The Rastafarian Movement and Reggae Music

Political and economic situation in Jamaica in the 60s, Bob Marley a musical legend and apolitical Rasta referent

The Rastafarian culture, emerged in the Caribbean and later with grand local expansion in the rest of the world, germinated in 1930 in the outcast hoods of Kingston, Jamaica, which, at the time, was submerged in a great social and economic depression. Since its beginnings, Rastafarian or Rastafarianism was shaped as a social, religious and or spiritual movement that expressed the common feeling among the black community, oppressed and neglected after several centuries of exploitation, slavery and colonization. This movement pretended to dignified once again the Jamaican black community, even though it also shared ideas of African freedom. It was influenced then by streams of local thoughts of spiritual and philosophical kind, such as pan-Africanism, Afro-Americanism, Hinduism, Judaeo-Christian tradition, and African traditions focused in Afrocentrism and a strong conception of diaspora. This diaspora considers, among other things that, Haile Selassie I, was an Ethiopian emperor who was the incarnation of God on the Earth, also considered by Rastafarians as the African redeemer in diaspora and the promised and awaited biblical God. Rastafarian culture also feeds itself from the Garveyism movement, a political philosophy about Black Nationalism. It could be said this is mainly a culture born out of a social and cultural resistance against the system of the national government, because of this people had to keep unified through a construction of identity based on the international diaspora of the Africans as a consequence of the slavery in America. Hence, the foundation of the symbolic construction of a cultural nation in diaspora, in which the cultural components of several African tribes, Christianism and Judaism were given a new meaning in order to give birth to a new culture, to create their own identity from vindication and recovery of a proper common past or assumed as a proper one. This way, the Rastafarian movement comprise a wide variety of cultural manifestations that go from the spiritual, political, social and musical, among others and with a marked national identity or cultural nationalism in diaspora.

The word “Rastafari” has an origin and meaning, as the prefix “Ras” used to be use to name the princes of the Ethiopian Empire and “Tafari” was the name of the Emperor Haile Selassie before his coronation.

On the other hand, in the late 60s reggae emerged as a new artistic creation of the great oppressed masses of Jamaica. It should be pointed out that, even though reggae was not a Rastafarian creation or invention, several of the first performers of the musical genre were actual Rastafarians, and later, during the boom of these sounds, the Rasta appearance was developed in that environment, being this, what carried out the common association between reggae and Rastafarian. The artistic-musical age of the Rastafarian development occurred between 1969 and 1995. This age was characterized due to the Rastafarians’ making of reggae. Rastafarian culture became known little by little mainly through music; from Jamaica, Reggae started making its way to a world market as a music genre and as a cultural identity of values and shared beliefs. Also, as an aesthetics that became popular and was associated to the Rasta movement, manifesting the divinity of Haile Selassie, the social vindication around the movement, Marcus Garvey’s fight, the history of the foundation of the Ethiopian Empire and with it, its relevance to all of the afro-descendants and the rise of Africa as a sacred place. Moreover, reggae gave Rastafarians the principal vehicle of communication to transmit their teachings and culture, being this the medium where many Rastafarians of the world have known the culture, had interiorized it and integrated it to their lives.

Regarding the political and economic context, in 1962 Jamaica got its independence from the British Empire, after more than 400 years of slavery and colonial control. All hopes placed in a change of the social situation were frustrated, especially for the black people from Jamaican ghettos, with an eminent crisis of identity, a 26% rate of unemployment and the preservation of a racist society. The only political way out that many Afro-descendants saw was through Rastafarianism, the only ones who produced a similar speech about black community conscience to the one already existing in the US with the Civil Rights Movement.

