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Many Rivers to Cross: The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric (part II)

Many Rivers to Cross: The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric (part II)

Many Rivers to Cross: The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric (part II)

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"Garvey’s vision of a unified Black nation and an African homeland was woven into the texture of the reggae lyric. Garvey was thus elevated to the status of a cultural hero and prophet by songwriters such as Culture in The Two Sevens Clash"

Chapter II - Exile in Babylon

"By the Rivers of Babylon" (another song that made it to the Top Ten in Israel) is a reworking of Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion
But the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song
In a strange land? (Story of Jamaican Music 3:8)

The Melodians, using the language of the King James Bible, transformed the experience of the Jewish exiles in Babylon into a statement about the Jamaican condition during the Seventies.
Rastafarians separated by geography and history from the man who was prophesied by Marcus Garvey in one of his speeches: “Look to Africa for your king!” sought an explanation for their dilemma and found it in the Books of Jeremiah, Lamentations and the Psalms (Owens 18). When Selassie ascended the throne in 1930, Marcus Garvey was thus seen as a prophet, a Moses returned and became a revered figure in Rastafarian theology. And the reason should be obvious. Garvey in his many speeches and proposals was the first Black leader to outline a plan for Black self-improvement, liberation based on repatriation to Africa. In other words, he outlined a coherent philosophy that on the one hand, had a foundation of raising self-esteem within the Black community and a practical means of achieving that goal. Garvey’s vision of a unified Black nation and an African homeland was woven into the texture of the reggae lyric. Garvey was thus elevated to the status of a cultural hero and prophet by songwriters such as Culture in “The Two Sevens Clash”:

My good old prophet Marcus Garvey prophesize and say:
‘St. Jago de la Vega and Kingston is gonna meet’
And I can see with mine own eyes
It's only a housing scheme that divide (Story of Jamaican Music 3:10)

The loss of Paradise, according to Rasta logic occurred because Jamaicans, and African in the New World2, were guilty of a sin of omission--that is, they failed to recognize Selassie as earth’s rightful ruler and they sold Marcus Garvey into the hands of Babylon. Jamaicans had transgressed against the King of Creation and therefore broken the covenant of having no other gods before JAH and had distorted the true history of Black people. Steel Pulse in “Not King James Version” explains further the loss of this homeland:

In Esau’s chapter of history
So little mention of you and me
We rulers of kingdoms and dynasties
Explored this Earth for centuries
Phoenicians, Egyptians, and the Moors
Built civilization, that’s for sure
Creators of the alphabet
While the West illiterate (Smash Hits)

Jamaicans and all Black people, as the true Israelites, by forsaking the King of Kings and the Lords of Lords, were paying the price for their broken covenant with the King of Creation, so they would now suffer humiliation and exile in modern Babylon, which Rastafarians interpret as our Western capitalistic system of exploitation that puts profits above principles. Marley uses the image of a vampire to show the debilitating effects of living in “Babylon System”: “Me say the Babylon system is a vampire/Sucking the blood of the sufferers” (Songs of Freedom 4:8). There is no reformation of Babylon and to describe the coming destruction of Babylon, Rastas draw heavily on the apocalyptic language of the books of Daniel and Revelation because “the time of tribulation” is a precursor to the final battle of good over evil (Armageddon) that results in the return to Paradise. Songs such as “Armageddon Time” and “Joggin” by Freddie McGregor welcome the coming conflagration for it means deliverance from Babylon. The only way to escape the coming wrath of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords is to escape from the clutches of Babylon. Yet only a remnant of Black people will survive as Bob Andy reminds us in a lyric reminiscent of the Jewish Passover: “If the sign is on your door, /then you will be saved for sure” (Fire Burning).

Soon online on United Reggae, the third part of Geoffrey Philp’s analysis "Many Rivers to Cross": The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric. Stay connected !

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