dinsdag 4 november 2014

Magical Africa?

I would not totally, on forehand, exclude the remote possibility that I might be a “museum buff”. There is something about the serene place focussed on “learning” and information that I find appealing and satisfying. Much of my trips and travels I made during my life have therefore consisted relatively much of museum visits, with few restrictions on “what kind” of museums. I am also very much interested in Africa, since I was young.

Combining these interests, I recently visited the exhibition ‘Magisch Afrika’ (Magical Africa, in English), held in de Nieuwe Kerk: a large – and very high! - church building on the Dam square in my hometown Amsterdam, Netherlands. Apparently there were enough budgetary funds to undertake an extensive promotional effort, because all over Amsterdam I repeatedly encountered posters promoting this particular exhibition, including a global description on its content in the subtitle. That aroused my interest even more (translated): ‘Magical Africa : masks and sculptures from Ivory Coast : the artists revealed’.

In short, I visited this exhibition, and I will give my impression and opinion in this post. This “museum review”, however, will be contextualized by me in a broader cultural and personal frame (people who have read other “essayistic” blog articles of mine, would not be too surprised).


I have much interest in music, in dance, as well as in social and cultural structures within Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Within all this, however, “masks” or “masquerades” have up to now gotten less of my attention than other aspects. I got some interest in it, though, and even have some African masks (and a few small sculptures) hanging in my house. These masks have more of a representative function for me, though they also look intriguing. Also, regarding the (Afro-) Caribbean, carnivals, and masquerades somehow escaped my lasting attention, while I focussed more on other cultural aspects.

The said exhibition in fact offered me an opportunity to sharpen my focus on it, as I am a man who loves to learn throughout life. It continues also on other lasting interest of mine, such as African retentions in the Americas. It seems probable that there are equally African origins within the masquerade and dance traditions found in the carnivals in Trinidad, or elsewhere in the Caribbean, as well as in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - to name some famous carnivals. Jamaica has less of a carnival tradition of itself (recent efforts to introduce Trinidad-style carnivals notwithstanding), but does have an own masquerade tradition, known as Junkanoo. Cuba, another Caribbean island, has carnivals, but also a mask tradition in the secret society tradition called Abakua, which derives from African retentions from the Calabar/Cross River region in and around what is now South-Eastern Nigeria, Africa (mostly of Efik/Ibibio-speaking groups ending up in Cuba with the slave trade).

Interestingly, the ancestral African mask tradition adds another layer to the carnivals in the Americas. These carnivals are commonly described as ways by slaves or lower classes in colonial societies to parody upper classes and whites through costumes, on special days. Beyond mimicking white or French/Portuguese colonial cultural life, however, an own African masquerade heritage therefore also seems to have shaped carnival expressions. This “African roots” aspect of carnival/masquerade traditions in the Caribbean is somewhat underrepresented in scholarly studies, I found.


The exhibition on Ivory Coast masks and sculptures in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam thus helped me to gain more insight in how masks/masquerade functioned and function culturally and traditionally in at least this part of Africa.

Like many African countries, the Ivory Coast’s borders are the result of colonial constructions, separating ethnic groups in different countries. The exhibition was indeed divided in different ethnic/cultural groups within Ivory Coast. There were separate sections on the Baule, the Guro, Laguna peoples (around the capital Abidjan), the Dan, the Senufo, and the Lobi peoples. Each of the sections showed masks in these distinct cultures, with some textual explanation on their traditional functions, history, and on the artists whose names are now known.

The latter is significant because the masks functioned in the cultural and spiritual traditions of the community. The artist as gifted individual, separate from society, is said to be a Western concept. Mask makers and cutters were people with special and revered skills, passed often within families, but remaining further anonymous due to the community function. This function often involves a connection with what is known as “the spiritual world” of the foreparents, still parallel to the own world, and influencing events in it. Appeasing “angry” or disheartened spirits of foreparents is one of those functions of the sculptures, masks and masquerades, including accompanying dances.


The Baule are an Akan-speaking group living in eastern/central Ivory Coast. The Akan speakers (e.g. Ashanti, or Coromantee) in what is now Ghana do not have anything like a “mask” or masquerade tradition. The Baule took on the mask tradition from neighbouring peoples in Ivory Coast. An interesting example of cultural interchange in two bordering African regions. The Baule believe that everyone (men and women) had a spouse in the “other” world (before one’s birth). This spouse was left behind, and therefore haunts as spirit the now living “former spouse” with e.g. disease or bad dreams. In part, Baule masks and offers to it serve to appease this “former spouse”. Objects exhibited in this Baule section include both masks and sculptures.

Largely related to Akan-speaking groups in Ghana as well, are the Laguna peoples in southeastern Ivory Coast. Like the Akan relatives in Ghana, a “mask” tradition is not really part of these peoples’ culture, but sculptures are. The Laguna peoples section as part of the exhibition showed some of these sculptures, that function traditionally to enable contact with the “spiritual world”.

In the savannah area of northern Ivory Coast, continuing in Mali, live the Senufo, who do have a mask tradition, as well as a sculpture tradition. The Senufo – who speak a Mande language – even have, unlike other African peoples, professional sculptors solely devoted to it. They also have male secret societies, for which sculptures, masks, and masquerades also function (as part of initiation rites as well as community festivities, or funerals, and/or to connect with the ancestral spirits). Of course, some of these masks and sculptures were on display in the exhibition. Senufo are known for animal motifs in masks.

The Dan people live in western Ivory Coast and continue in bordering Liberia. Masks and sculptures have important social and spiritual functions in Dan society, with different appearances befitting “issues to solve”: war, police, or commenting/chastising (or “advising”) functions, also in connection with spirits. Masks and wood/sculpture cutting is here the domain of men, while “ceremonial spoons” are the domain of women. These, also spoons, were on display as well. Among the mentioned Laguna peoples, on the other hand, sculptures are also made by women. The Dan further believe in reincarnation, and masks also serve to ”house” and appease spirits (Du, a divine spirit present in all humans) who have not found a new body yet to dwell in.

Interesting, these differences between bordering peoples, but of course to be expected. In Europe also, Celtic, Germanic, or Slavic peoples (Or Ligurian, Basque, Iberian, Etruscan, Dinaric, and others), often lived in bordering areas within Europe, but had quite different customs, values, and social structures as well. Part of this remains noticeable, despite shared Christianization and Romanization.

Between the Dan and the Baule, live the Guro people, more or less in central/western inland Ivory Coast. In the Guro section of the exhibition, several interesting masks and sculptures were shown. The focus in Guro culture is more on masks than on sculptures, due to the importance of masked dances. The Guro worship different spirits, and also know secret societies. Masqueraded and dressed performers represented “holy” characters in ceremonies , and cannot be touched.

The Lobi, including related subgroups, live in the far North East of Ivory Coast, and continue in Burkina Faso. The Lobi speak a language related to that of the Guro, but are culturally rather different.. Here the focus is on sculptures, rather than masks, for instance. The sculptures are among the Lobi regarded as living beings, functioning to ward off evil spirits: a function I have heard of before.


Most masks and sculptures shown were made around 1900, so quite some time ago, though modern art based on them was also exhibited. I still mostly use the present tense, though, because partly at least these mask and masquerade traditions live on in the regions. Recent limitations of such expressions relate to modernization, or maybe Christian or Islamic mainstreaming. This last aspect is also relative. Nominally, many among the mentioned peoples are Islamic or Christian; in practice what are called “animist” beliefs live on underneath these religions, or got intertwined with it. As some may know, Islam forbids images of living beings (people, animals) because it is expected to stimulate idolatry. Both Islamic and Christian hardliners also object to spirit possession activities, often combining with these masquerades. Current figures are interesting: in present-day Ivory Coast about a third is nominally Christian (especially in the south), another third Muslim (especially in the north), and another third “animist”. I assume there is some overlap..


Masks are in fact known in many cultures historically, world wide. The Halloween holidays in the US (and increasingly celebrated in Europe, as well) originates from a masquerade, with (as is assumed) some Celtic Scottish antecedents. The masquerading related to spirits coming from the other world, and needed to be appeased, or hidden from. Also Ireland, or for instance Celtic-influenced parts of Spain like Galicia, had interesting mask cultures, sometimes still related to spirits or ancient Celtic deities like Lugh. My family on my mother’s side is Spanish, though not from Galicia (more to the south west of Spain, Extremadura), but I remember we had in our paternal house a somewhat mysterious Galician wooden mask of a face as a sort of tourist souvenir from Orense (a province of Galicia), possibly once received as a gift by an acquaintance. Scandinavian and other Germanic/Teutonic peoples knew masks as well. Celtic and other European cultures had interesting mask cultures, but so did Amerindians and cultures in Asia and Oceania. And, of course, Africa.

That “broader picture” is what I missed a bit in the museum exhibition. It was very locally focussed. Understandably, of course: it was also about Ivory Coast artists whose names we know now. It was of course the Ivory Coast context where all these masks and sculptures developed and function(ed).

Still..masks and sculptures appear in several cultures world wide, often with connections to “spirits”, or magic. For that reason, some more information and illustrations how masks (and sculptures) functioned in more unique ways in African culture – according to African values -, would be welcome on the exhibition. There is much cultural variety within Africa, but certain values are shared throughout large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Even comparisons with masks or sculptures in other parts of Africa were rarely made in the exhibition, despite apparent similarities. Masks functioning for secret societies, for policing in communities etcetera is – to give an example - found also in the Ekpe secret society in Nigeria/Cameroon (predecessor of Abakua in Cuba).

The connection of masqueraded dances with polyrhythmic drum-based music is one such African aspect. I’ve seen such masked dances on YouTube films (from the Guro in Ivory Coast, see film hereunder), and the masqueraded dancer interacted with specific drum patterns and rhythms. African music, as well as dance, was however mentioned little in connection to the masks or sculptures, in the exhibition. I found this to be a pity. A missed opportunity, really.

Maybe they wanted to let the masks speak for themselves, and these were also uniquely African in shape, visually. This uniqueness, however, connects to other cultural aspects (music, dance), likewise uniquely African.

These cultural aspects have travelled, of course, to the West with the Atlantic slave trade. This includes the belief in ancestral, nature, and other spirits, spirit possession, typically considered as active among the living, while there is often a higher, sole god recognized, that on the other hand does not interfere with the human world. This is found in present-day, what are called “spirit based” or “animist” religions/faiths, including Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, Jamaican Kumina, Trinidadian Orisha, and Surinamese Winti. As may be known, institutionalized religion – i.e. Christianity – forbid and marginalized these African spirit beliefs during colonial history. Yet, aspects of it are still found, as well as African mask dance traditions: the Abakua society in Cuba derives from the mentioned Ekpe secret society (Cross River region, southeastern Nigeria/Cameroon), including masked dances with similarities – also in social function – with masked dances among the Guro, and other peoples discussed in the exhibition. However, a link with such Afro-American retentions was neither made in the exhibition.


These African spirit-based (or animist) religions are marginalized in colonial history. Also in the minds of African descendants themselves. Also, in Africa itself, these are changing or limited in influence in some parts. Belief systems like Vodou in Haiti, Kumina or Myal in Jamaica, Orisha in Trinidad, Santería and Palo Monte in Cuba, Winti in Suriname, and Candomblé in Brazil, tend to be associated with magic and the supernatural. Many discard it as vestiges of more irrational, now outdated contexts. Others see it as maybe interesting folklore, or historically somehow interesting.

Also among anthropologists – who must professionally (ideally) take these practices for their own value, without valuations – nonetheless at times show a hidden disdain, in some cases.

A book I bought at the museum, titled ‘Art in Black Africa’, mostly focussed on photos, with somewhat general, contextualizing texts. It stressed that art in Africa is not meant for reflection, but has a practical function (appeasing spirits to get rid of diseases, conflicts, or disasters). This is an example of such hidden disdain, though it might not be obvious to everyone.

