August 4, 2006

Reggae, Rastafari and Aesthetics

During the early seventies the music that came out of Jamaica shifted from the mellow, laidback rhythms of rocksteady to the grumbling bass lines of reggae. In many ways, the change reflected the growing anxiety of the post-Independence generation. The influence of reggae on verse (dub poetry) and fiction (reggae novel) has been considerable and the poet/critic Kwame Dawes in Natural Mysticism coined the term reggae aesthetic to describe the salient features which include religious, social, and archetypal models. Dawes also lists several examples of elder writers such as Dennis Scott and Kamau Brathwaite whose work falls into the category of the reggae aesthetic and several younger writers such as Opal Palmer Adisa and Colin Channer whose work reveal a “strong reggae grounding” (242). While it is not a manifesto of a literary style, the reggae aesthetic serves a useful function in describing the influence of reggae on the work of writers whose work is now at forefront of Jamaican literature.

In order to understand the dynamics of reggae, however, a clear understanding of Rastafari must be grasped. Reggae is an auditory representation of the experience of Rastafari which is based on the mystical union of the human and the divine. Rastafari, like many syncretized religions of the African diaspora seeks a unity (inity) of the personal, social, and intrapersonal aspects of being. This inity is expressed in the concept of InI, which depending on the context, could refer to the individual, the community, or divinity located in the personage of His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, Jah Ras Tafari. Everything begins and ends with InI. As Dawes explains, “Rastafarianism represents a fundamental break with traditional and conventional Judaeo-Christianity. It redefines the meaning of deity and recasts the figure of God in terms that are antithetical to colonial representations of the Christian godhead.

By establishing a god in Haile Selassie, Rastafarianism breaks away from the patterns of conventional Christianity that operate in Jamaica and brings into being a new and very elaborate series of modern myths” (98). Rastafari’s insistence on the validity of individual experience, the indwelling god, “I,” whose union with the ever living God, “I”, provided an intellectual and experiential basis to its claims. There was no difference between “I” and “I”. The Cartesian mind/body split and the “I” and “Thou” of Buber were obliterated. As Dawes further states, “This lends to reggae a defiant but complex mythology and offers the reggae influenced artist an approach to art that allows for a dialogue between the political and the spiritual. Essentially, this quality in reggae defies much of the binarism that characterises much of western discourse” (99).

In other words, the legitimacy of a reggae influenced artist’s work would be based on her depiction of the experiences of the landscape, peoples, religions and cultures of the Caribbean or Plantation America. Some of the earliest expressions of this claim can be seen in Brother Man by Roger Mais, the film, The Harder They Come,” and , the music of Don Drummond in “Addis Ababa.” The choice in the title of Drummond’s song as Dawes explains, “Presents a mythological shift in the Caribbean person’s relationship with Africa… for it redefines the terms in which our history is approached and represents a defiant critique of western historical practice. It does this not simply by attacking it and questioning it, but by replacing it with another mythological framework” (99). This shift would change the consciousness of a generation.

In my case, it was not an easy transition. I would be studying James Joyce in the upper rooms of Scott Hall in Jamaica College, then go home to listen to some reggae coming from my next door neighbor’s house, then play some football under the shadow of Long Mountain with the my friends and Gilly Dread, Garrick, and Seeco, then spend the rest of the night reasoning with the idren until it was time to go home and sleep. This was pretty much the routine except on Sundays when I went to the Kingdom Hall with my mother. And then it would be another Monday morning and back to Joyce.

It was very difficult for me to reconcile Joyce’s explanations of fleeing the “nets” of Ireland with what I was seeing around me. For as eager as he was to escape Ireland, I was just as ready to embrace Jamaica. And reading the work of writers such as Tony McNeill only served to heighten my sense of exhilaration--of being Jamaican: “This morning I chose to stay home, / To watch the cats and think of/ Columbus. And the grass is precious/ merely because it belongs to us” (Reel from ‘The Life-Movie). But Joycean aesthetics, especially as outlined in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, can be very seductive especially because Joyce’s ideas describe the experience of perception of an aesthetic object where “the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing” (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). It was an immediate problem that had to be solved. For while Joyce was interested in the reader achieving an epiphany or stasis of mind, reggae seemed to ask, what happens after you put down the book? It was almost like the old Zen saying, "Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water; after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water." The problem was historically, it was InI who “chopped the wood and carried the water,” and I could not ignore the plight of the sufferers for Joycean hermeneutics. Joyce be damned, I would be on the side of the sufferers.

Yet not all of Joyce’s methods could be ignored, especially his use of archetypes from Homer’s Odyssey. For although I would not use western archetypes, the figures from Lukumi, Vodoun, Candomble and Xango proved to be a fertile ground. In Benjamin, My Son, and xango music, I used the figures from the syncretized Yoruba pantheon, Papa Legba, Xango, and Oshun. Papa Legba, the Haitian equivalent of Eleggua or as he is known in Jamaica as Anancy is an important loa in the African diaspora for he represents the ability to survive in a hostile environment by using one’s wits and language to outsmart the oppressor: “In the language of the deejays, toasters, and song writers, language is treated as a weapon of liberation.” (Dawes 98). Anancy far from being an object of pity or a victim is a sufferer who triumphs over the downpressors. Indeed, much of the current debate against the use of Jamaican misses this point: InI was paid for with blood. Anancy stories are the life stories of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Andy and nearly every artist who has come out of Jamaica: the triumph of the sufferers.

