The origins of reggae music, which first emerged in the Caribbean in the 1960s, lie in a beguiling mash-up of several Jamaican musical styles, including mento, ska, and rock steady, which stress multifaceted drumming arrangements, repeating guitar riffs, throbbing basslines, and song lyrics that alternate between the romantic and the political. Mento was popular in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1940s, celebrated for the creative manner in which it creolized diverse modes and rhythms of sub-Saharan Africa with Caribbean calypso, but the livelier genre of ska supplanted mento in the early 1960s. Sound systems were the primary reason for ska’s success, scholars contend (Augustyn, 2010, pp. 9–27, 74–90; Chude-Sokei, 1997, pp. 185–202; Foster, 1999). Such systems were ramshackle vans loaded down with portable generators, decorated lights, and an array of audio equipment. Many journeyed throughout Jamaica’s countryside, mostly at week’s end, pausing to set up a rickety stage before spinning tunes by artists like Prince Buster and Coxsone (aka Downbeat). The rock-steady genre eventually punched up ska’s drum and bassline, and, lyrically speaking, groups like Justin Hinds and the Dominoes took ska in a more activist direction.
Reggae hybridizes rock steady and ska, and in 1960 the Rastafari musician Count Ossie was the first to record the Nyabinghi-style ritual percussion (played in 4/4 time using three separate drums, including the akete) that reflects reggae’s now-familiar sound and mood. Today, “Nyabinghi” refers to the oldest of the numerous Rastafari denominations, or “mansions,” to have emerged since the movement’s inception in the mid- to late 1930s, yet in the 1960s it was the striking soundtrack to Rastafari “reasoning sessions”—the communal, marijuana-steeped contemplative assemblies that were designed to uphold black solidarity and heighten spiritual awareness. Rastas often chanted psalms at such gatherings. Several subgenres of reggae, such as dancehall and reggaeton, arose in the later twentieth century, yet historians of music recognize roots reggae, the genre’s traditional form, as the type of reggae most given to utilizing biblical quotations in lyrics (Clarke, 1980, pp. 91–117; Foehr, 2000, pp. 47–74, Barrow and Dalton, 2004), and so roots reggae focalizes what follows.
Scripture and Selassie.
Popular since the early 1970s, roots reggae is often performed by artists with strong ties to the Rastafari religious movement, which emerged in Jamaica after the November 1930 coronation of His Imperial Majesty (H. I. M.) Haile Selassie I (formerly known as Ras or Prince Tafari; 1892–1975), King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and the last Emperor of Ethiopia (Gen 49:9; Rev 5:5). Expectedly, Selassie’s theologically redolent titles inspired countless individuals throughout Africa and the African diaspora to return to their Bibles in search of an explanation for this diminutive man’s majestic, elevated status (Barnett, 2012b; Edmonds, 2013; Murrell, Spencer, and McFarlane, 1998). In time, working-class as well as poverty-stricken followers of the Jamaican social activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) read scripture through an African lens and came to see Selassie as a direct descendent of King Solomon and Queen Makeda, onetime Empress of Axum (the Queen of Sheba and/or The Queen of the South [Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31]). This distinguished ancestry involves a claim that Rastas now trace to 1 Kings 10 and to the fourteenth-century Ethiopian legend cycle known as the Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings), which narrates the Solomonic lineage of Ethiopia’s emperors (Breiner, 1985–1986, pp. 30–43; Hausman, 1997; Hill, 2005; Leeman, 2005; Taylor, 2001, pp. 65–78). The Rastafari revere this scripture-soaked African heritage, as Erin C. MacLeod and others reveal, and Rastafari roots reggae like The Abyssinians’ “Satta Massagana,” Ancient King’s “Ethiopie,” Garnett Silk’s “Zion in a Vision,” and Ragga Lox’s “Ethiopia” often lauds the link between an Ethiopian spiritual ecology of place and an insistent psychology of black somebodiness (MacLeod, 2014; also see Donne, 2000, pp. 99–121; Hutton and Murrell, 1998, pp. 36–54; Post, 1970, pp. 185–207; Raboteau, 2013, pp. 63–179).
