Babylon Report, dUb, Higher Learning

On Judah to Jamaica and Rastafari hermeneutics

Ras Fari Joseph, 2012


Verses, names, symbols, and concepts from ancient Judah can come to figure centrally in a religious movement of modern Jamaica only through an unusually varied and extensive series of religious and cultural transmissions.
This process of conceptual transformation and confluence has been the object of interest and inquiry in its own right, as scholars have attempted to trace
the twisted path to a Rastafari hermeneutics as the movement ‘hijacked’ Judeo-Christian Scriptures and converted them into vehicles for identity, ‘ideation,’ and liberation”.
Rastafari reggae involves orders of intertextuality, multiple reconfigurations of language, meaning, names, and symbols, and the continual development and accrual of layers of additional semantic content and commentary.
At one time literally grounded in concrete geopolitical and historical actualities, “Babylon” and “Zion” go on to become abstract concepts that pass themselves on like “memes” through modulating traditions, practices, and translations, eventually to occupy a crucial position in the religious art form of an Afro-Caribbean heterodoxy.
The complex path of influences and inheritances by which the Psalms become Rastafari reggae songs goes back, according to tradition, all the way to the time of David, to whom some of the original psalms are ascribed. Evidence to place and date the Psalms historically is almost completely lacking, however, and thus there is room for considerable disagreement about these texts especially, as compared for example to many of the prophetic writings.
Still, in broad terms, the path of migration may be said to extend from pre-exile Israel and Judah, to the first waves of Assyrian deportations of the northern kingdom in the eighth century BCE; to the sixth century Babylonian captivity and destruction of the Temple, and then the return and restoration; to the flourishing and fixation of the Hebrew scriptural tradition in the Persian or Second Temple period; to the Roman occupation, the watershed destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the diaspora. Meanwhile the Septuagint, already in Koiné Greek for centuries, is taken up in the rise and spread of early Christianity in the Hellenized Roman Empire, to be Latinized, Europeanized, handed down through a thousand years of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation developments in the West, ultimately to become the “Old Testament” of the 1611 “Authorized” or King James version (KJV) of the Bible, making its way to the “New World.”


“Conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés” depicts the 1521 Fall of Tenochtitlan, in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.

It was thus in the classic English translation of the Bible that Jamaicans discovered the Judaic texts, but even then the reception was further modulated, mediated by resistance and interference.
One may have expected missionary efforts to have been undertaken on the part of eighteenth-century British colonialists to convert indigenous and slave populations and spread Anglican Christianity, as had been done with Catholicism in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Instead, according to Barrett,
the English planters in Jamaica adamantly refused to share their religion with the slave population”; for the Africans of Jamaica, “the Church of England and its high liturgy was considered too sophisticated”.

After England took over Jamaica and established the slave trade, no attempt had been made to Christianize the slaves” for nearly two centuries. It was only through later “nonconformist” denominations like Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians that black Jamaicans were introduced to Judeo-Christian religion and the King James Bible.
It is plainly the King James version that reggae psalmists take up and adapt to their own revolutionary purposes, as a number of characteristic examples will show. The language of the “Old Testament,” and especially of the Psalms, appears frequently in Bob Marley’s lyrics and in other reggae songs, notably the classic anthem “Rivers of Babylon,” which is an extended quotation of KJV Psalm 137 (and some of Psalm 19).
This song deserves close analysis, as it is emblematic of the Rastafari reggae tradition, and both song and psalm have been the subject of singular attention in the scholarship.
Rastafari identify especially with the ancient symbolism of “Zion”—under- stood not to be in contemporary Israel or the Middle East, but in Africa, and particularly Ethiopia—and they live in “Babylon,” which refers to realities of oppression far from Mesopotamia, which is (as Peter Tosh says) “everywhere”.
For Rastafari, “two systems exist: Zion and Babylon, the good and the evil.” Babylon is both “the embodiment of evil in biblical literature” and also “a symbol of bondage, not only for ancient Israelites but for all people held in slavery and oppression, especially black people”.

Bob Marley by Nick Twaalfhoven


Through an imaginative and highly subversive reinterpretation, Rastafari read themselves as portrayed in the texts and symbols of the Babylonian exile and the pre- and postexilic periods. In their “free-style approach” to the texts, making such an identification is not difficult:
Rastafari are said to “hijack biblical materials and concepts and relate them to any situation or problem when their language and imagery fit the categories and ideology of the interpreter or movement”.
Judaic biblical verses thus provide many lyrical and conceptual points of departure for religious reggae songs, just as they offer symbols (like the Lion of Judah) that become badges of Rastafari cultural and religious identity.
The core religious vocabulary of Rastafari reggae originates in the King James version, but nearly all the names, places, and words have undergone extensive and creative deformation of language into Jamaicans’ own distinctive idiom.
Key words and phrases are retained, but almost never strictly verbatim; reggae songs freely adapt and inflect the anglicized texts in a highly stylized vernacular that is unique to Jamaican and reggae culture.
“I-an-I,” for example, is a preferred pronominal form; according to Stefffens, the expression “means ‘you and I’ or ‘I and the Creator who lives within I,’ indicating that there is no separation, that disunity is an illusion” , and affirming Rastafari union and identity with “the Divine, who indwells ‘I-an-I’ ”.
These innovations notwithstanding, the overarching religious themes of Rastafari reggae are recognizably, indeed unmistakably Judaic: captivity, oppression, exile, diaspora, longing for freedom and return.
Rastafari reggae” thus designates a specific subset: reggae music is only one form of Rastafari religious expression—i.e. not all Rastafari is reggae— and certainly not all reggae is Rastafari.

Representing far more than mere entertainment, this now classic form of reggae is not, as it were, “just music”—any more than the original psalms were; whether at the First or Second Temple, or by the rivers of Babylon.
Insofar as they are derived from particular biblical verses set to music, many Rastafari songs—at least in what has been called reggae’s “churchical” mode —may be considered distant but direct descendants of the psalm form itself. Reggae songs and themes have resonated even with indigenous peoples who have been colonized on their own land (“Reggae on the Rez”) rather than being carried away into captivity or driven into exile.

Text from:

From Judah to Jamaica: The Psalms in Rastafari Reggae
Thompson, J. (2012).
Religion and the Arts

doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156852912X651054


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