The exhibition I am discussing here, and other African cultural aspects I studied before, made clear to me that people discrediting spirit-based African religions miss one point: the human need to make sense of the world through art and cultural expressions of human beings. The human need, too, to find comfort. That all humans are spiritual beings, to differing degrees. One may not believe in supernatural beings, and think of oneself as too rational for that. I myself consider myself quite rational, mostly (though not in all aspects, maybe). I still find beauty in African music, masks/dances, sculptures – or other expressions – even if I know that they are connected functionally to belief in certain spirits as supernatural beings “taking possession” of humans. Processes of which I may doubt whether they are really possible. Yet: I find intriguing how people try to make sense of the surrounding (often complex) world through cultural expressions of their own human creation; that is what “higher art” is all about. This can only be appreciated when one opens one’s mind to all human beings, and all cultures.

Unfortunately, the present-day world developed from a long period of colonialism, inequality, oppression, and power-based, evangelizing religions (Christianity and Islam notably) imposing their will and ideas on others. These become the cultural norm, and have created for all intents and purposes a “Euro-centric world”, even affecting the minds of people of non-European descent. Without such blinding bias, I sincerely think that there are no quality differences in the art between Europe and Africa. Classical music by Bach is not inherently more valuable or “better” than equally complex sub-Saharan polyrhythmic music pieces, with also a long history and varied cultural connections.


The Jamaican-originated Rastafari movement is Afro-centric – focussed on ancestral Africa - but also largely Bible-based. That makes it I think an interesting movement to discuss in this light.

Recently I saw a newly made documentary called ‘Dreadlocks Story’ (2014), documenting the influence of Indian culture on aspects of the Rastafari movement. While the Rastafari movement arose among African-Jamaicans in the 1930s, and aimed at freedom of Africans, African redemption, and hailed the African (Ethiopian) Emperor Haile Selassie, apparently there was interaction between the African and Indian community in Jamaica. While I heard that artist Peter Tosh disputed this, others confirm that the smoking of marijuana was a custom adopted from the Indians. Also scholar Kenneth Bilby, by the way, assumes another, African source of “religious” use of ganja, namely from Central Africa/Congo, where ganja/marijuana use has been known since the 18th c. Anyway, especially certain subgroups among the Hindus, priests excluded from mainstream society, known as sadhu’s, have been using ganja (as marijuana is called in Hindi, also as term used in Jamaica) since a long time. These saddhu’s in India even wear dreadlocks, which might constitute another influence, though studying African history one finds many groups in sub-Saharan Africa who have been wearing dreadlocks for a long time as well. Some Hindu or Indian rituals have however been taken over within the Rastafari movement.

This is relevant for this post, because it is argued in the documentary that of the traditional African spirit based/animist beliefs many slaves once had, too little remained in Jamaica - or was not appreciated enough - to serve functionally as rituals. This is due to the marginalization of Kumina or Vodou-like religions I mentioned, and the Euro-Christian socialization Jamaica went through. As Rastafari thinker Mutabaruka pointed out: Rastafari arose after and amidst this socialization, not apart from it, explaining the Judeo-Christian - and subtly Europeanized! - Biblical focus and mindset in the movement from its beginning in the 1930s.

This attributed to the somewhat remarkable situation that an Afro-centric movement was partly influenced by non-African Hindu and Indian traditions, while denouncing Vodou or Obeah. Maybe not all Rastafari adherents, but many of them criticize Vodou and Obeah (described as evil witchcraft), or “Science” (used in the same sense as witchcraft). Musically, especially percussively, Rastafari was on the other hand influenced by such spirit-based religions, though this influence was undone of its literal “spirit possession” association. The basic “heartbeat” (one-two) rhythm (by the drums called “fundeh”) found in Nyabinghi drumming, and also the alternating/syncopating rhythms around this basic rhythm (with the drum called “repeater”), both have clear predecessors in such spirit-based religions (Burru and Kumina notably), though musically/rhythmically somewhat simplified. Beyond musical adaptations, this drum pattern was further spiritually undone of associations with things like “spirit possession”, at least formally.

Still, I understood that some of the early Rastafari leaders or “elders” (Robert Hinds and Archibald Dunkley), who were personally close to main elder and “First Rasta” Leonard Howell, were known for wanting to give a bit more space to such spirit-based African ideas and values within Rastafari. Also the “popular Christian” Zion Revival church in Jamaica mixed Christianity with some African animist retentions in form, and fed partly into the Rastafari movement. Other Rastafari leaders, however, were against this animist influence, associating it with outdated, un-progressive (divisive) witchcraft and magic. A later more orthodox group that arose within Rastafari in the 1950s (the movement existed by then a few decades), called the Youth Black Faith, attempted even “purges” when such influences like “spirit possession” from other religions entered Rastafari gatherings. Such practices were seen by some Rastas as “devilish” and needed to be kept away to keep the ‘Binghi’ (important Rastafari gathering, involving reasoning/discussion, drumming and chanting) - and the general Rastafari direction - “pure”.

“Purifying” a faith or religion occurs often, but in the wrong hands remind too much of historical “inquisition”, power play, and authoritarian repression. That being said, I think that some Rastafari thinkers critical of “spirit possession practices” may have some good arguments, namely that being occupied with contesting spirits within a community can have divisive, conservative effects, eventually working against “progressive unity” (and uniting Africans world wide). Yet, in a more derived sense, it can still have a “Black unity and pride” value. Many Europeans take for instance pride in massive, Catholic cultural architecture – the much-visited Sixtine Chapel for example or big cathedrals – while not even being practising Catholics. Or see Greek mythology as foundational for European culture, even if not believing in the fantasy stories figuring Zeus, Apollo and the like. Likewise actual “ancestral spirits” – i.e. the African foreparents who were enslaved, are in a sense ever-present among the Rastafari adherents, even if not in the Kumina or Vodou-like way of spirits literally possessing minds and bodies, and rendering people unconscious. The latter would be problematic in a movement aimed at “consciousness”.

Despite this avoidance of “spirit possession”, nonetheless African cultural values of course live on within Rastafari, such as in the way of worshipping, certain rituals, the role of music and dance as intertwined (traditionally in Africa music and dance are not separated) etcetera. In short, I would applaud more study on this matter, African spirit-based/animist belief retentions within Rastafari, eventually resulting also in a movie, just like the movie on the (partial) Indian influence, ‘Dreadlocks Story’, I just saw.


While I had some personal points of critique (I mentioned these earlier in the post.. the limited geographical focus, for instance), the exhibition ‘Magical Africa’ in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, on masks and sculptures in Ivory Coast, at least confirmed what I learned from earlier studies of sub-Saharan African culture. This is that they represent a beautiful, varied and fascinating cultural and artistic complex, including deeper layers (like in what Europeans call “high art”), such as moral aspects, philosophy, oral traditions, story telling, visual and musical art, and movement/dance. Perhaps partly outdated, but interesting in its time historically. While inscribed in the functional and community life, I argue that is contains inherently “reflection”. This is illustrated, just to give an example, by Senufo masks in the exhibition: these were reflections of deliberately made “imperfect faces” (called “concave faces” in the exhibition), meant to teach that no one is perfect. This is essentially a moral lesson, beyond the merely functional.

This contradicts that African art is purely functional as the book I mentioned stated, but has a deeper “reflection” layer as well. Nigerian writer Ben Okri also wrote: “the African mind is essentially abstract and Africans’ stories essentially philosophical”.

All this further goes to show that sub-Saharan traditional culture has an own beauty and intriguing complexity and philosophy behind it, that I think needs to be valued more for its own sake, without necessarily comparing it unfavourably to other belief systems or religious or spiritual ideas in the world. Art for art’s sake, so to speak. This would be merely a matter of open-mindedness, healthy curiosity, and recognition of shared humanity. You need not be a “museum buff” for that..

For those in the Netherlands: the exhibition is until 15 February 2015. More information here.

donderdag 2 oktober 2014

Personal knowledge trajectory regarding Haile Selassie

“Afgeschreven” is a Dutch word, which can be translated to English as “written off”. There are other translations possible as well: it can mean something like “discharged” or “laid off”.

I saw that word, Afgeschreven, written on some books I have at home. I remember I bought these books years ago, when public libraries in the Netherlands (where I live) happened to have cheap sales of such “discharged” books. All these books had a small sticker on the cover with Afgeschreven (added was “bibliotheekboek” which means: library book) on them, and Afgeschreven was also stamped on the first page.

What does this mean? Is it a quality evaluation?.. Were all these books on sale I browsed through (there often were hundreds) written off and removed from the library collection because they were crap, nonsense, perhaps incorrect or outdated? Damaged perhaps, with excessive “comments” or underlinings in them by readers? Pages cut/torn out even? Would they sell them if they were that damaged? Browsing through them, I found that there were quite some interesting books between them, even by known authors. Of some I could imagine an outdatedness – often dealing with technology, or changed geography. Think for instance about books on the former Yugoslavia. This territory is divided now in separate countries, following a bloody war. That does not mean that books called “country reports” on Yugoslavia were inaccurate in describing the history, the landscapes, ethnicities and languages, the cultures.. Politics (borders are political) is the main thing that changed, not other aspects like culture or flora and fauna.

It might also mean that the books were borrowed so little that there seemed no interest in them, or that thematic changes in library book selections were made for economic or political reasons. I am afraid that also cultural or ideological biases or choices can play a part in this. Thus, some books were removed from the collection. That is unfortunate, and mostly unjust, but commonly affecting library collections when under volatile economic or budgeting constraints: choices have to be made at the cost of some public groups; not everything can be acquired or kept as part of the collection (hence: afgeschreven/discharged).


A quality evaluation of books – beyond outdatedness - in a public library does not seem a reasonable explanation for books becoming Afgeschreven (written off): they must have been bought by the library in the first place once, hopefully as what then seemed sound decisions. Nonsensical, incorrect, or ideologically driven or propaganda works, were – ideally, at least - selected out and dropped (or never made it to) “the books to buy” list for the collection. Like the chaff it was removed, before ever entering the library collection. This selection process is of course furthermore (again: ideally) in line with the type of library and its public groups.

To go back, I bought some of these Afgeschreven books: I don’t remember the date(s) but I think I bought these in my later teens or early twenties, I imagine. So over 15 years ago, at least. Then I was in the bookworm mode: I was on a (long) “bookworm” tip, you might say. I must have been interested in reggae and Rastafari already, because one of the books is a short biography on Haile Selassie – the Emperor of Ethiopia – written in Dutch, published in 1993, the other one a “country report” of Ethiopia (and Eritrea), also in Dutch, and published in 1994. I remember I borrowed many books on African countries as a member of the public library around that period too. Both the mentioned “Afgeschreven” books I bought for about a guilder at the time (less than half a euro today). What’s more, I found them to be very educational and broadening. These books were in that sense not at all “afgeschreven” to me, but valuable.

Speaking about valuable. I considered it also valuable for me to know still more about Haile Selassie and Ethiopia. That goal has remained in my mind since before I bought those Afgeschreven books: namely when I became interested in reggae, including the lyrics, and Rastafari. This started when I was about 11 years old, I imagine. Reggae lyrics were my first reference to Haile Selassie, and, after that, books about Ethiopia in the public library, wherein Selassie was discussed in a broader context. In educational, “popular academic” books, for different age groups. This was all before the rise of the Internet, by the way, so these books I still have remind me of that “pre-Internet” period as well.


Much more recently I finished reading ‘The autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I : 1892-1937’. These are the translated memoirs of Haile Selassie, which he wrote in 1937 when exiled in England - in the town Bath to be precise – and which were not published until 1972/73. I will come back to this Autobiography later on.


What is, I think, interesting from a didactical perspective, is my trajectory of knowledge and information gathering regarding Haile Selassie. Since around I was 11 years of age, I listened to reggae lyrics, then I read library books for children, later books for adults on Africa, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and Rastafari..


The book on Ethiopia was not the only book I read on Ethiopia. I would read several smaller and larger books on Ethiopia, that were of course partly on Selassie’s reign as well. This taught me about the complex, feudal, and hierarchical society that Ethiopia was, about the limited connections between towns and country, the Orthodox Ethiopian Christian religion and its dominant role, as well as the central role of the Amhara people and about other ethnic groups and religions. I got to know about traditional structures and customs ingrained in Ethiopian society, and about the very ancient (Christian) Solomonic dynasty, the long time of maintained independence, the highlands and more..

