July 25, 2011

The Future of Rastafari

At a recent symposium at Nova Southeastern University, The Rastafari Impact on the Culture of Jamaica and the World, what began as an assessment of the movement was transformed into a lively discussion about the future of Rastafari. This was hardly surprising. From the time I was a yute in Jamaica, I've been a part of and sometimes witnessed these deep reasonings. And this was a vitally important discussion. Nearly all of the panelists, Ras Don Rico Ricketts, Dr. Roy Augier, Nana Farika, Mama Iyaddis, Dr. Michael Barnett, Dr. Jahlani "Bongo" Niaah, and Dr. K'adamawe K'nife, seemed to be wrestling with the issue of "how to be in the world, but not of it." The significance of this issue lies in the genesis of Rastafari, which was labeled as a cult by the British government, and its growth into a movement that has had a profound impact on global cultures, especially in the area of music.

The presentation began with a pointed analysis by Ras Don Rico Ricketts, who moderated the symposium. He was followed by Sir Roy Augier, the only surviving author of the seminal Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica.

Dr. Augier began by noting the contributions of M. G. Smith and Rex Nettleford, whose influence was noted by nearly every panelist. After a brief summary of the report, Dr. Augier challenged Rastafari to become more engaged in their communities and pointed to several forms of denial that were prevalent in the Caribbean and Rastafari. While he acknowledged that the idea of repatriation was a central tenet of Rastafari, Dr. Augier suggested that repatriation among Rastafari was a form of denial of the "lives that made a culture on these shores."

If it was a rebuke, then it was a mild one. For Dr. Augier had nothing but praise for Rastafari when he introduced the concept of negotiation, which set the tone for the challenges, which he suggested that Rastafari and the Caribbean must confront:
"Negotiation is a metaphor for navigation of the African presence in ourselves… We see it in the mirror and we don't like it…We are not whole. We are bifurcated."
Dr. Augier then asked the rhetorical question, "How do we negotiate the African presence in the Americas?" Rastafari, Dr. Augier argued began as an interrogation of the African presence in the Americas and that the movement posited an alternative value system of capitalist systems. He also contended that the movement could have positive effects on governance and the dietary habits of the Caribbean--noting the deleterious effects of fast food chains of the health of Caribbean peoples: "We are not eating right."

The discussion shifted its focus when Nana Farika, a senior Rastafari elder, stressed the importance of restoring the Omega balance, expressed in of Empress Menen of Ethiopia and Mama Iyaddis mused about Rastafari losing its impact by the growing commercialization of the movement. Dr. Michael Barnett and Dr. Jahlani "Bongo" Niaah also highlighted the significance of The Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica.

But it was Dr. K'adamawe K'nife, a lecturer in the Department of Management Studies at the University of the West Indies, whose startling break with the program captured the imagination of the audience.

In his presentation, "A New Hope for Humanity," Dr. K'nife offered an elegant assessment of Rastafari's centrality in Jamaican culture and offered Rastafari as an alternative to the current social, political, and economic systems:

Emphasis on the human rather than capital
Rastafari: an ethic for sustainable development
Application of Rastafari in conjunction with the deep ecology
Movement away from reliance on texts such as the King James Version to intuitive and metaphysical livity
Itral: The Law of Life
"Rastafari, the ancient future. Man of the past, living in the present, walking into the future."

Following Dr. K'nife's lecture, Ras Don Rico Ricketts invited audience participation in a Q&;A session, which continued until the conclusion of the program.

Rastafari, in its current incarnation, which was born in slave ships, flourished in the hills of Jamaica, and blossomed in reggae, has had a profound influence on my generation. Drawing on its roots in Garveyism, which emphasized self-reliance and entrepreneurship, unity and nationhood, Rastafari informed our sense of identity. And because Rastafari did not separate the physical from the spiritual in all their manifestations, the movement offered an attractive alternative to the Cartesian models of the West. Like many Caribbean Boomers, Rastafari has been, to borrow Dr. Augier's metaphor, a way of honoring the African presence in our lives and negotiating between a system that values capital over the human and Dr. K'nife's expansive interpretation of the movement.

Image created by Ras Don Rico Ricketts.

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