Scripture references Ethiopia recurrently, and serious scholarly attempts to explore the alliance between Africa and the Bible are available (Bruder, 2008; Dorman, 2013; Eyre, 1985, pp. 144–148; Ullendorff, 1968; Yamauchi, 2004). Since the Bible pinpoints the Redeemer’s Ethiopian origins (Pss 68:31; 87:4) as well as promotes the thought that God is black (Jer 8:21; Dan 7:9), and because Garveyites maintain that King James did not edit the Good Book for the benefit of black people, Rastafari in the 1940s and 1950s scrutinized scripture in three general ways. First, they analyzed the Bible from their idiosyncratic and cultural context(s), which eventually made for considerable interpretative variety within the movement. Second, they cultivated and practiced what we might term a “mother tongue exegesis” or a “vernacular hermeneutics,” whereby their unique patois or creolized English (“dread talk”) helped Rastas grasp the Bible’s insights (Pollard, 2000). And third, Rastas furthered as well as crafted their own version of Caribbean emancipatory theology, rooted in Selassie and social location. In the hands of Rastas, then, the Bible became many things to many, different people; for today’s Rastafari, it remains a plurisignative or polyvalent text. Nathaniel Samuel Murrell and Lewin Williams observe:
"While for some Rastas the Bible has its own inherent authority, for others the authority derives not from the Bible intrinsically (though it points one to God) but from the validation that comes from His Imperial Majesty and his “depiction” in Scripture—what is seen as the relevance of biblical text to local situations—and Rastas’ own sense of inspiration derived from many sources, especially the Hebrew Bible. … The Scripture is like an open canon, in which Rastas’ new insights are as inspired as the written text." (1998, p. 328)
Noel Leo Erskine concurs:
"Rastafari theology often begins with critical reflection on historical practice in Jamaican society or on the global scene. The Bible is not the definitive source of truth for the Rastas. The authoritative source of truth is “Jah” (God) as Jah reveals Jah’s ways in national or world events or in the Bible. Jah’s activities are not limited to events of the Bible. Jah is active in national and world events, and these followers often turn to the Bible to find an explanation of what Jah is up to in the world. Because of this, the Rastas are busy interpreting both the sociological and the biblical text. They often begin with the sociological text and then move to the biblical text for elucidation and confirmation of what they presume Jah is doing in the world." (2007, p. xiv)
Colonialism served as Jamaica’s “sociological text” for many years, of course, and in their attempt to brandish scripture as a decolonial weapon, leaders like Leonard Howell (1898–1981), Prince Emmanuel Charles Edwards (1915–1994), and Vernon Carrington (1936–2005 [aka Prophet Gad]) were among the first to draw on the Bible devotedly, condemn social injustice trenchantly, and to preach Selassie’s divinity ardently (Chisholm, 1998, pp. 166–177; Hill, 2001; Lewis 1998, pp. 145–158). While present-day brethren and sistren now question Selassie’s status, as recent accounts of Rastafari in global contexts show, Selassie nonetheless remains crucial to the movement (Boxill, 2008; Cooper, 2012; Sterling, 2010).
Selassie is Jah, where Jah is an abbreviated form of Yahweh or Jehovah (Gen 2:4B; Ps 68:4); for examples of songs referring to Selassie in this exalted manner, see “Chant to King Selassie” by Augustus Pablo, “I Love King Selassie” by Black Uhuru, “His Majesty’s Teachings,” by Big Youth, “More Teachings” by Morgan Heritage, and “King Selassie H. I. M.” by Tarrus Riley. Each track uses reggae’s repeating riffs to accentuate how Selassie inspires and uplifts his people, rousing them to reclaim a cultural agency once denied by colonialism, “Babylon” in the “dread talk” or patois language of Rastafari (Gen 11; 2 Kgs 20:12–19; Dan 4:30; Rev 17:2–5; also see Davidson, 2008, pp. 46–60). Throughout their song “Picture on the Wall,” Naturalites stress Selassie’s kingly character; here, Selassie ranks as the root of King David and the returned Christ (Rev 5:5), who defends life’s voiceless and powerless by sitting in judgment on the world’s wicked and guaranteeing, as Bob Marley pronounces in “Cornerstone,” that the downtrodden will win in the end (Ps 118:22). Other songs emphasizing Selassie’s authority and unrivaled wisdom include Israel Vibration’s “Mighty Negus” and Garnett Silk’s “Who Is Like Selassie?”
Jamaicans witnessed Selassie’s commanding presence when the emperor journeyed to Jamaica in late April 1966, an event that the Rastafari hurriedly mythologized, describing how Selassie approached Kingston from the East, was accompanied by a white dove, and how he bore nail marks on his hands (Ezek 44:1–3; John 20:25; 1 John 4:2; also see Edmonds, 2013, pp. 23–24). Rastas now ritualize the anniversary of Selassie’s stay, an event known as Grounation or Groundation Day, and many songs, like Early B’s “Visit of King Selassie,” Bob Marley’s “Selassie Is the Chapel,” Peter Tosh’s “Rasta Shook Them Up,” and U Roy’s “Righteous Ruler,” have since appeared to versify the Black Messiah’s visit and visage (Lam 4:7–8; Rev 1:13–16).
Besides chanting unto Jah or Selassie, roots reggae musicians since the 1970s have regularly rhapsodized the aforesaid personalities, texts, and events associated with the Rastafari. For example, Dubtonic Kru (“Marcus Garvey”), Earl 16 (“Marcus”), Maxi Priest (“Marcus”), and Burning Spear (“Marcus Garvey”) venerate Garvey for his pan-African passion as well as his belief that Africans should see God or Yahweh/Jehovah through an Ethiopian lens. In addition, Steel Pulse (“Not King James Version”) and Exco Levi (“Kebra Nagast”) urge black women and men to withstand colonial biblical interpretation, to quarry the Bible’s African references, and to consult Ethiopian sacred writings. Stately songs praising those brethren who first used such texts to preach Selassie’s divinity—Everton Blender’s “Leonard Howell,” Junior Reid’s “Emmanuel Calling,” and Scientist’s “Gad Man the Prophet”—are now part of roots reggae’s urgent detail, delivered amid ambient dub soundscapes, growling drum and basslines, or else through coolly restrained, sensuous acoustic riffs.
Africa, Identity, and Salvation.
Typically, Rastafari roots reggae music offers Africanized rereadings of selected biblical narratives, emphasizing how black women, men, and children are the chosen people, the true Israelites, whose promised land, Ethiopia, serves as the antidote to colonialism’s toxic traces in late modern capitalism or “Babylon” (Exod 11:7; Deut 28:15–68; Lam 5:10; Jer 14:2; Isa 29:22). In other terms, Rastafari roots reggae remixes the Bible, African excellence, and black somebodiness to perform as well as preach a theo-musical politics of identity. In his investigation of more than 100 reggae songs, recorded between 1968 and 1981, Stephen A. King argues that such biblically grounded music galvanized Rastafari internally, at a critical juncture in the movement’s history, meeting the “in-group goals” of sustaining as well as creating a “healthy and positive self-image of ‘blackness’ while, at the same time, intensifying cohesion and ‘groupness’ within the movement” (2006, p. 117). Songs like The Gladiators’ “Roots Natty” and Mystic Revelation of Rastafari’s “Four Hundred Years” enjoined Rastafari to transcend a slave ethic, to reclaim their identity from their colonial masters, and to reach for an ideal type, the figure of the noble African herbsman or the defiant dreadlocked warrior. Rooted in an understanding that the Bible affirms Africa, and thus all things African, such reggae strengthened the Rastafari from within; by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the music’s militant, black liberative disavowal of Babylon boosted the Rasta’s sense of self and purpose (Erskine, 2010).