In hindsight, it was useful that I read more about Ethiopia as a whole, before reading more about Haile Selassie. It helped me to put his reign and his actions in the proper context from the start. Ethiopia’s feudal culture and society help explain how Selassie had limited ways to manoeuvre, even if he aimed at changing things for the better: ending poverty, illiteracy, remnants of slavery and more, which he sincerely seemed to aim and intend. For this reason his approach for Ethiopia’s progress was steadfast, thought out, but often “gradual”. These difficult hierarchies and sovereignties with little state/national influence, especially also in rural areas, limited or determined often as much what could change as Selassie’s own goals, plans – even when put in practice - or his determination.

I remained a member of the public library in the course of my life, though my bookworm mode became in time less intense. This partly relates to life choices: I moved the focus to experiencing first-hand, and actually socializing with people.

In another way I was influenced by the Internet, that has become more important, also in my life. I can recall that looking on the Internet became a daily thing for me (with varying intensity) since I was about 22 years of age, when I started to study (Library and Documentation) and had Internet available at school, and later at home. Internet became more commonly checked by me since about the year 1996 (a bit later than Dutch youths of the same age from wealthier/middle-class families). Whether I wanted to or not – or even realized it – I in time began to approach “information” and “facts” differently because of the Internet and searching information on it. It became more technical, rational, and fragmented. A well-told history in a physical book that I enjoyed in library books I borrowed a decade earlier began to seem something of the past, though not entirely. Facts still need contextualization, so “texts” have remained important, also on the Web. Not all is fragmented. Take for instance the often long Wikipedia articles, especially on the Wikipedia in English. Besides this, of course, books and journals are still published.

Also on the Internet, I began searching for what had remained my interests: reggae and Rastafari. I got more interested in Marcus Garvey as well. I was interested in Africa and Ethiopia, also in topical events. The study and other aspects placed these interests of mine sometimes at the background, but never too long.

Apart from the “information media” (books, articles, Internet, tv, or video/DVD), what in the end is more interesting to me is the information itself. In that regard it is interesting that Selassie’s own writings followed in my case on what (mostly Western or European) historians wrote about Selassie. Following the reverence and “positive importance” Selassie has for Rastafari-inspired reggae artists – many of whom considered Selassie as God - , I also noticed critical comments in other sources, that often somehow seemed dubious. Not that I did not want to hear or read that, simply because I chose to “side” with the positive opinions of the reggae singers I liked. This might seem plausible to amateur-psychologists, but is in reality too simple an explanation. Writings about Selassie by different Western historians contradicted each other, I noticed, sometimes because of political ideology or other biases, sometimes because interpretation of complex issues differ easily from person to person. Ethiopia was indeed complex, as were Ethiopia’s traditions, politics, monarchical culture and history, and social reality. In all this Selassie had to find a way, as said explaining and shaping his actions.


Serge van Duijnhoven, an historian as well as poet from the Netherlands, wrote the small “afgeschreven” biography (mini-biography) I bought on Haile Selassie, published in 1993. To Van Duijnhoven’s credit: his portrayal of Haile Selassie is not too negative and relatively neutral and balanced. It seems even understanding with regard to Selassie’s choices, even when other criticized these. Van Duijnhoven seems to put in context the complexity of the country Ethiopia and the Emperor. He was mainly factual, strove to balance (which is good), but not always got all his facts right, though mostly regarding less relevant details. Not overly relevant, perhaps, but odd mistakes there were: he describes Jamaican thinker and leader Marcus Garvey – who predicted Selassie’s coronation - as “Reverend” (analogy with Martin Luther King?). Garvey never was a Reverend. He wasn’t even formally Protestant anymore in the latter part of his life (he became Catholic), but never belonged to any clergy. He was the leader of a social Black Power or upliftment movement, not a primarily religious one. Van Duijnhoven does describe the general tenets of Rastafari well, on the other hand.

Still, if he got some facts clearly wrong, you don’t know what to believe anymore. Selassie became in his latter years more focussed on health issues – Van Duijnhoven relates – and had Indian advisors for his mental and physical health, as well as a Swedish “holistic” advisor. Selassie wanted to see his staff in the palace dance daily to “modern rhythmic” music for health reasons, Van Duijnhoven also relates as illustrative detail. This is not really a disturbing detail, and even sympathetic or funny in some way, but how did Van Duijnhoven find this out? However: maybe it is simply true, and he had reliable sources.

Other books - or journal or newspaper reports and articles - were more critical, and overall an image was presented of an authoritarian, absolutist Monarch in the vein of The Bourbon Monarchy (Louis XIV) as existed in France, centuries ago. An Emperor who aimed to keep absolute power, and even neglected the ply and problems (poverty, inequality, slavery) of his people. While Selassie in reality aimed at solving these problems as well as at modernization in several ways (legally, technologically) – influenced in part by the Western world and Europeans -, some historians still claim that Selassie’s efforts had little effect, and that he actually kept Ethiopia backwards. Several authors, however, also note more positively that Selassie made quite some progress, such as in modernization and education, in Ethiopia, despite difficult circumstances. In addition, several authors place Selassie in the broader historical context, pointing out with arguments that the following dictatorship under Mengistu was worse in several ways. Indeed there are strong arguments for that.

Marcus Garvey might have “predicted” the coronation of an African king that would mean the redemption of Black People worldwide (Rastafari-adherents see Selassie’s later coronation as the fulfilment of this prophecy), and was praiseworthy of the Emperor when crowned in 1930 and some time after it, but he became critical later. When Fascist Italy under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, Garvey became irritated by the support Selassie sought, against the invasion, of mainly European, Western powers – “who would let him down, eventually”, Garvey warned - while neglecting broader African connections within his own continent or with Black people worldwide against the Fascist invasion. He attributed this to his elitist position in Ethiopia, detached from the large populace, and used to riches, privileges and servants.


Then there is the still most famous book on Haile Selassie: ‘The Emperor, downfall of an autocrat’, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. This was published in 1978. This work is on Selassie’s monarchic rule and habits, and sold well. However, the veracity of all facts in this book – including even relevant facts – has been meanwhile questioned by many. Not just by Selassie-adherents, by the way. Kapuscinski was known to “invent” or “make up” facts in his journalistic or historical writings, often as part of allegories, for political purposes in, for instance, his native Poland. In the said book on Selassie, Selassie’s rule was in this sense compared to Edward Gierek’s, First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, until he fell in disgrace in 1980. If this comparison really made sense is already doubtful, but Kapuscinski’s historical methods have been criticized overall as “unscholarly” and biased, including – as said – made up (or unverified) facts.

See this review:


In a quite recent article (January 31, 2013) in the Dutch weekly journal Vrij Nederland, Harm Ede Botje calls Kapuscinski a “fantast”. He furthermore worked for the Polish secret services, making him a fanatic, practising Communist, and which explains his “propagandistic” journalism. That Selassie was ousted by Communists in 1974 for instance had to do with the negative image of Selassie that partly comes through in Kapuscinski’s 1978 work on Selassie.

Kapuscinski was seen as good (literary) writer, a poet, as well as a journalist, but when a book is presented as “nonfiction” and historical, one may assume that the facts in it are correct. Artistic licence is okay, so are literary aspirations, but this is just lying and deception.


Van Duijnhoven’s small biography I mentioned before was read (or sold) much less than the bestseller (deemed classic now) by Kapuscinski. Van Duijnhoven’s “mini-biografie” has not been even translated into other languages than Dutch, so the market remained limited. Even Dutch public libraries “wrote” the book “off”, as I told. Serge Van Duijnhoven (who is also a poet) is also practically unknown outside of the Netherlands. Yet, his work on Selassie seemed more neutral and “real” to me. Not extremely academic in tone, but a good read, (seemingly) factual, and educational for young and older people.

Other more neutral biographies of Haile Selassie may have appeared in other countries and languages as well, but Kapuscinski is the more known as an author and journalist, even if his bias has become more evident recently.


Another biographical work on Haile Selassie cannot go unmentioned: the very readable ‘The mission : the life, reign and character of Haile Selassie I’ by Hans Wilhem Lockot, published in 1989. It is overall a quite sympathetic and positive description of Selassie as a person and of his reign. Lockot describes Selassie’s political and social talent as outstanding, for instance, and also points at actual progress achieved in Ethiopia toward modernization and education under Selassie’s guidance. He characterizes the accusation that the Emperor “hid” the drought and famine in Wollo province of Ethiopia from the world as fabrications, inventions by his enemies: Lockot points out that many foreign journalists worked freely in Ethiopia before and during the famine. Also, that Selassie supposedly had a lot of money (billions according to some German journalists) hidden abroad in a Swiss bank account, had “not a shred of truth”, Lockot points out, as all the extra money was needed for Ethiopian developments and policies.

Overall Lockot’s work, rather than unreasonably laudatory or apologetic, seems upon closer reading a balanced portrayal to me, making it more convincing. Much information recurred that I already have read before in other works on Selassie, but details in it were new for me.


Different writers – outsiders/non-Ethiopians in most cases – partly repeat the same general events surrounding Selassie, but with individual differences between them, especially in the details. Hans-Wilhem Lockot, a German, lived and worked in Ethiopia as head of the research division of Ethiopia’s National Library. He really loves Ethiopia, coming across also in his other writings. In this particular work on Selassie, Lockot furthermore admits that he aims at a positive reassessment of Selassie, after negative comments about Selassie following the revolution in 1974, led by Mengistu, overthrowing the Emperor. He brought this overthrow onto himself, seemed to be a subtextual meaning about the Empreror’s rule in several commentaries.

Subtexts – or in other words “reading between the lines” – is what I do with all these books on Selassie. Biases can be hidden, to differing degrees, as we saw with Kapuscinski’s “biography”. Yet, also with more seemingly “neutral” or “impartial” works a degree of intellectual mistrust seems healthy to me. European countries Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium also had violent, oppressive colonial pasts in parts of Africa. The seeming respect granted by e.g. the British government and state to Haile Selassie, including wartime assistance, and Ethiopia’s independence, was perhaps helpful, but at the same time hypocritical as Britain denied self-rule in other African countries it colonized. This smells like the proven imperialistic method of “divide and rule”. Many articles, reports, or books on Selassie are by Britons (and other Europeans).


Then I saw a few good documentaries, some on DVD (and before that video) , that I considered quite educational for me: on Ethiopia and Haile Selassie’s rule. These include a British-made one, a seemingly neutral one, called ‘H.I.M. Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah’ (http://youtu.be/75GQ3rwxtZI) - worth a watch I think.

Another, more recent one, spoken mainly in Amharic, I saw as part of a film festival, and I discussed in another post (December, 2011) on this blog: the documentary is called ‘Twilight revelations : episodes in the life and times of Emperor Haile Selassie’, is from 2009. It is based on interviews with Ethiopian people who worked closely with Selassie. To quote myself from that post: “This documentary gave a balanced, and overall positive (and human) view of Selassie as person and Emperor”.

I found the documentary of ‘Faces of Africa’ called ‘Haile Selassie: the pillar of Ethiopia, part 1 & 2’ interesting as well. See: http://youtu.be/bVki9t3anJU

Several interesting documentaries can furthermore be found on YouTube. This one, called ‘Ethiopia : the hidden empire’ is another interesting example: http://youtu.be/ZbyJyp2rQdE

I watched several of them, also on YouTube, encountering partly information I already learned about through other media and books, though with some added knowledge, and of course - the main advantage of films – visualization, images. Images can on the other hand also be manipulated and confusing, so I try to remain aware of that as well. Just like a main advantage of Internet, over other media: namely that you can search very specifically for information yourself, can also turn out to be confusing, and is also manipulated (by commercial parties, hackers, or virus spreaders).


Like I mentioned, later than most other works on Selassie I mentioned, I also finished reading recently the Autobiography written by Haile Selassie I, called ‘The autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I : 1892-1937’. He wrote this in 1937. ‘Autobiography’ is a somewhat confusing term, because it mostly consists of memoirs from the perspective of a political leader. The actual title Selassie gave himself to the memoirs makes this clearer: ‘My life and Ethiopia’s Progress’. In other words, his life at the service of Ethiopian progress.

