The Word Magic of the Rastafari
Language and art are key parts of every culture, serving both to differentiate groups of people and unite a community. This has never been better displayed than in the case of the Rastafarians, a people who developed their own manner of communication and expression. Unlike the Romance languages, the Rasta vocabulary was not created from the remains of a previous tongue; instead, the Rastafari brought forth their own manner of speaking, one that reveals the deepest values of the religion. As a people full of energy, innovation, and hope, their language and art reflect the passion and vigor which fuel this new religion. The book The Rastafarians, written by Leonard Barrett, contains many examples of Rasta language, and in many forms, including samples of poetry and song lyrics. Using examples from this work and the songs of various reggae artists, this article will demonstrate how the Rastafarians’ unique use of words, music, and poetry allow the heart of the religion to be revealed, including its history, values, and goals.
A Brief Rasta History
The tragic past of Jamaica haunts the Rastafari, especially the time of slavery which brought pain and ruin to the lives of many. During the dark period of history in which blacks were enslaved, African people were seen as sub-human. The traits associated with being black were demonized while the qualities of Caucasians were promoted as superior. The message of Christianity was manipulated in order to assuage the consciences of slave owners and validate the enslavement of a fellow human being. As such, violence against blacks was tolerated, and the lives of many African individuals were at the mercy of their white overlords. Under such horrid conditions, the African people found two main ways to respond to such injustice: submit or resist. A defining attribute of Jamaican slaves in particular was that there was hardly a year that went by in which there was not some form of rebellion against the bondage. Such a fierce mindset of resistance truly defined this particular community of blacks and encouraged the radical differentiation that can be seen in the Rastafari religion. These rebellious tendencies were the roots of the religious movement and are perfectly preserved in their music. For instance, in Bob Marley’s song, “Rebel Music,” he sings, “Why can’t we be what we want to be? / We want to be free.” Through these words, Marley recalls the spirit of the slave rebellions lead by the Maroons, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, and the like, keeping their fight alive in contemporary Jamaica.
Although slavery was abolished years ago, the oppression of the island’s black people continues on. The ruling elite are nearly all white, while almost all of the working and lower class citizens are people of color. On top of this, poverty, hunger, and unemployment ravage Jamaica’s less fortunate, making the country one of the least hospitable places for those of African descent. Barrett opens his book with a poem by Sam Brown entitled “Slum Condition,” in which the disparity between the rich and the poor is vividly described. Lines such as “some young desperates look to the hills, see the seat of their distress” show that the poor view the rich as “them that do oppress,” a viewpoint that is both accurate and the cause of much dissent within the country (Barrett 10). This remaining racial and economic tension spurred the creation of the Rastafarian religion, for it teaches that Africans are God’s chosen people. Jah, or the god of the Rastafari, is himself a black god, causing the possession of dark skin to be a sign of holiness rather than inferiority. Thus, the religion is a direct response to the discrimination and neglect experienced by Jamaica’s people and African individuals across the world.
It is because of this that Ethiopianism, or the reverence of Ethiopia as the promised land of the black population, became a key facet of Rastology. An example of this can be seen in one of the prayers said regularly by Rastafarians, in which it is stated: “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand unto God,” displaying their belief that Ethiopia has a special connection with the divine (Barrett 125). The deity of the religion is believed to have been incarnated in the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, causing Selassie to be renowned and venerated by the Rastas. Africa is commonly referred to as Zion by followers of the Rasta lifestyle; contrastingly, Jamaica is labelled Babylon, a place of great injustice and suffering. This deep-rooted feeling of displacement and alienation can be seen in the song of one Rastafari woman, who sang, “Since we are squatters in Jamaica / Send us back to Ethiopia / We will be citizens there” (Barrett 157). Through her words, this Rasta expresses the chronic longing for a place to call home that so many blacks are unable to find in Jamaica.