Anthems like Burning Spear’s “Calling Rastafari” and Dennis Brown’s “Promised Land” soon tied Rastafarian identity to repatriation, and such sounds affirmed Africa as the black person’s vine and fig tree (Mic 4:4). Today, songs like Dubmatix’s “Repatriation,” Jah & I’s “Rasta and Babylon,” and Richie Spice’s “Motherland Calling” continue reggae’s exploration of African anciency and identity, showing how the quest for “home” energizes Rasta hope. Ennis Edmonds claims: “Repatriation to Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular is a fundamental tenet of Rastafari”; and, in Sizzla Kalonji’s “Hail Selassie,” we witness the salient features of this conviction—a lament for Western living and an ardent belief that despite their transition, Marcus Garvey as well as the emperor will soon spirit all Rastas out of the modern-day Rome and toward Ethiopia (2013, p. 78).
When Rastafari are not speaking or singing about going back to Africa, they are often addressing the “Africanization” of their immediate environment. In opposing Western consumerism’s so-called insalubrious and greedy lifestyle, for example, brethren and sistren frequently take a stand where they are and cultivate what they call “ital” or natural “livity,” which is “dread talk” for an ethical as well as ritual code based around living simply. Drawing on the Bible for moral guidelines, Rastas favor untreated hairstyle (“locks” or “dreadlocks” [Lev 21:5; Num 6:5–6; Judg 16:13, 19; 1 Sam 1:11; Ezek 8:3; 44:20]) and the consumption of organic fruits, juices, vegetables, and herbs (Gen 1:29; 9:3; Lev 11:1–20; Deut 8:8; Ezek 4:9; Dan 1:8–20). Marijuana or ganja is an important or holy herb for Rastafari (Ps 104:14; Rev 22:2) because it helps Rastas to become mindful of Babylon’s injustices as well as their devotion to Jah—tradition holds that ganja was found growing on King Solomon’s grave, hence the often-heard reference to ganja as “the weed of wisdom.” Reggae by Turbulence (“Rastafari Livity”), Ini Kamoze (“Ital”), Kush and Bloodfiyah Angels (“Livity”), and Konshens (“Good Life & Livity”) reflects the Rastafari’s appeal to scripture—especially to the instructions surrounding ritual purity and cleanness in Leviticus—for their anti-Babylonian ethical imagination. More specifically, Blakk Rasta’s “Ganja Sweet,” Israel Vibration’s “Herb Is the Healing,” and Keida’s “Ganja Tea” are herbalist anthems that underline the wisdom weed’s curative and contemplative properties. For their part, songs by Chronixx (“Dread”), The Mighty Diamonds (“Natural Natty”), and Protoje (“Dread”) endorse the flashing of (natty dread)locks as outward sign of a Rasta’s inner vitality, a physical reminder of one’s covenant with Jah.
First appearing in the late 1960s, but, properly speaking, “coming in from the cold” in the mid-1970s, Bob Marley (1945–1981) placed Rastafari and reggae music on the world’s cultural map, and he did so by drawing on the Bible to craft an arresting, allusive word and sound that encapsulated his fervent belief that not only is Jah a black man, Jah also creates within humble souls an overcoming faith or “livity.” Unsurprisingly, Marley’s friends saw him as Jah’s musical messenger. Roger Steffens writes:
"Bob Marley is the most famous Rastaman who ever lived. On stage, with his Medusa locks spiraling outward from his head in wild abandon, he was a wraith from out of time, preaching timeless truths of a God that was black and incarnate in living flesh. His songs, as noted by his art director Neville Garrick, were indeed “the true, new psalms,” messages of divine inspiration set to music. Bunny Wailer, cofounder with Bob and Peter Tosh of the seminal group The Wailers, quotes Psalm 68:25, noting that “the Bible says that the singers went before, and the players of instruments followed after. … So it’s a whole spiritual order, where angels sing, and then we carry out that message, so it’s something more than just Bob Marley or Bunny Wailer or Peter Tosh or the Wailers. It’s the Most High, Ras Tafari.”" (1998, p. 253; also see Farley, 2002; Grant, 2011; Toynbee, 2007; White, 1998)
Marley trusted his Jah-inspired mission. And his lyrics cited numerous scriptural examples of how trust in Jah helps the Bible’s protagonists move forward. The initial lines of “Redemption Song” renarrate Joseph’s story of being cast into the pit (Gen 37:23–28; also see King and Jensen, 1995, pp. 17–36), for example, and “Rastaman Live Up” references David’s improbable victory over Goliath (1 Sam 17:32–50). Also, “Exodus” calls for a new Moses to help lead today’s Jah people into Africa’s promised land (Exod 14:15–16; also see Goldman, 2006), and “Survival” celebrates how Jah saves his three faithful servants from the furnace (Dan 3:14–28).
