July 30, 2007

Run, Forrest. Run!: Writing and Freedom

The first time I saw Forrest Gump was while I was during a fellowship at Seaside, Florida. I had just finished a morning of writing and editing and I needed to unwind. I went downstairs to the living room, popped the DVD in the player, and sat back in one of the big armchairs to enjoy a movie that I'd missed in the general release.

When Forrest Gump started I wasn't too sure I was going to like it. But by the time I got to the scene where Jenny says, "Run, Forrest. Run!" and I saw the braces flying off Forrest's legs, I was bawling.

I will never apologize for my tears. I know exactly why I was bawling.

Forrest was free. And so was I.

For the first time in my life I was in a position where all I had to do was write, eat, and sleep. And it felt good. But it wouldn't have been possible without the support of my friends: Meg O'Brien from WLRN, who nominated me for the award, and Dr. Gina Cortes-Suarez, the current president of the InterAmerican Campus of Miami Dade College, who put together the paperwork so that I could leave my teaching post for month so that I could live my life's passion. And, of course, my wife and family, who helped me to go without trying to make me feel guilty.

It was at Seaside that I had my first real experience of "the writing life" and the first time that I felt I had earned m permission to speak as a writer. Permission to speak. What an awkward phrase. And for those of us who have grown up in postcolonial environments believing that the privilege to speak was reserved only for a precious few whose names were so-and-so or they knew so-and-so, permission to speak was not something we took for granted. What rubbish!

I thought those days were long gone.

But there are still those who would silence InI (it's the only phrase that works here), even when we are well past the age of what Peter Tosh would have called the "youth." And yet without asserting that right, we would remain children. Writing and self-publishing has given me the right that I was born with--permission to speak.

And even now there are those who would silence the new voices springing up all over the blogosphere and complaining that these voices are using up valuable bandwidth with terrible, talent-less writing. (He's recanted.) But I don't worry about the young voices. Let them be. Let them write. Let them fill the blogosphere with their words for the world to see because they need the time to grow, to make their mistakes, and to begin on the road to discovering their vocation, which is hard enough as it is without someone else dampening their dreams. As William Sanders has said about writing:

"Talent is such a small part of it. Willingness to work hard to learn the skills. (Including the nuts and bolts like spelling and grammar.) Patience to do the necessary revising and if necessary rewriting to get it right. Persistence in the face of rejection. Judgment in deciding what advice to listen to and whom not to trust. Humility to know when you're exerting suction. Knowledge, all sorts of knowledge, knowledge of what's been written, knowledge of the world and its peoples, knowledge of physical science, knowledge of at least one other language to give you perspective on your own. And most important of all: understanding of human beings and why they act the way they do and the way they interact with each other, which can take a lifetime to master but without it a writer is a failure. Maybe a clever failure, maybe sometimes an entertaining one, but a failure all the same." (Via John Baker's Blog)

They don't need permission to speak any more that I can grant it, but that doesn't mean I should try to stop them. We can't and we shouldn't even try. They were born with the right. So, in the meantime, let them be.

Run Forrest, run!


July 27, 2007

The Top Ten Things Every Writer Should Know

10. It’s All About You.

“You have to be someone.” ~ Bob Marley


Whether you have chosen the word or the word has chosen you, the vocation of writing is about creating a self, and this will mean cultivating a set of values that will guide your work. And I mean YOUR work and YOUR values

I like to use the analogy of soccer when I talk about this. There were some days when I was on the soccer field and I could do no wrong. I could just stand there and the ball would bounce off me and end up in the opposing team’s goal. And then there were days when I had to scramble so I wouldn’t score on my own team. On those days, it was back to basics: move to the ball, control, pass, and move. But I had to know the basics. The basics will get you through when your imagination is floundering and you can’t write a decent sentence and you think everyone hates your writing. And the writing basics (See A Few Writing Resources) will also get you through those times when you think even the great Proust cannot match your imagination.

But whether there are good times or bad times, I want you to remember those words of Brother Bob whose “Get up, Stand Up,” has been one of the most influential songs that has guided my life. As young minority writers, you have come through and you are living in an environment that says you don’t exist or you have no right to exist. Make the time to read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Yet as Bob sang in “Get Up, Stand Up”: “Life is your right/ so you can’t give up the fight,” I think you need to realize that behind you are whole generations that have been silenced, are being silenced. YOU have to be the strong one because despite the odds, you’ve made it this far. You’re here on the grounds of the University of Miami—a place where many of your parents and grandparents would never have dreamed about being let in through the front gates, and yet, here you are! So, guard your self-esteem: “Don’t give up the fight!”