Reggae as a Means to Rise Above
However, the Rastafari are not a people crippled by sorrow or despair. Instead, they actively rise above the conditions with which they are faced, filling their lives with a spiritual and psychic joy that no oppressor could dampen. This is demonstrated perfectly by reggae, the music genre dominated by the religious group. While the lyrics of Rastafarian reggae artists are often filled with pain and outrage at the continued racism and classism prevalent in Jamaica, there are also many songs teeming with redemption, hope, and love. The music of Bob Marley consistently upholds this balance, as can be seen in the repeated line “Everything’s gonna be alright!” from the song “No Woman No Cry.” While tears and suffering are clearly present in the song, as depicted in the title and verses, there is also a salient message of hope and strength. Peter Tosh demands equality for his people in “Equal Rights,” saying justice is what they have “got to get” and that he is “fighting for it.” Such a song illuminates the disparity present on the island while asserting the power and determination of the oppressed. Continuing this trend, Marley sang a Nyabingi ritual chant at a concert, its words recorded as follows: “I’ll wipe my weary eyes, / Dry up you’ tears to meet Ras Tafari, / Dry up you’ tears and come” (Barrett 195). Once more, there is the necessity to wipe away tears, signifying great strife, yet there is a place to go and a god who welcomes the weary soul. Thus, the fierce resilience and spirit of hope which characterize the Rastas come forth in their music, allowing all to hear the cries and shouts of the Jamaican people.
A common practice of the Rastafari is the smoking of ganja, the holy herb which elevates them spiritually to commune with Jah. This too displays how the people are unwilling to be crushed by their social and economic disadvantages, for the plant continues to be classified as an illegal substance in Jamaica despite the lack of physical harm and frequent use of the herb. Nonetheless, the people continue to harness its hallucinogenic properties, refusing to adhere to laws which are most likely kept in place solely because they send many poor blacks to prison, bringing in revenue to the Jamaican government. The spiritual effects of the substance can be seen in a Rasta poem, as it says, “with the using of ganja you draw new breath” (Barrett 132). This “new breath” may be used to worship and speak with Jah, for the sacred plant is smoked mainly during rituals and prayers. However, the poem continues on to name ganja “the solvent of gloom,” reminding the reader of the depression and sense of hopelessness which must first be overcome.
Even the growing of dreadlocks, the hairstyle encouraged by the Rastafari, contains this dualistic language. The possession of long dreads is a source of pride for the Rasta people, for it displays their dedication to the commands of Jah while emphasizing their natural African beauty. This is reflected in another song of Bob Marley’s entitled “Natty Dread,” within which the locks are celebrated and a sense of belonging or inclusion may be derived by those who grow their hair to meet the Rasta ideal. People who do not have them are at times referred to as “baldheads,” such as in the Bob Marley song “Crazy Baldhead.” However, this term appears to be reserved to the corrupt government administrators, police officers, and corporate tycoons who make life miserable for the poorer Jamaican citizens. In this way, the Rastafari have differentiated themselves physically from the standards of the ruling class, demonstrating their rejection of the white Western culture that has always labelled them as lesser.
The Rasta Language: Iyaric
However, the largest and perhaps most important way in which the Rastafari express and distinguish themselves is through the creation of their own language, Iyaric. This more than anything has served to throw off the oppressive culture of the past slaveholders and assert Rasta independence, innovation, and mental freedom. Barrett explains that the Rastafarian language serves to breakdown binary oppositions, such as those inherent in the subject-object system of speaking which Western countries use (144). To do this, Rastas created the term “I and I” to replace the objectification found in separating “you” and “me.” By this manner of speaking, everyone is referred to in the first person, making Iyaric an extremely egalitarian language.
For this reason, the sound of the long “i” is of great importance to the Rastafari; as such, many of their words incorporate the use of the sound, such as “ital,” the name of their dietary practice, “irie,” the feeling of positive emotions, and “irator,” or creator. Haile Selassie’s Roman numeral “I” is even pronounced as a long “i” instead of saying “the first.” This is done because the Rasta people believe in the inherent power of words and seek to have the sound of a word match its meaning. By adding an “I” to the end of Selassie’s name, the speaker is joining the god figure and him/herself together as one, reflecting the I-Testament teaching that the divine is within each person. Thus, the pronunciation of the emperor’s name itself carries with it the philosophical understanding of the Rastafari.