Marley often invoked scripture to show that faith matters. He also used the Bible to speak to social justice issues (“Get Up, Stand Up,” “Belly Full,” “Babylon System”). His “Wisdom” tune draws on Proverbs to explore the disparity between the rich and the poor (Prov 10:15; 18:11–12), for instance, and “So Much Things to Say” likens the British colonial abuse of Marcus Garvey with Israel’s neglect of its indigent in the eighth century B.C.E. (Amos 2:6). Because of this “conscious” resistance to power structures, scholars have often likened Marley to an Amos-like prophet of Hebrew Bible or Old Testament proportions, keen to roundly condemn capitalism’s rigors and inequalities (J. Richard Middleton, 2000, pp. 181–205). They are only half-right, according to Dean MacNeil. After spending four chapters analyzing more than 80 songs and identifying 137 biblical references, MacNeil emerges from The Bible and Bob Marley to reveal that the redemptive message of the wisdom literature forms the principal part of Marley’s canon within the biblical canon: “18 percent of Marley’s biblical quotations are from Proverbs and 26 percent are from Psalms, which is more than two and three times greater than any other book. There is at least one reference to Psalms on every album of the Island era” MacNeil demonstrates (2013, p. xiv). “Cry to Me” references Psalm 23, for example, and “Wings of a Dove” mentions Psalm 55; in both songs, Marley echoes the psalmist’s search for significance in the midst of suffering, yet he interjects his Rasta hope for relief in the form of a mass return to an African Zion, and thus he demonstrates that the biblical faith remains in the making. Other Marley songs that cite Psalms include “Give Thanks and Praises,” which captures Psalm 92’s opening line about the rightful worship of Jah; “Stiff Necked Fools,” which alludes to the first three verses of Psalm 112 to comment on the blessings that flow from fearing God and turning away from evil; and “Africa Unite,” which proceeds out from Psalm 133’s opening line to craft an anthem to transcultural togetherness throughout the continent.
Other Rastafari musicians have tuned the Psalms to reggae rhythms, as Nathaniel Samuel Murrell puts it, and in doing so artists like IJahman (“Signs and Wonders” [Ps 19:1–2]) and The Melodians (“Fly Away” [Ps 55:6]) have taken the Psalms’ many, uncomplicated insights—joy and sorrow as well as longing and loss—and reconfigured them for today’s world (Murrell, 2000–2001, pp. 525–540). Prince Far I’s Psalms for I soaks nine texts (Pss 1, 2, 23, 24, 48, 49, 53, 87, 95) in reggae-steeped music, creating the effect of an aural scripture. Writing in a less devotional way, I Roy robustly recasts Psalm 23 (“Sufferer’s Psalm”) so that Jah is absent from a world where capitalists serve as the new lords, who, in their passion for profit over personhood, force their alienated, low-paid workers to walk beside insanitary waters or else lie down in deprivation. In contrast, Prince Buster’s “Drunkard Psalm” parodies the same text, but this is the exception to the rule. Most reggae renditions of Psalm 23, like Peter Tosh’s “Jah Guide” and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Dreadlocks in Moonlight,” underline wisdom’s many blessings.
Besides referencing the Psalms, Marley’s lyrics tend to uphold as well as cite the religious dualism or ideological binaries that readers often observe in the book of Proverbs. “Zion Train” declares that the righteous Rastafari souls bound for glory understand that wisdom, as the fear of Jah, triumphs over money (Prov 3:13–14; 16:16). In addition, various lines in “Small Axe” proclaim that humble trust in Jah reaps rewards but that the vain and indecent will suffer (Prov 22:8; 26:27; 28:10). A similar rich/poor and wise/fool bifurcationalism pervades Max Romeo’s “Words of Wisdom,” which mines Proverbs 22 to unearth an aural gem on upright Rasta livity. Also consider Peter Tosh’s “Fools Die,” which sets Proverbs 10 and 18 to a soundscape of stripped-down, Nyabinghi-style ritual drumming.
Along with the wisdom literature, the New Testament also helped Marley preach his message of resistance (to Babylon) and redemption (by trusting in Jah), which MacNeil regards as “constant themes, as ingrained in his music as the Bible and the guitar” (2013, p. 145). Western society has often ostracized Rastas, for example, and largely for their observance of the Nazarite vow (Num 6:1–21; dreadlocks), but Marley counterattacks so-called baldhead or Babylonian disapproval in his “Judge Not” song, which protests any character sentences that Jah does not pass (Matt 7:1–5; Luke 6:37; Rom 14:4). In addition, the practice of learning to let go and let Jah surfaces in his “Three Little Birds,” whose happy-go-lucky melody masks multiple allusions to Matthew 6:25–34. “If there was one lens through which Marley read the Bible,” MacNeil concludes, then “it was the stereoscopic optic of resistance and redemption” (2013, p. 145). And the book of Revelation influenced this optic, as we see in abundantly allusive tracks like “Blackman Redemption” (Rev 5:5; 22:16) and “Rastaman Chant” (Rev 5:1–2; 14:8; 17:1; 18:2, 21). For MacNeil, “Marley’s contribution to biblical interpretation is to provide a Trench Town perspective on the Bible,” and thus it follows that Marley in the 1970s continued and embodied the situational, black Rastafari biblical hermeneutics I noted as central to Rasta identity in the 1940s and 1950s (2013, p. 146). Whatever else Marley accomplished, he brought this approach to performing as well as reading scripture “in from the cold” (Edmonds, 2002, pp. 79–115). By the early 1980s, that is, Marley had ensured that “reggae’s de facto spiritual home was Rastafari” (Dawes, 2008, p. 139).
