Tuning Hebrew Psalms to Reggae Rhythms: Rastas' Revolutionary Lamentations for Social Change

Article excerpt

How do we read the psalms in a strange land? Think Reggae.

Cause, the wicked carried us away captivity, required from us a song, but How can we sing King Alpha's song inner strange land? (repeat)

(The Melodians on Psalm 137)

How did an ancient Hebrew lament, sung as an "inner jihad" against Babylonian culture in the sixth century B.C.E., and still recited as grace after meals during weekdays at modern Jewish tables, become not only a Black lamentation but a popular liberation theme song in Rasta reggae lyrics? Of what relevance are Hebrew Psalms to the non-Jewish neo-Christian indigenous Rastafarians whose anti-Christian rhetoric, nonetheless, depends heavily on the Bible for its self-definition and ideology? That Hebrew Psalms have found a permanent home in the musical rhythms of Rastafari (the movement) is a tribute to the powerful reggae cultural revolution of the last decades, but it also shows how profoundly the Bible resonates with the political ideology of the Jamaican Rastafari.

Why the Hebrew Psalms?

Ever since their appearance in Jamaica the 1930s, Rastas have wedded a social political philosophy to Judeo-Christian scripture and its messianic tradition. As a leading authority on the Rastafarians comments, "The Hebrew Bible remains an indispensable source of inspiration for Rastafarians (as for Jews), in the same way that the New Testament does for Christians." [1] Rastas have taken carte blanche narratives, poetry, and prophetic materials of the Older Testament and Africanized them to express their sense of identity, [2] as well as to nurture hope and faith in the liberating possibilities of "Jah," the living God. The Rastas devotion to the Bible is influenced by several realities: their upbringing in a colonial Jamaican-Christian culture where the Bible still functions today as the mother of all books; references to Ethiopia and Africa in the Bible; the belief that the Bible is a book with and about Black people; the appeal biblical stories and poetry have for Rastas (especially stories in the King Jame s Version of the Bible, KJV); and a biblical vocabulary common in Caribbean society. [3] The KTV [4] provides a language through which Caribbean peoples often communicate religious ideas. This allows Rastas to quote biblical text almost indiscriminately in every conversation and ritual assembly.

Although Rastas quote the Hebrew Bible at will, they find the poetry in the Psalms most appealing. As a result, the poetic beauty and power of the Psalms have found a permanent home in reggae rhythms and Rastas' religious and political discourse. This is most evident in the use of Psalms of lament and imprecations (e.g., Ps. 54, 55, 59, 64, 68, 69, 70, 82-87, 137) in Rasta "itations" (personal reflections) and "lamentations." These Psalms supply the lyrics for popular reggae songs that publicize the movement's ethos and definitive mission -- liberation and freedom from political domination and equality for the people of God. The Psalms also "support" the important trademarks of Rastafari: smoking ganja, shouting JAH!!!, and acting like sparks of the divine. In their rereading of Psalm 104, for example, Rastas justify their growing of marijuana and smoking of the Chillum Pipe in the very creative translation: "JAH causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and HERB FOR THE SERVICE OF MAN" (Ps. 104:14). [5]

The Psalms gave the Rastas the trademark name "JAH" for their hero and deity, Ras Tafari, Emperor Haile Selassie I; the title JAH is found once in the Psalms as an abbreviation for Yahweh (or Jahweh), the four-letter word (tetragrammaton) YHWH. Psalm 68:4 reads, "Sing unto God, sing praises to His name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice in him." The Rostafari Manifesto modifies and conflates Malachi 3:7-10 with a verse from the Psalms in the statement: "JAH has spoken Once; Twice have I heard this; Power belongeth Unto the Most High. …