“So Jah Seh”: Telling I-Story Inna Babylon
One of Bob Marley’s greatest strengths as a songwriter was his abilty to transform the folk wisdom of Jamaica with his thorough knowledge of the Bible and Rastafari into memorable lyrics grounded in a circular bass line. Nowhere is this more evident than in “So Jah Seh,” which begins with Bob’s assertion, “Not one of my seed shall sit on the sidewalk, and beg your bread,” then, shifts to the question, “'Cause puss and dog they get together/What's wrong with loving one another? / Puss and dog they get together: /What's wrong with you my brother?” and ends with his statement of faith, “But InI a-hang on in there/And InI, I naw leggo. / But InI a-hang on in there/ And InI, I naw leggo/- So Jah seh.”
Between the first and second stanza, a mere eleven lines, Bob using a contemporary, urban setting draws on verses from Psalm 37:25 ; Isaiah 41:17 ; John 5:24 ; John 6:47; John 8:51; John 8:58; John 13:35; John 15:12 ; 1 John 3:11 and 1 John 4:12 (Biblical Quotes: Words of Wisdom) and converts them into an exhortation that is the essence of Rastafari theology: “I-nite oneself and love I-manity.”
By using the words “I-nite” and “I-manity” Bob cleverly lures the listener out of the ordinary, commonplace world into a deeper reflection about the meaning of Rastafari, which was predicated on the ideas of peace and love. The message of Rastafari, which in 1933 began under the leadership of Leonard Howell, had three main aims: restoring selfhood, awakening the populace to the divinity of Haile Selassie I, and freeing the hearts, minds, and bodies of the “lost Ethiopians.” Or as Bob stated in "Redemption Song" where he used the words of the first prophet of Rastafari, Marcus “Mosiah’ Garvey: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ none but ourselves can free our minds.”
By transforming a speech of Garvey, who had been reported to have said, “Look to Africa for your king,” into song, Bob was following a practice he had first started with "War” which used the address of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I whose coronation in 1930 began for Rastafari the apotheosis of Ras Tafari Mekonnen.
In the poetic imagination of Rastafari, which delights in wordplay and misreading signs, the very name of Haile Selassie I was changed into a symbol of infinity. So, what would have been read ordinarily as Haile Selassie the First, became Haile Selassie “I.” And if Haile Selassie’s full title was “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God" and as Ethiopian tradition claimed, Selassie was a descendant of Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, and King Solomon of ancient Israel, then Selassie could only be the returned Christ who had returned to “judge the nations of the earth.”
By making Selassie I a localized point of universal consciousness (“I”) regarded as the only power in the universe (omnipotent), and by positing that this consciousness was equally present (omnipresent) in all creation (“I-ration”), then the elegant equation of InI was born: Man and God, God and Man became equals and shared in the divinity of “I.” With this act of renaming, Rastafari created its own vocabulary and by relying on Old Testament narratives, changed the way that many of its adherents viewed history-- I-story. Rastafari puts “I” at the center of all experience. Therefore, if “I” am experiencing an uncomfortable or challenging situation, my discomfort has nothing to do with anyone else. It is up to “I” to change or remove the obstacle because “I” and no one else has the power.
Also as the original man, Rastafari claims through the power of word-sound to restore every thing to its rightful place and rightful name. Even more importantly, the normal way of thinking clouded by Babylonian slavery and captivity had to be reversed. Thus, mankind (I-man) becomes the focus, the subject, and never the object. I-man is never subservient to anything, and whereas, the rest on the world understands, Rastafari over-stands.
“I” becomes the liberating force of Rastafari and against the power of Babylon mentioned in the Book of Revelation 17:5: “And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH,” or as Bob sings in “So Much Things to Say” in an echo of Ephesians 6:12, “Hey, but InI - InI nuh come to fight flesh and blood,/But spiritual wickedness in 'igh and low places. /So while, so while, so while they fight you down, /Stand firm and give Jah thanks and praises.”
And Bob as an adherent of Rastafari took the message of Isaiah 61: 1-2: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,” or as Bob chanted in “Revelation”: "So, my friend, I wish that you could see, /Like a bird in the tree, the prisoners must be free, yeah! (free)”
But how would this freedom be gained? A cursory glance at the many titles of Marley’s discography reveals the answer: “Lively up yourself” “Wake Up and Live!” “Get up, Stand up,” and as he declared in "Trench Town," “We free the people with music (sweet music); / Can we free the people with music (sweet music)? /Can we free our people with music? - With music, /With music, oh music!”
The ultimate goal of this war against Babylon, “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned/Everywhere is war, me say war”("War') is freedom, and this battle is ongoing and perhaps generational as Marley implies in “Chant Down Babylon” Come we go burn down Babylon one more time/ (Come we go burn down Babylon one more time); /Come we go chant down Babylon one more time/ (Come we go chant down Babylon); / For them soft! Yes, them soft! (ah-yoy!) /Them soft! Yes, them soft! (ah-yoy!).
And yet one should ask, how does this message of war reconcile with the stated goal of Rastafari, in the utopian message of “One Love, One heart, let’s together and feel all right.” The war as Marley said in an interview that seemed to suggest that Rastafari was the opposite of physical violence:
I wanna tell ya: if them want to win the revolution, them have to win it with Rasta.' Cause if you win another way, you have to go fight again. When you're Rasta and you win, there's no more war.
The war, to return to “Redemption Song” begins and ends in our minds: “Emancipate yourselves form mental slavery/ none but ourselves can free our minds.” If and when that day comes, then truly as one of Marley’s successor Buju Banton asserted in “Hills and Valley”:
Rasta free the people
Over hills and valleys too
Don't let them fool you
Don't believe one minute that they are with you
Jah free the people
Over hills and valleys too
Don't let them fool you
Don't believe for a minute that they are with you
Text from a lecture at Miami Dade College, North Campus on Wednesday, February 13, 2008.