9. Stop Waiting for Stories to Happen

“Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” ~ Finley Peter Dunne

The first stories that you write will probably be gifts that you can’t help but write. But after you’ve written these stories, what are you going to do? At this time you have to go out (or in) to find the stories that have to be written, and usually these stories come out of a conflict between YOUR values and what is happening around you.

Robert Frost once said that he had a “lover’s quarrel with the world,” and I guess that’s one way of looking at it, but I’ve always thought that Finley Peter Dunne's words, “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” as a good way to begin.

And we have much to “afflict the comfortable.” Think about the abandonment by the mass media of the “broad range of human achievement” that Dana Gioia recently lamented at a commencement speech at Stanford. Instead of real news, we are being given day and night coverage of Lindsay Lohan and Brittany Spears while we have all kinds of contaminated food coming in from China without any real checks and balances. We don’t care. But I think we should care. Even for selfish reasons. Today is Friday, and later, I’m going out to a Chinese restaurant with my wife.

8. Listen!

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ~

In order to really listen, you have to listen with your whole being when anyone is talking to you. Look into her eyes. Look at his hands. Look at his shoes. Practice empathetic listening. Then ask yourself, why is s/he telling me this? Does s/he just need an ear? Does s/he think I am a voice? Can I be her voice?

John Keats talked about “negative capability” and that is an ability that writers need to cultivate—the sense of intentional open-mindedness so that you can really listen even if you find the message to be distasteful.

7. Find a Mentor

“Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before….Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete….Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences.”

I have been blessed many times in my career to have found really great teachers and to have spent time with them. Here at the University of Miami, I had the good fortune of taking classes and workshops with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kamau Brathwaite, and George Lamming. At the Caribbean Writers Institute, I had classmates such as Robert Antoni, Zee Edgell, Michael Anthony, and Velma Pollard.

The great thing about having a living mentor—breathing the same air in the same room—is that sometimes a casual comment can have a lasting impact. I’ll never forget and I’m sure he won’t remember some advice that Mervyn Morris gave to the poets at the Caribbean Writers Institute about about choosing words with multiple connotative meanings. I used his advice in writing the collection, hurricane center, and the “Lent” section was heavily influenced by On Holy Week.

Of course, if you can’t find a living mentor, don’t despair. Find a writer whose work you admire and read everything s/he has written. For example, when I wanted to know how to write a Caribbean short story, I turned to VS Naipaul-- one of the greatest living prose stylists—yet he remains a writer I have no intention of ever meeting in the flesh.

6. Read!

I may have touched on this in the previous note, but William Faulkner says it best:

“Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

"The author is not only himself but his predecessors, and simultaneously he is part of the living tribal fabric, the part that voices what we all know, or should know, and need to hear again." John Updike
"Tradition is that which continues. Tradition is not that which is old but that which survives. It's a stream of human consciousness. Eliot was saying that if you write something, even if it's but four lines, it should be informed, as far as possible, with the whole history of poetry. I understood that. I was telling my friend Wynton Marsalis when we were talking about jazz, if you have four bars, it should be informed by the whole history of jazz. That's when you are doing your do. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of time trying to reinvent the sonnet. But if you know what's in there, what the tradition is, then you are the cutting edge -- that's what the avant garde means: the cutting edge that is going to continue tradition, but you're going to redefine it because your sensibility is different. The combination that exists in your mind that you are operating out of is different from anybody else's although it should be informed by everything that went ahead of you." ~ Albert Murray 

This is why I have no problems with the Harry Potter books. I grew up reading Batman, Superman, and Fantastic Four comics and my mother forced me to read Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Any kind of reading forces you to concentrate on the text and if you have parents and teachers who have high expectation, you’ll read demanding texts. The more one reads these demanding texts, the greater the appetite. But the original impetus, the original expectations have to be there in the parents and the culture. If it isn’t, the whole culture won’t be Smarter than a Fifth Grader .
Reading widely will also take you out of your comfort zone and you will meet characters that you wouldn't ordinary life, so that when you begin to create your own characters or if you are interviewing someone you can try to see the world from his/her perspective.

5. Whom Do You Serve?

This is the question that knights in search of the Holy Grail were asked once reached the last stage of their quest: Whom Do You Serve?

It's an important question to ask yourself because language is inextricably bound to power and politics.

The vocation of writing has been compared to that quest, and along that journey, you will be asked that question many times. One journalist from Jamaica , John Maxwell, one of my heroes, has answered that question many times.

Maxwell is one of those ethical journalists who has always upheld the highest journalistic standards and he is firm defender of his vocation.

