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Chant Down Babylon Tells the Rastafarian Story
By Howard Campbell, IPS, 21 January 1999
KINGSTON, Jan 21 (IPS) - For almost 70 years Rastafari has had a love-hate relationship with Jamaican society. Now that acrimonious bond is analysed in "Chant Down Babylon", a novel which claims to give an unbiased view of the religion and raises questions about the movement's relevance going into the 21st century.
The book features essays from 21 writers who cover various facets of Rastafarianism. It is a variety that has reportedly made "Chant Down Babylon" a popular buy since its release last year.
"Chant Down Babylon" was published by the Temple University Press in Philadelphia, the same institution which released the historical "Reggae Routes" in early 1998.
Unlike "Reggae Routes" which delved into the background of Jamaican music, Rastafari - its roots, social relevance and complexities - is given a thorough looking over from Jamaican and foreign scholars in "Chant Down Babylon".
The book was conceived by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, three American scholars who collaborated on the project with Clinton Chisholm, a Jamaican theologian, over a four-year period.
Their research is complemented by equally intriguing pieces from University of the West Indies' intellectuals Rex Nettleford, Barry Chevannes and Rupert Lewis, each an authority on Rastafarian doctrine.
The result is a fascinating read, particularly the passages that survey the Rastafarian ideology and its influence on the black majority in colonial Jamaica.
Chevannes' contribution credits Rastafari with having a strong bearing in ridding Jamaica of its misconceptions about the black person while at the same time instilling racial pride and challenging the European concept of the bible.
"The Black Biblical Hermeneutics of Rastafari" tracks the black man's presence in the bible and is arguably the most intriguing chapter in "Chant Down Babylon". (For the Rastafarian, the term Babylon covers the western world, the church and government as agents of imperialism).
It reveals the Rastafarian's method of tracing former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's (the Rastafarian god) lineage to a tryst between Israel's King Solomon and the Egyptian queen, Sheba.
But it is not all kudos. Some passages question the relevance of the dreadlocked sect in contemporary society even though Rastafarianism is said to be more vibrant than ever before, with more than one million followers worldwide.
One of those essays, "Rastawoman as Rebel," is especially compelling with the author presenting an intimate look at a male-dominated movement.
Imani M. Tafari-Ama, the author, touches on sensitive topics such as the role of women in Rastafari and how the male responds to their growing influence.
Tafari-Ama also discusses issues which have proven critical to the existence of the Rastafarian family, including the Rasta woman's growing sense of independence.
Lewis - whose contribution to "Chant Down Babylon", is an informative look at Marcus Garvey's relationship with the movement - believes that while Rastafarianism remains relevant to the Jamaican society going into the new millennium, it has lost ground in recent years. Much of the teachings of Rastafarianism is said to be based on the writings of Garvey.
"At the moment, Rasta is redefining itself, it's going through an inter-generational change," said Lewis who agreed with Tafari-Ama that it is the woman who has kept Rastafarianism relevant.
"The female Rastas are much more progressive, they're more pragmatic and less doctrinal," he pointed out. "On the other hand, the men have not been on the cutting edge; they have been disappointing."
It was the black conscious message of the Rasta man that attracted people like Chevannes and Lewis to the movement in the early 1960s when it was gathering momentum in Kingston.
Rastafari originated in the 1930s in west Kingston, then a sprawling fishing village comprised of shanties. It was also a haven for undesirables which is exactly what Rastafarianism was considered to be back then.
But the Rastafarian's fierce support for Selassie's embattled people against Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini's armies endeared them to militant youth in the late 1930s when firebrand figures like Leonard Howell and Claudius Henry began proclaiming Selassie as the black man's God, and championed talk of a return to Africa in mass numbers.
The contributions of Howell and Henry are documented in "Chant Down Babylon," so too are the efforts of Mortimo Planno arguably the most effective bearer of the Rastafarian message in Jamaica. Planno, who was part of a fact-finding mission to Africa in the early 1900s, had a strong influence on Bob Marley, the music icon who introduced reggae and Rastafarianism to an international following.
Reggae, as well as Marley's role in the spread of Rastafarianism on all continents, is covered in detail by contributors including Marley archivist Roger Steffens.
Rupert Lewis believes it is the absence of a strong patriarchal figure in the Planno/Marley mould that threatens the Rastafarian influence going into the 21st century.
"There's no doubt Rasta is going to be around, it's no longer just a black thing, it's worldwide," he said. "But I see the women carrying the movement in the 21st century."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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