In this sociohistorical scene, Robert Nesta Marley, better known as Bob Marley, appears: Jamaican singer, songwriter, born in Nine Mile, on the 6th of January 1945. Nowadays, he is still known as the most popular referent of reggae music and spread of the Rastafarian movement. During his music trajectory, he was the leader, songwriter and guitarist of bands The Wailers (1964-1974) and Bob Marley & The Wailers (1974-1980). Among his most famous tracks we can find singles such as I Shot the Sheriff, No Woman, No Cry, Jamming, Redemption Song and alongside The Wailers, Three Little Birds, and Buffalo Soldier. In the compilation album Legend, released by Island Records in 1984, three years after his death, is the most sold reggae album in history with fifteen platinum records in the US alone.

Besides making reggae a worldwide popular musical genre, Bob Marley’s popularity as a musician coincided with the raise of political tension in Jamaica in the 60s and 70s; social conflicts and revolts (most of them with arms), political repression, hunger and poverty, crime and street violence…

Bob Marley was an artistic and very influential figure in Jamaica, as well as in the rest of the world regarding his apolitical positioning. Even though he lived in a sociohistorical context strongly marked of political parties, he didn’t support any of them, nor their ideals. “I’m not Marxist nor capitalist. I’m Rasta.” He said once.  He was still an important referent to Jamaicans because he made a call to social conscience and individual and collective awakening in a pacific way, facing a political and economic reality that overwhelmed them. Just as he analysed the background of the oppression his people suffered, he encouraged to a pacific resistance. He defended Rastafarian principles and values that preached the union of the black community, and the conciliation and union of people in a pacific way. Through his interviews, speeches, public performances and the lyrics of his songs, he showed his pacifist and antimilitarist community values, his social complaints regarding the injustices towards the political and socioeconomic situation of his country, his mistrust and opposed against the hegemonic system imposed and the politicians incompetence. In addition, what he transmitted with his attitude and way of life, and what he preached regarding spiritual and social richness. Through music, he looked for a way to make his message reach everybody and invited everyone who listened to the reflexion and social criticism. His lyrics were his best weapon to defend and vindicate himself from pacifism, when we read deep into his songs we can find multiple references to that social and political criticism inserts the historical context where he was, and messages alluding to freedom of the Jamaican people as well as the rest of the world.

Examples of this in songs such as Slave driver that goes: “Slave driver, the table is turn; (catch a fire), Catch a fire, so you can get burn… Every time I hear the crack of a whip, my blood runs cold. I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalize the very souls. Today they say that we are free, only to be chained in poverty. Good God, I think it’s illiteracy; it’s only a machine that makes money.”

War was a vindication of the injustices someone goes through, personally. This song is based on a speech of Haile Selassie I about reconciliation, the mainly tales the conflict between races and the concept of superiority of some people over others. It also says that in every place there are wars or conflicts, due to the physiological or phenotypic differences such as, skin colour, differences that privileged groups seen as a threat creating more inequality and oppression to racialized people. In addition, Bob Marley makes a wake-up call to human rights and the equality of opportunities.

The lyrics of Redemption Song invite to mental emancipation. This acoustic recording carries the seed of his ideals based in the Rastafarian movement, as well as the wish that peace was possible without skin colour, political inclinations or social classes mattered.

The song Crazy Baldhead is filled with political meaning and social criticism is a defence against racism. It talked about the ongoing oppression of black people in Jamaica: “Once exploited as slaves, now they were exploited as free men as white people were leaving native Jamaicans aside and denying them economic justice, despite the native islanders’ contribution.”

Get up, Stand up is a song about human rights, that claims: “Get up, Stand up, stand up for your rights, don’t give up the fight” (Referring to the Jamaican people). “You can fool people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time” (referring to politicians). “So now we see the light, we gonna stand up for our rights!” (Referring once again to Jamaican people and himself).

In the song Trenchtown Rock, which he played alongside The Wailers, he refers to the neighbourhood he grew up in, a ghetto outside Kingston; it represented a milestone to young Jamaicans who defended their independence of the political system. He also mentions this neighbourhood in the famous song No Woman, No Cry.