I won’t say much more because as with all good writers, his words speak for themselves:

“We are delegates of the people…We are …the sensory organs of the body politic….the body politic's immune system… heralding, detecting malignant intrusions...In the circulatory system of the body politic, we are the white corpuscles and the T-cells.”
“Ethical journalism is a human right: that people are entitled to the truth and that journalists are not entitled to tell lies or mislead.”

4. Use All Your Talents

As you grow in this vocation, you will find that you are involved in a process similar to alchemy—a burning away of the droll, useless parts of your personality in favor of a more refined, honed craftsmanship.

You will learn as William Sanders says:

“Talent is such a small part of it….Willingness to work hard to learn the skills. (Including the nuts and bolts like spelling and grammar.) Patience to do the necessary revising and if necessary rewriting to get it right. Persistence in the face of rejection. Judgment in deciding what advice to listen to and whom not to trust. Humility to know when you're exerting suction. Knowledge, all sorts of knowledge, knowledge of what's been written…knowledge of the world and its peoples, knowledge of at least one other language to give you perspective on your own. And most important …understanding of human beings and why they act the way they do and the way they interact with each other, which can take a lifetime to master but without it a writer is a failure."
And the key practice that you must nurture is writing. Write, write, write. There is no substitute for writing.

3. Synergize

“Synergy means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself - the most empowering, unifying and exciting part.” ~ Steven Covey

You will never be able to do all this on your own. Despite what Ayn Rand says, nothing is ever done by a singular human effort. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about “Inter-being,” and Rastafari says, InI. Whatever the case, your writing, your life is part of a continuum and this is why synergizing effort—inter- and intra-generational conversations are important.

One of my mentors, Jimmy Carnegie, died recently. As a teacher and a historian, he had observed Caribbean and Jamaican culture, and had a whole set of internalized, Creole Jamaican values have been shared with only a minority that were fortunate enough to have known him. Whether through the diaspora or mortality, the Caribbean and many other minority communities are losing the soldiers who made it through the “war years,” and these soldiers and scholars are taking their wisdom with them to the grave without anyone or very few ever hearing that voice.

So build networks with other writers, begin oral history projects with your parents, grandparents and your family, strengthen all the bonds and relationships that will not only help you to become a better writers, but also a healthy human.

There has never been a greater need for synergy within our communities.

2. Surrender

“Art is nothing but the expression of our dream; the more we surrender to it the closer we get to the inner truth of things, our dream-life, the true life that scorns questions and does not see them.” ~ Franz Marc

This may be an extension of the “negative capability” theme, but sooner or later you’ll realize that you will have to surrender some things. Right now, the surrender may be listening with to an editor or a veteran in the business and realizing that neither of you has the “right” answer.

This is where you apply the humility that Sanders talks about. You admit your mistakes, sometimes take the expedient route, and move on. This is not an all out surrender. Begin to choose your battles wisely.

And yet sometimes you will have to give up some core values for a greater vision of yourself—an embrace of new ideas that may put you at odds with the community that you’re supposed to be representing.
What are you going to do at that point? Give in to the crowd even when you know that they’re “wrong,” but you don’t have a “right” answer? Speak your “truth” even when you know you may be “wrong”?

How will you choose? What will you choose?
And the more you surrender to your dream and the vision of your potential to be an agent of change, the more you will grow and have more to offer.

1. It’s Not All About You

TS Eliot wrote in “East Coker”: “In my end is my beginning," and once you’ve embarked on the great journey of writing, you will see that the once selfish aims with which you began writing, soon fall away. In my case they were: getting a girl to go out with me, having the respect of X, seeing my name in print, and the hunt for fame and recognition by my peers. But once you realize as the Buddha teaches, we will never have enough to quench our desires, then things begin to change.
It falls to us then to find a larger meaning or value. Or as George Bernard Shaw

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy… I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can….I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations”


A Few Writing Resources
Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (Part One & Two)
The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
The Writer's Journey, Second Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan G. Wooldridge
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Tell it Slant by by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola
Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
One Writer's Beginnings (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization) by Eudora Welty
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg (Author)
The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio Dorianne Laux


If you enjoyed this post, check out my page on Amazon. I’d also be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. Thank you!

July 25, 2007

Summer Love: Miami

Summer Love

(for Nadia)

"And summer's lease hath all too short a date."
- Sonnet XVIII ~ William Shakespeare

When evening marches down Flagler

to the tumble of closing cash registers,

the mold of faded bills in the back

pocket of his blue, pin-striped suit,

she will go with him only as far

as the river to watch fishing

boats with their tail of terns and pelicans

flashing their bright wings, like silver,

against the glass vaults of Brickell.

