This has naturally come across on this blog of mine, in fact being one of the most recurring themes on this blog. Having studied Trans-Atlantic slavery for many years, both in a professional context, and personally, this interest followed automatically and logically. After all, I am very much interested in culture and music, and always have been.
How much can you maintain of your culture despite all and massive efforts of deculturization and dehumanization, Africans endured during the trans-Atlantic slavery? Not even their family names, these enslaved Africans could keep, while also losing their original languages, cultural contexts and bonds, and faiths.
This “losing” is the crux, though. The oppressors wanted the African slaves to lose it as much as possible, especially when interfering with their production goals. In reality, the “losing” was luckily relative. Against all odds, the original cultures and the underlying ideas and values were never fully lost. While of the African languages the slaves spoke, only fragments are maintained to the present, with some exceptions among e.g. Maroons or in ritual contexts (with more of the languages maintained), and the original family names seem to really be lost (though in cases traceable, but difficultly), the culture and cultural values – on the other hand - were maintained much better. To differing degrees and in different ways, but for real and undeniable.
This begs the question: in what ways can you maintain an ancestral culture, threatened for whatever reason? In the case of enslaved Africans, this threat was their forced removal from their own land, their enslavement, and the mentioned dehumanization and attempts of deculturalization. Quite a bigger and more destructive threat and attack on an ancestral culture than just “modernization”, outside cultural influences (on further still preserved and respected own cultural contexts), all old cultures in this world face. African enslavement in the West was in that sense more “deracinating”, besides destructive.
Against all these odds, there are undeniably still African cultural continuities among Blacks in the Americas. This is both interesting and beautiful. For these reasons, I delved much in that theme during my life.
I am a Reggae fan since my early teens, love other Black Music too, and am interested in several countries in the Americas, as well as in the African continent. All this, kept my interest in the theme of “African retentions in the Americas” surely alive.
I am also interested in the Rastafari movement, feeling myself even associated with it. In a book – a collective volume – about the Rastafari movement, these “African continuities”, also in the movement, are also treated. It is the work ‘Chanting down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (Temple University Press, 1998), edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane. A Neil J. Savishinsky wrote an article in it on ‘African Dimensions of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement’, but other essays/articles in the same work, by other authors, address the theme too.
The Rastafari movement is interesting in this regard, since it is known as “Afrocentric”.
Other books and works, such as by Robert Farris Thompson, referred to elsewhere on my blog too, and several scholarly works on “creolization” and “Négritude” in the Caribbean and around, also deal with African continuities in the Americas.
Négritude and Creolité are terms that arose among French Caribbean intellectuals, notably Aimé Césaire (from Martinique) who emphasized the remained Africanness among Caribbean Blacks (Négritude), whereas other authors focus rather on the inevitable adaptation in the Americas of Africans, and cultural mixtures, albeit with underlying values (Créolité), of which Raphaël Confiant was an exponent.
These were partly literary movements, but had their more general sociohistorical and cultural counterparts, also in the English-speaking Caribbean. Thus the term “creolization”, became common as cultural description among scholars in Caribbean Studies, referring to the cultural adaptation of Africans (and others) in the Americas, toward a new essentially mixed culture. This still maintained African retentions, but more indirectly, in values.
The equivalent of Négritude in the British Caribbean would probably be Black Power or Afrocentric thought.
The usage of these terms often take their significance far beyond merely academic, historical descriptions, supposedly striving to neutrality. They even became ideological or political stances among intellectuals and politicians; at least an assertion of chosen cultural identity.
Such biases or ideologies aside, or rather “behind” those ideological and biased surfaces, it remains interesting to study as neutrally and impartially as possible, what African continuities and retentions actually remain in the Americas, despite what movements or ideological currents claim or aim to.
The Rastafari movement from Jamaica is an interesting case, because it is a movement of a – one might say – ideological and spiritual nature. It arose in the 1930s in Jamaica, largely under the influence of Jamaican thinker and activist Marcus Garvey. It is a Black Power movement, focusing on African/Black upliftment, “Africa for the Africans”, and with the eventual aim of repatriation to Africa.
Garvey did not expect a prosperous future for the Black race, anywhere in the Americas, even limitedly in “Black majoritarian areas” in it (Jamaica, Haiti a.o.), opting instead for freeing Africa from White colonialism, making it the home and power base of all Africans and African-descended people. As far-fetched and quite ambitious this idea and goal might seem, it had some solid reasoning behind it by Garvey and its followers.