Going back to the socio-political and economic situation in Jamaica, in 1972, socialist Michael Manley won the elections. The US fearing that Jamaica turned into a new Cuba started giving weapons to the opposition. Consequently, political violence grew. Street confrontations started to be regular. The tension grew even more in the 1976 elections with the division of two political parties: in one side, there were defendants of the People’s National Party (PNP) of Prime Minister Michael Manley, who were being accused of communists. On the other side, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), attributed by some to fascism, whose representative was Edward Seaga, whose interests were associated with the ones of the United States of America.

By the time, Bob Marley was already a national idol. All of Jamaica knew and admired him that is why both of the political parties tried to persuade him in many occasions for their own benefit, for him to side to one of the parties, so they could win more votes. However, Marley once more, did not follow any party. However, to show his social commitment, he proposed to organize a free concert named “Smile Jamaica” for the 5th of December of 1976, in order to promote the union of every Jamaicans, national reconciliation and put an end to violence; his intention had nothing to do with support any political party. However, after the date was announced, Prime Minister Manley, as political strategy, he called to elections for the next week with the intention of getting the votes he needed to win the elections. Due to this, the concert was interpreted by the opposition as an act of support for the socialist campaign. Consequently, Bob Marley received a lot of pressures and death threats for him not to act. Two days before the event, December 3rd, several gunmen broke into Marley’s house shooting endlessly, surprisingly, Marley survived and he only got a scratch caused by one of the bullets that touch one side. Despite the attempt and the danger that it could happen again, Bob Marley decided to follow through with the concert. He sang and played as he had promised, and he even showed the wounds the shots had caused him. However, that attempt against his life provoked the self-inflicted exile to England. In there, he kept spreading the Rastafarian movement through his themes, already considered hymns for an entire generation. He focused in his music entirely, and the result of that intense creativity was the Exodus album (1977), considered his peak of his career. From that moment onwards, Bob Marley released hit after hit and went in a world tour. Meanwhile, the confrontation between the different political parties kept occurring in Jamaica.

On April 22nd, 1978 in Kingston, Jamaica, One Love Peace Concert took place, a grand reggae concert organized with the intention of reconciling the two political parties, the PNP and the JLP, an initiative that gathered sixteen artists, whose mission was to unified the divided people of Jamaica with music, one of the guests was Bob Marley. Over 30 000 spectators were in the National Stadium, and by midnight, after seven hours of concert, Bob Marley showed up on stage. He sang his greatest hits and between songs, he transmitted messages of peace and concordance to the public. He was also able to bring together both Michael Manley (PNP) and Edward Seaga (JLP) and they shook hands in front of everybody, it was very emotional.

However, despite the good intentions, the gesture did not have the desired political transcendence. The following day, the two bands kept confronting each other in the streets. Nevertheless, it did had a huge and powerful symbolic impact. Bob Marley went from being a musical idol and Rastafarian referent to be a symbol of pacifist activity in the political and social sphere. He received the Medal of Peace of the United Nations and he became an icon of pacifism and the fight for civil rights.

This Jamaican singer has been an important icon for lots of people around the globe, not only because he revolved the world musically speaking, but also because peace and union were his modus operandi.

Nevertheless, it is important to mention that not only Bob Marley contributed to the artistic creation and propagation of music and reggae culture, as well as the Rastafarian values. Several other artists, even though they are not worldwide known, had been an enormous source of inspiration and musical creativity, and had had the capacity to vindicate with their lyrics and promote and extend Jamaican art to other parts of the world.

Among these musicians of Reggae-roots, meaning the roots of reggae music, we found: Peter Tosh (he was the keyboardist in The Wailers, the same group where Bob Marley was the lead singer), Burning Spear, The Abyssinians, Black Uhuro, Israel Vibration, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Bunny Wailer, Judy Mowatt, and others more currents such as Ziggy Marley or Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, both of Bob Marley’s children.

You Might Also Like