donderdag 3 mei 2012

Dreader Than Dread

There is a connection between dreadlocks and reggae music, which of course is very superficial and also indirect. More direct is the connection between the Rastafari movement and wearing dreadlocks: Rastafari adherents are generally recognized by their dreadlocks, functioning as a sign of identity. Some Rastas argue – including through Biblical references – that ideally the locks should never be cut, nor the beard shaven. It is therefore obvious that because the Rastafari movement played an important role within reggae music, and the dreadlocks are a part of Rastafari, that the connection between dreadlocks and reggae is being made.

It is however important to point out - perhaps superfluous – that the three terms – reggae, Rastafari, and dreadlocks – are not synonymous, neither necessarily interrelated. Obvious as this may seem to some, I however in this post would like to elaborate on precisely this point. I do this especially by analyzing reggae lyrics, in the same vein as I did in relation to other subjects on this blog (reggae lyrics on slavery, Joe Grine, homophobia).

I, I-SELF and I

I myself wear dreadlocks, as I write this, for over 2 years now (since early 2010). I am a South European, white man, and I originally had dark and wavy/slightly curly hair so a “perm” was to a degree necessary, but the processing further went with as much natural products as possible. In the early stage – with so-called “baby dreads” - it was recommended not to wash my hair for at least a week, which caused itches, but once more formed, the washing frequency could increase to two or three times a week (or even more). This seems healthy and natural, and I got used to it.

I got used to my hair, how and how much to wash it, and also to the sometimes detailed maintenance to avoid (too much) “outgrow”, i.e. loose hairs between the dreadlocks themselves. I chose somewhat thick locks to avoid a “spaghetti-look” (though on the Masai in East Africa the thin locks look quite good). Anyhow, I soon got used to my dreadlocks and their maintenance, and do not consider it as excessive in time nor attention.

All this might make me appear like a vane, fashion-conscious person, but in fact I started to wear dreadlocks to accentuate my identity, beliefs, and cultural preferences. Not for fashion reasons.

Before this, for instance, I hardly ever followed any fashion (neither in clothing nor hair), and though I before regularly used gel for my hair, it had more to do with the “unbalancing” cowlicks (I had to look up this word) I sought to even out. Looking better for myself, and not for others (okay, maybe a bit), mainly. This is still the case now, albeit that I would like to show the world my interest in Rastafari and my identity. Others may find this pretentious, I consider it as sincere.

In time the locks grew more or less “natural” on me, and I felt good with them. I was somewhat surprised about the changed attitudes of some people toward me as my dreadlocks grew longer. Sometimes this was appropriate: some stated an assumed connection of me with Rastafari and, less automatic but understandable, reggae music, and rightly so. This was often positive, at times also negative. Negative stereotypes due to my hair – unfounded prejudice connecting dreadlocks somehow with simplicity, bad manners, drugs, or even criminality - were there. I regularly noted this (so I interpreted it) in unpleasant jokes on my hair and me.

Somewhat understandable - and expected by me - was the reaction of black people who pointed at the Rastafari movement being in essence (still!) a Black Power movement, while I happen to be white (South European), but these reactions and comments were seldom bad-minded. Some of these black persons questioning this were even my friends (even intimate partners), who knew that I actually knew a lot about Rastafari, Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, Africa, and black history (and reggae). This compensated somehow. Furthermore, many were probably accustomed to the existence of white Rastafari-adherents or –sympathizers. In fact, the Twelve Tribes of Israel mansion within Rastafari, founded in 1968 by Vernon Carrington – Prophet Gad - , in Jamaica, did not exclude white people from joining Rastafari. Not on forehand, anyway. In 1968 – when the Black Power movement was relatively influential - such a move was quite controversial.

Also the Bobo Ashanti – another, stricter mansion within Rastafari - do not have that absolute a view on this matter anymore. Some Bobo Ashanti in more recent times accept that white people – under certain conditions of course – can be Rastas, or even Bobo Ashanti. There is still some discussion and hesitancy among members of both these mansions, depending on individual viewpoints, but it seems that the racial barrier has partly come down.

That is why I met, ironically, less criticism from black people – including Rastas – than from white people of whom some had unfounded prejudices, I imagine, while in other instances I sensed to catch some “bad vibe” that made me think that they saw me as “pretentious” due to my hair. Of course I can be mistaken, but that was how I sensed it. Also annoying were non-Rastas, some even white, who doubted my sincerity, which is somewhat strange, since they hardly knew me. Too many in this world want to associate with what is perceived to be “cool” just verbally.

But enough about me…


According to documented history the first Rastafari-adherents started wearing dreadlocks, matted hair and beards, since (estimated) the early 1950s. More specifically the Young Black Faith group within the Rastafari movement, that by then had members in certain urban and rural parts of Jamaica, started to differentiate somehow from older members, by not shaving (at first) but later also by not cutting their hair and wearing them as dreadlocks. They thus adopted a so-called “dreader” image. Interestingly, it is said that this image was specifically adopted to create more distance from society (and thus oppressive Babylon system).