You won’t find too much personal or intimate revelations by Selassie beyond political, practical, or work-related issues, and rarely does he refer to his daily life or personal relationships or even feelings. The tone may even seem overly formal – because of this scope as an Emperor in function - while other linguistic formulations relate – according to the translator (Selassie wrote the memoirs in Amharic) – to the inherent social values present within Amharic, culturally different from the English to which it is translated. Hierarchy is also considered within Amharic’s linguistic formulations, as are politeness, traditions, social relations etcetera, rendering an inherent “opacity” to Amharic, difficult to translate to English.

It seemed, however, translated well in my opinion, and I consider it readable, though some formulations needed some getting accustomed to. Likewise did the practical and formal focus of Selassie’s descriptions require some adjustment from my part, but I could adjust and actually began to enjoy reading even the detailed descriptions. Perhaps the down-to-earth and practical focus corresponded with a “meditative vibe” within me.

It appealed, I think, also to shared human psychology. In past periods during my life, when I was sad or felt wronged by people, focussing on mundane/earthly, practical issues like hand and foot work, cleaning, repairing, putting in order, gardening, helped me to forget – at least temporarily - the hard “big” world of hatred, selfishness, power play, or tricky human encounters where you do not know friends from your foes. Maybe the suggestion of “keeping it simple and basic” or even “starting over again from from scratch” helps puts the mind at ease and focussed. Something of this mental, meditative “escape” I seem to find in Selassie’s descriptions and focus in the memoirs.


Selassie wrote these memoirs in 1937 while in exile in Bath, England (Somerset), after the Italians invaded and conquered Ethiopia in 1936. He stayed in Bath between 1936 and 1941. He read many international daily newspapers in that period, as Lockot’s relates in his work.

I have been to Bath in 2011, when visiting surrounding areas and nearby Bristol (I actually stayed in Bristol for some days, and visited Bath one full day from there). Bath was a well-preserved historical Georgian town, tourist guides explained. I also hoped to find the place where Selassie stayed during his period in exile. Just to get an idea of the surroundings where Selassie passed his days in exile.

Photo above: view of (central) Bath. I took this photo in 2011.

Bath was (and largely still is) a wealthy, stately town, with Georgian architecture, though with some “cosy” parts, and even some seemingly “rougher” parts, though it came across mainly as a wealthy, “middle-class” town. The large house/villa where Selassie stayed was called Fairfield House, served as his residence, and was in an outer, green part of Bath called Newbridge, close to several smaller and larger parks. Perhaps ironically the architecture of this villa was of the so-called “Italianate” style.

I walked through Newbridge and got an idea (with all the other knowledge I gathered about Selassie by then in my head) of how it must have been for Haile Selassie to have to leave Ethiopia to come to these Northern European, British surroundings.

Photo above: street in Newbridge, Bath. I took this photo in 2011.

The “Autobiography” covers up to 1937. The Ethiopian-Italian conflict as a foreplay of World War II – i.e. Fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, and what lead up to it - are important topics in especially the latter part of the Autobiography, which is understandable, as he wrote this in exile soon after Italy’s invasion.

I became later in the work adjusted to the practical, formal focus of Selassie, but actually found it pleasing and educational as well. Thinking it through, I think it reflects some type of humility, of being dignified while realistic. Even when criticizing what he saw as wrong or evil actions by his enemies within Ethiopia, or the Italian wickedness, political tricks, and violence, the lack of support from the international community at times for Ethiopia, Selassie’s tone is critical but not very emotional or spiteful. Dignified, you might say. In these memoirs, Selassie certainly also recurringly makes broader (higher or deeper) philosophical and religious (Christian) references, which show his worldview and beliefs. There is quite some wisdom here and there in the Autobiography as well, alternating at times the practical elaborations on economics, agriculture, infrastructure, organization, trade, military actions etcetera with deeper (or “higher”, if you will) philosophical and social insights.

This combination of philosophy, practical development, and politics – furthermore written in a historically significant year, 1937 – helps make this Autobiography an insightful read.


In addition, and going back to my “knowledge trajectory” regarding Haile Selassie, it seems an interesting coincidence that Selassie’s own writings on his life and work followed, in my case, after I read, heard and saw so much about what other people said about Selassie. Opinions ranging from positive about Selassie to negative/disparaging, and from “praising” reggae lyrics, biased or less-biased commentators or biographical information from Western and European scholars/historians, of journalists, to opinions by other Ethiopians and Africans.

I find that you can be inspired and taught by life stories of people, especially when they were innovative or influential. When they had odds to overcome and aimed for the positive. I had this with the life story/biography of Marcus Garvey, even to a degree Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or, for that matter, people like Pablo Picasso, James Brown, Kemal Ataturk, William Pitt, Charles de Gaulle, Toussaint Louverture, Andy Warhol, Oscar Wilde etcetera. Artists as well as political and social leaders. These are often also “positive examples” for one’s own life. I really experience that this way.

Yet, even biographies of people with “dubious” sides like Napoleon Bonaparte, Muamar Khadaffi, or Stalin can be instructive, as of people who are not commonly known as really good or bad. Also the life story of (they say) a distant relative of mine, Manuel Godoy, prime minister in Spain around 1800, inspired me somehow. Such biographies give insight in personalities, the mere humanity of them when they made choices, and we all share that humanity, making the stories imaginable, even when dealing with other times and conditions.

I am interested in biographies/life stories, but also in autobiographies and memoirs: because then the person talks about himself “in his own words”. I think it’s good for balance: to put these own writings alongside what others say. My distant relative Manuel Godoy was a political leader in Spain, around 1800. There were many (positive and negative) comments about him then and later: he was what you call “controversial”. See the Wikipedia article on him, for instance. Godoy’s own memoirs, written later in his life after he was removed from power following popular uproar and was living in Paris, France, were – not unlike the discussed Selassie’s memoirs – more on his political role and with little attention to his personal and intimate affairs. Still interesting to read, I imagine even if he was not (as I heard all my life) somewhere in earlier branches of our family tree. Indeed he was from the same part of the province Badajoz, as most of my Spanish family (my mother’s side), and that surname Godoy was one of the two carried by my grandmother (in Spanish custom people have two official surnames, as readers may know).


In conclusion, a lesson I learned from all this, is that you must not neglect what the person him- or herself has to say about him-/herself and his/her life, even if many other people feel the need to comment on or describe him/her from the outside. Every human being needs to be given attention, listened to, and not just talked about. That’s my idea of a better world. Even when disagreeing with or not really understanding someone.

While many Rastafari adherents admit that Haile Selassie (re)connects them to an (ancestral) African history and identity, making him (Selassie also as symbol) important for the Africa-focussed redemptive movement that is Rastafari, quite other people writing or commenting on Selassie have also their own agenda, quite to the opposite of the Rastafari movement. One of these agenda’s was separating, through given honours and welcomes, the Christian monarch Selassie, the ancient dynasty and monarchy and extensive cultural heritage found in Ethiopia - and Ethiopia’s independence – from the rest of supposedly more “savage” Africa, as the British and French and others did as part of a colonial “divide and conquer” game.

Selassie corrected this himself with his leading role in organizing African unity and the Organization of African Unity (headquartered in Addis Ababa, since its foundation in 1963) since the 1950s and 1960.

On also a more cultural and spiritual level, the Rastafari movement also “reinscribed” Selassie within and as part of Africa, as of course he and Ethiopia always were.

One may or may not share the actual “spiritual” belief that Selassie is God (called Jah by Rastas), or more specifically the reincarnation of Christ as God returned to redeem Africans – as some Rastas believe –, or at least that (as many Rastas argue) Selassie is the divine Jah, still living because everliving, redeeming Africans (all Black people) now and in the future. People who find such beliefs irrational would be less hypocritical if they applied the same rationalist scrutiny to powerful world religions as Christianity or Islam (or Hinduism, Buddhism etcetera). People have the right to choose their own spirituality.

In any case, apart from personal beliefs one may have, the redemptive function of Selassie for Rastafari adherents, Africans, Black people - and perhaps even for poor developing countries in general - is real and proven. As also from other life stories, besides this I think all human beings globally can learn something from Selassie’s life.

This is, I think and conclude, largely due to the overall intelligent way in which Selassie ruled Ethiopia and protected its and later Africa’s interests, as most writings I mentioned above showed in different ways. Despite difficult conditions, and conservative traditions to be considered, Selassie maintained dignity, and achieved progress in Ethiopia in several ways, wherever possible at least, and also for African unity. Moreover, in the international arena he took an early stand against Fascism, against racism, and colonialism, in other words: in favour of international equality and solidarity. All this adds up to a positive example.


My “knowledge trajectory” is by the way not over (it never is.. as I live I keep learning): there is a Volume II to the Autobiography by Selassie I discussed, Volume II dealing with a later period of Selassie’s life and rule, also in his own words.. I have to find this to read it as well..

dinsdag 2 september 2014

Animal references

It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked.”

~ Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia

It is a common question I encounter regularly, at least in the Netherlands, where I live. “What do you like more: dogs or cats?”. This very question reflects the two main “pet animals” common in the Netherlands, but of course also in many other Western and other countries.

I have tried to answer this question for myself, and I have concluded that I am more a cat person than a dog person. Admittedly, for the basic, quite superficial reason that I find cats prettier to look at, and more pleasant to touch or have near. Perhaps there is even a reason beyond this: I find their behaviour more funny, and at the same time more “trustworthy” in some way. All this is subjective, and others may prefer dogs or other animals they know better.

In any case, I think it is interesting to focus a bit more on animals for me: from my perspective. This follows on a period that I increased my interest and focus on natural life in a more detailed sense. Although I might have been an “early adapter” to the environmental consciousness movement earlier in my life, and always loved healthy, natural landscapes.. it stayed somewhat abstract, detached, if you will, from actual animals – large and small – on the ground and in natural environments. Yet, those living beings keep nature going: think for instance of the important function of bees and their pollination in maintaining natural balance.


I was in this regard probably partly influenced by my upbringing. Like more cultures in the world, the cultures where my parents came from – Italy and Spain – were up to the 1990s not very “pet-minded”. Many of our Dutch neighbours had dogs, some cats, and some for some reason even hamsters. We only had little birdies – parakeets – in a cage for a time. Cats sometimes entered our backyard.

Like in for instance Caribbean and Latin American cultures, there were in Spain and Italy – especially in rural areas or outer parts of towns – dogs or cats that somehow were owned by people and loosely connected to particular houses, but they were rarely allowed inside the house, unless for purely functional reasons: cats to chase bothersome mice and rats for instance. Hugging pets too long, or even having pets “chilling” or “hanging” with you on the couch, or on your bed – common in e.g. Britain, the US, or the Netherlands - was in more Southern Europe long unheard of. This began to change – I understood - by the 1990s, when pets became more common as house-mates in South Europe. In some parts of Spain, having small pet dogs was for a time a trend, or distinctive custom, among particularly gay men (don’t ask me why), but it became more widespread among heterosexuals as well.

Likewise, elsewhere in the world, in e.g. Africa and the Caribbean animals were – even if connected to a household – long seen as especially functional, and only in a later instance affectionately. This is similar throughout parts of Europe – like I just explained – as well as most of Asia, Oceania, Latin America, Africa, and other parts. The “house pet” in the Western, domestic sense is in that sense rather exceptionally confined to North West Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. At least, it was for a long time.

Photo: a stray goat in the town of Falmouth in Jamaica. I took this photo in 2008.

Yoruba proverb:

Àìrí èyàn, la ńpe ajá ní àwé. / It's the absence of anyone around that one calls a dog a friend.

[In the absence of the preferred, the available becomes a choice]

All this – of course – does not exclude affection between humans with certain animals, also in those non-pet minded cultures. There are enough historical examples of this, such as from Ancient Egypt. An affectionate bond between a person and a particular cat, dog, or in Africa of humans with a strong bond with particular lions, zebras, monkeys, antelopes etcetera. It is all known and recorded throughout history.


