zondag 10 februari 2013

Snoop and Rastafari

The bond between black Americans and Jamaicans is obvious on the one side, but complex one the other. The basis of the connection is obvious: shared histories of slavery, race/ethnic similarities (African origins), and degrees of African cultural heritage. Added to this can of course be the racial oppression and discrimination following the period of slavery. Whereas African descendants in the USA form a minority in the US as a whole, albeit a large one in some parts of the South, Afro-Jamaicans of course form a large majority in their country, which did not prevent racial injustice to persist: a white, or just a lighter/mixed skin colour overall still equals a higher social and economic position within Jamaica.

The language also plays a role. Haiti has a black population, as does in part Cuba and (farther away) e.g. Brazil, yet a language barrier certainly is operative here. The cultural focus of Jamaicans is much more on the US than on Latin America. More specifically the focus is on black Americans, sometimes called “brothers” or “cousins” by Jamaicans, and their culture and music. Historically, Jamaican music genres are partly influenced by US black genres in their formation – ska was partly influenced by R&B from the US South -, and today there are still US black musical influences in Jamaica, even though the island prides itself (justly) of an own, rich musical tradition. The connections thus remain. I have touched this topic on my blog before.


I happened to be in Jamaica at the time of the winning of the elections of the first black president of the US, the 4th of November 2008. This was certainly followed closely in Jamaica. Mass media and even more the internet made access to black American culture even more accessible to common Jamaicans in recent times. A too strong US cultural influence as arguably can be found in several countries in the world is somewhat “mitigated” in Jamaica – despite its relative proximity – by the strong pride Jamaicans take in their own culture. The large populace in Jamaica still prefer music by Jamaicans, and “the own” remains thus dominant in popular culture. It is not as much sidelined by US culture as happened in other countries (e.g. some European ones). Not even black US music became very dominant in Jamaica.

There is nonetheless a recent musical/cultural influence of US hip-hop on recent Jamaican dancehall. Ironically, in light of hip-hop's origins as an offshoot of Jamaican musical traditions. Now an influence comes back, so to speak. Some US artists often reach fame in Jamaica, have hits there, or even perform there regularly. Yet a dominant, direct US dominance there is not, safe for in certain circles, especially among the higher classes.


Historically, the connection between Afro-Jamaicans and African Americans has also been complex. Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born visionary who fought and organized successfully for black people’s rights and their improvement internationally. He thus was an important early Black Power activist, being in that sense a trailblazer and influential upon Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. He especially became influential after moving to the US in 1917, and mainly among US blacks. Not that he had no followers in Jamaica or the broader Caribbean region, but in the US he became most influential. He seemed to be the right man at the right time for (millions of!) US Blacks, becoming his followers and sympathizers. In comparison, Garvey was marginalized in his native Jamaica, which he also felt as such. Not all, but many black Jamaicans, he stated, strove to be culturally white and English, and were not open to black pride, nor interested in the Africa of their forebears. Jamaica was then after all still a British colony. The “mental slavery” he would also refer to. A Jamaican to the rescue of US Blacks seemed Garvey thus.

Marcus Garvey apparently responded to a specific historical need for discriminated and oppressed blacks in the US. After his extradition from the USA, in 1927, Garvey first returned to Jamaica, and started some initiatives, but again felt sidelined, eventually moving to London, England later in his life, where he also died in 1940.


For the decades after Garvey’s extradition from the US in 1927, Jamaican influences on US blacks were there occasionally, but this time more culturally than socially/politically. It related in part to migrations; e.g. later in history – as may be known – Jamaicans influenced the development of hip-hop music and rap. Hip-hop and rap are in essence Americanized offshoots of the Jamaican deejaying tradition.

Bob Marley, however, did earlier - in the 1970s - not reach as much black American fans as he himself wanted. Of course there were US blacks who liked Bob’s music – the Exodus album did fairly well among US blacks - , but the main fan base of Bob in the US consisted of liberal-minded (often marijuana-smoking) young white kids. This may be surprising – seeing the Rastafari and Garvey-ite lyrics of many of Bob’s songs – but can perhaps be explained by the superficiality of commercial pop culture. Some fans undoubtedly listened to the lyrics, but also many Marley fans were more superficially attracted by the relaxed, catchy riddims and songs, and relaxed Caribbean and weed-smoking, hippy-like “vibe”, Marley’s music in their mind conveyed. Not everyone is “intellectual” enough, so to speak, to focus on the meaning of lyrics when it comes to something associated for many with the festive, like pop culture.


