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The Rastafari Memeplex

The Rastafari Memeplex

The Rastafari Memeplex

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The struggle over the symbols of Rastafari is of enormous interest particularly as it relates to the use of violence or violent images in Jamaica.

"A group of Rastafarians, who feel that dancehall artiste Munga's promotion of himself as "the Gangsta Ras" with attendant image, is a perversion of the integrity of Rastafari, say they intend to pursue the use of intellectual property protocols to protect and preserve the culture and symbols from misuse." Jamaica Observer (July 30, 2007)

Although the current crisis within Rastafari over the use of the "Gangsta Ras" image has been problematic, the controversy surrounding the issue has been exacerbated by the passing of the "generational baton." As an author who has created Rastafari characters and someone who attempts to understand the meaning of experience especially within the Jamaican/Caribbean context, the struggle over the symbols of Rastafari is of enormous interest particularly as it relates to the use of violence or violent images in Jamaica. For while the emergence of "Gangsta Ras" is disturbing, it would be disingenuous to ignore because Rastafari was born out of violence.

According to Joseph Owens in Dread, his seminal study of Rastafari: "In December 1933 Leonard P. Howell was arrested for using "seditious language and blasphemous language…to boost the sale of the pictures of "King Ras Tafari of Abyssinia, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba" (14). Leonard P. Howell, the founder of Rastafari in Jamaica, was ultimately sentenced to two years imprisonment on the charges of "sedition and blasphemy" (Owens 26). Thus from its inception, Rastafari has been the subject of violence, and during its evolution, the movement has shown characteristics that ethologists such as Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976) would define as a "high variance" memeplex. Basically a meme is a unit of information and a memeplex is a cluster of ideas/memes that aggregate around a subject. Although there has been some debate over the biological/chemical basis of memes, as Dawkins contends, I like to think of a meme as metaphor for understanding the relationship between people and information, and how that information is transmitted among people, groups, and over time.

The current memeplex of Rastafari began when Leonard P. Howell and "many hundreds of Rastas"(Owens 19) in Pinnacle, St. Catherine, Jamaica, continued with their proclamation:

Haile Selassie, Ras Tafari, was the "Son of God" come to govern all mankind.

As the meme spread quickly through Jamaica, especially among the poor, it attracted several other memes that had been present in the culture, but did not have the centripetal attraction of the image of Rastafari. One of the earliest memes that contributed to the explosive growth Rastafari meme was the inclusion of Marcus Mosiah Garvey as a prophet or as “John the Baptist reincarnate” (Owen 25). The connection between Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Marcus Garvey's UNIA, Jamaica’s history within Plantation America, which included the importation of Asians after the failed Apprenticeship period, and the nascent liberation struggles in Africa gave rise to complex (and sometimes contradictory) memes within Rastafari:

The use of marijuana as a sacrament
Wearing of locks and the Nazarite vow
Use of the King James Version, Apocrypha, and other sacred texts
Use of reasoning to discern truth
Black people as the Lost Tribe of Israel
Connection between the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the months of the year
Black people as the true Israelites
Superiority of the Black man
Divinity of Haile Selassie and Black people
Divinity/Unity of all mankind: One God, One Aim, One Destiny.
Opposition to Babylon (authority)
Rejection of victimhood and personal agency
Creation of a metaphysical identity of InI rather than one based on race, class, or creed
Voice of the poor, dispossessed, and disenfranchised
Creation of the term InI to signify the connection between Jah Rastafari ("I") and the individual ("I")
The inviolability of personal experience.

Rastafari's sustainability, sometimes in the face of the harshest persecution by colonial and postcolonial authorities ("Babylon"), has been largely due to its insistence on the individual interpretation of Rastafari and its tolerance for individual revelation in the brethren's ostensible acceptance with a nod, passing of the chalice, and outreach to anyone who but says the name of Rastafari. Also, because Rastafari does not have a central governing body, the Opposition to Babylon meme has given rise to ascetic (Boboshanti) and proactive (Coptic) interpretations.

The spread of Rastafari was also aided by the rise of Reggae that came with its own memeplex:

Praise for love and sex
Voice of the poor, disenfranchised, and dispossessed.
Rebellion against authority
The equality of all humanity: equal rights and justice
Appeal to the moral imagination
Positive (upful) social messages
Use of the King James Bible

It may be useful of think of Rastafari, which began as a movement to proclaim the divinity of Haile Selassie, and Reggae, a musical form that evolved from Mento, Ska, and Rocksteady, as expressions of the Jamaican ethos, and these similarities made them virtually indistinguishable because many of the Reggae songwriters were Rastafari.

As in the early days of Buddhism and Christianity which spread along trade routes, Rastafari and Reggae spread along the modern drug trade routes, and because of the championing of the cause of the poor and dispossessed, rebellion against authority, and the unique combination of politics, sex, religion, justice, and equal rights, it became the music of the young and powerless in the Caribbean and throughout the world. For if you could dance, chant, smoke weed, make love, and change the world by bringing down Babylon, then, "Wheel and come again, my selector!"

All of these changes have been happening within Rastafari for the past seventy years and because of its close association with Reggae, the tensions between the purely religious meme of Rastafari, and the economic interests of Reggae/Dancehall artistes who are Rastafari were almost inevitable. Added to the geographical and temporal displacement within the memeplex of Rastafari, the struggle will continue and some may attempt, as with the lawsuit against "Gangsta Ras" to form a centralized body of Rastafari. Yet this would be in direct contradiction to Rastafari's validation of individuality.

Also, from all appearances, it would seem as if the "Gangsta Ras" image exploits the meme of Opposition to Babylon and has taken the approach of the Nyahbinghi. Ras Munga’s decision, as a Rastafari and commercial artiste, has most likely been based on the following factors:

Commercial success of hip-hop culture's glamorization of violence
Mainstream American media's inability to deliver hardcore sex, so it delivers hardcore violence
The specter of AIDS

"Gangsta Ras" if it can produce danceable music, successfully exploit the "opposition to Babylon" meme within Rastafari by appealing to the sense of injustice and social inequality in Jamaica and the Caribbean, and asserting that violence is the only alternative against the forces of oppression ("Babylon") may become a commercial success. Indeed, Ras Munga may even have the precedent of some of Bob Marley's songs that were chanted by freedom fighters in Africa; "And brothers you're right, you're right, you're right, you're so right/ We'll have to fight, we'll have to fight, fighin for our rights" ("Zimbabwe"). But Marley's songs were never a glorification of violence for violence’s sake and they were always directed against authorities that used physical and psychological violence against the oppressed. Violence was always a last resort as Marley explained in an interview that seemed to posit Rastafari as the opposite to violence:

I wanna tell ya: if them want to win the revolution, them have to win it with Rasta.' Cause if you win another way, you have to go fight again. When you're Rasta and you win, there's no more war.

With so many meanings and memes, Rastafari will evolve as the adherents adapt the message to meet their needs. This has happened with nearly every spiritual movement and Rastafari is no different. What can only be answered in the heart, soul and mind, balanced against the human need for seemingly shared spiritual experiences, may precipitate a human response to the question, what is Rastafari? And the answer may just be, there is no one Rastafari, but many Rastafari.

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