Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Words, Sounds, and Power in Jamaican Rastafari

Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Words, Sounds, and Power in Jamaican Rastafari

Article excerpt

Rastafari is a religious movement that grew out of Jamaica during the 1930s. The Rastafarian movement "has been described [by social scientists] as a `political cult,' a `messianic movement,' a `politico-religious cult' among other labels. But as the researchers move into the details of their descriptions, all present in one form or another the content of `Protest' in the belief system of the movement" (Pollard 1982:19).

This element of protest acknowledged by Pollard as so central to Rastafari provides the key to understanding this belief system which has "been dismissed as the irrational prophesies of a Third-World millennial cult" (Pulis 1993:286). This paper, after briefly outlining the history of Jamaica in order to provide a context in which to view the Rastafari movement, then shifts its focus to the Rastafari dialect, known as Dread Talk. (1)

An examination of Dread Talk is significant because, in the words of Rex Nettleford (2) (quoted in Pollard 1982:19), "Social protest manifests itself in language change. For defiance of a society includes defiance of its language." Since, as I have stated, protest and defiance are so central to the Rastafari movement, this in and of itself makes the dialect significant.

But beyond that, the purpose of this paper is to explore the nature of Dread Talk itself. When John W. Pulis asked a Jamaican Rastafarian what the world-view of his belief system was all about, he was told "`jus words-sounds-paawa, bradda, dat wha I-n-I (Rastafari) a-deal wit, jus words-sounds-paawa'" (1993:285). Neil J. Savishinsky defines Dread Talk as a modification of Jamaican Creole "created by Rastas to express their heightened consciousness and profound awareness of the true nature and power of the spoken word" (1994:21).

From these statements it is clear that Dread Talk is more than just a mechanism for distinguishing Rastafari Brethren from non-believers. The intent of this paper is to explore the elements of Dread Talk that further reflect, emphasize, and build the Rastafari identity, thereby exploring the role of dialect as power in the Jamaican context.

Rastafari Beliefs

Today's Rastafari are a diverse group, located in different nations and embracing various doctrines, but there are a few accepted tenets that serve to define Rastafari. The first and most central is that Jah, the one God, is black, and that Ras Tafari (Hailie Selassie I), the former emperor of Ethiopia, is divine, Jah incarnate, a messiah and prophet (Knipe 1995:163; Lake 1998, Savishinsky 1994:20).

Also central to the Rastafari ideology is that the ways of the white man, "the existing social order ... the oppressive State, the formal social and political institutions of Anglo/American imperialism" which are "metaphorically expressed in Rastafarian/New Testament iconography as Babylon, the whore, the fallen woman of St. John's Revelation" (Cooper 1993:121), are evil and must be rejected by the black man. All evils in the world are a result of the influences of Babylon, and the only path to redemption is repatriation to Africa, specifically Ethiopia (Knipe 1995:163; Lake 1998; Savishinsky 1994:20).

A fourth fundamental belief is that Rastafarians are descendents of the Israelites (3) of the Old Testament. Daily reading of the Bible is seen by many Rastas as the path to receiving the wisdom of Rastafari, and the dietary and behavioral restrictions Rastas practice are taken from it. The Bible also provides much of the imagery Rastas use to describe their situation. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that the Bible is used as justification of Rastafarian beliefs; Rastas take their beliefs from the Bible, mediated by and interpreted through the lens of their own experience (Lake 1998:63; Savishinsky 1994:21).

Western Christianity is seen as a corruption of the true message of the Bible. Some Rastas claim that the white man intentionally mistranslated the Bible into English to obscure its true meaning. …

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