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

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

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

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"Marley, at some point, realized that his life was emblematic of a larger structure in the life of Black people surviving in a system that would demean and destroy their lives and he wanted to free them from the system."

Chapter III - Return to zion

The music is therefore charged with an urgency to flee Babylon and to repatriate to Africa. Steel Pulse in 'Rally Round the Flag', state this necessity:

They took us away captivity
Required from us a song
Right now man say repatriate
I and I patience have now long time gone
Father’s mothers sons daughters every one
Four hundred million strong
Ethiopia stretch forth her hand
Closer to God we Africans (Smash Hits)

The movement out of Babylon can be physical -many Rastafarians have relocated to Ethiopia3 and other parts of Africa or it may be metaphysical- one remains in Babylon physically, but mentally and spiritually, one remains uninfluenced by Babylonian dress or culture. Babylon’s system must be resisted and the idea of marronage or resistance that has had a long history in the Caribbean and especially in Jamaica (Black 60) has been assimilated into the Rastafarian religion. Bob Marley in “Soul Rebel” proclaims; “I’m a rebel/ Soul Rebel/ I’m a capturer/ Soul Adventurer” (Songs of Freedom 1:19). According to the myth, we are in the resistance or exile stage of our history as a race and at this stage in the journey only a few, a remnant will make it to Mount Zion or Africa. This is why Rastafarians wear dreadlocks--a complete repudiation of Babylon’s system and ways of dress and heeding the Biblical commandment found in Leviticus 21:3; “They shall not make baldness upon their heads neither shall they shave the corner off of their beards” (qtd. in Owens 38). Rastafarians refuse to be slaves to Babylon --a system that makes us feel as Cornel West defined “Black” in America: “Unsafe, unprotected, subject to random acts of violence and hated” (In-Depth). Rastafarians seek escape from Babylon physically and/or mentally, or as Bob Marley relates in “Duppy Conqueror”: “I’ve got to reach Mount Zion, the highest region” (Songs of Freedom 1:23). 4 In order to describe the spiritual journey out of Babylon, Rastafarian songwriters use the image of the train as the metaphorical vehicle of transport (no doubt a borrowing from the North American Negro Spirituals5 and R&B tradition with its echoes Harriet Tubman’s underground Railroad) and it is an important motif in the music. Whether it’s for romantic or economic reasons, the train is featured prominently in songs such a “Stop That Train” by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, which extends the reason for repatriation in a message of social conscience which is another major element in the reggae lyric:

Some goin' east, and-a some goin' west,
Some stand aside to try their best.
Some livin' big, but the most is livin' small,
They just can’t even find no food at all.
I mean they’re starving (Catch a Fire)

The social concern of reggae has always been a cornerstone of Marley’s lyrics and his influence on Jamaican music, especially with regard to the theme Diaspora cannot be understated. Whether it’s penning with Jimmy Cliff “Many Rivers to Cross” or writing “Exodus” -the most direct example of incorporation of the myth of Exodus into the Jamaican experience- Marley personalized the plight of his community, and made his audience aware of the larger implications of his personal and, by extension, our collective history. Marley realized that there were added dimensions to everyday activities and transformed the most mundane acts into acts of spiritual inquiry. For example in “Running Away,” Marley who had spent some years in selfimposed exile in England, used his predicament to questions his motives for leaving Jamaica;

“You must have done something that you don’t know nobody to know about/ you must have done something wrong/ Why you can’t find where you belong” (Songs of Freedom 3:13). The self questioning within the call and response framework of the Black church and African worship was one of the methods that Marley used to convey the idea that his suffering and exile (and by extension our history and exile) was not in vain-that there was a larger, nobler pattern to suffering as he asserts in Jammin': “We’re the living sacrifice” (Songs of Freedom 3:8). In other words, the journey is not futile as Marley declares in “Redemption Song”: “So won’t you help to sing, another song of freedom, cause all I ever had, redemption songs” (Songs of Freedom 4:18).

In this song, Marley recounts his personal and our collective history in metaphorical terms and paints a picture of fulfillment and pleads with us to join in the vision atonement or at-one-ment. This was the essence of Marley’s greatness. He understood intuitively the archetypal pattern of loss, exile and return and more than any other songwriter of his generation and made a conscious effort at working these themes, especially the theme of freedom, into his songs. The quest to reach Mount Zion and the admonitions to leave Babylon stem from the most basic of human desires: freedom. And Marley, if he was nothing else, was a champion of individual freedom and this is another reason why his music resonates with so many people around the world and especially his poor and dispossessed brethren.

