The rise of Jamaican icon Mutabaruka and his journey from Catholicism to Rastafari

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A report by Michael Eli Dokosi for Face 2 Face Africa.

Mutabaruka, born Allan Hope on December 26, 1952, in Rae Town, Jamaica, rose to fame with his dub poetry which touched on critical issues as well as his popular radio programs, The Cutting Edge and Steppin’ Razor. Mutabaruka’s name is inspired by the Rwandan language Kinyarwanda, which means “one who is always victorious.”

Mutabaruka enrolled at the Kingston Technical High School where he trained in electronics for four years before being employed by Jamaican Telephone Company Ltd, quitting in 1971. He became interested in the Rastafari movement and converted from Catholicism while a teenager. His outspoken statements on theology have generated controversy even among Rastafarians.

His 1983 release “Check It” was released on Chicago blues label Alligator Records. In 2008, Mutabaruka was featured as part of the Jamaica episode of the television program Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

The blunt and assertive ital diet man has treated topics spanning poverty, racism, sexism, religion, politics, culture, black liberation, social oppression and discrimination in his written and spoken poetry, as well as, radio shows, having been drawn into the black awareness movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Mutabaruka’s words are as potent on paper as on CD and in 1973, he formed the band Truth, his first attempt to combine his words with music.

After the publication of his collection, Outcry, in 1973, Mutabaruka earned fans in the literary world. He then released the poem “Wailin’,” dedicated to Bob Marley, and written around Wailers song titles. Two years later, Sun and Moon, a shared volume of poetry with Faybiene, followed and it was loved by many.

In 1977, Mutabaruka returned to the stage and gave several live performances. Alongside the nyabinghi-fueled group Light of Saba, the poet recorded a version of his poem “Outcry” the following year, which became a Jamaican hit.

His debut at Reggae Sunsplash was captured for posterity in a live album released in 1982 and it is this performance that brought Mutabaruka to international attention.

“Mutabaruka also struck a distribution deal with the American RAS label, and cemented the partnership with the ferocious The Mystery Unfolds album in 1986. Self-produced and featuring a host of guest musicians and vocalists, including Marcia Griffiths and Ini Kamoze, Mystery was totally uncompromising,” writes allmusic.com. One of the tracks, “Dis Poem,” was included in the definitive The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature.

Gradually, Mutabaruka established himself as both a literary and musical giant, both in Jamaica and abroad. People looked up to his Reggae Sunsplash appearances in 1987 and 1988, and he was on point during both years.

The man inspired by Malcolm X earned more Reggae Sunsplash festival invites in 1991, 1993 and 1994. He mounted the stage also in 1995 and 1996. 1994 also saw the launch of Mutabaruka’s own Jamaican radio show on the IRIE-FM station.

The man who stopped wearing shoes as he became a Rastafari, gave a lecture at Stanford University in 2000 on the difference between education and indoctrination. In 2001, he was a narrator for filmmaker Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt, a documentary about the impact of global economic policy and the IMF on the economy and people of Jamaica. The title song “Life and Debt” was released on Mutabaruka’s 2002 album Life Squared.

In 2007, he taught African-American studies at Merritt College in California and has lectured and performed at many establishments in Jamaica and the United States.

For his tremendous work in the field of arts, Mutabaruka was, in February 2010, honored by the National Centre for Youth Development (NCYD) and the Rotaract Club of Mandeville. That same year, he was recognized by Senegal with a hut built in his honor.

Mutabaruka, who recited a tribute poem in honor of Lucky Dube in September 2010, was recognized by the Jamaican government six years later for his cultural contributions. In 2016, the government awarded him the Order of Distinction, Commander Class, which is one of the highest distinctions in the country.

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