Other reggae artists have set New Testament texts and themes to music (Palmer, 2010). And the figure of Jesus, often paired with Selassie in Rastafari theology, surfaces fairly frequently. Bunny Wailer’s “Blackheart Man” upholds Jesus’s teaching on prayer (Matt 7:7) as a vital aspect of Rasta livity, for example, and The Itals’s “Rasta Philosophy” references the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:13), to stress the sustenance that flows from trusting in Jah. Also, Chezidek’s “Only Rastafari” deploys the “I Am” sayings in the fourth Gospel to emphasize his own version of Rastafarian particularism, where Selassie holds the monopoly on spiritual truth, and only those who worship H. I. M. as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will secure themselves to heaven (John 14:6; Rev 5:5). In addition, Misty in Roots uses “Judas Iscariote” to forge the link between the man who betrayed Jesus and contemporary politicians who deceive the public (Matt 27:1–10). Implicit treatment(s) of other New Testament material are legion and include, for example, Fantan Mojah’s “Rasta Got Soul,” which invokes the sowing and reaping trope in Galatians 6:7; Chronixx’s “Alpha and Omega,” which links the apocalyptic appellation for Jesus to Selassie (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13); and Anthony B’s “None a Jah Jah Children,” which re-presents and claims for Rasta devotees the vision of a new heaven and a new earth observable in Revelation 21:4.
Dancehall and Jah’s Dawtas.
Like other musical genres, reggae music’s fortunes have changed across the years. In the late 1980s, for example, Jamaican reggae developed an electronic or synthesized sound, which fostered the emergence of subgenres, like dancehall and reggaeton (Barnes, 2005, pp. 287–305). Generally, the music from this period minimized the Bible, moved away from roots reggae’s traditional drum and bassline, and showcased not only energetic techno rhythms but lyrics marked by sexual boasting, drug references, and anti-feminist as well as homophobic themes (Chin, 1997, pp. 127–141). Marley may have ensured that reggae’s de facto spiritual home was Rastafari, but the departure from Marley’s message by artists like Buju Banton and Mad Cobra was undeniable. Notable exceptions to this trend, and “musical saviors” in the eyes of some commentators, eventually emerged in the 10-year period between the late 1980s and late 1990s. They included “conscious” singers—Capleton, Garnett Silk, and Sizzla Kalonji—who belittled dancehall’s lewd lyrics even as they traversed its fresh, pulsating soundscape (Cooper, 2005, pp. 215–236). Capleton’s “Bible Fi Dem” reproaches dancehall “badmen” like Shabba Ranks, for example, and urges them to take up and reread the scriptures for proper answers to real existential questions: Why am I here? Who is God? From what must I be saved? Garnett Silk remixes the story of Jesus’s temptation in the desert to address issues of poverty in “Fill Us Up with Your Mercy” (Matt 4:4; Deut 8:3). And although Sizzla has courted controversy, because of either his opposition to same-sex relations or his “inauguration” as the Rastafari movement’s “president,” he emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a sharp, witty lyricist; songs like “Praise Ye Jah,” and “Read Yuh Bible” cemented his reputation as a Rasta chanter. In the latter song, for example, Sizzla references numerous scriptural citations connected to Selassie and Africa, and reading the text through a child’s eyes will sustain as well as create faith, he intones.
Space precludes explaining the complexities of dancehall culture and Rastafari, though some scholars have addressed the matter in detail, and there has been a renewed interest in the topic in recent Rastafari Studies, especially in international contexts (Bernard, 2012; Cooper 2012, 1995, 2004; Stolzoff, 2000). Here it seems that the place of women in reggae often serves as a touchstone. Dancehall “slackness” (vulgarity) is viewed as demeaning to women, for example, yet Bernard reads Sizzla and his relationship with a new generation of Rastafari youth differently:
"For these young warriors, Sizzla captured the essence of their reality and the influences under which they came. Sizzla’s explicit and sexually charged lyrics portrayed, for the first time in popular culture, Rastafari as a sexual being, which served as a liberating force for many in the movement. Ironically, I overheard an elder Rastafari responding to the demonization of the controversial “Pump Up Her Pum Pum” who rhetorically asked, “How will the Black woman get the child if you do not pump up her pum pum?” The issue of sex and sexuality draws only silence from the Rastafari community, with the curious constantly engaging in a dialogue of the deaf." (2012, pp. 286–287)
Bernard’s observation notwithstanding, a fresh generation of womanist reggae artists or “Jah dawtas” emerged in the mid-2000s, eager to return readers to the Bible and locate within its pages a gender-inclusive vision, an outlook that they hope will appeal to new millennium Rastafari (Erskine, 2012, pp. 37–49; Klobah, 2008, pp. 158–196).