Marley, at some point, realized that his life was emblematic of a larger structure in the life of Black people surviving in a system that would demean and destroy their lives and he wanted to free them from the system. It is no wonder then that so many of his songs have titles such as, “Lively up Yourself” and “Get Up, Stand Up.” Marley wanted to educate Black people for them to know their past and used the now famous Marcus Garvey quote, “Rise, you mighty people,” in the song “Wake up and Live!” He wanted to awaken black people out of their “sleep and slumber,” and in the process made Jamaicans and many people around the world aware of their spiritual condition (Survival). For example in “Exodus” he asks: “Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” And then pleads, “Send us another brother Moses, gonna cross the Red Sea.” (Songs of Freedom 3:10). Even if one does not accept Marley’s” view of divinity residing in the personage of Haile Selassie, one can share in the vision of compassion of “Exodus” to break “oppression, rule equality, wipe away transgressions, set the captives free” (Songs of Freedom 3:10). This is the vision of Isaiah and the theme of all world religions. But true peace can only be realized through compassion for all human beings and a demand for equal rights and justice.

Until equal rights and justice are achieved for all people, inequality and injustice will be obstacles for Black people and in turn present obstacles for the entire human race to achieve the ascent to Mount Zion. Yet the struggle for freedom is not limited to one race as Peter Tosh reminds us in “Equal Rights”: “Palestinians are struggling for equal rights and justice” (The Best of Peter Tosh). As long inequality and injustice exist, the former slaves who still carry the world’s burdens will continue to be scattered. The solution then lies in our philosophies of racism and exploitation or as Marley explains in “War”: “Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior…until the color of a man’s skin is nor more significant than the color of his eyes… me say war” (Songs of Freedom 3:5). Marley is not content with only a few, remnant, achieving the return to Mount Zion. As he says in “So Jah Seh”: “Not one of my seed shall sit on the sidewalk and beg your bread” (Natty Dread).

When the “basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all” then the Diaspora can be reversed or as Bob wails in “I Know”: “Bring my children from the ends of the earth” (Uprising). This is what the Diaspora means for many Jamaicans songwriters. They see the current scattering and suffering as part of a larger plan and must take place before repatriation will occur. It is a testing in the wilderness of exile. To quote another Marley song “Natural Mystic”: “Many more will have to suffer, any more will have to die/Don’t ask me why” (Songs of Freedom 3:11). These songs whether on LPs, tapes, or CDs provide a narrative for us to
understand our experiences-for that ultimately is what these songs provide--meaning to our lives.

And in a country like Jamaica with its rich oral histories that have been the major means of transmission of a sense of the past, the songwriters have become the unofficial historians of the island and have shaped the social conscience of entire generations. It is a method of inscribing and transforming the consciousness of the world that will ultimately lead to the healing that Marley sang about in his anthem of universal brotherhood, “One Love”: “One love. One heart, let get together and feel all right” (Songs of Freedom 1:5).

For my own part sometimes I believe the songs sometimes deceive us into a willing complacency--waiting to enter that far off promised land or as Philip Larkin, the British poet, declared in the poem “Next, Please”:

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching: every day
Till then we say. (52)

Marcus Garvey’s “prophecies” about famed ships coming to take Black people back to Africa, as Fred Locks declares in “Seven Miles of Black Star Liners” never came to pass.

Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbor
I can see them coming
I can see I-drens running.
I can hear the Elders saying, “These are the days for which we’ve been praying.”
Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbor
It’s repatriation,
A Black liberation.
Yes, the time has come:
Black Man, we’re going home! (Black Star Liner)

Selassie’s death in 1975 provoked a serious crisis of faith for many Rastafarians. As Dawes points out, the event became for Rastafarians: “a spiritual mystery that can only be open to metaphysical interpretation” (125).
The pattern of loss, exile and return is a powerful one and is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Its manifestation is not limited to the Bible, and its equivalent can be seen in any mythology that celebrates an ascent to the symbolic “world mountain” (Campbell 23). In the case of the reggae, the pattern is enveloped in a danceable beat, and it carries an enormous an emotional appeal. Many of us who were weaned on the reggae, despite our cynicism still hope that one day as Marley sings in “Rastaman Chant”: “One bright morning when my work is over, I’ll fly away home” (Songs of Freedom 2:13”).

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