Reggae, Rasta and Homophobia

We, the artists of the Reggae community, hereby present this letter as a symbol of our dedication to the guiding principles of Reggae’s enduring foundation ONE LOVE. Throughout time, Reggae has been recognized as a healing remedy and an agent of positive social change. We will continue this proud and righteous tradition.   The Reggae Compassionate Act

By Hannah Spadafora

On November 27th, 2010, protesters in Sacramento, CA gathered outside musical artist Capleton’s reggae-dancehall concert to oppose the violent gay-bashing ideas his lyrics promote.  This wasn’t the first protest against reggae artists calling for violent homophobic acts in their music.  Other reggae artists criticized and boycotted over the last decade for anti-homosexual lyrics include Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Sizzla, Elephant Man, T.O.K., Bounty Killa and Vybz Kartel.

A major leader in the campaign against the homophobia found in dancehall music (the reggae spinoff popular in United States and western Europe) is Stop Murder Music, who eventually initiated the “Reggae Compassionate Act”.  This contract requires artists who sign it to preclude all homophobic sentiment from their future music and to vow against further reproductions of prior songs which promoted intolerance or killing of gay individuals—thus ensuring that their music will no longer be subject to boycott.  The original problem that lingers past these artist’s vows of free-but-destructive-speech abstinence, however, is the defense originally used to justify the lyrics:  Homophobia is a cultural, even religious value.

Jamaica’s religious and musical cultures are closely tied in with Rasta, a way of life for many Jamaicans and, increasingly, those living abroad as well.  In recent years, Rasta has migrated to many countries who refer to it as Rastafarianism, even though most Rastas reject being an ‘ism’.  There are three main ‘mansions’, or sects, of Rasta:

  • The Nyahbinghi — a very strict sect centered in Africa, includes Worship of a ‘Queen of Queens’, Nyabinghi, said to be a spirit-goddess known to inspire, transform and spiritually possess the practioner; in Rasta history Nyabinghi is said to have fostered a woman-led resistance against white occupation and oppression in Africa.
  • The Bobo Ashanti – considered the most orthodox or traditional of Jamaica Rasta; includes a strict keeping of Jewish law, a consideration of Marcus Garvey as a prophet, and a central focus on black supremacy.
  • The Twelve Tribes of Israel the most widespread inclusive form of Rasta, less Afrocentric, and often associated with Bob Marley in Western culture; Considers H.I.M. to be chosen as divine representation (as were King Solomon and King David), but not a direct incarnation of I-Yesus Kristos (ie-Jesus Christ) who will manifest in the second coming as The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.”

Some larger, more inclusive themes of modern Rasta movements include:

  • The rejection of corrupt modern society “Babylon,” and the urge towards a promised paradise in Africa, “Zion”
  • “Reasoning” sessions where ganja (marijuana) is used to attain closeness with God through the communal bonding
  • The avoidance of alcohol (idealistically), which is seen as white men’s poison and which dulls the senses to experiences of Jah (God).
  • Vegetarian eating ethics
  • The significance of the colors red, green, and gold (standing for blood, earth including ganja, and the sun)
  • The icon of the lion is used as a symbol for Haile Selassie I (Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and, in Rasta belief, the returned Messiah figure who will lead a future golden age of peace, prosperity, and righteousness.
  • The idea that each individual follower of Rasta has his/her own spiritual path to follow and a connection with Jah to establish.

As with any movement, however, there are culturally specific issues which need to be understood before exploring the more complex issues of connection.

In the 1920s, particular interpretations of Christian-Jewish scripture and a heavy load of historical oppression set the stage in Jamaica for the rise of this new religious movement (NRM).  At the center of Rasta is H.I.M., Haile Selassie I, the late ruler of Ethiopia who is understood in Rasta terms as being, at the very least, directly descended from Jesus.  He is a divine figure and considered by some factions of Rasta as having been the second coming of Jesus, incarnated to flesh.