Iyaric is perhaps the pinnacle of Rastafarian creativity, and it is celebrated in much of their songs and poetry. For instance, Peter Tosh’s song “I Am That I Am” repeats the title phrase many times, giving the song a sense of confidence, strength, and independence which no other word sound could match quite as precisely. Bob Marley’s wife, Rita, participated in a singing group called I Three, a name which simultaneously unites and identifies the three individuals of which it is comprised. Additionally, the poet Ras “T” displays an affinity for the revered word sound in his poem “A Hymn to the Concept of Ras Tafari,” for one of its stanzas reads, “Rasta is I / Rasta is light / Rasta is joy / Rasta is night” (Barrett 190). These simple phrases and sounds breathe great power and meaning into the words of the Rastafari, resulting in art saturated with pure emotion. Their utter originality and careful attention to detail allow their music and poems to carry the message of Rastology without ever necessitating the use of evangelism.
Although Jamaica was a country associated with slavery, hardship, and persecution, the Rastafari have refocused their attention to its liberation and betterment, deprioritizing the push for repatriation in Ethiopia. This shift was brought about by Haile Selassie I himself, as he instructed Rasta elders to improve the conditions of Jamaica during his historic visit to the island. With the encouragement of their god in heart, the Rastafari now seek to make the land a home away from home and work to obtain true equality in a place that has lacked it for centuries. Fittingly, this change is exhibited in the now common phrase “this is fi wi country,” meaning that the Rastas have laid claim to Jamaica and all of her imperfections (Barrett 265). Such a mantra bespeaks the sense of ownership and pride which the black people of the nation were historically denied but seek to reclaim. Thus far, such an attempt has brought about many positive results for the country, for the growing Rasta presence gives the island a unique and internationally recognized culture. Additionally, the Rasta ideals of equality, hope, and redemption infuse the poor citizens with the fierce desire to be free from the chains of poverty and oppression. Despite not yet being recognized as a religion in Jamaica, the resilience of the Rastafarian religion ensures that its influence over the island’s fate will continue to hold strong, steering the nation towards justice and away from the misery which haunts its dark past.
However, Jamaica is not the only country that must learn from the teachings of the Rastafari; all nations which house an underprivileged population can look upon the Rastas as examples of those unwilling to accept a life defined by racism and poverty. Yet the Rasta lesson goes deeper than this, for it is one of creativity, strength, and freedom. The religion provides its followers and all those downtrodden with hope without encouraging complacency. It encompasses spiritual, physical, and artistic rebellion from the ethnocentrism of the West. It glorifies individualism while uniting every person under the banners of love and brotherhood. Finally, it breaks apart the cage of oppression, creating a throne of dignity and humanitarianism in its wake.
The Rastafari religion is nothing short of inspiring, especially in the way it shines through music, art, and language. The unbridled creativity of expression and fearless individuality found within the religion is unprecedented and deserving of the highest respect. As such, Barrett’s review of the Rastafari does not do them justice, an issue that is exacerbated by his frequently incorrect conclusions. However, he allows the Rastas to speak for themselves quite often, as there are many direct quotes, letters, and poems derived from the Rastafari people incorporated into the book. These reveal the heart and soul of the religion, opening the mind of the reader to the endless magic that dances within their every word.
Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988. Print.
Bob Marley and the Wailers. “Crazy Baldhead.” Rebel Music. Island Records, 1986. MP3.
Bob Marley and the Wailers. “Natty Dread.” Natty Dread. Island Records, 1974. MP3.
Bob Marley and the Wailers. “No Woman No Cry.” Natty Dread. Island Records, 1974. MP3.
Bob Marley and the Wailers. “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock).” Rebel Music. Island Records,1986. MP3.
Tosh, Peter. “Equal Rights.” Equal Rights. Columbia, 1977. MP3.
Tosh, Peter. “I Am That I Am.” Equal Rights. Columbia, 1977. MP3.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Megan Faust