt to Jamaica). Dancehall artists like Shabba Ranks, Patra, Supercat, Yellowman, Mad Cobra, Papa San, Mad Lion, and Burro Banton are producing reggae hip-hop at a quickening pace, and these Jamerican hybrids are increasingly the experimental edge for producers in Jamaica itself. By comparison with these transnational forms, roots and culture sound like pure, unadulterated Jamaica. (Fifteen years ago, ironically enough, the patois and sound-system milieu of early dancehall was seen as a local reaction to the concert-hall world-beat aristocracy of Wailers-style reggae.)

4. Style revivals of radical movements have proven rich pickings in the cultural marketplace. The Malcolm X marketing phenomenon of a few years back is unlikely to be matched by a Selassie or Marcus Garvey equivalent, but Rasta iconography still carries enormous nostalgia value, not just for ’70s veterans but for their children seeking a conscience responsive to the new hard times.

5. The reassertion of Rasta-style high masculine prophecy bears clear consequences for the world of social relations depicted in dancehall, which over the last fifteen years has provided an exuberant, often contentious public space for dialogues about gender and sexuality. These conversations—noisy, disobedient, and morally awkward—threaten to die off in the Rastafarian world of female subordination and social hygiene. Many ruling DJs, like the ecumenical Beenie Man, currently offer a people-pleasing menu of culture and slackness, but the record shows that one mood or the other eventually tends to dominate.

What is the broader social context for the roots revival? Shifts in the Caribbean economy are as relevant to the shape of Jamaican music today as they were in the heady postindependence years of ska and rocksteady. After its brief bid for socialist autonomy in the mid ’70s, Jamaica became a test case for the “structural adjustment” policies of the International Monetary Fund in 1978, and was integrated into the global economic system supervised by the World Bank, the IMF, and the superstate to the north. As a result of this de facto recolonization, its national-policy decisions were increasingly dictated by the technocrat cadres of Washington. The result was a massive loss of sovereignty for a people whose “forward march” from colonialism had lasted a mere 16 years.

The economic revolution ushered in by the international debt agencies was later advanced by the feminization of cheap labor. The availability of low-cost high-turnover female workers was the key to the ’80s neoliberal policy of attracting foreign investment and multinational production to the region. This economic investment in women’s labor had a connection to the culture of female exhibition that would come to rule the dancehalls: in a moment of chronic male underemployment, the female body became an excessively visible object of contention—all the more conspicuous and active as an economic force, all the more powerful and threatening as a social force, in a culture often marked by “churchical” righteousness in matters of gender and sexuality. Indeed, local commentators like Carolyn Cooper saw slack dance-hall’s focus on sexuality not simply as a conservative displacement of ’70s protest reggae but as a riposte to the patriarchal moral righteousness of Rasta doctrine. In dancehall culture, women may have been “wicked” but were no longer a source of evil. The same could not be said of gays, of course, but the anti-batty-boy ditty, of which Buju’s controversial “Boom Bye Bye” was a typical example, became such a highly conventional genre that one could not help asking what lay behind the DJs’ obsessive devotion to public rituals of homophobia. Did they protest just a little too much?

By the mid ’90s, the individualizing culture of neoliberal economics had begun to permeate the whole domain of Caribbean popular habit and expression. So the conscious preaching and teaching of roots culture’s recent recruits sounds more like an intimate version of Christian revival than a resurgence of the apocalyptic Rasta voice calling on antiquity for prophecies of fire and blood in Babylon. Rather than a dread-soaked vision of collective overthrow in the future, there’s a search for relief from the present and a bright yearning for the past. Luciano’s hit songs “It’s Me Again Jah” and “He Is My Friend” catch the mix of bashful-boy penitence and self-affirmation: Jah resembles a personal Jesus more than a messianic vehicle of change.

Like all lasting religious movements, Rastafarianism has meant different things at different times. As it grew in the ’60s and ’70s from a small millennialist cult into the vanguard of black consciousness in the Caribbean and beyond, it became an alternative, communal way of life at home and an exemplary vehicle for third-world nationalisms abroad. The new version, at least in its music, is something else again. This is not the anticolonial Rastafarianism that had preferred a black African king to a white English one, nor the postcolonial Rastafarianism that demanded equal rights and justice for the black masses. The new Rastafarianism has emerged from the neocolonial order of the IMF, where the redemption future is not cruelly denied, only deferred forever, like the last debt-service payments.

Andrew Ross is the director of the American Studies Program at New York University.