Traditional Rastafari theology upholds patriarchy, as critics have pointed out, and an instructive symbol for this attitude may be found in Bob Marley’s “Adam and Eve.” This track retells the Fall of Man myth (Gen 3) by seeing Eve as the primary in the Edenic Fall, and thus evil’s root, or, to use a modern trope, like a neutron in a chain reaction of evil acts and intents in the world (Christensen, 2014; Lake, 1998; Murrell, 1994). Ironically, two of Marley’s backing singers—Judy Mowatt (“Warrior Queen”) and Marcia Griffiths (“Peaceful Woman”)—served as foremothers to the current theo-musical, womanist challenge to patriarchy in Rastafari and reggae music. More recent artists like Queen Omega (“Jah Dawta”), whose stage name recalls Selassie’s consort, appeal to the emperor as the Bible’s ground and grammar and as the Conquering Lion who insists that brethren and sistren dwell together in unity. Empress Ayeola (“Rastafari Works”) reminds brethren that they were once children or youth who depended upon their mothers and/or sisters for guidance in cultivating Rasta righteousness, and she speaks of Selassie as biblically anointed, his vision of equality the salient reason for living into the future (Ps 68:31; Dan 7:3; Rev 5:2–5, 19). Lastly, Queen Ifrica’s “Lioness on the Rise” is a mash-up of her confidence in women’s self-determination as well as the leonine image and metaphor in Rastafari theology and the Bible. There are many biblical references to lions (Job 4:10; Ps 22:13; Prov 19:12; Jer 2:15, 30; Rev 5:5; 10:3), with most of them locating the lion’s imperial supremacy in its voice (Amos 3:8), and here Queen Ifrica describes women as mature, brave lionesses whose voice must be heard, especially by men. In addition, “Lioness on the Rise” declares that women serve Selassie on the frontlines of the first battle of the End (Rev 19:11–19), and their names will rank among the first when the Book of Life’s roll is called out (Rev 20:12). In Queen Ifrica’s gender-inclusive “Rastology,” then, “reggae sistas” and “Jah dawtas” are duty-bound, on a mission from Selassie to help women realize collective as well as personal agency, and to assist all Rastafari in the task of ushering in a new age of equal rights and justice. Intriguingly, there are some contemporary male reggae bands, like Artganic (“Rasta Woman”) and Estick & Word Sound Band (“Rasta Woman”), who appear to be following the musical lead of their “reggae sistas.”
Besides improved gender relations among brethren and sistren, the internationalization of the Rastafari stands poised to take the movement into the first few decades of the new millennium, and reggae will continue to play an important role in this transitional time (Barnett, 2012a, pp. 270–277; Boxill, 2008; Cooper, 2012). Recent songs like Johnny Clarke’s “Rasta International,” Fyah P’s “Rastafari Messenger,” G Vibes’s “Globalization,” Massicker’s “New Millennium Rasta,” and Third World’s “Reggae Ambassador” recognize that increased travel, migratory patterns, social media, and other general improvements in technology entail an extension of the African diaspora’s customary or traditional parameters (Daynes, 2004, pp. 25–41). Africa is wherever Africans are, and these days, Africans and peoples of African descent are scattered across the world. The aforementioned tracks see Rastafari moving forward by circling the globe, taking its version of the Great Commission to the earth’s end (Matt 28:19–20), inviting disciples of all nations to exemplify “peace and love” livity. Consequently, Rastafari roots reggae music has become indigenized, taking on the words, sounds, and theologies of particular social and cultural contexts. For example, consider Ghana’s Blakk Rasta (“Rasta Com” and “Ancient Moonsplash”), who identifies as a West African Muslim Rasta (Middleton, 2015). Other examples of reggae from around the world include Angola’s Manikongo (“Rasta from the Kalahari”), Ethiopia’s Dawit Menelik Tafari (“Rastafari Show I the Way”), Hawaii’s Three Plus (“Jah Music”), Israel’s Nechi Nech (“Israeli Rasta”), New Zealand’s Katchafire (“I and I”), and Zimbabwe’s Kulcha Far I (“African Rasta”). Such songs often foster a localized sound, a cultural-contextual pride, and a situational reading of the Bible—as with Kulcha Far I’s “African Rasta,” which meditates on Matthew’s “two masters” motif and then chants a Jahful chorus stressing Selassie’s African-ness and how H. I. M. commands unqualified allegiance (Matt 6:24).
Rastafari reggae’s globalization intrigues many contemporary scholars (DeCosmo, 2000; Jaffe and Sanderse, 2010; Savishinsky, 1999, pp. 347–366; Sterling, 2010). And the International Reggae Studies Center at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, promotes as well as conducts rigorous research on topics from reggae music documentaries in Brazil to reggae griots in Francophone Africa, and from gender, class, and race in Japanese dancehall culture to Oceanic reggae (Cooper, 2012). Looking ahead, such internationalization will no doubt bring perils as well as possibilities for the Rastafari movement. Some of the local, hybridized reggae will and has made it back to Jamaica, where its fresh word and sound is exerting an influence on “new roots” Rastafari artists like Protoje (“This Is Not a Marijuana Song”) and Chronixx (“Selassie Souljahz”) who, moving forward, may or may not focus as much on the Bible as on, say, the new African or Asian instruments they hear in the cross-cultural encounter—only time will tell. Also, the beliefs and practices that scholars trace to the Rastafari movement in the last century will almost certainly evolve. Charles Price wonders:
"Anciency, Black redemption, repatriation, righteous living, and the Godly Emperor Haile Selassie I, cornerstones of the identity of those who came into the faith through the late 1960s, must now jostle with a movement in abeyance and a people who now position Rastafari identity in diverse ways within their self-concept. Selassie I, Black redemptions, and the moral aspects of Blackness may be less important to new adherents of Rastafari identity." (2009, p. 211)
Globalization is fostering ideological change within the Rastafari, and especially within Rastafari reggae. For example, consider how the Ghanaian singer-songwriter Rocky Dawuni (“Download the Revolution,” “African Reggae Fever,” and “Jerusalem”) symbolizes how Rastafari ideas and values constantly move interchangeably across the Atlantic.