In virtually all human cultures, symbolic meanings have been attached to animals. On a metaphorical level, so to speak. Animals are in most world cultures compared to humans, as model or “archetypical”, to teach philosophical lessons to human beings. Here is for instance an interesting article on the traditional meanings attached to animals in traditional Yoruba (Nigeria and around) culture.


Relatedly of course, the Yoruba have many sayings/proverbs figuring elephants, lions, snakes, ants, and other animals common in Yorubaland and Africa, and - as known – proverbs are meant to convey philosophical or moral lessons to humans.

Yoruba proverb:

Kékéré àjànàkú kì í ṣe ẹgbẹ́ ẹkùn. / A diminutive elephant is no peer to a leopard.

[Appearance can be deceptive]

Further, in the Akan culture of Ghana there is the oral fable tradition around the “trickster” Anansi spider: a spider outsmarting other animals through his wit, and with human characteristics. This also has a symbolic function, teaching young humans about life. To be expected: the Akan, like the Yoruba and other African peoples, also have many proverbs with animal references, such as these ones.

The rain wets the leopard's spots but does not wash them off.” (meaning: a person’s nature is not changed by circumstances)

The tsetse-fly is perched on the tortoise's back in vain.” (about something being futile).


It is on this symbolic and metaphorical meaning of and reference to animals that I will mainly focus on from now on. I do this, however, connecting it with two of my main interests: reggae music and Rastafari.

I can focus on reggae lyrics – and I will -, and I have already some songs I like in my mind referencing certain animals.

Reggae is in part influenced by the Rastafari movement, like reggae originated in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. The lion is an important symbol within Rastafari, as is more widely known. Moreover, there is also the idea of “natural livity”, the balance of humans with nature, that is a very important notion within the Rastafari movement and worldview, alongside the focus on Black empowerment and Africa (and of course Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie). How does this “natural livity” - and the fact that many Rastas are vegetarian as well – relate to actual symbolic references made to animals? I find this an interesting topic.

Not just the focus on nature and Livity, but also the Africa-centricity of Rastafari is interesting in relation to this. The fauna in Jamaica is mostly different from that in the African motherland, where the Jamaicans’ foreparents were stolen from: African animals as elephants, lions, antelopes, giraffes, zebras etcetera are not indigenous to the Caribbean, and can maybe only be seen for real in zoos. Other animal species are spread throughout different continents, of course: monkeys, alligators, birds, ants, by now dogs (also common in Africa now), cats, goats, chicken, crabs etcetera.

Analysing reggae lyrics by Rastafari-adhering artists is one way to get insight on Rastas’ reference to different types of animals, and their meaning.


The lion as an important symbol in the Rastafari movement can be related to one of the names Haile Selassie took on with his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930: Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. That the lion is the national symbol of Ethiopia, and is known as an African animal, perhaps further stimulated this symbolic use amongst the Rastas.

What might have stimulated it as well is the historical use of the lion as symbol of strength and ferociousness. It also is known as the “king” of the animal kingdom. Oddly enough this strength symbol of lions was adopted soon by many European nations as well. It is quite strange, when one thinks about it, why this (mainly) African animal became that important as national symbol for several European nations, even far up north (Scandinavia). Whereas eagles, bears, or wolves were more common and indigenous to Europe – and were also used as symbols in Europe - they became partly replaced by the lion as forceful symbol of a nation. That the bear had once this symbolic function as well in Europe can be deduced from the etymology of e.g. the place names Berlin or Bern.. both from the word for bear. Historians also say that the Spanish common surname García is originally Basque, and derives from a Basque (North-Spain and South West-France) word for “bear”, (as in “strong guy”). The word “garçon” for “boy/young man” in French – borrowed in English to mean "waiter" - has a related, Aquitanian/Basque origin.

The following list from Wikipedia is instructive: some “national animals” were chosen to be so because they are indigenous and typical within a country, others not (see e.g. Netherlands, the English ones, Luxembourg, Belgium, with regard to the “lion”).


Anyhow, the lion as Rastas use it has this reference to strength, but at the same time to Africa, and to Haile Selassie, giving it a wider, historical meaning, also for recuperating “identity” after historical oppression. It is used by Rastas at times to refer to oneself as a strong African, but also to refer to fellow Rastas, male or female (lions, lionesses), as terms of endearment so to speak.

These lion as a symbol replaced – some say – the Anansi (fable spider) figure, an Akan heritage also found in Jamaican folklore. Anansi is a trickster spider that through his cunning was benefited or got out of situations. While in some sense rebellious, Anansi represented at the same time an amoral model: selfish, and fooling already poor, downtrodden figures/animals as well when he wanted to or benefited from this, and not just mightier parties. The lion by contrast represented a “regal”, and more moral model – as well as a stronger and more independent image - that Rastas preferred over the trickster spider known in Jamaican folklore.

In a more negative way “wolves” recur also quite often in Rasta symbolic vocabulary. Though also strong and ferocious as animals, for which an unarmed human is no match, this is not regarded in a sense of dignity or pride. Wolves are discussed as mere predators: rapacious, murderous, treacherous, and opportunistic. The most common use in Rasta speech of “wolves” is therefore of “fake Rastas”, or other conmen, adding to wolves ..”in sheep’s clothing”, from the known saying. Devouring and preying on the symbolic “sheep” representing true Rastas and “Jah Jah children”.

Beyond the lion-wolf-sheep contradictory trio, many more animals are recurringly mentioned in reggae lyrics.


Ask any Caribbean person who went to live in Britain or the Netherlands – or whose parents had - , and most probably you’ll hear the same: they did not have the pet culture in the Caribbean, and were once somewhat surprised by the intimate in-house bonds of some native Dutch or British persons with their dogs or other pets. Animals as such were of course there however in the Caribbean, and seen as a part of life, especially in rural areas.

Many reggae artists hail from rural areas or know the country, or have known animals in some urban parts. While reggae developed in urban Kingston ghettos such as Trench Town, these ghettos were inhabited by migrants from rural areas. So, many reggae artists were born Kingstonians – city slickers, you might say - , but just as many of them had rural family or personal ties. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, the Itals, Ijahman Levi, just to name some, as well as later artists Bushman, Anthony B, Fantan Mojah, Luciano a.o., all were born or grew up in part on the country. Besides this, many Kingstonians got more attention to the rural and natural living – and self-sufficient farming - after “sighting” Rastafari (becoming Rastafari adherent): the already mentioned natural Livity idea.


This is relevant, I think, because these artists write lyrics from their own life experiences. This includes often poor ghetto living, but also rural settings. Though large-scale cultivation reminds of the slavery days and sugar plantations, small-scale or self-sufficient farming is mostly discussed positively by many reggae (and Rasta) artists. Many proverbs with animals in Jamaica seem to stem from the older popular peasantry tradition: “chicken merry..hawk deh near” is such a proverb, also found in reggae lyrics. It means: the chicken is merry, but does not know the hawk to slaughter it is nearby: meaning: not seeing things coming, being unaware of the situation..

In the Jamaican Creole language (also known as ‘Patois’) there are overall quite some proverbs involving animals. Some are comparable to ones found in English, or are derived from these, but there are many “own” sayings and proverbs as well. Like I mentioned before, the fauna in the Caribbean is partly different from the African motherland, and many seem to stem from farm life,..farm animals like cows, mules, and chicken recur in Jamaican proverbs. Also, dogs and cats recur often in these proverbs, later common pets (as mentioned) in countries like Britain. There are however also proverbs with monkeys, snakes, and lions, that perhaps have African origins.


The higher the monkey climbs, it is the more he will expose”, is an interesting Jamaican proverb. It means that when you “climb” socially, you get under more scrutiny.

Another common Jamaican proverb, also recurring in several reggae lyrics, refers to the also very urban mouse. “Fire deh a mus-mus tail..Im tink a cool breeze”: literal translation: the fire is close to the mouse’s tail, but the mouse thinks it is just a cool breeze. This also means that someone is unaware of what is to come.

These last two proverbs have a somewhat comparable meaning, pointing at changes in society and the need for consciousness, common in socially conscious reggae lyrics, of course.

Like in the Yoruba ideas in the article I referred to before, the Akan Anansi spider tales, but also in other cultures in the world, “animal rights” as such are not so much recognized as some would want, but animals are still symbolically and philosophically equalled with human beings: what can happen to them can happen to humans as well. This can be considered as a form of humanization. They are used as models to learn from, in that sense. Also many European proverbs with animals have that equalling or humanizing of animals of course, and had that long before something like “animal rights” were even considered in Europe. Animal behaviour as lessons or warnings for human mistakes is in other words common to many cultures globally.


The Livity idea – living in balance with nature, and eating no meat/fish - is widespread among Rastafari adherents. It is not unanimously practiced or required, but Rastafari does not have that much strict, centralized rules. It is highly valued though. The Twelve Tribes mansion among Rastafari is often looser on diet issues, for instance, even eating chicken and other meat and fish at times.

Many Rastafari are vegetarian however, and that is of course relevant for this post. To be more accurate, these Rastas prefer Ital food, which is broader than just the vegetarian not eating of meat or fish. Ital food should be really natural, and unprocessed, like raw fruit.

Nothing weh mi eat it nah bawl” sings reggae artist Bushman on his song “Fire Pon A Deadas”. The term “deadas” of the title is a disparaging term Rastas use meaning flesh: since animals were killed for it. The respect for life of animals is of course a praiseworthy attitude in societies where “animal rights” are under-recognized, or hypocritically dealt with, as in Western cultures.

The Rastas that eat meat or fish attach, again, some humanizing symbols to animals, even when eaten. There is a partly Biblical influence (no pork, shellfish, Levitical code), traditional African beliefs (in the avoidance of salt, for instance), and other rules on the animal characteristics. For that reason, Rastas avoid eating types of fish or other animals known as “predators”, for a possible infectious influence on humans eating them.


There is one contradictory aspect though. Hand drumming is also valued much by Rastafari adherents. The Kete drums are used for Nyahbinghi gatherings, including drumming and chanting, which are quite crucial “groundation” moments for many Rastafari communities. Besides Kete drums – based on Akan/Ghanaian Akete drum types - other drums recur as well, such as from the Congo-based Kumina Afro-folk tradition in Jamaica, djembes, or the Afro-Cuban (but based on African models, of course) congas or bongos. Most of these drums have heads made of animal hides. Maybe these skins were used after the animals’ natural deaths, but it is not known for sure. Kete drums tend to use goat skin, as do djembes, while sheep skin, cow skin (congas, mostly, and also bigger bass drums in nyabinghi), or buffalo skin (e.g. bongos) is also used. Historically in Africa, cow and goat skin, but further also antelope skin was much used for drum skins.

Nowadays synthetic drumheads exist, but many Rastas prefer traditional drums, also those who are vegetarian: with hides/skins of (killed?) animals. This is not hypocritical, I think, but can better be called ironic or inconsistent. I use the term “hypocritical” more for the “deceiving” manipulation of people with power, in higher social positions.

It is somewhat inconsistent though – using animal hides but not eating meat -, but “pro-nature” consistency is difficult if wooden materials are used, for drums or otherwise: trees have often to be cut for it.

Interesting is how traditionally in Nyahbinghi drumming sessions among Rastafari, animal hides are selected. The drums called “fundeh” (often mid-sized kete type drums), tend to give the “life line”, basic (heart) beat rhythms, with little variation. The variating role is much more there for the “repeater” drum, a kete that is a bit smaller/shorter in length (often also the diameter of the skin), and played for more varying, improvizing rhythmic patterns. Both these drums tend to have goat skins. Some Rastas – such as known drummer Count Ossie - believe, however, that for the head of the “basic beat” Fundeh a male (ram) goat should be used, and a female (ewe) goat for the Repeater head. This relates to the – compared to the male - more and varied - and higher-pitched - noises the female goat apparently makes when alive, thus fitter for the Repeater drum function. Animal characterizations also here, haha.

Even though a smaller head diameter and specific tuning – as well as length of the drum - influences the different pitch between drums, e.g. the fundeh and repeater (the latter is often tuned tighter), as well, different animal hides do have different sonic/tonal effects. That’s why for bigger, bass drums – as the big Nyahbinghi “Thunder” drum – the skin of cow (or sheep) tends to be used.

