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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  1. religionnerd says:

    Hannah: As always, you delve into your subject and intrigue me all the more. Rasta is a subject I am not so familiar with but your exploration of music, culture, and the Rasta religion wet my appetite! I will be reading your suggested source soon. Obviously, this is a hot button issue and one that needs an open discourse. Well done!

  2. Love is the answer says:

    Quit hatin’, hater.

  3. Love is the answer says:

    To the first commenter: Stop hatin’, hater!

  4. [...] culture. As such, it is hard to tell where Rastafari ends and Jamaican culture begins, which makes this issue far more interesting: On November 27th, 2010, protesters in Sacramento, CA gathered outside musical artist Capleton’s [...]

  5. B. Hold says:

    Great post. I recently did 2 weeks of research in Jamaica for my undergrad thesis, interviewing several Nyahbinghi elders, Bobo priests, and others about their views on participation of whites in reggae and Nyahbinghi music. Please check out the documentary I made: http://www.psu.edu/dept/bw/honors/2011/04/oursongsofpatience.html

  6. Sam Kestu says:

    Jamaica and the Caribbean can and must change in their currently inhumane treatment of LGBT people.

    In the U.S. and elsewhere, scientific research has replaced old religious teachings that cast LGBT people as “perverts,” “deviants,” and threats to society.

    You can read about some of this crucial science online by searching for FACTS ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY AND MENTAL HEALTH and also see FACTS ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY AND CHILD MOLESTATION

    This same science applies to Jamaica.

    In the U.S., we need to become more familiar with the hateful and homophobic dancehall music produced by artistes such as Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Capleton, Sizzla and Mavado.

    We shouldn’t be afraid to examine and criticize and oppose this hateful music.

    For some more detail search online for WHO IS CAPLETON AND WHAT IS HE DOING NOW?

    It is also worthwhile to look for HOMOPHOBIA IN JAMAICA AND MURDER MUSIC

  7. Tim says:

    Great music aside, Rastafarianism is a stupid religion. It’s a hodgepodge of different and unrelated beliefs(European Christianity, Ethiopian Judaism, West African tribal beliefs). Haile Selassie himself took issue with Jamaican Rastas calling him God, what does that say? Moreover, he launched oppressive campaigns against Ethiopian minorities. I used to think Rasta was a peace-and-love hippie religion. In reality, it’s just another stupid Abrahamic offshoot with a West African/Carribbean flavor, so it’s no surprise that they are just as homophobic as Christians and Muslims. And to “White people are devils”, I sure hope you enjoy using our “devil” invention, the computer.

  8. S.C. says:

    In response to Tim, considering the connection between ancient Ethiopian Abyssinia and the 12 tribes of Isreal, I think that there is more of a connection between those belief structures in your first sentence than your consciousness is allowing you to see, mainly the obvious geographical and cultural connection. While the overall Rasta view of homosexuality is different than current main stream western culture, the reasons are not based in esoteric fear or discrimination but rather in natural order and the difference between man and beast. Homosexuality exists in natural primarily as a force of control and dominance, and the freedom of sexual experimentation type of attitude is rejected because carnal advocacy goes against Rasta belief of choosing a righteous life and rejecting oppression and carnal lifestyle. In other words, Homosexuality is looked down upon because it is based in bodily pleasure and and not spiritual development, to their perspective as Rasta (even tho this isn’t necessarily true). Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, because its the intention behind actions which is truly important, rather than the actions themselves, especially when considering cultural differences in values of life, the values of self expression, and the values of sexual freedom.

  9. Boom-Shaka-Lack says:

    To the first poster, White People Are Devils, you may be missing the obvious fact that Reggae is Jamaican Music, not Rastafarian Music. Reggae evolved out of Rocksteady and Ska, which featured many non-african musicians. In fact, these singers mentioned in the article as homophobes are mostly signed to VP records, which was started by a Chinese family. There have always and will always be many Chinese, White, Indian, and African Jamaicans involved in the reggae music scene. Bob Marley wouldn’t have had international success he had without Chris Blackwell the white british producer who put Catch A Fire on worldwide distribution, who also helped The Mighty Diamonds which are an extremely Rasta group get worldwide distribution as well (while simultaneously working with bands like The Talking Heads, B-52′s, et cetera). Rasta Reggae is extremely important to over-all reggae music, but Rasta is like a room in the house of reggae, not the other way around. Reggae can exist outside of rasta, and always has. Many of my favorite reggae musicians are not rasta, and if you listen to roots rockers reggae you no doubt have listened to many tracks which feature non-black Jamaicans or even Americans, as many Gregory Isaacs tracks feature a white guitarist from America who played with the Roots Radics for many years. IF you really believe white people should stay out of Reggae music, do yourself a favor and burn every album you own by the roots radics, everything released by VP, everything that ever touched the hands of non-African descended Jamaicans.

  10. Anti Ras says:

    I hate Rastas! Especially fake-ass white rasta posers! Fuck religion! Pot heads suck too! put the pipe down and face your reality!

  11. Luna says:

    Homophobia is hate no matter how you paint it. Its part of our culture isn’t a good reason, its a terrible one. When you look into the truth and conscience of your own heart you know that it is not ok to hate anyone or judge any other person. The problem is that people are too lazy to look within themselves for the answer and instead follow what some stupid book or religion says. The only life we have to judge is our own. Love all others

  12. Sam Kestu says:

    The Name of “White people are devils” and the comment are expressions of black supremacy. Black supremacy was a part of early Rastafarian beliefs. Rastas have tried to distance themselves from it. The Bobo Ashanti mansion appears to still promote black supremacy.

    The Rastas are a minority religion in Jamaica, with conservative Christians being the majority. They are as homophobic as the Rastas.

    New scientific information about homosexuality, that most gays are “born gay” and that homosexuality can’t be cured, will eventually result in better treatment of LGBT people in Jamaica and eventual repeal of laws that outlaw anal sex between consenting adults. This happened in the U.S. and is happening around the world now.

    Jamaica could be where the U.S. was 60 years ago. Will it change? Yes it will. The knowledge forces the change just as knowledge about left handedness forced changes in how left handed people are treated.