It was also Joyce’s transformation of the Odyssey within the Irish landscape with thoroughly Irish characters that intrigued me. Finnegan’s Wake, which collapses all of human history an mythology into a cyclical tale that begins and ends in Ireland, paralleled my understanding of reggae and Rastafari. The circular bass line of Family Man mirrored the movement of the lyrics on songs such as , “Jump Nyabinghi” which saw the events of the Bible and modern events as contemporaneous: “It remind I of the days in Jericho/ When we trodding down Jericho walls/These are the days when we'll trod through Babylon/ Gonna trod until Babylon falls,” and elucidated the methodology of Rastafari reasoning: “The lyrics of many reggae artists explore the relationship between history and the present, an exploration that frequently redefines both past and present in a radical act of reinterpretation” (Dawes 99). The fusion of mythology and social realism which also informed the work of Kamau Brathwaite’s, The Arrivants, and Derek Walcott’s, Omeros, would become the touchstone for many writers who could not seek solace in the classics. Their situation was to James Baldwin’s realization after watching many Westerns: “After a while, you realized that you were the Indians” (James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket).

For many of the writers who came of age when reggae and Rastafari had moved from the ghettos of Trench Town and into the living rooms of the Jamaican bourgeoisie, this potent mix along with the growing nationalism provided a philosophical, mythological, and aesthetic alternative to the colonial models of history and literature that were best exemplified in The Tempest. Rastafari and reggae stepped right into the middle of the debate by dubbing Prospero as downpressor and Caliban as a baldhead. Truth be told, Rastafari ignored the whole argument and told its own story. For the reggae influenced writer, Rastafari legitimized the experiences of Black people in the Americas and became the means of overstanding power and the privileging of one text or dialect over another. Drawing on these vast resources, s/he could champion the plight of the sufferers and use the archetypes, landscapes, images and characters of Plantation America to be authentic to the experience of the lives of Caribbean peoples.

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Geoffrey Philp said...

This is probably a first answering my own blog, but I found this quote that ties in with the enigma of "I":

I Am a Strange Loop argues that the key to understanding selves and consciousness is the "strange loop"--a special kind of abstract feedback loop inhabiting our brains. Deep down, a human brain is a chaotic seething soup of particles, on a higher level it is a jungle of neurons, and on a yet higher level it is a network of abstractions that we call "symbols." The most central and complex symbol in your brain or mine is the one we both call "I."...

Stephen A. Bess said...

This is an interesting essay. I had some time to read it now that I am at home. I had a little trouble understanding some of it because of my lack of knowledge concerning Rastafarianism. The use of "one’s wits and language to outsmart the oppressor" really stood out. I imagine that this dynamic had something to do with how speech/language developed in Jamaica since the first African arrived on that Island centuries ago. This also proved true in Plantation America through work songs and the development of African American Vernacular English.
This one had me scratching my head. I need to learn more about Rastafarianism as a religious practice. Peace, bro~

Geoffrey Philp said...

Stephen, yes, language has always been an important part of the survival of Black people in Plantation America. In North America the work songs and the so-called Negro Spirituals were also part of this. I can't explain to you the elation that I felt when my one of my mentors, Dr. Dathorne, explained to me "Swing low, Sweet chariot." Far from being a wish for something in an afterlife, it was within the African diaspora tradition of being a code to escape to a real paradise by using the Underground Railway. It may sound corny, but as he explained it to me, I could help but laugh say to my self, "Kunta Kinte, you old African! I found you again."

Anonymous said...

Hi Geoffrey -
I found your spot trawling through a Google search for "Rastafari Art" and your piece was very interesting. I read Kwame Dawes' Nautral Mysticism some time back, but now feel I need to go look it up again.

Question for you: How do the you think the Reggae aesthetic, or more specifically the Rastafari aesthetic has impacted the visual arts? I am currently trying to write a paper on Ras Daniel Heartman and am scratching for a way to place his contribution to Jamaican iconography. Heartman's work had a phenomenal effect on black consciousness in the 1960s and 70s, because he was able to materialize representations of Rastafari that showed the power and dignity of living Rastafari. He always seemed to capture a certain defiance in the expression of his portraits, as if the subjects were daring you to look at them, and yet they themselves seem to be staring you down, directly in the eye, exuding this certain kind of mastery that is most remarkable in his portraits of children.

Anyway I'm curiuos about how you think the Rastafari aesthetic is captured in the visual, and would love to hear your thoughts.

Kingston, JAM.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Ama,
Good question. Unfortunately, I don't have any good answers except the ones to which you've alluded--the dignity & defiance of his portraitures.
During the seventies and eighties I went to many art shows, but my knowledge of that era is really tied to the music, theater, fiction and poetry. I was trying so hard just top learn HOW to write that I didd not have the time to investigate other art forms as much as I had wanted to.

I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Hi, enjoy your site! I think you may be the person I need to ask a question about a great reggae song that I heard in the states about 17 years ago but didn't get the title or group. It had the lines from the 23rd psalm in it...."though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil" excellent!!! No one has been able to tell me to date who that was. The song was very uplifting to my spirits in a hard time then. Thank you.
Ralph Morristown, Tennessee

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Ralph!
There have been so many reggae tunes that use Psalm 23 that I wouldn't know where to start.

If I heard the riddim, I'd be able to tell you.