I relate these facts, possibly known to many readers, because it makes a recent controversy all the more interesting. I am referring to African American hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg’s controversial self-declared conversion to Rastafari(anism), after visiting Jamaica several times. Snoop’s claimed conversion means a change from his less-serious, gangster-like hip-hop ways of before. Quite a big change, actually, making it less credible for many. Conversions from a life of sin or crime to the spiritual or religion (e.g. Christianity or Islam) are on the other hand not uncommon, and need not be insincere per se. Malcolm X is but one of many examples of such a change in his life.

Nonetheless Snoop Dogg, now with a new name Snoop Lion, met a lot of criticism or, milder, scepticism from some Jamaicans and Rastafarians. He was called a fake by Bunny Wailer, while other Rastafarians gave him, if often hesitantly, the benefit of the doubt. Jamaican Rastafari-adhering Dub Poet/thinker/radio host Mutabaruka pointed at Snoop being one of the "architects of Gangster Rap", finding this a bit hard to combine with his acclaimed growth to Rastafari spirituality, though he still gave him a chance. Further, the fact that Snoop was known as a fanatical weed-smoker, also in his hip-hop days, made many assume that his conversion to Rastafari should not be taken too seriously.

Sincere or not: the focus of a black American on a specific Afrocentric part of black Jamaican culture remains nonetheless interesting. In some sense it even is original, I opine. Black Power is associated in the US dominantly, though not exclusively, with the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, or related groups. I’m not in the head of Snoop Dogg/Lion so I cannot ascertain at this point his sincerity, but all in all it is an interesting step.

Snoop’s own statements on his reasons for converting seem somewhat contradictory, though some things he said seemed to me a sincere search for a more spiritually fulfilling life. I just do not know how “deep” this is. There might be as well a commercial reason: reinventing himself as a musical artist – now reggae instead of hip-hop - to reach new fan bases, perhaps.


Despite doubts and scepticism, Snoop’s “conversion” raises I think an interesting point. Why are relatively few US Blacks/African Americans interested in Rastafari? Many often even perpetuate the same clichés about reggae, Jamaica, or Rastafari as a lot of white Americans, while on the other hand connecting their sense of Black identity with a religion (Islam) that is – for all intents and purposes - more Arab than African. Only an overall small percentage of African slaves brought to the West were Islamic or from Islam-influenced parts (the Senegambia region especially). Most were not.

Rastafari is, as Mutabaruka describes it, historically a “Black Power movement with a theological nucleus”. It is based in part on Marcus Garvey’s ideas. That “theological nucleus” nonetheless may have some European (Christian/Biblical) influences, notably from British forms of Protestantism so influential in Jamaica’s history. Most Rastafari adherents however would claim that Christianity and the Bible are not European, but manipulated by Europeans. It is true that Ethiopia adopted Christianity before Europe did. The focus on Africa is much less present in the Nation of Islam (or related) Black Muslim groups, though not totally absent of course. The Nation Of Islam also soon gave up the goal of repatriation to Africa, most Rastafarians still espouse. Regarding content Rastafari is all in all “Blacker”, I argue, than the Nation of Islam.

The difference of course is that the Nation of Islam developed in the US itself after Garvey left the US, leaving behind an influence but also a vacuum. Rastafari developed on an island outside of the US: an island later predominantly known as a Caribbean destination for tropical holidays, and perhaps for its lively musical culture.

Another factor that may be influential in all these processes is the fact that culturally more African cultural aspects survived in Jamaica than in the US. This related to differences in the slavery regimes. There is some truth to the statements by e.g. black comedians in the US that black Caribbeans behave and talk differently – more African-like – because they were “dropped off first” from the slave ships on the islands before the ships reached the US. But after this, the slavery regime was also (compared to the US) even more extreme and harsh in Jamaica: with high mortality rates among slaves, surpassing births, making new African imports necessary for British colonial authorities. In the US the black slave population eventually grew (better food and other type of work are explanations given by historians), requiring not many new African slave imports.