The older members before them – the Rastafari movement originated in the 1930s - tended to follow the hairstyle of Haile Selassie. Since the 1950s the dreadlocks became however more closely associated with the Rastafari movement as such, meaning a clear shift in appearance. Dreadlocks since the 1950s then became a sign of Rasta identity, and also recognizable as such. Unfortunately also recognizable for oppressing authorities in Jamaica, seeking to repress this rebellious group. Dreadlocks were part of a rebellious image, conservative Jamaican society long frowned upon, and oppressed. This decreased since the 1970s, but also today there are still reports of harassment of Rastas in Jamaica, based on appearance.

Still, Rastafari was not – and still is not – particularly known to have many strict prescriptions for adherents, though there are core ideas and values. Dreadlocks are therefore not really sensed as obliged and necessary by and for Rastafari-adherents, but more a – quite courageous! – sign of belonging to the movement and of identity. It’s the inside not the outside that counts, to use an appropriate cliché.

Members of the Bobo Ashanti group within Rastafari have the custom to cover their hair in public, especially the male members, using for this turbans. Among the other groups (Nyahbinghi, Twelve Tribes of Israel) this is much less common, other than for practical purposes.


Why was especially that hairdo chosen by that group within Rastafari, especially since the 1950s? Not just long hair, but uncombed and in that specific form? While it grows easier from frizzy, Afro hair, - when compared to straight hair of Europeans or Asians for instance - it still does not grow automatically. The most common historical explanation is that it was a mimicking of Kenyan Mau Mau warriors rebelling against the British colonialists in the 1940s, who hid in woodlands and wore dreadlocks. Images of these black rebels in Kenya were shown all over the world, also in Jamaica, serving probably as a model. But other explanations are given as well.

The African connection is for black Jamaicans self-evident (as African descendants and African-based movement), but also other races, religions, and cultures knew the phenomena of dreadlocks for centuries. This can also be read on Wikipedia. In India, within Hinduism, dreadlock wearers included certain monks, ascetic people with special spiritual statuses and connections - holy men - , and this same “spiritual connection” with dreadlocks is found among other cultures (even among Buddhists in Tibet, now known for shaven heads).

Throughout Africa several groups traditionally wore and wear dreadlocks for centuries (e.g. Masai – thin locks, Himba, northern Namibia –thicker locks) for somewhat varying reasons, but often with spiritual connections. Interestingly, the Himba originally live not far south of Angola, where many slaves were taken from to the West. (Photo underneath is of a Himba woman)

The Baye Fall are also interesting because it is a group within local, Sufi-influenced (Marabout-) Islam in Senegal and surroundings, and are formally Muslims, but with a difference, including added local, mystical aspects. The Baye Fall traditionally wear dreadlocks, while other Muslims don’t, or even frown upon it (there is some occurrence among alternative Sufi Muslim groups). Beyond the hair, the Baye Fall’s combination of both the grounded (folk movement, localized, Africanized Islam) and the mystical, is in a general sense also to be found within Rastafari (folk movement, African-oriented religion/Christianity/Bible, and the mystic), as it developed in Jamaica, and later world wide. Interesting parallels..

Also the "spiritual" status of dreadlock-(like) wearers in India or among Orthodox Jews seems to have a parallel with the Rastaman.

Within Rastafari in Jamaica dreadlocks became part of a wider rebellious, “dread”, somewhat wild image, also as opposition to colonial values. Then there are metaphoric, symbolic associations with dreadlocks. The locks as spiritual “antennas”, (as a connection to Jah), or even the locks as a just, chastising “whip” of sorts. The manes of a lion – the Lion Of Judah associated with Haile Selassie - are also connected to dreadlocks symbolically.

In academic and other circles other symbolism is associated with the locks, some of which I find far-fetched, or even ideologically driven. Some (like Barry Chevannes) even see the locks as a phallic symbol (far-fetched as well as odd as they seldom get erect or hard), thus confirming a patriarchy and male-centeredness associated with the movement. I think that also the work (collective volume) ‘Chanting Down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane) from 1998, overstates this patriarchy or male-centeredness. I think that “machismo”/patriarchy is not so crucial in Rastafari’s development or values as stated; at most it sometimes continued Christian patriarchical customs that members were before socialized in. But that’s another issue.


I think it would be interesting to discuss how all these issues and associations surrounding dreadlocks reflect in the music genre internationally most associated with the hairdo: reggae music.

Dreads or dreadlock-wearers tend to call short-haired, neat, conservative Jamaicans (in their view participating in/with the oppressive Babylon system) “baldhead(s)”. This term is very common throughout especially roots reggae. The song ‘Crazy Baldheads’ of Bob Marley is perhaps best known internationally. The band Culture even had an album (and a song) in 1978 with the title ‘Baldhead Bridge’ (lyric: “Baldhead bridge is falling down..”), The first hit song in Jamaica that in its lyrics referenced the Rastafari movement was by Little Roy, and was the song ‘Bongo Nyah’, a hit in 1969 in Jamaica. It included a reference to the role of dreadlocks in the crucial lyric: “how can you resist Jah, when you have a baldhead”. Thus the term ‘baldhead’’ has been used early on, specifically as opposed to Dreadlock Rastas. As a way to oppose Uncle Toms (baldheads) to Rasta rebels, so to speak.