This essentially Black Power movement obtained an important spiritual dimension with the rise of the Rastafari movement, who began to worship the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as divine or at least crucial, as a kind of fulfillment of prophecy, also found in the Bible. The ultimate aim of repatriation centered on Africa, but now more specifically also on Ethiopia, as ”Zion”. This was opposed to the “Babylon”, Rastas and all Black people were forced to live in, i.e. the Western world, including the Americas.
The Rastafari movement thus read the Bible from a Black perspective, but was overall focused on Africa, making it truly Afrocentric in stance.
There are stances and there are facts . An interesting article in the Rastafari reader, deals with these historical and cultural facts; “neutral”, scholarly knowledge, so to speak, about the actual African (cultural) characteristics of the Rastafari movement, looked at it academically and factually.
In other words, is Africa mostly an (ideological or philosophical) goal or aim within the Rastafari movement, or is the movement itself inherently already mostly African (culturally and spiritually), lost in a wrong context (the Americas). If so, to what degree?
An intriguing question, being as old as the Rastafari movement (since the 1930s) - or even the Garvey Movement (active since the 1910s) - themselves.
An uneasy question should be asked too: is it, painfully, maybe so that Blacks in the Americas are too Westernized or ”creolized” over time, to adapt easily in present-day Africa?
NATION OF ISLAM
I think a comparison between the (US) Nation Of Islam and Rastafari is useful here, for a broader historical perspective. The comparison between these two (originally) Black Power movements is quite logical and can lead to insightful results. Both movements have “spiritual” dimensions beyond politicized Black Power, and both movements are in fact somehow related historically, with connecting historical personalities, and notably with deeper origins in the Garvey Movement. The readable work ‘Marcus Garvey and the Back to Africa Movement’ (Lucent Books, 2006), written by Stuart A. Kallen, says about this:
“Elijah Mohammed, who led the influential Nation Of Islam, or Black Muslim organization, from 1934 to 1975 was a corporal in the Chicago division of the UNIA (Garvey’s movement) in the 1920s”.
In the same book it is recounted how both Malcolm X’s parents (his mother was from Grenada in the Caribbean) were UNIA members, and his father even vice president of the Detroit division.
Malcolm X himself indeed recognized the pioneering role of Marcus Garvey, having stated: “It was Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of Pan Africanism that initiated the entire freedom movement..”
This post is about African continuities or retentions in the Americas. This is somewhat problematic in the case of the Nation Of Islam. It is more wishful thinking and ideology than real historical facts, that the “Islam is the original Black Man’s religion” as some Nation Of Islam leaders claimed. It never was and is, as such. The Islam originated on the Arabian peninsula, where indeed also some people with a darker hue (migrants or slaves from Africa, included) were found, being often slaves. The prophet Mohammed had an Ethiopian slave who became free because of his conversion to Islam. Historically, this Islam, developed after Christianity already has taken hold in Africa itself, notably Ethiopia, where it even became a state religion, and other parts, such as what is now Egypt and Sudan.
The conquering spree from the Arabian peninsula from the 7th c AD onward, spreading Islam to the whole of Northern Africa, and even somewhat more to the South (the Guinea and Mande regions for instance), parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and elsewhere, was exactly that: a conquest from outside. Only in time this was “Africanized” culturally, such as in the Guinea and Senegal regions, among Oromo in Ethiopia, and other groups, diverging a bit from the imposed “Arab model”.
The Nation Of Islam seems to deny this fact that Islam was more or less imposed on the African continent. The Arab slave trade made many Black Africans as victims, proportionately much more than the “white slaves" (Slavic, Mediterraneans, or others) some like to overemphasize. True, also many in Africa converted more or less willingly, since at least nominal conversion to Islam is relatively easy, even for illiterates: Islam is centered on rituals, rather than on complex writings. It is in any case not an African religion, and the type of Islam propagated in the Nation of Islam, even by current leaders like Farrakhan, seems to strive to the “pure, Arab” kind, ignoring or at least downplaying direct African cultural retentions. Relatedly, the Garvey-ite “Back to Africa” repatriation focus has been abandoned by the Nation of Islam. A separate Black nation - but in the US - came to be instead the norm within the Nation of Islam, at some point.
It is therefore safe to say, that Rastafari and the Nation of Islam, while sharing some same goals (Black upliftment), moved in separate directions, seeking different solutions.