The Rasta relationship with the Bible was also at the center of this new movement as Jamaican Rasta followers trace their roots back to the Falhashas, a branch of ‘Ethiopian Jews, still present in Ethiopia today, and the original caretakers of the Ark of the Covenant.  Descendants of the Falhashas were taken to Jamaica by Spanish Catholics who, after destroying the Arawak native population and repopulating it with a slave workforce, introduced the Bible to the Africans they had brought to Jamaica.  The grounding of the slaves in biblical stories helped construct the popular adage amongst Rasta followers that “A chapter a day keeps the devil away.” There is ample evidence that Rastafarians also owe a lot of their current Jamaican culture to the Spanish Catholics who settled Jamaica.

The European, Spanish Catholic and eventually Protestant English, interpretation of particular bible passages stayed within the Jamaican culture despite many other traditions and passages seen in an Afrocentric, rather than Eurocentric or Christian-Jewish perspective.  Today, some Jamaicans feel a strong preference to not hear the bible in their own language, Patois, but to hear it preached only in proper English.  Leslie Dennis, a writer for Jamaican Times, implies that it is disrespectful to God, arguing that the Patois translators “turn di good book into a Jamaican story.” This could be due to an internalization of the idea that the European culture actually holds some form of superior knowledge.  Alternatively, it may be simply a reaction common in human tales resulting from a mixture of cultures.  Could it be a cross-cultural phenomenon—that when we cannot find the power we want in our own language, we are captured in fear or awe of the exotic tongue?  This comment brings into light the question of whether it is a human quality to find the novel and the mysterious to have a magical quality—either that which can reveal religious truths and/or that which can effect metaphysical changes to reality.  Or, of course, there is the possibility (tongue in cheek) that proper British English is truly G-d’s language.

This brings me back to the relationship between music and culture.  Reggae is a genre of music that developed locally out of oppressive historical circumstance; often infused in the lyrics is Lyaric, a dialect created as a way to talk amongst the oppressed and to keep out the dominators.  Particularities of language emerged as Euro-centric concepts turned upside down and Jamaican concepts became shrouded in language only other group members (or those committed to research) could understand.  Incredibly, language can grab control of cultural sections of reality and preserve the worldviews which are threatened by others who do not speak the same.

Unfortunately, it seems to onlookers that this same language making practice, which established Reggae music as a voice of the oppressed, is also the practice which is allowing the Dancehall artists to incite oppressive and violent conditions/actions against homosexuals.  When people create language as a way of banning together against oppression, how do we explain that the language meant to oppress and shun still survives, even generations later?  And, this makes one wonder, will the original, generally non-homophobic Reggae music ever recover from the tainted image these Dancehall artists have constructed?  Will this constructed homophobic voice prevent Reggae from reaching its full originally intended potential, or will the gay community feel ever shunned from sharing in the power Reggae has given to oppressed groups the past civil-rights-century over?

Stop Murder Music can influence listeners to issue financial sanctions on the artists by boycotting their albums and petitioning their tours to be cancelled.  Artists can buckle under and sign the agreement in order to maintain their supply of financial reward (and thus, maintain their ability to spread at least some of their musical message into the world), but it’s a complex question to raise.  What can fix the real root of the problem—not just the more visible expressions of homosexual hatred in the lyrics of a song—but the invisible imprint connected to Jamaican religious culture?

In ending, let us reflect on these questions and the lyrics of Jah Cure’s, Love Is….

Love is call of me brother, love is call of me sister… Love is the answer for every question… Love is the key to open the door, when closed in your face…Love is much more to life than just words.


Suggested reading:  From Babylon to Rastafari: Origin and History of the Rastafarian Movement; Douglas Mack

Hannah Spadafora has completed the requirements for a BA in Religious Studies with a minor of English at Georgia State University, and will have finished up with a second BA in Philosophy by her expected graduation date in Summer 2011. Her significant areas of interests include Religion and the Modern Day, Religion’s Role in Media, Pop Culture and Literature, and Theories and Methods of Religious Studies. She intends, over the next couple of years, to gain further publishing of both scholarly and literary works, and to enter into a Masters Program focused in the social sciences.

Filed Under: American ReligionCulture & ArtFeaturedGuest ContributorNRMsPop Culture


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