In reversing the journey through the Middle Passage, Rastafari imported their livity to Ghana in the mid-1970s, through Marley’s scripture-soaked tunes, thereby making it possible for young men like Dawuni to internalize as well as locate a spirituality first forged across the Atlantic but brought “back to Africa,” as Marcus Garvey had once hoped. Over time, Dawuni has contextualized Rastafari (“In Ghana”), giving rise to a new form that shows itself to have been shaped and reshaped, by both African and Western influences. Dawuni has contributed to this process, and continues to do so, as his work has also taken him out of Africa, again reversing the reversal, by moving interchangeably across the Atlantic; as a result, he models Africa to the West and the West to Africa. Interviews with the present author confirm that Dawuni’s own views on Selassie have changed, for instance, as he has read and traveled widely (2006; also see Middleton, 2015). Dawuni believes that the Bible confirm’s H. I. M.’s special status, though as an emissary of Jah rather than Jah-in-the-flesh.
Globalization partly accounts for such doctrinal shifts. But so does localization, which frequently takes the form of “reading (scripture and one’s experience) from this place.” For the Rastafari, though, it was ever thus. Its situational and postcolonial biblical hermeneutics, first practiced by Howell and other early leaders, and then chanted by numerous musicians across the years, is still a source of stimulation and liberation. And reggae, as the attention-grabbing soundtrack to the Rastafari’s reclamation of a personhood and agency denied by Babylon, looks set to continue pounding out its heavy bassline, strumming its percussive rhythm guitar on the offbeat, and intoning its Bible-based and uplifting or Jahful vocal harmonies, although to a more restricted extent than that which existed in the final decades of the last century.
- Augustyn, Heather. Ska: An Oral History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2010.
- Barnes, Natasha. “Dancehall Lyricism.” In Music, Writing, and Cultural Unity in the Caribbean, edited by Timothy J. Reiss, pp. 295–312. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2005.
- Barnett, Michael. “From Warieka Hill to Zimbabwe: Exploring the Role of Rastafari in Popularizing Reggae Music.” In Rastafari in the New Millennium: A Rastafari Reader, edited by Michael Barnett, pp. 270–277. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2012a.
- Barnett, Michael, ed. Rastafari in the New Millennium: A Rastafari Reader. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2012b.
- Barrow, Steve, and Peter Dalton. The Rough Guide to Reggae 3. London: Penguin, 2004.
- Bernard, Allan. “A Focus on Sizzla Kalonji: A Leading Influence on a New Generation of Rastafari Youth.” In Rastafari in the New Millennium: A Rastafari Reader, edited by Michael Barnett, pp. 278–288. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2012.
- “The Bible and Bob Marley.” thebibleandbobmarley.wordpress.com.
- Boxill, Ian, ed. The Globalization of Rastafari. Kingston, Jamaica: Arawak, 2008.
- Breiner, Laurence A. “The English Bible in Jamaican Rastafarianism.” Journal of Religious Thought 42, no. 2 (1985–1986): 30–43.
- Bruder, Edith. The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Chin, Timothy S. “ ‘Bullers’ and ‘Battymen’: Contesting Homophobia in Black Popular Culture and Contemporary Caribbean Literature.” Callaloo 20, no. 1 (1997): 127–141.
- Chisholm, Clinton. “The Rasta-Selassie-Ethiopian Connections.” In Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, pp. 166–177. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
- Christensen, Jeanne. Rastafari Reasoning and the RastaWoman: Gender Constructions in the Shaping of Rastafari Livity. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2014.
- Chude-Sokei, Louis. “The Sound of Culture: Dread Discourse and Jamaican Sound Systems.” In Language, Rhythm, & Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joseph K. Adjaye and Adrianne R. Andrews, pp. 185–202. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
- Clarke, Sebastian. Jah Music: The Evolution of the Popular Jamaican Song. London: Heinemann, 1980.
- Cooper, Carolyn. “Chanting Down Babylon: Bob Marley’s Song as Literary Text.” Jamaica Journal 19, no. 4 (1986–1987): 2–8.
- Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.
- Cooper, Carolyn. Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
- Cooper, Carolyn. “ ‘More Fire’: Chanting Down Babylon from Bob Marley to Capleton.” In Music, Writing, and Cultural Unity in the Caribbean, edited by Timothy J. Reiss, pp. 215–236. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2005.
- Cooper, Carolyn, ed. Global Reggae. Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe, 2012.
- Davidson, Steed V. “Leave Babylon: The Trope of Babylon in Rastafarian Discourse.” Black Theology: An International Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 46–60.
- Dawes, Kwame. Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic in Caribbean Writing. Leeds, U.K.: Peepal Tree, 2008.
- Daynes, Sarah. “The Musical Construction of the Diaspora: The Case of Reggae and Rastafari.” In Music, Space and Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity, edited by Sheila Whiteley, Andy Bennett, and Stan Hawkins, pp. 25–41. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004.
- DeCosmo, Jan. “Reggae and Rastafari in Salvador, Bahia: The Caribbean Connection in Brazil.” In Religion, Culture, and Tradition in the Caribbean, edited by Hemchand Gossai and Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, pp. 37–64. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
- Donne, R. D. “ ‘A Place in Which to Feel at Home’: An Exploration of the Rastafari as an Embodiment of an Alternative Spatial Paradigm.” Journal for the Study of Religion 13, no. 1–2 (2000): 99–121.
- Dorman, Jacob S. Chosen People: The Rise of Black Israelite Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Edmonds, Ennis Barrington. Rastafari: From Outcasts to Culture Bearers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Erskine, Noel Leo. From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.
- Erskine, Noel Leo. “The Bible and Reggae: Liberation or Subjugation??” In The Bible in/and Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter, edited by Philip Culbertson and Elaine M. Wainwright, pp. 97–109. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.
- Erskine, Noel Leo. “Women in Rastafari.” In Ethics That Matters: African, Caribbean, and African American Sources, edited by Marcia Y. Riggs and James Samuel Logan, pp. 37–49. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.