This is where Robert Farris Thompson, and other cultural history scholars, and their studies, become useful: African retentions and cultural heritages worked out a bit differently throughout the Americas. Enslaved Africans came from different parts from Africa, and got concentrated in different areas – relatively -, shaping some cultural differences. Only, Farris Thompson states, slaves from the Congo region spread relatively evenly throughout the whole Americas: from South America, to the Caribbean, and the US, Congo Africans becoming a kind of “binding” or “connecting” cultural group within the African Diaspora.
Further, there were some differences: slaves from the Ghana regions ended up in some colonies more than others, having to do with European access to trade in Africa. Relatively much in Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica, St Croix, proportionately less in other colonies. Yoruba slaves (from present-day SW Nigeria, and Benin) ended up more in Spanish and Portuguese colonies like Cuba or Brazil, Igbo slaves in some British colonies more, Fon and Ewe slaves relatively more in Haiti and other French colonies, Senegambian slaves more in the US, etcetera etcetera.
It is still important to point out that African slave populations within all these colonies were in the end mixed: so also culturally. Partly Yoruba-influenced Cuba still had also about 40% of its slave population from the Congo region, and (partly Akan/Ghana-influenced) Jamaica, also about 25% of its slave population from the Congo region (besides Igbo and others). In Suriname, slaves of Fon and Ewe origin (from present day Benin, Togo and around) were also quite numerous, according to some linguists still noticeable in structures of the Surinamese Creole language (Sranan Tongo), besides also noticeable Ghanaian/Akan remnants among Afro-Surinamers.
To return to the Nation Of Islam and African Americans in the US: in the US the slavery regime while of course still dehumanizing, was overall a bit less deadly than elsewhere in the Americas (more nutritious food for instance), enabling slave populations to reproduce in much of the US, and with less needs for new African imports. This diluted the culture more from the African roots, though some African retentions still remain in African American culture, only more indirectly. The partly Senegambian/Guinean origins of US Blues are beyond doubt, but there are more examples of indirect African retentions among African Americans in the US.
This found its way in a movement like the Nation Of Islam, whose present-day leader (Louis Farrakhan) is by the way of Caribbean origin, but the increased emphasis on a purist (Arab) Islam might have disturbed that.
BACK TO AFRICA
One of the differences between the Nation Of Islam and the Rastafari movement is that the latter still espouses the “Back to Africa” ideal of Garvey, up to the present.
This “Back to Africa” can be taken both literally or of course metaphorically or mentally: as a mental, spiritual process, all the while still residing in Jamaica, the US or elsewhere. Some Rastafari adherents among reggae musicians, likewise chose a maintained main residence in the Americas, though having travelled now more to Africa. The aim is there.
How much does this connect to actual African cultural values among most Rastafari adherents?
In the article in the 1998 collective volume ‘Chanting Down Babylon : a Rastafari Reader’ I mentioned earlier in the post, the one titled ‘African Dimensions of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement’, the author Neil J. Savishinsky discusses that.
Regarding the “dimensions” of the title, Savishinsky distinguishes between “direct African continuities”, “indirect African influences”, and “African parallels”.
Among the direct continuities, he categorizes the music. He includes in this “neo-African” (mixed African) continuities, rather than just exactly similar musical patterns from, say, Ghana or Congo, but now in Jamaica. There are nonetheless still some regional, and strong continuities: the Kumina rituals in especially Eastern Jamaica, having many, quite intact/maintained musical and drumming patterns stemming from the Congo region, considering the diverging histories.
Burru drumming, elsewhere in Jamaica, shows some evident Ghanaian/Akan/Coromantee influences. Both these traditions, Burru and Kumina, influenced what would become known as Nyahbinghi drumming among the Rastafari in Jamaica. The types of drums more influenced by the Burru, while drumming patterns themselves, and rituals and terminology, are influenced by Kumina, including the “heart beat” base of rhythms.
Equally significant, Savishinsky, points justly at the underlying values regarding the role of music in faith, spirituality and in cultural expressions. In African culture, music and dance are necessarily intertwined, while the sacred and the profane are also merged, consisting of a profound difference with imposed European culture, where music plays usually different roles, bearing other values and functions. Some folk European music genres come a bit closer, but Burru and Kumina, Maroon music, but also Jamaican “pop” music genres that developed over time from these influences (Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae, Dancehall) , still maintain that essential “Africanness” in the connection between music, rhythm, dance, and spirituality.
