It’s Jamaica 1995 and it’s Hip to be Rasta
by Howard Campbell
Buju Banton cries out for divine help in “God of my Salvation”; Capleton gives assurance that the Emperor still sits on the throne with the constant reminder that “Selassie liveth every time,” while Garnet Silk’s equally prolific shouts of “Jah Rastafari” have given the proclamation Bob Marley made internationally famous new flavor.
Such are the lyrics of cultural change that have been blaring through the speakers of Jamaica’s dance halls in recent times, replacing the gun and ribald lyrics of the DJs that dominated for the greater part of a decade. The cultural rebirth in the dance halls has also sparked a second coming of the Rastafari religion that traces its roots back to the late 1950s and which gained worldwide prominence in the 1970s with the international emergence of the dreadlocked Marley.
Buju’s new found faith has been wholly accepted by the youth with whom he can do no wrong. The same can be said of fellow DJ Capleton and charismatic singer Silk, one of the forerunners of the revival. Their impact is there for all to see. It’s in vogue to wear locks again. It’s even cool to openly acknowledge Jah without fear of being ridiculed. It’s Jamaica 1995 and it’s hip to be Rasta. Whether a “God of my Salvation” will hold relevance as a “Roof Over my Head” 10 years from now is left to be seen. That could all depend on whether Buju and Capleton decide to forsake their still growing locks and Rasta rhetoric for the latest “talk,” or look, in the coming months.
While the skeptics abound, there are others who are not surprised by the resurgence of positive material. Among that group is guitarist Stephen “Cat” Coore of Third World, a band whose middle-class members’ acceptance of Rastafari typified society’s thinking in the 1970s.
“It was always in the cards after the DJs had exhausted the gun and sex thing,” says Coore. “What’s going on now is the logical move.” As far as the embracing of Rastafari goes, Coore does not think it’s a passing fancy. “It’s not a fad, Rasta has relevance to all ears. It’s not a cult, it’s a feeling.”
Ironically, you are more likely to hear a Top 40 Lovers Rock-type ballad from Third World these days while most of their contemporaries have long been put to pasture. Unlike their Rocksteady counterparts, who have once again stepped into the limelight due to a revival of vintage music, the Rasta exponents of two decades ago have little hope of rising again, even in these days of kinte caps and Selassie badges.
The difference between Rasta culture in the 1970s and the current hype can be seen in the influences of change. Twenty years ago, the revolutionary power of Marley’s message reached an entire generation and transformed Jamaica’s longstanding British traditions to one of black consciousness, hence the growing black middle-class that now exists.
Today’s Rasta practitioners subscribe to that middle-class, and in some instances the bottom rung of the social ladder, many still being linked to the numerous gangs responsible for a crime rate that shows no signs of abating. Still, says Coore, the new direction of the DJs could see changes for the better. “I’m glad to see them focusing on positive lyrics. They’ve got the world sound, and that’s something the youths are attracted to.”
Noted Jamaican musicologist Dermot Hussey agrees with Coore that the Rastafari influence will forever be a part of Reggae music, but doubts the present stars will have as great an impact as their predecessors. “The Rasta influence will always remain because Reggae is a protest music,” says Hussey. “But unlike the ’70s, Rasta is being swamped by Rap and other American influences, which is one of the reasons why the influence can never be as powerful as 20 years ago.”
This proves to be an accurate statement. With the majority of Jamaicans having access to the trappings of North American glamour through the satellite dish or Cable TV, youngsters are willing to look to a Michael Jordan rather than a Brian Lara (cricket star) for hero worship, or more appropriately, enjoy the smooth tones of an R. Kelly ballad just as much as they would be rocking to the latest Buju hit.
That was not the case two decades ago when Marley’s challenges came from personalities similar to his, for example football star Allan Cole. But then, a diehard Rasta will more than likely tell you he or she didn’t grow his or her locks to win a personality contest, which is why one of the new breed of dreadlocks entertainers should have the last word.
Angie Angel, who began her career belting out X-rated lyrics, exchanged her bawdy material for “uplifting lyrics” when she converted to Rastafari last year. She thinks the more tolerant, new wave crowd will see to the prolonged popularity of the rebirth of her religion. “In the ’70s, people thought Rasta was the worst, but today they are more culturally aware and willing to listen,” she said. “What’s happening now is the revealing of the Bible.”