The True Story of Rastafari

rasta-howell-mural

Many thanks to Olive Senior for sharing Lucy McKeon’s “The True Story of Rastafari.” Here are excerpts—I highly recommend reading the full article at The New York Review of Books.

In the postcard view of Jamaica, Bob Marley casts a long shadow. Though he’s been dead for thirty-five years, the legendary reggae musician is easily the most recognizable Jamaican in the world—the primary figure in a global brand often associated with protest music, laid-back, “One Love” positivity, and a pot-smoking counterculture. And since Marley was an adherent of Rastafari, the social and spiritual movement that began in this Caribbean island nation in the 1930s, his music—and reggae more generally—have in many ways come to be synonymous with Rastafari in the popular imagination.

For Jamaica’s leaders, Rastafari has been an important aspect of the country’s global brand. Struggling with sky-high unemployment, vast inequality, and extreme poverty (crippling debt burdens from IMF agreements haven’t helped the situation), they have relied on Brand Jamaica—the government’s explicit marketing push, beginning in the 1960s—to attract tourist dollars and foreign investment to the island. The government-backed tourist industry has long encouraged visitors to Come to Jamaica and feel all right; and in 2015, the country decriminalized marijuana—creating a further draw for foreigners seeking an authentic Jamaican experience. The Jamaica Property Office (JIPO), part of the government’s larger Jamaican Promotions Agency (JAMPRO), works to protect the country’s name and trademarks from registration by outside entities with no connection to Jamaican goods and services. Meanwhile, Brand Jamaica is being exploited globally too, with billions of dollars of revenue generated each year from Rasta-themed products—from clothing and headphones to pipes, even energy drinks.

Yet it can be hard to reconcile the image sold to the world with local realities—not to mention the original politics and principles of the Rastafari movement. Rastafari began not simply as a form of countercultural expression or fringe religious belief. It involved a fight for justice by disenfranchised Jamaicans, peasant laborers and the urban underemployed alike, in what was then a British colony. In the 1930s, the Rastafari established a self-sufficient community to put their beliefs into practice. Almost eighty years later, the people Marley’s music spoke to—members of Jamaica’s “sufferah” underclass—continue to live in deep poverty, while the redemptive social organization the movement sought to create has been largely forgotten.

Nowhere has this irony been more evident than on the issue of marijuana itself. For decades, Rastafari were persecuted by the Jamaican government for their use of cannabis in rituals, and their efforts to cultivate it; now for the first time Rastafari can legally grow and use cannabis for sacramental purposes (to grow it commercially requires a license from the state that involves considerable expense—typically beyond the means of the movement’s rank-and-file). The country now has an opportunity to profit from the marijuana industry. Meanwhile, descendants of the original Rasta community are in danger of losing what remains of the land in central Jamaica where their movement began. [. . .]

For full review, see http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/01/06/the-true-story-of-rastafari/

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