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Many Rivers to Cross: The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric

Many Rivers to Cross: The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric

Many Rivers to Cross: The Theme of the Diaspora in the Reggae Lyric

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"Whether the theme of the paradise, exile and return is interpreted literally or metaphorically, the idea remains one of the major motifs in the development of the reggae lyric."

Jamaican music from its earliest recognizable forms such as ska and rock steady has drawn many of its themes from the language and imagery of the King James Bible.

The creative interplay between song lyrics and the Old Testament, as evidenced by the ska inspired “Six and Seven Books of Moses” by Toots and the Maytals and the dancehall flavored “Til Shiloh” by Buju Banton, was amplified by the rise of Rastafarianism in Jamaica. One of the implications of this nexus between Rastafarianism and the work of songwriters such as Burning Spear, Bob Andy and Bob Marley was their insistence in giving voice to the plight of the dispossessed by using the prophetic discourse of the Bible. As the critic Kwame Dawes points out, “Rastafarian ideology provided a clear and appealing cosmolology for the reggae artist with highly metaphorical, frequently poetic discourse which fed easily into a working class discourse that was already rich in proverbial and Biblical resonance” (100). Another implication was that songwriters such as Dennis Brown and Bunny Wailer, who based their lyrics on the King James Bible and the beliefs of Rastafarianism, envisioned their home in Africa. Rastafarians, whose theology is derived in part from the King James Bible, accepted the pattern of paradise, exile (wilderness) and return, a dominant pattern in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, (Pearson 73) and the work of many reggae songwriters allude to this pattern that forms the basis of their work. This importance of this pattern gains added poignancy when we examine Jamaican music (Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae) because the archetypal pattern of loss, exile and return is colored by a history of slavery, colonialism and economic privation. Whether the theme of the paradise, exile and return is interpreted literally or metaphorically, the idea remains one of the major motifs in the development of the reggae lyric.

Chapter I - Africa: The Lost Paradise

Africa and the loss of the fatherland have always been central subjects of Jamaican music. One of the earliest examples is found in the lyrics of a song every Jamaican knows by heart, “Satta Massagana” by The Abyssinians. “Satta massagana ahamlack ulaghiize” is Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia) and means “Give thanks and praise to God continually” (Reggae Lyric Archive). Even a cursory review of the lyrics reveals the songwriter’s indebtedness to the King James Bible and the influence of Rastafarianism.

There is a land far, far away
Where there’s no night, there’s only day
Look into the book of life and you will see
That there’s a land far, far away
That there’s a land far, far away.
The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords
Sits upon his throne and He rules us all
Look into the book of life and you will see
That He rules us all
That He rules us all.
Satta Massagana ahamlack, ulaghize
Satta Massagana ahamlack, ulaghize ulaghize. (Satta Amassagana)

Rastafarians believe in the divinity of Haile Selassie I, “The King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” who was a direct descendant of King David through the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Owens 18). On his coronation in 1930, the chief or Ras of his people, Tafari Mekonnen took the title as the “King of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Owens 18). The connection between this event and the fact that as late as 1999, The Guinness World Book stated that Jamaica held the record for the most churches per square mile1 becomes clear when we realize that Jamaicans and Caribbean people in general, are people of the Book. The Old Testament model of paradise lost, exile and return is a part of our cultural tradition. Rastafarians have translated the pattern to mean: if Africa is the birthplace of humankind, then Africa is paradise, an idea that the group Steel Pulse assert in “Not King James Version”:

Cause out of Africa
Came the Garden of Eden
Hidden from me I was never told
Ancient prophets black and bold
Like Daniel, King David and Abraham
Israel were all black men. (Smash Hits)

It follows then that all the covenants made with these patriarchs, Noah, Abraham, and Jacob (Israel) must apply to their descendants-people of African descent. It must also follow that the
first Israelites (descendants of Abraham) must have been black. If Africa is the true homeland for all black people, then Black people must return to Africa. The eventual repatriation to Africa fits the pattern as Dennis Brown states in “Africa”:

Africa we want to go
Our fore parents were born Ethiopians
It’s the land of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah
The root of David (Greatest Hits).

Another songwriter who identified easily with the Old Testament paradigm was Desmond Dekker, who during the Sixties wrote the song, “The Israelites”, which made it to the Top Ten in Israel because of the mistaken belief on the part of the Israelis that the song was about them.

This identification with the Old Testament pattern has led many to conclude that our present dislocation and exile is nothing new--it’s happened before and it will happen again. Or as Bob Marley declares in “Redemption Song”: “Some say it’s just a part of it/ we’ve got to fulfill the Book” (Songs of Freedom 4:18). The current loss and brain-drain that began with the slave trade, then with the loss of whole generations to Panama to build the canal; to England to become part of the skilled and unskilled labor force during the Fifties; the exodus of Jamaicans to New York, Canada and Miami during the Seventies; and the current migration of Jamaican teachers to New York is all seen as part of a larger pattern that was captured by The Melodians in “By the Rivers of Babylon” (Story of Jamaican Music 2:9)

Soon online on United Reggae, the second 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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