But when night ambles along Biscayne

with the rumble of reggae in his stride,

tabaco and mojitos on his breath,

desire wrapped around his waist,

she will lead him down the causeway

into cooling waters of the bay,

the daily cares sliding off their flesh,

and her dark laughter, like waves,

lapping the sides of the Rickenbacker.


July 23, 2007

Blogger Reflections Award

Blogger Reflections AwardGuyana Gyal has tagged me for the Blogger Reflections Award and I truly give thanks for this because her blog has been a source of endless pleasure for me. With this award, however, comes the responsibility of tagging five other bloggers who meet these criteria:

"This award should make an individual reflect upon five bloggers who have been an encouragement, a source of love, impacted you in some way, and who have provided a Godly example. In other words, five dear bloggers whom, when you reflect upon them, you are filled with a sense of pride and joy...of knowing them and being blessed by them.”

There are many blogs that I read which would meet these guidelines, and every morning before I begin working on my own writing, I open Google Reader to see what I have in store. Basically my subscriptions fall into these categories:

Blogs by published writers

Blogs by professional bloggers who offer tips about blogging

Blogs from Jamaica and the Caribbean

Blogs from writers who offer personal or spiritual insights

This amounts to about forty-eight blogs, but I can mention only five. Again, the dilemma of choice. So, my method in choosing these five has been through a process of elimination and how much pleasure I derive from their writing:

Rethabile Masilo writes beautiful poetry that is influenced by his homeland of Lesotho. He is also relentless in discovering African writers and African inspired writing. Rethabile writes about music, politics, and religion, but more than anything else, I look forward to Rethabile's stunning poetry.

Marlon James is a Jamaican writer whose work I have featured on my blog. Marlon has written a novel, John Crow's Devil, and his blog displays the kind of fearlessness I wish I could sometimes demonstrate. I always look forward to Marlon's lucid writing and his further adventures as a writer traversing the American and Caribbean landscape.

Inspirations and Creative Thoughts is a brilliant blog by Sadiq Alam and he features quotes from many faiths. Sadiq shows a deep respect for many religions and he is also a talented poet whose writing displays a spiritual depth that I admire.

One of my deep interests and a subject that I wish I could spend more time exploring is art, and specifically, Caribbean art. The Bookman brings me art from Trinidad, the Caribbean and from many other parts of the world, and offers me insights into art that otherwise I would not have encountered. The Bookman speaks intelligently about art without getting lost in jargon.

Do you want to play? Do you really want to know what it's like to be a writer? Do you want to know what it's like to be a writer from the Caribbean? If you read Nalo Hopkinson's blog, you will learn about the joys, trials, travails, and triumphs of writing.

I hope each the five bloggers mentioned here will pass this on, and this they choose to do so, here's what Guyana Gyal passed on to me:

1. Copy this bit of the post.
2. Reflect on five bloggers and write a least a paragraph about each one.
3. Make sure you link this post so others can read it and the rules.
4. Leave your chosen bloggers a comment and let them know they’ve been given the award.
5. Place the award icon on your site.

I can't wait to see the results.


July 20, 2007

“Many Rivers to Cross”: The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric

Jamaican music from its earliest recognizable forms such as ska and rock steady has drawn many of its themes from the language and imagery of the King James Bible. The creative interplay between song lyrics and the Old Testament, as evidenced by the ska inspired “Six and Seven Books of Moses” by Toots and the Maytals and the dancehall flavored “Til Shiloh” by Buju Banton, was amplified by the rise of Rastafarianism in Jamaica.

One of the implications of this nexus between Rastafarianism and the work of songwriters such as Burning Spear, Bob Andy and Bob Marley was their insistence in giving voice to the plight of the dispossessed by using the prophetic discourse of the Bible. As the critic Kwame Dawes points out, “Rastafarian ideology provided a clear and appealing cosmolology for the reggae artist with highly metaphorical, frequently poetic discourse which fed easily into a working class discourse that was already rich in proverbial and Biblical resonance” (100). Another implication was that songwriters such as Dennis Brown and Bunny Wailer, who based their lyrics on the King James Bible and the beliefs of Rastafarianism, envisioned their home in Africa. Rastafarians, whose theology is derived in part from the King James Bible, accepted the pattern of paradise, exile (wilderness) and return, a dominant pattern in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, (Pearson 73) and the work of many reggae songwriters allude to this pattern that forms the basis of their work. This importance of this pattern gains added poignancy when we examine Jamaican music (Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae) because the archetypal pattern of loss, exile and return is colored by a history of slavery, colonialism and economic privation. Whether the theme of the paradise, exile and return is interpreted literally or metaphorically, the idea remains one of the major motifs in the development of the reggae lyric.