The Mighty Diamonds sing on ‘Dreadlocks Time’ (from the great Deeper Roots: back to the channel’ album from 1979: “Dread dread dread natty dreadlocks time..baldhead haffe stay behind”…The tables seem to have turned.

There are further several contrasts sketched between natty dreadlocks and baldheads, by both singers and deejays, from the 1970s to recent decades. The Itals sing ‘Run Baldhead Run’ (ca’ natty dread a come) in the 1970s. Bunny Wailer sings on ‘Baldheaded woman’ that he does not want a baldheaded (not literally but meaning non-Rasta) woman in his life.

Somewhat in the same vein, several lyrics evoke the Biblical story of Samson, whose wife Delilah (albeit asked by others) cuts his locks off to remove his strength that were in these locks.

Peter Tosh relates about baldhead Christians trying to convert him on ‘Stand Firm’ (1978). There are countless other examples within reggae. Yet also: the Lee Perry song: ‘Don’t Blame The Baldhead’. Perry by the way mainly sympathized with Rastafari.

Other lyrics focus on the symbolic strength of wearing dreadlocks. Rastafari reggae artists sing about “not cutting their dreadlocks to please no man” (Roots Radics: ‘Everywhere Natty Go’), letting the locks grow "till it reach to the ground" (Culture), “watch de youth dem a knot up: culture time!” (Michael Rose, ‘Give A Little’, 1999).

Besides this, another common theme in many reggae songs is the oppression or rejection that dreadlock-wearers face. These include authorities in Babylon system. Max Romeo bemoans that natty dreadlocks are imprisoned and that there their locks are cut off (on ‘Revelation Time’, 1970s), while Joseph Hill of Culture relates of an inspirational Rastaman (‘Why Am I a Rastaman’, 2000) also trimmed in prison and was sent back as a baldhead man, but that did not change him. Israel Vibration discusses an incident of harsh oppression by forces in 1976 in ‘Licks & Kicks’ on their seminal Same Song album (1978). Of this subtheme there are countless examples as well. ‘Ride Natty Ride’is a nice example from the well-known Bob Marley, for instance. Recently, Chezidek has a good song on the topic ‘Dem A Fight We’ (2006), on the great Take A Ride riddim.

Case in point, the Gladiators sang “You gotta have guts to be a natty dreadlocks” (on ‘Guts’) because at the very least they will harass you. The classic Mighty Diamonds song 'Natural Natty' (1976) is one of my favourite songs on this topic: for musical and lyrical purposes: about how they fight the Rastaman, because “they don’t like is just some locks on his head”.


Besides all this, there is of course a nuance. A hairdo is of course superficial. It can be an important sign of identity, but it is in itself apart from the inner person. Fake Rastas are a problem within Rastafari since its beginning. Some take on the hairdo without sincerity and even for bad intentions. Criminality, presenting a certain image but living another, or even for fighting or limiting other Rastas. Rastas refer to this as “wolves in sheep clothing”. This is another important subtheme within Rastafari-inspired reggae music. There are many songs on these fake Rastas. Due to the disturbing aspect of it, those with bad intentions are criticized most. Somewhat less also the mere “fashion dreads”, who lack knowledge on Marcus Garvey or Selassie for instance, are criticized.

Hugh Mundell’s ‘Why Do Black Men Fuss and Fight’ (1978) is an example, Fred Locks has a song on this theme called ‘Wolves’ (1976).

There are several other songs comparing the True Rastaman to the fakers or wolves. Other examples: ‘Who De Man A Deal Wid’ (1980) by Winston McAnuff. More recently Junior Kelly’s ‘Rasta Should Be Deeper’ more or less deals with the topic

A wider critique – including the “Fashion Dread” - by veteran Burning Spear is on the song ‘Rasta Business’ (1995).

I can name other examples, but it is maybe best to conclude that it is a recurring lyrical subtheme within (Rastafari-inspired) Roots Reggae. In my opinion positive and a sign of intelligence of the movement is the fact that this criticism is well-motivated, dealing with issues like sincerity, criminality, unity, war, social injustice, and not the following of certain prescriptions or formal rules. It is broader (or: deeper), philosophical. While eating meat, especially pork, is by many Rastas seen as a thing not to do for Rastas, it is not just the eating of chicken in itself that is vilified, mostly, but the fact that you eat once living animals. “Rastafari is life and of this I’m sure” (lyric by I-Wayne).

Lack of prescription - in a sense characteristic of the Rastafari movement - has therefore the positive effect that it results in a deeper understanding/overstanding of core values and their meaning. These reggae lyrics attest to this deeper truth. Dreadlocks thus help to reveal this truth.