- Eyre, L. Alan. “Biblical Symbolism and the Role of Fantasy Geography among the Rastafarians of Jamaica.” Journal of Geography 84, no. 4 (1985): 144–148.
- Farley, Christopher John. Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley. New York: Amistad, 2007.
- Foehr, Stephen. Jamaican Warriors: Reggae, Roots, and Culture. London: Sanctuary, 2000.
- Foster, Chuck. Root, Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall. New York: Billboard, 1999.
- Goldman, Vivien. The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.
- Grant, Colin. The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer. New York: Norton, 2011.
- Hausman, Gerald. The Kebra Nagast: The Lost Bible of Rastafarian Wisdom and Faith from Ethiopia and Jamaica. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.
- Hill, Robert A. Dread History: Leonard P. Howell and Millenarian Visions in the Early Rastafarian Religion. Chicago: Miguel Lorne, 2001.
- Hill, Robert A. The Rastafari Bible: The Essential Collection of Sacred Writings That Inspired a Black Liberation Movement in the African Diaspora. San Francisco: Harper, 2005.
- Hutton, Clinton, and Nathaniel Samuel Murrell. “Rastas’ Psychology of Blackness, Resistance, and Somebodiness.” In Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, pp. 36–54. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
- Jaffe, Rivke, and Jolien Sanderse. “Surinamese Maroons as Reggae Artistes: Music, Marginality, and Urban Space.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 33, no. 9 (2010): 1561–1579.
- “Jah Lyrics: Biblical References.” www.jah-lyrics.com/biblical.
- King, Stephen A. “Protest Music as ‘Ego-Enhancement’: Reggae Music, the Rastafarian Movement, and the Re-Examination of Race and Identity in Jamaica.” In The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, edited by Ian Peddie, pp. 105–118. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006.
- King, Stephen, and Richard J. Jensen. “Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’: The Rhetoric of Reggae and Rastafari.” Journal of Popular Culture 29, no. 3 (Winter 1995): 17–36.
- Klobah, Loretta Collins. “Journeying towards Mount Zion: Changing Representations of Womanhood in Popular Music, Performance Poetry, and Novels by Rastafarian Women.” IDEAZ 7 (2008): 158–196.
- Lake, Obiagele. RastafarI Women: Subordination in the Midst of Liberation Theology. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1998.
- Leeman, Bernard. The Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2005.
- Lewis, Rupert. “Marcus Garvey and the Early Rastafarians: Continuity and Discontinuity.” In Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, pp. 145–158. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
- MacLeod, Erin C. Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
- MacNeil, Dean. The Bible and Bob Marley: Half the Story Has Never Been Told. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2013.
- Middleton, Darren J. N. “Riddim Wise and Scripture Smart: Interview and Interpretation with Ras Benjamin Zephaniah.” In Religion, Culture, and Tradition in the Caribbean, edited by Hemchand Gossai and Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, pp. 257–270. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
- Middleton, Darren J. N. “As It Is in Zion: Seeking the Rastafari in Ghana, West Africa.” Black Theology: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4, no. 2 (2006): 151–172.
- Middleton, Darren J. N. Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2015.
- Middleton, J. Richard. “Identity and Subversion in Babylon: Strategies for ‘Resisting against the System’ in the Music of Bob Marley and the Wailers.” In Religion, Culture, and Tradition in the Caribbean, edited by Hemchand Gossai and Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, pp. 181–205. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
- Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. “Woman as Source of Evil and Containment in Rastafarianism: Championing Hebrew Patriarchy and Oppression with Lev 12.” Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Bible Society 13 (1994): 191–209.
- Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. “Tuning Hebrew Psalms to Reggae Rhythms: Rastas’ Revolutionary Lamentations for Social Change.” CrossCurrents 50, no. 4 (Winter 2000–2001): 525–540.
- Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel, and Lewin Williams. “The Black Biblical Hermeneutics of Rastafari.” In Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, pp. 326–348. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
- Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, eds. Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
- Palmer, Delano Vincent. Messianic “I” and Rastafari in New Testament Dialogue: Bio-Narratives, the Apocalypse, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2010.
- Pollard, Velma. Dread Talk: The Language of Rastafari. Rev. ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000.
- Post, Ken. “The Bible as Ideology: Ethiopianism in Jamaica, 1930–38.” In African Perspectives, edited by Christopher Allen and R. W. Johnson, pp. 185–207. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
- Raboteau, Emily. Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013.
- Savishinsky, Neil J. “Transnational Popular Culture and the Global Spread of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement.” In Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion, edited by Morton Klass and Maxine K. Weisgrau, pp. 347–366. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1999.
- Steffens, Roger. “Bob Marley: Rasta Warrior.” In Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, pp. 253–265. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
- Sterling, Marvin D. Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010.
- Stolzoff, Norman. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.
- Taylor, Patrick. “Sheba’s Song: The Bible, the Kebra Nagast, and the Rastafari.” In Nation Dance: Religion, Identity, and Cultural Difference in the Caribbean, edited by Patrick Taylor, pp. 65–78. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
- Toynbee, Jason. Bob Marley: Herald of a Postcolonial World?? Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2007.
- Ullendorff, Edward. Ethiopia and the Bible. London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1968.
- White, Timothy. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley. New York: Macmillan, 1998.
- “Words of Wisdom.” homepage.ntlworld.com/davebulow/wow/index.htm.
- Yamauchi, Edwin M. Africa and the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004.
- Zips, Werner, ed. Rastafari: A Universal Philosophy in the Third Millennium. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2006.
Darren J. N. Middleton