Africa: The Lost Paradise

Africa and the loss of the fatherland have always been central subjects of Jamaican music. One of the earliest examples is found in the lyrics of a song every Jamaican knows by heart, “Satta Massagana” by The Abyssinians. “Satta massagana ahamlack ulaghiize” is Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia) and means “Give thanks and praise to God continually” (Reggae Lyric Archive). Even a cursory review of the lyrics reveals the songwriter’s indebtedness to the King James Bible and the influence of Rastafarianism.

There is a land far, far away
Where there’s no night, there’s only day
Look into the book of life and you will see
That there’s a land far, far away
That there’s a land far, far away.
The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords
Sits upon his throne and He rules us all
Look into the book of life and you will see
That He rules us all
That He rules us all.
Satta Massagana ahamlack, ulaghize
Satta Massagana ahamlack, ulaghize ulaghize. (Satta Amassagana)

Rastafarians believe in the divinity of Haile Selassie I, “The King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” who was a direct descendant of King David through the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Owens 18). On his coronation in 1930, the chief or Ras of his people, Tafari Mekonnen took the title as the “King of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Owens 18). The connection between this event and the fact that as late as 1999, The Guinness World Book stated that Jamaica held the record for the most churches per square mile1 becomes clear when we realize that Jamaicans and Caribbean people in general, are people of the Book. The Old Testament model of paradise lost, exile and return is a part of our cultural tradition.

Rastafarians have translated the pattern to mean: if Africa is the birthplace of humankind, then Africa is paradise, an idea that the group Steel Pulse assert in “Not King James Version”:

Cause out of Africa
Came the Garden of Eden
Hidden from me I was never told
Ancient prophets black and bold
Like Daniel, King David and Abraham
Israel were all black men. (Smash Hits)

It follows then that all the covenants made with these patriarchs, Noah, Abraham, and Jacob (Israel) must apply to their descendants-people of African descent. It must also follow that the first Israelites (descendants of Abraham) must have been black. If Africa is the true homeland for all black people, then Black people must return to Africa. The eventual repatriation to Africa fits the pattern as Dennis Brown states in “Africa”:

Africa we want to go
Our fore parents were born Ethiopians
It’s the land of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah
The root of David (Greatest Hits).

Another songwriter who identified easily with the Old Testament paradigm was Desmond Dekker, who during the Sixties wrote the song, “The Israelites,” which made it to the Top Ten in Israel because of the mistaken belief on the part of the Israelis that the song was about them. This identification with the Old Testament pattern has led many to conclude that our present dislocation and exile is nothing new--it’s happened before and it will happen again.

Or as Bob Marley declares in “Redemption Song”: “Some say it’s just a part of it/ we’ve got to fulfill the Book” (Songs of Freedom 4:18). The current loss and brain-drain that began with the slave trade, then with the loss of whole generations to Panama to build the canal; to England to become part of the skilled and unskilled labor force during the Fifties; the exodus of Jamaicans to New York, Canada and Miami during the Seventies; and the current migration of Jamaican teachers to New York is all seen as part of a larger pattern that was captured by The Melodians in “By the Rivers of Babylon” (Story of Jamaican Music 2:9)

Exile in Babylon
“By the Rivers of Babylon” (another song that made it to the Top Ten in Israel) is a reworking of Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion
But the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song
In a strange land? (Story of Jamaican Music 3:8)

The Melodians, using the language of the King James Bible, transformed the experience of the Jewish exiles in Babylon into a statement about the Jamaican condition during the Seventies. Rastafarians separated by geography and history from the man who was prophesied by Marcus Garvey in one of his speeches: “Look to Africa for your king!” sought an explanation for their dilemma and found it in the Books of Jeremiah, Lamentations and the Psalms (Owens 18). When Selassie ascended the throne in 1930, Marcus Garvey was thus seen as a prophet, a Moses returned and became a revered figure in Rastafarian theology. And the reason should be obvious. Garvey in his many speeches and proposals was the first Black leader to outline a plan for Black self-improvement, liberation based on repatriation to Africa. In other words, he outlined a coherent philosophy that on the one hand, had a foundation of raising self-esteem within the Black community and a practical means of achieving that goal. Garvey’s vision of a unified Black nation and an African homeland was woven into the texture of the reggae lyric. Garvey was thus elevated to the status of a cultural hero and prophet by songwriters such as Culture in “The Two Sevens Clash”:

My good old prophet Marcus Garvey prophesize and say:
‘St. Jago de la Vega and Kingston is gonna meet’
And I can see with mine own eyes
It’s only a housing scheme that divide (Story of Jamaican Music 3:10)

The loss of Paradise, according to Rasta logic occurred because Jamaicans, and African in the New World2, were guilty of a sin of omission--that is, they failed to recognize Selassie as earth’s rightful ruler and they sold Marcus Garvey into the hands of Babylon. Jamaicans had transgressed against the King of Creation and therefore broken the covenant of having no other gods before JAH and had distorted the true history of Black people. Steel Pulse in “Not King James Version” explains further the loss of this homeland: In Esau’s chapter of history

So little mention of you and me
We rulers of kingdoms and dynasties
Explored this Earth for centuries
Phoenicians, Egyptians, and the Moors
Built civilization, that’s for sure
Creators of the alphabet

While the West illiterate (Smash Hits) Jamaicans and all Black people, as the true Israelites, by forsaking the King of Kings and the Lords of Lords, were paying the price for their broken covenant with the King of Creation, so they would now suffer humiliation and exile in modern Babylon, which Rastafarians interpret as our Western capitalistic system of exploitation that puts profits above principles. Marley uses the image of a vampire to show the debilitating effects of living in “Babylon System”: “Me say the Babylon system is a vampire/Sucking the blood of the sufferers” (Songs of Freedom 4:8). 

There is no reformation of Babylon and to describe the coming destruction of Babylon, Rastas draw heavily on the apocalyptic language of the books of Daniel and Revelation because “the time of tribulation” is a precursor to the final battle of good over evil (Armageddon) that results in the return to Paradise. Songs such as “Armageddon Time” and “Joggin” by Freddie McGregor welcome the coming conflagration for it means deliverance from Babylon. The only way to escape the coming wrath of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords is to escape from the clutches of Babylon. Yet only a remnant of Black people will survive as Bob Andy reminds us in a lyric reminiscent of the Jewish Passover: “If the sign is on your door, /then you will be saved for
sure” (Fire Burning).

Return to Zion

The music is therefore charged with an urgency to flee Babylon and to repatriate to Africa. Steel Pulse in “Rally Round the Flag,” state this necessity: 

They took us away captivity
Required from us a song
Right now man say repatriate
I and I patience have now long time gone
Father’s mothers sons daughters every one
Four hundred million strong
Ethiopia stretch forth her hand
Closer to God we Africans (Smash Hits)

The movement out of Babylon can be physical –-many Rastafarians have relocated to Ethiopia3 and other parts of Africa or it may be metaphysical--one remains in Babylon physically, but mentally and spiritually, one remains uninfluenced by Babylonian dress or culture. Babylon’s system must be resisted and the idea of marronage or resistance that has had a long history in the Caribbean and especially in Jamaica (Black 60) has been assimilated into the Rastafarian religion. Bob Marley in “Soul Rebel” proclaims; “I’m a rebel/ Soul Rebel/ I’m a capturer/ Soul Adventurer” (Songs of Freedom 1:19). According to the myth, we are in the resistance or exile stage of our history as a race and at this stage in the journey only a few, a remnant will make it to Mount Zion or Africa. This is why Rastafarians wear dreadlocks--a complete repudiation of Babylon’s system and ways of dress and heeding the Biblical commandment found in Leviticus 21:3; “They shall not make baldness upon their heads neither  shall they shave the corner off of their beards” (qtd. in Owens 38).

Rastafarians refuse to be slaves to Babylon --a system that makes us feel as Cornel West defined “Black” in America: “Unsafe, unprotected, subject to random acts of violence and hated” (In-Depth). Rastafarians seek escape from Babylon physically and/or mentally, or as Bob Marley relates in “Duppy Conqueror”: “I’ve got to reach Mount Zion, the highest region” (Songs of Freedom 1:23).