Photo: Me (Michel) playing with others during a Nyahbinghi session in a park in Amsterdam, Netherlands (2014). I sit around the middle (red sweater, yellow trousers) and play a Fundeh. The man on the right of me plays a Repeater (with a somewhat smaller drumhead size)


The Rastafari movement is Afro-centric, focussed on the African continent as the roots of kidnapped Black people in the West. “I won’t give up a continent for an island”, as Alton Ellis (and Hugh Mundell) sung, both now deceased reggae singers. The lived experience, however, is the Caribbean, and therefore specifically African animals are not mentioned very much, especially in Jamaican proverbs, though there are some examples. Also apart from the lion, that is.

Some African proverbs or tales (Anansi) have survived in the Americas, but many are derived from European languages or English, referring often to animals more common in Europe, and the Caribbean itself. Dogs, horses, wolves, cows, bulls, chicken, roosters etcetera. In other cases, proverbs come from Caribbean farm lands. Not much giraffes, elephants, or zebras in the wild there.. Sometimes, African (non-lion) animals are mentioned: leopards, elephants, as well as animals found on several continents. Bees, ants, birds, mules, monkeys etcetera, are all indigenous (in different subspecies) in both Africa and the Caribbean. The donkey is even originally African, they say. And the cat is, by the way, historically a domesticated version of the African wildcat.

More than fauna distribution, the symbolic use of animals is relevant here, also in (message) lyrics that characterizes much reggae, especially Rastafari-influenced reggae.

Thus contextualized, it’s now time to discuss examples of the reference to animals and their mostly symbolic meanings in reggae lyrics.


I will especially pay attention to Roots Reggae lyrics, with Rastafari influence, since the 1970s. This way I can bring reggae and Rastafari together in one thematic whole.

One side of Rastafari is the Bible, and a new interpretation of it, from a Black, African perspective. Though there are increasing numbers of Rastafari thinkers who opine that the Bible or Christian derivatives are over-emphasized in the Rastafari movement (Mutabaruka, for instance), the Bible still is overall important in the movement as a reference point.

This is also the case in reggae lyrics. The Congos’ ‘Ark of the Covenant’, refers to the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, discussing different types of animals, saved on that ark, “even the ants”. Producer Lee Perry added cow sounds to the music for good measure.


The lion symbol recurs a lot throughout Roots Reggae, and New Roots lyrics. The song ‘Man A Lion’ by Bushman discusses it, ‘Black Lion’ by Jah Lloyd (a.k.a. Jah Lion). Burning Spear’s sings on ‘Lion’ (on the Man In the Hills album, 1976) not to kill the lion. The Itals sing ‘Don’t Wake the Lion’ (1976). Bob Marley sings about being “Iron like the Lion in Zion” (Ethiopia).

Dee-jay I-Roy also has a great song called ‘Heart of a Lion’ (1978) on this theme, from also a Rastafari perspective. Its interesting rhythmic and lyrical variation by the way proving that deejaying/toasting is a genuine art form (and not just someone talking over existing music).. but that’s another issue..

The Lion, especially in the phrase Conquering Lion, refers to Selassie, but the animal itself is also discussed as such, though also as symbol and animal at the same time.

On a more recent – energetic – tip: another example is a digital dancehall song ‘Lion Fi Roar’ (2002) by Sizzla.


References to the lion as Rasta symbol in reggae (including some dancehall) lyrics are overall too numerous to mention. The same can be said of the more negative use of the term “wolves” or “wolves in sheep clothing”. Dennis Brown talks about the evil by symbolic ‘Wolves and Leopards’ against sheep, in the song of that name (1977) , while Fred Locks also sings that wolves should leave the sheep alone (‘Wolf, wolf’, 1976) . Dee-jay Big Youth has a tune with the title ‘Wolf in Sheep Clothing’, but other reggae artists have similar song titles with “wolves” (Cornell Campbell, I Kong, Steel Pulse, the Abyssinians a.o.). I myself mention it in the last verse of my song ‘Rastafari Live On’ (Michel Conci, 2012).

Too much to mention – the wolf -, in titles or somewhere in lyrics, like the lion. Maybe for that reason it is interesting to discuss examples that are a bit more rare or (almost) unique. Original, some might say, though something that is not original can still be true.

Yami Bolo’s ‘Officials are like Locust’ (1994) a good song and good music led by Sly & Robbie, is an example of the use of a less commonly mentioned animal, in this case in a negative way. ‘Leopards’ in Dennis Brown’s well-known ‘Wolves and Leopards’ is in that sense also relatively “original”. Max Romeo compares foolish, aggressive raiding by police to ‘Three Blind Mice’ in the known song of that name. Mice indeed seem fast and nervous from our, human perspective, because their hearts pump blood faster, somebody told me once.

I liked the also quite original ode to the industrious, working Bee on the song by new artist Colah Colah called ‘The Bees’ (2012), a nice version on an old Studio One riddim, with a nice video as well, I think. Colah Colah even discusses the natural relationships between bees and other animals, like wasps, roaches, and rats.

From a ghetto, urban perspective, Mutabaruka talks about “roaches and rats take over the flat”, as indicative of poverty in the ghetto love song ‘Hard Times Loving’ (1983). Another early dancehall artist took on the odd, somehow funny moniker/artist name White Mice. Overall, however, in several (Rastafari-inspired) Roots Reggae lyrics, mice or rats are mostly presented as negative or at least as hindrance, perhaps predictable, due to the very behaviour of rats/mice: fast, and parasitic by gnawing on what humans leave – teeth of rodents grow faster than the rest of their body - while avoiding contact with humans. This causes irritation in several human cultures, although I have known about people who find rats actually “cute”.

In less Rastafari-inspired reggae, such as parts of Dancehall, such monikers from “fierce” animals recur as monikers: think of the artists Tiger, Super Cat, and the funny name Mad Cobra. The artist name Eek-a-Mouse sounds fun, but refers not to a mouse, but to a race-horse the artist once betted on. He lost the bets on this horse, so his friends jokingly named him after that horse. Eek-a-Mouse called himself now “mouse” by the way too, as his artist name has taken hold.

Locusts, wolves, leopards are animals used as metaphors of negative, evil human behaviour. Also ravens, vultures (lyrics by Israel Vibration for instance), hyena’s (e.g. in a song by Apple Gabriel) are used as negative, devouring symbols in lyrics. The devil (as force of evil) is in some lyrics described as a “cunning fox”.

The lion is a positive symbol, there was an ode to the bee, but also other animals are referred to in a positive sense, as positive examples for humans to learn from. Burning Spear’s ‘Elephants’ (who unlike humans take good care of each other), or ants that live in unity (unlike humans) as in the lyrics of Culture’s ‘Chanting On’ (1989).

Then there are of course the many sayings/proverbs in Jamaican Patois, which I discussed earlier, that made the way in the lyrics of these Jamaican reggae artists. Example: “high seat kill miss Thomas puss” (Puss = cat in Patois), about thinking oneself unrealistically too high in social standing, the “greedy dog that lost its bone” (both mentioned in the Israel Vibration song ‘Greedy Dog’). “Fire deh a mus-mus tail, im tink a cool breeze” (I discussed already) recurs in lyrics of several reggae songs. Further, the saying “Too much rat never dig good hole” (having too many doing the same thing is counterproductive) is in a lyric of the group the Itals (song ‘Kill Crime’, 1983). Gregory Isaacs (and others) sing: “the higher the monkey climbs, the more he will expose”, which I also already discussed before.

The well-known song ‘Maga Dog’ by Peter Tosh (the Wailers) also refers to a Jamaican proverb/saying, mentioned in one of the links I gave earlier. Literally: if you help/feel sorry for a maga (thin) dog, he still can bite you.. it is about ungrateful people after you helped them.

In fact, I found that with more knowledge of Jamaican sayings (in Jamaican Creole/Patois) – in this case including animal references - I got to understand the precise meaning of many reggae lyrics a bit better as well. Educational!


The symbolic use of animals in reggae lyrics thus has in a broad sense similarities with many other world cultures. It is furthermore Biblical and also Western (British) influenced – the latter in sometimes “European” animals used in expressions -, though with some African influences, and an own Africa-oriented interpretation. Animals are discussed as proud and strong symbols of a people and king or leader (as in several cultures, world wide): notably the lion. You might even say that Rastas “re-appropriate” the African lion symbol, after the lion has been appropriated by non-African peoples (in Europe as well as parts of Asia). Certain animals in reggae lyrics further represent the evil within humans, and in a more practical sense as having behaviour that can be used to educate humans by focussing on the essential. This is also found in several cultures globally, including ancestral Africa.

On a positive note (at least for animal lovers): all the while, there is an ongoing comparison between animals and humans that at least connect the human and animal worlds structurally. Lyrics do seldom set animals apart as abstract, strange beings, but rather as part of a natural whole with humans. Reggae lyrics overall do neither emphasize so much animals’ supposed “inferiority” to, or mere functionality for, humans, perhaps less than elsewhere in the world or in other genres. Overall these lyrics tend more toward equality or at least respect for the life of animals, and not just humans. This probably reflects somehow the connection with the natural world and Livity influencing Rastas.

There is in this sense in part a parallel with the article on Yoruba views on animals, I linked to earlier in this post: including in the fact that animals are like humans imbued with divinity, sharing the same life force.

vrijdag 1 augustus 2014

Reviews reviewed: the "aura of neutrality" and Colin Grant's biography 'Negro with a hat' on Marcus Garvey

Reviewing work by others is a multifaceted, complex issue. In this day and age, with mass media, broadly developed publishing and journalism, extensively developed cultural sectors and industries - especially in wealthy societies -, it is perhaps unavoidable that new works - be it biographical books, fictional and nonfictional books, music albums, films, or concerts - are scanned and discussed (opinionatedly). This is typically done by experts (or self-declared experts) on certain matters and fields, through mass media.

I guess this has – like so much in this world – pros and cons. Pros: there is much being published and offered, with new releases regularly, that even aficionado’s with relatively narrow interests cannot keep up. A review might just stimulate a choice to check out a book, writer, or artist. It can make curious and trigger interest. The simple fact is that you don’t have the time in one lifetime to check everything yourself that somehow interests you. The plethora of reviews might give you a hint what to choose/select from the bunch of cultural offers.

A main con of reviews, on the other hand, is that they are exactly that: “reviews”. That is: by definition opinionated; else it would be a summary or “abstract”. No, a review is an opinion by a person who for some reason got “authority” in a specific field, recognized by others around him/her, including his/her employers. This is especially the case when these reviewers work for big, well-known newspapers like the New York Times, or other big newspapers, journals, or journals with smaller, but demanding readerships, such as academic journals. Even this seems reasonable in some sense: if – by way of example – someone has studied and researched for over 20 years the Irish-British author Oscar Wilde, in a scholarly, profound manner, even including field work, and has read all previous biographies on Wilde, it is perhaps not a bad choice to let this person give an opinion on a new biography that appeared on Oscar Wilde. His opinions would then be well-informed.

However, at a deeper level even this can be problematic as well, because reviews are, again, opinionated. Academic researchers – and reviewers among them – might have the aura of neutrality. They have a purely rational, balanced, yet opinionated focus. The problem with this is that this is humanly impossible. In the whole wide world there is not one – not one! – human being who is fully able to detach oneself from oneself, so to speak. To have a rational, neutral analysis separate from one’s own personality, history, and biases. The selection of facts, and way to interpret these facts can only partly (if at all) be separated from deeply entrenched personal biases. One can – admirably – strive for balance or neutrality, that can be reached only to a degree.

I myself read reviews of music, albums, books (fictional and nonfictional), concerts, theatre plays, films, or television programmes. Besides this, I actually write reviews myself: for my blog (music, films, and books) and for other sites (of reggae albums mostly). So, I have to face these pros and cons of reviewing as well. I like to write, and in writing I also try to cultivate humbleness. This can be solved in writing by adding words indicating that it is “my” opinion, and with what I (with my knowledge and history) am able and willing to compare works. Terms like “In my opinion..” or “I find..” and “I think..” are very useful in this regard.