More African culture has thus been preserved – even if reworked – in Jamaica. This is not to say that subtle African cultural aspects are absent in US Black culture. In fact, indirectly several African cultural features live on among African Americans in the US: musically, culturally, socially, linguistically, shaping it the way it is, albeit in interaction with Anglo-Saxon, White dominant culture. For instance: in African American Vernacular it is “I’m a saying”, in Jamaican Patois/Creole it is “Mi a seh”. In the US the Standard English "Going to" is replaced by “Gonna”, in Jamaican Patois/Creole they say “Gwine” for Going to (be). Of course these are gradations of a same African, in this case linguistic heritage. Similar musical and rhythmic patterns can be found originally in folk Jamaican music and folk US black music. The African heritage is maybe more limited and indirect in US than in Jamaican Black culture (also in music). Both in the US and British Caribbean, however, drumming was at a point forbidden, unlike in Spanish or French colonies where African drumming music in direct forms were tolerated under certain conditions.

All in all, nonetheless, there is a relatively more direct connection with the African roots in Afro-Jamaican than in Afro-US culture.


Reactions to Snoop’s conversion were thus varied. He was deemed a fake by several Jamaican Rastafari, including Bunny Wailer. Others embraced him more, like Rohan Marley, one of Bob’s sons. Many are somewhere in between.

From a musical perspective, reggae artists – although also Rastafari – have also critiqued Snoop Lion’s entering of a music he does not understand too well, aesthetically, so to speak. Jamaican reggae artist Anthony B said this in reaction to some songs by Snoop Lion he heard – which he found of weak musical quality and not up to par -, though he considered Snoop a talented musician/artist in his own, rap genre. Others applauded his move to a more positive lyrical message, but still doubted whether this qualifies him as a true Rastafarian.

In light of rap and hip-hop origins as an off-shoot of Jamaican music, a hip-hop/rap artist turning to reggae seems, however, less extraordinary. In Snoop’s case his love for the music of Bob Marley connected him to reggae, and through this eventually to Rastafari. But just loving Bob’s music – or smoking weed - is of course not enough for this.

Donald Manning of the reggae group the Abyssinians said during a discussion (‘Reggae University’) at the Rototom Sunsplash festival in Spain in 2010 that “knowledge” is essential to be a Rastafari: not just hair or clothes. Others say that more is needed than just having the knowledge: you have to live it with a (natural) life style called ‘Livity’. This includes natural living, eating vegetarian, non-processed food, combined with being guided by the ideas of Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie.

Rastafari is not a very much centralized, institutionalized religion, and neither has strict codes for its followers. It differs from subgroup to subgroup within Rastafari - some, as the Bobo Ashanti, have stricter rules and traditions - but much is unfixed or debatable. Many of the basic tenets are thus interpreted loosely, though there are certain crucial points beyond doubt: Marcus Garvey, the importance of Haile Selassie, Africa, of course a righteous living (no crime or abuse), questioning Babylon (Western) system, and at least certain dietary/intake considerations, e.g. no pork, cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. Marijuana is accepted (though not obliged), especially for meditational purposes. I do not know whether Snoop Lion follows all these points and aspects (I know only the marijuana part for sure). And these are even minimal requirements in my opinion.

If his crime days are really behind him that is a good start. If he knows more than average about Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie this is better still. But I do not know all this about his knowledge and views, neither about his lifestyle and dietary customs. Too much interference in one’s private life soon becomes unpleasantly authoritarian and collectivistic: it goes more with what can be called “religions” like Catholicism, which Rastas also criticize. While it is a freer, some say “looser” spiritual movement with attention to strong individualism, Rastafari still upholds certain values – which I outlined before -, though without such enforcement.


A debate about Snoop’s conversion is nonetheless acceptable I think. The fact that Snoop is a black man, makes it a bit odd though. White reggae artists like Alborosie, Groundation, and Gentleman are also self-proclaimed Rastafarians, or use Rastafari terminology. They did/do not seem to meet as much criticism. Jamaican Rastafari generally speaking seem to accept – or have come to terms with – white (or other non-black) people joining an originally black movement like Rastafari. While some are sceptical about white Rastas, many also appreciate it as a sign of an international influence (starting with Bob Marley, often), that is wholesome, or at least puts Rastafari or Jamaican culture on the map. The scrutiny anyhow seems all in all less when compared to Snoop’s conversion. Maybe it is Snoop’s Gangster Rap past that heightens the mistrust. Or his fun-loving, non-serious image.

Also the Soldiers of Jah Army (SOJA), who seem to have quite some fans, consist of white Americans, who - as evident from their band name - claim to have become Rastafarians. They also are dreadlocked. In some lyrics they say, however, that they interpret Rastafari in their own way.