In order to describe the spiritual journey out of Babylon, Rastafarian songwriters use the image of the train as the metaphorical vehicle of transport (no doubt a borrowing from the North American Negro Spirituals5 and R&B tradition with its echoes Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad) and it is an important motif in the music. Whether it’s for romantic or economic reasons, the train is featured prominently in songs such a “Stop That Train” by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, which extends the reason for repatriation in a message of social conscience which is another major element in the reggae lyric:

Some goin' east, and-a some goin' west,
Some stand aside to try their best.
Some livin' big, but the most is livin' small,
They just can’t even find no food at all.
I mean they’re starving (Catch a Fire)

The social concern of reggae has always been a cornerstone of Marley’s lyrics and his influence on Jamaican music, especially with regard to the theme Diaspora cannot be understated. Whether it’s penning with Jimmy Cliff “Many Rivers to Cross” or writing “Exodus” --the most direct example of incorporation of the myth of Exodus into the Jamaican experience-Marley personalized the plight of his community, and made his audience aware of the larger implications of his personal and, by extension, our collective history. 

Marley realized that there were added dimensions to everyday activities and transformed the most mundane acts into acts of spiritual inquiry. For example in “Running Away,” Marley who had spent some years in self-imposed exile in England, used his predicament to questions his motives for leaving Jamaica; “You must have done something that you don’t know nobody to know about/ you must have done something wrong/ Why you can’t find where you belong” (Songs of Freedom 3:13).) 

The self questioning within the call and response framework of the Black church and African worship was one of the methods that Marley used to convey the idea that his suffering and exile (and by extension our history and exile) was not in vain-that there was a larger, nobler pattern to suffering as he asserts in Jammin': “We’re the living sacrifice” (Songs of Freedom 3:8). In other words, the journey is not futile as Marley declares in “Redemption Song”: “So won’t you help to sing, another song of freedom, cause all I ever had, redemption songs” (Songs of Freedom 4:18). In this song, Marley recounts his personal and our collective history in metaphorical terms and paints a picture of fulfillment and pleads with us to join in the vision atonement or at-one-ment.

This was the essence of Marley’s greatness. He understood intuitively the archetypal pattern of loss, exile and return and more than any other songwriter of his generation and made a conscious effort at working these themes, especially the theme of freedom, into his songs. The quest to reach Mount Zion and the admonitions to leave Babylon stem from the most basic of human desires: freedom. And Marley, if he was nothing else, was a champion of individual freedom and this is another reason why his music resonates with so many people around the world and especially his poor and dispossessed brethren.

Marley, at some point, realized that his life was emblematic of a larger structure in the life of Black people surviving in a system that would demean and destroy their lives and he wanted to free them from the system. It is no wonder then that so many of his songs have titles such as, “Lively up Yourself” and “Get Up, Stand Up.” Marley wanted to educate Black people for them to know their past and used the now famous Marcus Garvey quote, “Rise, you mighty people,” in the song “Wake up and Live!” He wanted to awaken black people out of their “sleep and slumber,” and in the process made Jamaicans and many people around the world aware of their spiritual condition (Survival).

For example in “Exodus” he asks: “Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” And then pleads, “Send us another brother Moses, gonna cross the Red Sea.” (Songs of Freedom 3:10). Even if one does not accept Marley’s” view of divinity residing in the personage of Haile Selassie, one can share in the vision of compassion of “Exodus” to break “oppression, rule equality, wipe away transgressions, set the captives free” (Songs of Freedom 3:10). This is the vision of Isaiah and the theme of all world religions. But true peace can only be realized through compassion for all human beings and a demand for equal rights and justice. Until equal rights and justice are achieved for all people, inequality and injustice will be obstacles for Black people and in turn present obstacles for the entire human race to achieve the ascent to Mount Zion. 

 Yet the struggle for freedom is not limited to one race as Peter Tosh reminds us in “Equal Rights”: “Palestinians are struggling for equal rights and justice” (The Best of Peter Tosh). As long inequality and injustice exist, the former slaves who still carry the world’s burdens will continue to be scattered. The solution then lies in our philosophies of racism and exploitation or as Marley explains in “War”: “Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior…until the color of a man’s skin is nor more significant than the color of his eyes… me say war” (Songs of Freedom 3:5). Marley is not content with only a few, remnant, achieving the return to Mount Zion. As he says in “So Jah Seh”: “Not one of my seed shall sit on the sidewalk and beg your bread” (Natty Dread).

When the “basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all” then the Diaspora can be reversed or as Bob wails in “I Know”: “Bring my children from the ends of the earth” (Uprising). This is what the Diaspora means for many Jamaicans songwriters. They see the current scattering and suffering as part of a larger plan and must take place before repatriation will occur. It is a testing in the wilderness of exile. To quote another Marley song “Natural Mystic”: “Many more will have to suffer, any more will have to die/Don’t ask me why” (Songs of Freedom 3:11). 

