Saturday, December 21, 2002

"This religion, with its own set of highly ignorant, Taliban-type fanatics, is a threat to organised societies around the world. In our time, it has become a great obstacle to the advancement of logical and critical thinking, especially among the black man."

Michael Dingwall is a brave fella to argue in today's Observer that Rastafarianism is "obsolete".

And by coincidence just yesterday I was reading a detailed essay on "The Fiya Burn Controversy" by Gregory Stephens in the online magazine Jahworks. Stephens examines the evolution of the concept of "fire" in Jamaican reggae & dancehall music from a metaphor for spiritual purification to an imperative to destroy anything by which the performers & their mass audience feel threatened — homosexuals, Christianity, Western civilisation, & other manifestations of "Babylon".

If this sounds alarmist, just remember the attack on the Catholic cathedral in Castries on 2 January, 2001, in which two Rastas set fire to several worshippers & to the priest celebrating Mass, & clubbed an elderly Irish nun to death — prompted, apparently, by a vision of Haile Selassie. "Fiya Bun fi real now," says Stephens.

"This is a problem not confined to the dancehall, but is part of a much broader tendency.... Trying to destroy those we disagree with, or those who are merely different, has become a way of life."

Stephens thinks the time has come for "the fair-skinned people" — fans outside Jamaica, who put the most royalty money in the pockets of dancehall performers — to "claim a place in the culture":

"...I’ve made this argument on historical grounds, including the evolution of Rasta as a part of a history of international and multi-racial freedom movements in which the notions of 'Black liberation' and 'multi-racial redemption' ('One Love') co-exist. For Europeans to go on acting like outsiders to the culture (or accepting that definition), merely praising 'the black man’s culture,' seems to be yet another form of mental slavery. When we develop enough wisdom to claim this as our culture too, this brings a new set of responsibilities. Which means, in my view, that if we are going to be part of Sizzla’s fan base, then we need to find ways to engage Sizzla in dialogue about his attitudes.... Sizzla’s predominantly European audience truly doesn’t need to be afraid of the fire, because if they check the roots of the historical struggle for equal rights and justice, they will find it has always been a multi-ethnic, international movement. So wouldn’t it be just if we began to expect artists like Sizzla to begin acknowledging our presence in his artistic vision?"

I'm afraid this sounds almost quixotically deluded to me. The enmity that roils in the dancehall lyrics Stephens quotes is the product of social forces deeply entrenched in some Caribbean societies; "dialogue" between dancehall performers & their well-meaning liberal fans can have no real effect on the horrible facts of life in places like the garrisons of Kingston. Stephens is right to point to the bright sparks of tolerance & love within the Rastafarian movement, but also right to acknowledge the great threat of corrupting hatred.

"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds." The truth is that most who self-righteously quote these famous Marley lyrics haven't even begun to understand what the words really mean.

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