Sunday, November 18, 2007

Murrell, Spencer & McFarlane - Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader (1998)

This compilation of works on Rastafari and by Rastas is an excellent example of a sociological work which is nonetheless also 'of' and engaging its subject/s. Rather than a general introduction, this is more a work for someone with a specific interest in depending their knowledge of Rastafari culture generally - though there is an introductory preface, it certainly helps to have some background knowledge of Jamaican history and the development in the 1930s of Rastafari, a belief system centring on the Hebrew Bible and the worship of Haile Selassie I, from its roots in the Jamaican slums to the international spread of reggae and (shallow) knowledge of Rasta culture. As such, the work is divided into four sections: ideology and culture, roots and history, music and film; and theology and hermeneutics.

Some of the strongest, most interesting analysis comes in the early stages of the book, in essays on the Rasta use of language to reclaim English from the Babylonian masters (whites who controlled, and control, the system) - a notable example is in the firt-person joint singular-plural term 'I'n'I' referring both to the individual and his/her connectedness to others and to Jah Rastafari - and on the personal experiences, generalities and specificities of gendered life as a Rastawoman, and of how this has evolved over time, as women negotiated 'outsider' to 'insider' statuses (or failed to do so) under various conditions, particularly as this relates to periods of socio-economic change, as Rasta moved from its heavily patriarchal working-class roots, into the emerging Jamaican middle classes as traditional Western (and therefore also, Westernised) culture was undergoing a huge series of shocks (in the '60s and '70s). Overall, one of the work's strongest points is the use of modern non-Rasta and Rasta academic voices, the voices of non-academic adherents, and the reflections of long-term researchers to allow the material to speak without a unifying voice and representing a diversity of perspectives, both from the 'inside' and the 'outside'.

Material dealing with the historical development of Rasta from one poor, Christian-based theological cult among many in 1930s Jamaica, and particularly its relationship and the Jamaican relationship with Africa, with pan-Africanists, and with African leaders (most notably, of course, Haile Selassie I) is also of real interest, as is the history of the development of Rasta (sub)cultures in diasporic communities and in majority-non-black countries. Equally fascinating is the story of how this 'cult' came to be the foremost known manifestation of a nation, to have a hugely disproportionate influence on world music, and to shape politics and artistic culture within that nation itself.

The third section pays, to my mind, overmuch space on Bob Marley, who has already been represented and discussed ad infinitum elsewhere - more in-depth material on other Jamaican reggae musicians would've been appreciated. Material on the fraught connections between roots reggae and dancehall would also have been appreciated (1998 being, however, before the notorious clash between dancehall musicians and fans, and anti-homophobes, would reach its height). Material on rasta in cinema perhaps takes its subject a little too seriously in the light of negative films (New Jack City, anyone?) which have now completely disappeared from the cultural raidar (not to say that issues of representation are not important and desering of serious consideration).

The final body of material deals with Rasta theology (though there is no formal dogma, Rasta theology draws heavily on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, and is ambivalent toward Jesus Christ, but accepts Haile Selassie I as a divinely-prophesied Incarnation). Here, some debate takes place between Rasta and Christian positions, while much is made of the relationship between South American liberation theology and Rastafari. Each appropriates the Bible in the voice of 'the sufferers', challenges 'the system' through politics and lifestyle, and recasts the image of God in that of the oppressed, not their oppressors. In doing so, some interesting commentary is made on anti-White prejudice as originally expressed in Rasta, and whether it still exists in the age of 'one love'. While some criticism is made of the misogynistic and racist texts which have become revered Rasta works (most notably Leonard Howell's The Promised Key, overall I would've liked to see more analysis of the way in which the use of the Biblical text can be counter-liberation, particularly in terms of sexuality (an issue this work unfortunately does not address at all) and gender. The question which kept nagging at me, though it's in some ways the classic question of a non-believer, is: if the Bible is to be reinterpreted so as to wipe out imperialist prejudice, who gets to decide what's valid (the prohibitions of Leviticus, for example) and what isn't?

This issue brings us to a final question about the future of Rasta (already looking somewhat different in 2007, with the rise of many 'Rasta' dancehall singers whose idea of the Rasta way of living or 'livity' would seem very different to that of singers of the classic roots era, than in 1998) - in an era of global religious revivalism and of the swelling strength of African Black christian churches, and since the 'disappearance' of Selassie, will Rasta become simply another denomination among many (some organisations seem to be going down this path, creating formal congregations and churches), in which the political and the spiritual are disconnected or yoked together so as to continue that very oppression (as in conservative religion in the U.S.)? Or will it continue to find common cause with 'sufferers' protests against enslavement and 'downpression', and if so, which oppressed groups of the new century will be able to adopt or be comfortable being heard in a Rasta voice?

Indeed, my only complaint (apart from that it would've been nice to see an entire article devoted to ganja - but perhaps this would've seemed like promoting the stereotype) is that many of these articles implicitly celebrate the liberatory nature of Rasta, without also asking what orthodoxies are thus papered over, not only in terms of gender but in terms of theology, sexuality and other issues relating to minorities within a belief system or organisation, however amorphous. For example, what implications does the fact that rasta in Jamaica is a force much closer to the mainstream than it is anywhere else, have for the 'meaning' rasta there as opposed to elsewhere? Will the opening-up of Rasta to women as autonomous individuals (by no means universal) have liberatory consequences for sexual minorities? What will happen to belief systems as they are negotiated between 'cyber' communities of Rastas in the age of the internet, as well as between physically-located individuals and communities? All these questions remain to be answered. This volume, however, does an excellent job at replying to their preliminaries, giving an insider-outsider perspective on Rastafari as a uniquely influential confluence of religion, community, lifestyle and culture.

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