These songs whether on LPs, tapes, or CDs provide a narrative for us to understand our experiences-for that ultimately is what these songs provide--meaning to our lives. And in a country like Jamaica with its rich oral histories that have been the major means of transmission of a sense of the past, the songwriters have become the unofficial historians of the island and have shaped the social conscience of entire generations. It is a method of inscribing and transforming the consciousness of the world that will ultimately lead to the healing that Marley sang about in his anthem of universal brotherhood, “One Love”: “One love. One heart, let get together and feel all right” (Songs of Freedom 1:5)

For my own part sometimes I believe the songs sometimes deceive us into a willing complacency--waiting to enter that far off promised land or as Philip Larkin, the British poet, declared in the poem “Next, Please”:

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching: every day
Till then we say. (52)

Marcus Garvey’s “prophecies” about famed ships coming to take Black people back to Africa, as FredLocks declares in “Seven Miles of Black Star Liners” never came to pass.

Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbor
I can see them coming
I can see I-drens running.
I can hear the Elders saying, “These are the days for which we’ve been praying.”
Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbor
It’s repatriation,
A Black liberation.
Yes, the time has come:
Black Man, we’re going home! (Black Star Liner)

Selassie’s death in 1975 provoked a serious crisis of faith for many Rastafarians. As Dawes points out, the event became for Rastafarians: “a spiritual mystery that can only be open to metaphysical interpretation” (125).

The pattern of loss, exile and return is a powerful one and is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Its manifestation is not limited to the Bible, and its equivalent can be seen in any mythology that celebrates an ascent to the symbolic “world mountain” (Campbell 23). In the case of the reggae, the pattern is enveloped in a danceable beat, and it carries an enormous an emotional appeal. Many of us who were weaned on the reggae, despite our cynicism still hope that one day as Marley sings in “Rastaman Chant”: “One bright morning when my work is over, I’ll fly away home” (Songs of Freedom 2:13).


The wilderness is a key image in the Judaeo Christian tradition. "Salvation traditionally comes from the wilderness. Moses, Elijah, and David all had to flee to the wilderness (Exodus 2:15; I Sam 23:14; I Kings 19:3-4). The wilderness is both a route to the Promised Land and a place of exile for those who are at odds with God. It is a place where people sin and it is a place where we repent to restore our right relationship with God once again. (Jones)
2 Edna Manley, wife of Jamaican Prime Minister Norman Washington Manley (1959-19620 and mother of Prime Minister Michael Norman Manley (1972-80 & 1989-92) was a part of a group of influential artists and poets—a sort of Bloomsbury—that began in the Forties and whose influence on the intellectual life of Jamaica extended into the mid-nineties.1 For more information see http://www.bartleby.com/>.

2 See http://www.everytingjamaican.com/channels/theisland/culture.asp

3 Peter Tosh in “African” asserts: As long as you are a black man, you’re an African” (Best of Peter Tosh)

4 The Black Star Line founded by Marcus Garvey was intended to facilitate repatriation of Black people to Africa. Although the idea had some currency in North America for a brief period, the idea never really took root as strongly as it did in Jamaica where it remains one of the main tenets of Rastafarianism. See http://search.biography.com.

5 Marley seemed to have been ambivalent about a literal interpretation of the myth. In some interviews he advocated a physical return to Ethiopia (Goldman 41), yet in “Redemption Song,” he urged his audience to “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/ none but ourselves can free our minds” (Songs of Freedom 4:18).

6 Many Negro Spirituals also contain the pattern of covenant/exile/ return, and had a literal interpretation. As The Negro Spiritual Workshop states, “The Negro spirituals “The Gospel Train” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization who helped many slaves to flee”

Works Cited

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Black, Clinton V. The History of Jamaica. Essex: Longman Caribbean, 1983.
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Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Image. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.
Dawes, Kwame. Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius. London: Sanctuary, 2002.
 ------. . Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic in Caribbean Writing. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1999.
Folkes Brothers, et al. The Story of Jamaican Music. CD. 4 discs. Island, 1993.
Fred Locks. Black Star Liner. CD. VPD, 1995.
Goldman, Vivien. “Uptown Ghetto Living; Bob Marley in His Own Backyard.” Reggae Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub. Ed. Chris Potash. New York:
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Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems. Ed. Anthony Thwaite. New York, Farrar, 1993.
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------. Confrontation. Island, 1983.
 ------. Uprising. Island, 1980
------. Survival. Island, 1979
------. Natty Dread. CD. Island, 1974.
 -----. Catch a Fire. CD. Island, 1971.
Owens, Joseph. Dread: The Rastafarians of Jamaica. London: Heinemann, 1976.
Pearson Carol S. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help us Find Ourselves and Transform our World. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.
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