Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rock Steady

Confessions of a Fashion Victim

In an effort to cool down during the boiling Japanese summer, and pay tribute to my reggae heroes - King Tubby, Tapper Zukie, The Congos, U-Roy - last July I purchased a vest proclaiming the legend ‘Jah Rastafari’.

This refers, of course, to Jamaica’s Rastafarian religion, which originated in the 60s as a fringe movement celebrating African roots. It proclaims a biblical belief in the messianic qualities of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

But as an atheistic materialist who rejects non-rational explanations of phenomena - including religious dogma - was I wrong to purchase and wear this product?

Surprisingly, none of my friends took issue with my fashion choice, even though Rastafarianism proclaims the kind of goofy beliefs which they know I could never subscribe to.

They include the dubious notion that Haile Selassie was God incarnate and that his 1975 death was a hoax designed to hoodwink non-believers.

Many Rastas still believe that Selassie will one day return to liberate his followers, counting themselves as physical immortalists. They insist that only the 'chosen few' will continue to live forever in their physical bodies. Parallels with numerous religions and loony cliques here.

The most celebrated example of this is Bob Marley's refusal to make a will despite his impending death from cancer. An attachment to such worldly concerns would have meant Marley was - unlike we lesser mortals - abandoning himself to death, thus forgoing his chance at ever-living life. As if Bob wasn't already assured of immortality through his musical innovations.

I imagine Marley's religious dogmatism didn’t go over too well with those who had to withstand the resulting legal controversy over the distribution of his fortune, including a lengthy court battle with Bunny Wailer – Bob’s friend and band mate – which the Marley family eventually won.

Women might also have reason to feel aggrieved at Rastafarianism. In its early years, it famously demanded that females be subordinated and excluded from religious and social ceremonies, especially during menstruation when they were regarded as ‘unclean’.

Times have changed and Rasta women now have far more freedom to express themselves. But when I was a student and rabid reggae fan, this nonsensical belief jarred with my liberal philosophy.

The Rastafarian principle of repatriation to Africa also seems dodgy to me, partly because of the financial and logistical difficulty of relocating thousands of Rastas, but also because - according to my research - only a moderate trickle of Rastafarian immigrants have ever repatriated to their 'spiritual homeland' - Shashemene in central Ethiopia. Since 1966, when Haile Selassie extended an open invitation, fewer than 200 Rastafarians have settled there.

However, despite its barmy side, there’s also something to admire in Rastafarianism.

Like all religious beliefs, its teachings should be viewed in their historical context and understood as symbolic rather than literal.

Rastas say that Jah, in the form of the Holy Spirit, exists within every person. Thus they often refer to themselves as "I and I". It's a phrase I've always admired though rarely used at the risk of sounding like a complete prat. It just doesn't sound the same delivered in a West Midlands accent.

I reject misguidedly literal interpretations of religious ideas, but on a metaphoric, poetic level I’m in full agreement with my Rasta brothers and sisters that brotherhood and godhood live in everyone, and it's up to each of us to bring it forth.

I also generally agree with Rastafarians’ celebration of ‘Ital’ (Vital) food, the idea that food should be natural with no chemically modified or artificial additives. In this sense, Rastas were ahead of the trend for vegetarianism and organic food which took off during the 1970s, and which makes even more sense in the context of global warming, overfishing and the depletion of natural resources.

In addition, Rastas’ rejection of western society (or, "Babylon") doesn’t seem entirely unsound when you look at the chaos of modern life and the prevalence of greed, wage slavery and consumerism.

Rastas espouse a peaceful lifestyle which proclaims ONE LOVE. For most, their philosophy is not a "religion" at all, but rather a "way of life". Most do not claim any sect or denomination, encouraging their brethren to find faith and inspiration within themselves.

One way to do this is by enjoying the more than occasional 'ital' spliff.

The spiritual use of cannabis is a well-known preference among Rastafari, and as an occasional partaker of the sacred herb I have to say - health issues aside - what’s wrong with that?

It's not for everyone, but it's way more righteous than most religious practices I could name. Unlike certain spiritual maniacs I doubt you’ll see Rastas committing any heinous acts of terror. They’ll be far too busy chillin’ over the chalice and shaking their natty dreads to some irresistible riddims.

Obviously there’s a huge Rasta influence in Jamaican music, and if you're a fan, this is the clincher: the thousands of inspiring albums, singles and 'version' which have been committed to vinyl in the name of Jah.

For me, Roots is where it’s at, and I'm sure I’ll never stop loving the seriously righteous riddims of U-Roy, Tapper Zukie and their brethren. Their message of love and peaceful co-existence is simple and direct, and is delivered over some of the most groovy, intoxicating vibes ever recorded.

So let I and I rock steady, and if you don’t mind, continue to proclaim "Jah Rastafari" in a spirit of love and unity.

Max Romeo & The Congos - Give Praises:


Cushion Meg said...

Hi shiffi, I listened to the video you put. the groovy, intoxicating vibes penetrates my broken heart!It eases me.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Glad to hear it, Meg. Now go out and buy 'Heart of the Congos' by The Congos - you won't regret it!

Cushion Meg said...

Okay, I'll buy it.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, you may not be guilty of contradicting any of your liberal philosophy by having bought this t-shirt, but as a fashion article - now that's a different kettle of fish.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hi Anonymous.

I must admit you are not the first person to have made this observation. And I'll further admit that you might have a good point there!!