Not all reviews seem to have this overt humility, and I admit that I also have enjoyed reviews that are very humorous, though not seemingly modest or humble. I then find them “over the top” in a funny way. A reggae reviewer once said about a song on an album he found overall mediocre (and which he found less in quality than others by that artist): “the less said about this song, the better..”. This appears to be a harsh, arrogant, personal opinion about other people’s artistic effort, but is at the same time a funny way to put it. That compensates somehow.


I delve into this theme of “reviewing”, because I got curious about the critiques or “reception” of a book I personally appreciated very much. A pleasant and informative read, I found it to be. I am talking about ‘Negro with a hat : the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey’, a biography of Marcus Garvey – the Jamaican-born Black Power thinker and activist -, written by Colin Grant – a Briton of Jamaican parentage -, and published in 2008.

I understood quite some research for this biographical book has been carried out (secondary and primary research), resulting in a quite voluminous book of about 530 pages. I also liked its quite humorous writing style. Besides this I felt I learned a lot more about the nuances of Marcus Garvey and his movement. The author Grant had proper attention to social, political, and historical contexts, while I felt I got to know the person Marcus Garvey better as well, through his life story.

Specifically, Grant addressed Garvey’s personality, including his contradictions, good character traits, as well as flaws. This made the biography in my opinion all the more “real”. Of course he was a (pro-black) thinker and ideologist, as well as activist – and pioneering and influential at that -, but separating that from his personality is so functionalistic that it becomes artificial and absurd. Thus unconvincing. I know.. many such biographies – called “intellectual biographies” – on the ideas but with only superficial sketches of the person who had them - have appeared, and some I read, but most of these failed to convince me fully. There are, however, interesting philosophies and ideas independent of persons who formulated them, but they did not arise in a vacuum. I think Colin Grant in his 2008 biography on Garvey shows he grasps this unavoidable connection between person and ideas. A matter of credibility, in essence.

It also eases sympathy, at least in my case. Eventual “blind spots”, flaws, contradictions, irresponsibility of Garvey as a person or leader Grant describes as well, alongside “positive” character traits and actions, and certainly his noble goal of uplifting an oppressed people. Realistic, because no human is perfect. In essence it shows Garvey’s humanity: at times irresponsible, spiteful, paranoid, distrustful, even unreasonable.. it is all there.. but are those flaws not latently present in all of us, depending on circumstances? The importance is that you learn from your mistakes to improve yourself, and Garvey - as the “self-made man” par excellence, wanting to help downtrodden Black people forward - did just that: learn to then improve, as he recommended as well to his followers. In that sense he – despite that he was criticized for having a too big ego - showed more self-reflection than other leaders the world has known.

The flaws in his character further did not seem of the truly “wicked” kind to me. Maybe because he was a very honest and direct person, he lost the avenues to really fool or hurt people consciously. Though Garvey himself advised leaders to present themselves well in public and keep certain things private, his talent for hypocrisy proved overall too small. His rotund opinions on some issues could sound harsh in some ears, but inspiring to others: the same is the case with all “innovative” leaders and thinkers: including people like Rousseau, Kant, or Mahatma Ghandi. Or Buddha and Jesus Christ for that matter.

I think it is useful to give my opinion on the work with some argumentation, but before this part turns in a review of Colin Grant’s book (by me, this time), I think it is time to focus on how reviewers in the press and media, the US, Britain and elsewhere responded and discussed this book.

The biography has appeared in English in 2008, and a French translation, by Hélène Lee, has appeared under the title ‘Le Nègre au chapeau’ in October, 2012. The same Lee also wrote the biography on Leonard Howell ‘The first Rasta’. Also Garvey was of course very important for the Afro-centric Rastafari movement, as main inspirer, including of Leonard Howell and all early Rastas of course. Some describe this as a John the Baptist-like function that Garvey had for the Rastafari movement, that first arose in Jamaica in the 1930s.. not long before Garvey’s death in London in 1940 (after a stroke) at the age of 52.

So a French translation has appeared, and not yet in other languages as far as I know, however..the bulk of reviews of ‘Negro with a hat’ I could find were in English, and appeared in US-based, Britain-based, or (Anglophone) Caribbean newspapers and journals. These include the big newspapers Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and the larger British newspapers.

How did these reviewers read the same biography I read? What recurs or differs throughout these reviews, what is remarkable, what is emphasized or ignored? In the remainder of this post I will try to answer such questions..


“Las comparaciones son odiosas” – meaning “comparisons are hateful” - is an interesting Spanish expression, I did not hear yet in other languages. This is interesting, because not just reviews, but all analytical and scholarly work rely partly on comparison. Are all these analysts therefore hateful, or do they simply weigh pros and cons? Either way, I pointed out before that biases are ALWAYS there, even among known scholars who have (and cultivate) an “aura of neutrality”. This is an illusion, though recommendable as a goal.

That the person Garvey, as well as his social ideas and movement, all get attention in Colin Grant’s biography reflects in the reviews I read. Both Garvey as man, and Garvey’s ideas and movement get attention, also in these reviews. Balanced, it seems, but the aspects of his person and his movement that get emphasized at times surprise me somewhat. In some reviews they also annoy me.

The “authoritative” New York Times review (2008) states that the Garvey movement had Fascist characteristics. Inappropriate, I think, not just because I do not want to hear that, but because I read Marcus Garvey’s own writings as well. The recurring humanity in them, his espousal of equality among man kind (beyond racial conflicts), the nuances, despite radical aspects and indeed “collectivistic” aspects of his movement, sets it apart from the basic tenets of Fascism, first developed by Benito Mussolini in 1920s Italy. The context was also different: Italy was then an independent, if relatively young, nation and state. It wanted to make its mark, and perhaps was jealous of the imperial power and pasts of other European countries. Blacks in the time of Garvey, on the other hand, were – simply put – not even free in their own lands of origin in Africa: apart from Ethiopia, and a few other regions, most of Africa was subdivided among and controlled by European colonial powers. Blacks/Africans outside Africa were generally in a dependent and oppressed position. The Garvey movement was therefore an emancipation movement, aimed at acquiring basic human rights. It lacked the cynical (some would say; “male”) power and conquest rationale of Fascism.


This and other parts of the New York Times review – that was overall quite positive on the biography as book, by the way – made me doubt whether the reviewer Paul Devlin has read also ‘The philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey’, wherein Garvey relates his own views, and adds some biographical aspects. He might have, I don’t know. Some parts of his review describes the biography well, though his focussing on Garvey’s dealings with the Ku Klux Klan borders on the sensationalistic. It was perhaps an odd move by Garvey, but explainable in some way. Even some African-Americans today prefer the direct, overt racism of white supremacists or less organized “rednecks” over the hidden, hypocritical racism – or “white dominance” equally present among many white Americans, and covertly/hidden present in social and organizational structures. “Better the devil you know and see coming”, so to speak. Instead of this KKK episode, Devlin could have emphasized more Garvey’s pioneering role in giving Black people pride. He somewhat neglects Garvey’s historical significance and legacy.

Another authoritative newspaper, Britain’s The Guardian reviewed the biography a few months before, in February 2008. Maybe because Colin Grant is British himself, reviews appeared earlier in Britain than in the US. The reviewer for the Guardian, Margaret Busby, justly emphasizes Garvey’s pioneering role in black pride, more than Devlin. She summarizes also in a well-balanced way, on the whole. Busby, on the other hand, also mentions some aspects that seem a bit sensationalistic. That he had two wives, and married another one after separating from the first, is not that extraordinary nor immoral. The contributions of these women are more relevant, yet discussed little. Busby – as do other reviews – also mentions the odd circumstance that, after one stroke, some thought mistakenly Garvey had died, while Garvey still could read the premature obituary on himself. Not long after that the fatal stroke came.


Some say that irony/humour and death do exclude one another, yet some of these reviewers – perhaps unwillingly – seek to combine irony/humour and death. It is an anecdote worth telling, perhaps an interesting one, but not a very amusing, or even relevant one. The cause of death was a stroke: why this, and what could have caused this (hereditary, stress, health problems, poverty)? This seems more relevant to me. In the biography his mother died of a stroke as well (or “apoplexy” as it was called), also relatively young. The fun fact of someone reading his own obituary outweighed this crucial biographical detail, apparently.

I must point out, in all fairness, that Busby does not emphasize sensationalism or irrelevant anecdotes too much, and overall I found her review well-written and quite accurate and balanced.

I am also positive about Kevin Le Gendre’s review in The Independent, also published in February 2008. He gives a well-balanced description of the biography, and points – more than other reviewers – to Garvey’s lasting legacy, albeit in abstract terms. Not much I disagree with here, further, and Le Gendre points at the paradoxes in a good way, the opposition against him – note especially the second paragraph of this review.


I think Le Gendre has read Garvey’s own writings, including ‘The philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey’. A minor flaw is what became a cliché in reviews on Garvey’s biography: his dealings with the Ku Klux Klan, but I mentioned that already. At least the “obituary-anecdote” is refreshingly absent.

In the short review by Kirkus Reviews (anonymous?) both these clichés recur, but at least Garvey’s “genuine commitment to bettering the lives of blacks” was recognized. It argues, though, or worse: “states”, that this was compromised by Garvey’s outsized ego. As I mentioned elsewhere on this blog (e.g. regarding the biography of James Brown) sometimes things like “bluffing” or “an outsized ego” are nothing more or less than the only way of “survival” in an hostile world.


The extensive review by Eric Arnesen in the Chicago Tribune is actually quite critical, and partly negative. Both regarding Grant’s book as on its subject: Marcus Garvey. I think Arnesen exaggerates Garvey’s character flaws. I do admit Arnesen has some good points of weaknesses in the book, as well as of Garvey and his movement. With some of his conclusions I do not agree, however. I do not think Garvey treated his wives as servants: they were for their times quite independent already, and Garvey respected that. If anything, compared to other intellectuals and leaders from his time (white and black) – or even later times – Garvey seemed relatively more to favour female equality. The later Nation of Islam (partly influenced by the Garvey movement) in the US, had at times a barely disguised “(Black) women should be servants and get out of men’s way” focus – though differing per Nation of Islam-member. Even Malcolm X – who I overall consider to be intelligent and open-minded – in his own writings showed here and there this expectance of female obedience (to Allah/God, and then to men), probably derived from conservative Islam and conservative Christianity. Garvey had this much less.


At most, Garvey tried too much to be rational and practical, neglecting complex and strictly speaking “weakening” and “paralyzing” personal things like affection, emotions, relationships, love, and friendship. That is unfortunate, but understandable with a certain life history : Garvey soon – in his early teens - had to become independent, and in time he developed broader goals for his people, the world, and not just himself. A rational focus seems required for that.


Then there are reviews more aimed at a scholarly and academic public, in more scientific and academic journals. These tend to be more extensive and detailed – as can be expected. The scientific and scholarly world cultivates its “aura of neutrality”, which as I pointed out is in fact an illusion. Yet, many journalists do the same. At least some scholars strive for objective analysis, and that in itself can lead to new, valuable insights.

Huon Wardle of the University of St Andrews wrote a thorough and in itself fine review of Grant’s ‘Negro with a hat’. I find it only unfortunate that Garvey’s lasting legacy is sidelined in it a bit, and that Wardle focuses on his mass support at the time itself. He does not say this, but like that mass support depended more on circumstance or “magic” than on content. I think maybe the message itself was necessary, explaining the mass support, and not just Garvey’s good oratory skills or organizational and promotion capacities. Also, Wardle cannot avoid to go down almost sensationalistic side-paths too: his negotiation with the Ku Klux Klan, or the extraordinary uniforms he wore. Wardle pays much attention to the fact that Garvey was a Jamaican migrant in the US, and that his support included at first many other West Indians. This is only partly relevant, I would say. He soon got much support among African-Americans/US Blacks as well, making his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), by the early 1920s, the biggest mass organization of Blacks the world had yet seen. The attention he pays to the extravagant uniforms UNIA members and Garvey himself does not seem that relevant to me, but I do find interesting how Wardle (unlike other reviewers) draws the connection with the Caribbean carnival tradition of “inverting the order”, not to mimic but to rebel in a playful way.