Regarding what he calls “drugs”, the use of marijuana among many Rastas, Savishinsky also sees interestingly an African continuity. Interestingly, because many – even some scholars – associate the common use of marijuana in Jamaica, including spiritually among Rastas, with an East Indian influence, as Indians interacted with Africans on the island. The term “Ganja” is also of Indian origin, as is another common term for “weed” or “herb” (all terms for cannabis/marijuana), namely: “collie”.
Savishinsky rather sees more African cultural historical parallels, pointing at the historical role of marijuana use in the Congo region, among several groups, also for spiritual reasons, not unlike among the Rastafari adherents. Another term for marijuana, popularized by artist Bob Marley & the Wailers, namely “Kaya” is of Congo/Central African origin, bringing this point home. It is the name of a song and album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, but also a common term among Rastas for “the herb” (alongside other terms like ganja, herb, lamb’s bread etcetera). This opened my eyes a bit, as I began the East Indian influence too much for granted: it might not be only that influence.
Savishinsky also mentions “dreadlocks”, but as more indirect African influence. I think it is amore “direct” one, though. Like other scholars, he also sees a possible East Indian influence here, as in India, long-haired, dredlocked priest-like figures, known as “saddhu’s” are known for a long time, within variants of Hinduism. These connect spirituality with dreadlocks, similar to Rastas.
In time, I studied more sources, and came to doubt these Indian origins of dreadlocks in Jamaica, not as sole source, anyway. There were – after all - historically in Africa, from long before slavery, people with dreadlocks, often also with spiritual functions: e.g. the Nimba in Northern Namibia, in parts of the Congo regions, other Bantu-speaking regions, in the Guinea regions, the Nigeria/Cameroun areas, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. The way the Maasai wear their hair is quite known, but other groups in Africa wore dreadlocks looking more similar to Jamaican Rastas nowadays, and have done so since long.
Savishinsky instead points at the influence of the news on the anti-British colonial Mau Mau warriors in Kenya (appearing around 1952), known to have wore dreadlocks, and Afro-Jamaicans emulating this. Indeed the rebellious Mau Mau from Kenya were an influence on Jamaican Rastas starting to wear dreadlocks, but based on deeper African roots, and - I argue - more than on Indian Roots. Besides, even among European or other Asian groups (some Celtic or Viking groups, Eskimo’s, Tibetans) dreadlock-like long hair has been found. It is not exclusive, let’s just say..
As other African “indirect” influences, he mentions the Rasta colours (red, gold, and green or red, black, and green), while he also pays attention to other Pan-African parallels, following on international exchanges, and the international influence of Marcus Garvey, also on the African independence movements. He also discusses Biblical rereadings by Rastas from an African perspective.
All interesting and true, but more in the terrain of stances or ideological choices, or an “identity search” if you will. All valid and even positive and successful, but studied elsewhere too.
What’s in this case more interesting though, I opine, is that Africa was already there in basic cultural values, musical and spiritual ones, as examples, among the Rastafari adherents. All this, despite centuries of attempts of deculturalization, Judeo-Christian, and European influences.
These basic African values guided all what came after, including later adaptations, emulations, mixtures, or new creations. The focus on Africa, veneration of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, and the goal of repatriation to Africa (theoretical or not), all made sure these African values remained the guides. As “the tree with good roots bearing good fruits”, as Marcus Garvey once described it.
“Rhythm” and drumming are important parts of this, as also became clear from an interview with Ras Michael, Jamaican artist and Nyahbingi veteran, in 1986 for the Modern Drummer magazine (see: https://www.moderndrummer.com/article/august-1986-ras-micheal-the-roots-of-reggae/). Hand drums, and even later trap drums in Reggae, Ras Michael argued, ensured the African historical connection in its very patterns, of Rastafari, but also in broader Jamaican (musical) culture, and in modern reggae, even with modern digital instruments. Rhythm and music as an essential heart beat, keeping Africa alive. Likewise, the drummer with Bob Marley & the Wailers, Carlton Barret, pointed out how that he as drummer within Reggae especially carries that weight of “African retentions”, even more so than other instrumentalists.
Perhaps, this living cultural practice in the end outweighs any Islam-derived (as the Nation Of Islam) or Christianity-derived (as Rastafari) beliefs, movements outwardly espouse.