More annoying is a band named Christafari. They consist of members who were – as they say - Rastafarians but later became Christians, espousing this Christianity as much as they can. Members say they were Rastafarians in their teens when they were taking drugs but later converted to Christianity. The whole suggestion behind this is offensive to the Rastafari community. They further add insult to injury by wearing dreadlocks, and still using also other Rasta-derived symbols, including terminology such as “Jah” in their lyrics. Like everyone they have the right to their beliefs, and to free speech, but I think it’s objectionable to use more or less as a Rasta-influenced Roots Reggae format for this. I agree in this sense with (once) online reggae reviewer Mark H. Harris (see: http://www.reggae-reviews.com/christafari.html).


In the recent documentary ‘Bob Marley: the making of a legend’ (2011), based on Esther Anderson’s (private) films with Bob Marley in 1973 and 1974, the topic of Rastafari was touched as well. Esther Anderson was one of the girlfriends of Bob Marley, travelling with him and the Wailers on (international) tours in 1973 and 1974. Just before “bigger fame”. The time-frame was limited, and in part the focus, but I found the documentary engaging. This was because the (for then) modern equipment (Sony camera) filmed Bob and others in casual, daily life, giving more insight in him as a person. The filmed discussions (including “reasonings” as the Rastas call it) between Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, were very interesting. During such a reasoning Peter Tosh argued that God is “within” the human being, and not “above” in the sky and apart. Most Rastas adhere to this view of the “inner divine”. The ganja herb (marijuana) serves to help find this inner divine person: one of the I of the “I and I” concept. Tosh thus presented the ganja herb as essential for Rastafari under/overstanding of life. Other Rastas view this differently, saying marijuana is not really necessary for such a heightened/deeper consciousness (argued by e.g. Mutabaruka who did/does not smoke weed).

I cite this specifically because Snoop Lion, before his conversion, was also known as a fanatical marijuana smoker. It seemed an essential part of his identity. Is using/smoking ganja/weed really required to reach Rastafari consciousness, or what is called “IanI consciousness”? I think it’s more complicated than that. After all…there are a lot of weed/marijuana smokers world wide whose thinking or behaviour are not at all “Rasta-like”.

An interesting recently published introductory work to Rastafari is a small book called ‘Rastafari : a very short introduction’ (Oxford University Press, 2012), written by Ennis B. Edmonds, a Jamaican scholar and expert on Rastafari (http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Edmonds/edmonds.htm). The “very short” of its subtitle should not be taken too literally: it is a book, no leaflet, and still has about 127 pages. It is introductory, yet informative even for those who are quite knowledgeable already about Rastafari: it pays attention to nuances, internal differences and discussions, and different sides and developments. It is a good and pleasant read as well, and Edmonds knows how to explain even difficult topics relating to Rastafari. He also reports the view as expressed by Tosh in the documentary. It is worth to quote in length:

It [ganja] is the vehicle that leads one through the distorted landscape of Babylon and the false consciousness spawned by its oppressive institutions to a discovery of the true self, the divine I capable of self-direction. Interestingly, ganja smoking is usually the precursor to growing dreadlocks and the declaration of Rastafarian identity” (Edmonds, 2012, p. 49).

At the same time Edmonds also points at Rastas who do/did not need ganja for this consciousness.

I quoted Rastafari reggae artist Donald Manning (of the Abyssinians) before who associated being a true Rastafari with proper knowledge. I therefore wonder what Snoop Lion’s knowledge about Rastafari is. Has he read ‘The philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey’? And further a good, imparcial biography of Haile Selassie (not the one by Ryszard Kapuściński, that one was parcial and partly invented), the as informative as well-written biography of Marcus Garvey called ‘Negro with a hat’ by Colin Grant, or any introductory work on Rastafari?. What does he know about Africa? Has he informed himself through other people? Judging by some of Snoop’s own statements in this regard, he knew some aspects of Rastafari (natural living and food, lion symbol). Even if his knowledge is by now extensive: does he “live” that knowledge and how?

Of course it all depends on his personal choices, and he is free to make those as he wants. If it is anything more than commercially or opportunistically motivated, I myself applaud the joining by a black (US) American of the Jamaican-originated Rastafari movement. I find it - if sincere - refreshing and in a sense even hopeful. I think it also makes sense, perhaps a bit more than becoming Muslim (even when of the African American Nation of Islam variety) as other US hip-hop artists have. Especially when looking from a “Black diaspora” perspective, as well as in relation to the history of Marcus Garvey and Black Power.

Time will tell how real and sincere this conversion of Snoop Dogg to Snoop Lion is…