I do not agree with Wardle at the end of his review, seemingly a conclusion. He wrote: “The sudden explosive growth of the UNIA is an instance where a submerged nexus of utopian ideas and values briefly pierce the membrane of what actually exists and acquire a reality of their own”. This is even derogatory in some sense, and ignores the deeper message and significance of the Garvey movement: black self-determination, a self-determination other races and nations already had. From that line of reasoning “nation” ideas like Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, United Kingdom, China, USA, India and so on, are likewise “utopian”, as well as political parties or interest groups. Some ideas seemed once temporarily utopian because they were too progressive, different from the status-quo. They remain utopian because they are repressed by the powers that be.

Paul M. Heideman, writing a review on the biography in 2009 for the African-American Review, has some interesting points, I think. Like me, Heideman opined that the contradictions/complexities of Garvey come well to the fore in Grant’s biography, and that it is well- documented, -written and accessible. In addition, Heideman states that Grant “lets these contradictions speak for themselves”, by simply relating Garvey’s actions and reproducing Garvey’s own writings. This lack of authorial explanation has its advantages, but can also be a flaw at times, Heideman states. I agree partly. I also found some explanation lacking in Grant’s book regarding Garvey’s choices; not just regarding Garvey’s distancing from Marxism and the Left over time, but also his enigmatic religious choices. Garvey became Roman Catholic – while raised Methodist - , called himself even Catholic, despite his own critique that religious sculptures of Jesus and others in Catholic churches looked white and European. The irony is that Roots Reggae lyrics by Rastafari-adhering artists mention Garvey a lot positively, but also often criticize Rome and Catholicism (or mainstream Christianity). Some Rastafari-adherents might deplore Garvey’s adherence to Catholicism, others may explain it historically, but Grant unfortunately does not pay much attention to Garvey’s religious choices. Maybe, no information or sources were available on it, that is possible.


Anyhow, I found Heideman’s review all in all okay and balanced, albeit a bit limited in scope.

In the Caribbean Reviews of Books journal, Jeremy Taylor reviewed the biography in 2008. Quite critically, and not in all aspects positively. I do appreciate how Taylor does pay sufficient attention to Garvey’s historical influence and legacy, especially in the final part of his review.


Some aspects he found missing in Grant’s biography, I found missing as well, such as religious issues. The pop song Garvey wrote while imprisoned in Atlanta (1923-1927) could further equally receive more attention in Grant’s book.


It would recur partly in lyrics of some reggae songs, such as this one by the Twinkle Brothers (‘Give Rasta Praise’ from 1975): a few lines are taken from this pop song Garvey wrote (and named ‘Keep Cool’).

Jacob Dorman, at the University of Kansas, wrote a review of ‘Negro with a hat’ that was critical and even more negative. He even made me doubt if I read the biography that well, and if Dorman might indeed be right, if I look at the book in another way. I think this is only partly the case, because Dorman failed to note a main theme in the biography: the idea of the “self-made man” that Garvey represented. I think Grant really aimed at showing contradictions and complexities of Garvey, and did not aim at a negative portrayal.


Certainly, Garvey could be harsh, right-wing in some issues, sided sometimes with the wrong persons, was at times insensitive, inconsistent even theoretically, or mistaken. He was human and could make mistakes. Another glorified and influential self-made man, Henry Ford, also had inhumane, harsh, right-wing, and even anti-Semitic ideas, if one checks it out. Worse than the worst statements of Garvey, who overall at least seemed to believe in equality of races and people, despite criticizing some ethnic groups generally at times during moments of frustration.

Dorman misses the deeper layer: the story of someone starting with nothing, belonging to a poor oppressed race in a poor, marginal land, working himself up to lead a Black mass movement in the US by the late 1910s. A pioneer that inspired other, later Black leaders, influenced partly by his ideas but going beyond that.

The Rastafari movement – a “Black Power movement with a theological nucleus” (dixit Mutabaruka) is described as “using Garvey to go beyond Garvey”. After all, Garvey was Catholic, more European/British influenced in his cultural tastes, even colonially influenced, and Garvey even became critical of Haile Selassie, the main, revered person within Rastafari. Garvey applauded the coronation of Selassie in 1930, but later criticized in harsh terms as “cowardice” the strategy of Selassie in dealing with the invasion by Fascist Italy (i.e. by allying with other European powers against Italy), instead of organizing African unity at that time (later Selassie did help shape African unity, by the way). Garvey should have been more diplomatic, I think, but he was only partly wrong: the British, in hindsight, had a dubious, double role during Italy’s invasion, eventually favouring Italy and other imperial powers over Ethiopia’s (or Africa’s) interests. However, Selassie might not have known this neither at that time, and was then naïve rather than cowardice.. Besides this, Selassie’s strategy had some wisdom from a geopolitical perspective.

Similarly, also Kwame Nkrumah, other African independence fighters, like Kwame Nkrumah, initially also Nelson Mandela, several Black Power movements and intellectuals in the Caribbean and the US, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.. all have been influenced by Garvey, without copying him in every single thing. The positive and necessary essence of Garvey’s Black emancipation and African redemption and repatriation ideas lived and live on. A good example of how “the good you do lives after you..”. Bad or nonsensical things one did or said stay behind, since they do not inspire.

Like some other (academic) reviewers Dorman describes Grant’s biography as a good, and readable introduction, but not much more than that, lacking according to him proper use of research and scholarly methods, and lacking also attention to aspects about Garvey himself, or the motivations of his followers. With the last aspect I agree: Grant could have paid more attention to why different Black people chose to follow Garvey and his movement..


Dorman’s reviews differs strongly from other ones I discussed, but had similarities with others. Reviewers even say the opposite from each other: some find that Grant wrote a sympathetic portrayal, some say a a balanced one, while – like just mentioned – Dorman characterizes Grant’s portrayal of Garvey as a negative one. Some reviewers called Grant’s biography “definitive”, others (especially in academic circles) as merely introductory.

It goes to show how perspectives on the same phenomenon differ from person to person, from reviewer to reviewer in this case.

Some things recur through all these reviews, though. They all seem to agree that the social and historical contexts of the Garvey movement were related well by Grant in ‘Negro with a hat’. Most agreed that Garvey as a person was in some aspects described too little in it, though not everyone found this. Likewise, more than one review noted that Garvey’s followers got too little attention, but several did not mention this as a flaw.

I criticized before the recurrence in reviews of sensationalistic anecdotes over relevant facts. The meeting with the KKK by Garvey, and the fact that he read his own (premature) obituary is remarkable enough to mention somewhere in a biography, but not in every single review of it (as is nearly the case). These became clichés. Another recurrent anecdote or description was on the, some find, extravagant “imperial” hats and clothes Garvey and other UNIA members wore. That does not seem the most relevant thing to me. Maybe it can be related with the “inverting order” notion of Caribbean carnival traditions, and some reviewers relate it to this. An interesting analysis would I think consist also of a psychological explanation: regaining dignity in a public way. In a few reviews something like this is hinted at.

Unfortunately, this clothing is used in most reviews to illustrate how egotistic, or megalomaniac (not always formulated in such words) Garvey according to some was. This ultimately devalues his importance and his movement’s. The same “school yard” insults due to appearance as a thick-spectacled, red-haired, or otherwise “different” child hears from the vane, bullying “cool kids”. This is meant to exclude such strange or nerdy people from their circle. That this sarcasm aimed at Garvey’s clothing or trivial aspects – apart from the content and goals - is also found in academic journals by scholars is not really surprising. The same exclusion through ridicule as nerdy kids in a school yard endure.

That is what Garvey and the author of this biography on him, Colin Grant, share. They stepped on privileged toes: such biographies are often written by respected academics, not by a journalist like Grant. The condescending “nice try, but we can do this better” message is barely disguised in some of these academic reviews.

Also, as discussed in the biography, WEB. Du Bois was an academically schooled Black leader with some influence in the US at the time that Marcus Garvey arrived, and developed and broadened his movement, but with a different message for the same people. Du Bois and others saw this as unwelcome competition for Black support. Privileged positions are disturbed and threatened, making ridicule and repression a final recourse for these privileged people: they have the power and connections to do this. Another, even more privileged group – the White establishment – eventually invented a “post fraud” charge to be able to incarcerate and later expel Garvey to Jamaica (he did not have the US nationality, but a British one).

Several sources – and also recurring in reggae lyrics – point at betrayal of Garvey by other Black people, in the US, Jamaica, and Britain.

Some of the reviewers I mentioned are themselves Black persons. It is good that they remain critical and try to be as neutral as possible on the subject: worshipping is different from reviewing, even if Garvey is seen as a hero by many. That being said, I still find it unfortunate and exaggerated to put the emphasis that much on mistakes, organization flaws, and supposed character flaws of a man like Marcus Garvey.

Garvey has inspired many people and was historically influential. He had maybe flaws, but nothing really came across to me as calculatedly wicked or evil. The FBI at one point even asked his wives, and other people close to Garvey, private questions, hoping to find some “hidden sins”, in order to put him away. Yet they could not find anything illegal in even his private activities. If he were an abusive husband or father (he had two sons), had buried people he killed somewhere, raped women (which for instance Benito Mussolini has done, as a youth, but still became a popular dictator in Italy), or made enslaved people work for free – to name just something – it would have been known at that time. Neither was he involved in financial fraud, extortion, robbery, or violent reprisals against people. Any of this the FBI hoped to find, but couldn’t.

So why this ridicule and critique as a way to downplay Garvey’s influence, among many reviewers?
Attacking the person instead of his/her message or what he/she says is a common distraction tool from what needs for some to be overshadowed or obfuscated: an unwelcome consciousness.

Are some of these reviewers really not open to hear his message and recognize its significance, even today?

That would be ignoring the fact that the world is still unequal today, in 2014. Racially and economically. In 2014 Africa still has less control over its own resources and economy than Europe. Black people in the Americas and elsewhere are overall still on the lower levels socioeconomically, and racism still exists, in daily life and in policies. Slavery as a historical crime against humanity is still only limitedly recognized until today by European nations.

Or, as the reggae group the Mighty Diamonds sing eloquently in their song on Garvey, ‘Them Never Love Poor Marcus’ (1976): “Now the human race in such a squeeze..”

Apparently, people in privileged positions - as part of this same racial and economic order - are not too keen to really ponder on the essence of Garvey’s message: they might feel, well, a bit ashamed or guilty.

That is the hidden bias I found in many – though not all- of these seemingly neutral reviews. Talking about being egotist.. The complexity of Garvey as an individual can be seen as intriguing as well, and other biographies – on other persons – actually embrace such complexity to give depth to a person. I guess to embrace some one’s complexity you must respect or love that person, else you would not care about his or her various traits. That is basic psychology. On Facebook nowadays many “life lessons” and philosophical quotes are shared, too much and too cheap some say, but some I like: like this one I read: “We judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions”. Seems relevant here.. Besides, anyone can test for themselves through this thought experiment; think about this: do you want to know how your mother – or grandmother - lived when young?, or how she felt about certain crucial choices she had to make, even long before you were born? Many would say..yes I am interested in that. Yet..are you equally intrigued about the younger life of, not your (grand)mother, but another woman who you do not even know and who is not related to you?
The same I think applies to symbolical “mothers” and “children”..

Admittedly, other reviews were more balanced, quite neutral, with good argumentation, and also had attention to positive aspects and legacies of Garvey. Both among scholarly and non-scholarly reviews positive opinions were found on Garvey and this biography by Grant.

It’s a pity though that, from the reviews combined, the overall image that remains of Garvey and his movement is of a megalomaniac failure that mainly through some magic and slick propaganda skills got mass support. The overall image of the biography/book that remains is that it is an accessible, well-written work - not without humour - giving good historical contexts and some information on the complexities of Garvey. On the other hand..also that it is not much more than introductory and should have been written by an established scholar/academic. Not all reviewers say this last thing so directly, but if these reviewers can exaggerate or simplify complexity in such much read newspapers and journals – and several do -, I can do the same regarding them..

Negro with a hat: the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey: Colin Grant . – 530 p. – Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 0-19-536794-4, 978-0-19-536794-2