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

Abyssinians. Satta Massagana. CD. Heartbeat, 1993.
Andy, Bob. Fire Burning. CD. Trojan, 1995.
Black, Clinton V. The History of Jamaica. Essex: Longman Caribbean, 1983.
Brown, Dennis. Greatest Hits. CD. PPI, 1994.
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:
Simon, 1997. Jones, Annette. “Re: Wilderness.” E-mail to the author. 19 Nov. 2003.
Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems. Ed. Anthony Thwaite. New York, Farrar, 1993.
Marley, Bob. Songs of Freedom. CD. 4 discs. Island, 1999.
------. 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.
Selah. 20 Jan. 2002. Reggae Lyrics Archive. 27 Jan. 2002. <http://hjem.get2net.dk/sbn/reggae.htm.>.
Spiritual Workshops. Negrospirutual.com.14 February 2002.
Steel Pulse. Smash Hits. CD. Elektra, 1993.
Tosh, Peter. The Best of Peter Tosh. CD. Sony, 1999.
West, Cornel. Interview. In-Depth. C-Span. Washington. 8 Jan. 2002.


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent analysis. As more people are increasingly disenfranchised by business and governments, I think the Rastafari message increasingly becomes relevant to all people.

Would you be interested in contributing an article to dubandreggae.com? If so, please contact me at dubman at dubandreggae.com - your writing is excellent.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, dubman.
Yes, I would be interested. In fact, there's a piece I've been thinking about writing and that I've put off.
Give thanks...