vrijdag 8 maart 2013

Lioness On The Rise

One of my favourite “new” reggae songs, is ‘Times Like These’ by Queen Ifrica. It was released in 2011 and is a crucial tune! Dancing to this is better than sex (there I said it, haha). Besides its fitness for helping you “rock your body line”, it also has intelligent, conscious lyrics, and is a good composition, and is well sung: “singjay” style more or less, and soulful. I like how the vocals are varied: even the chatting/dee-jaying (or: toasting) part has layers and bridges.

Interesting are certainly also the opening lines spoken by Marcus Garvey. That could very well be Marcus Garvey’s actual voice: some recordings were made back then of Garvey’s speeches in the 1920s (and around). These are to be found on YouTube as well. Predictably, the sound quality is not up to current standards, but it is audible.

I depart from Queen Ifrica’s song specifically also because she is a woman. She is a reggae artist and a Rastafari adherent. Both these areas (reggae and Rastafari) are said to be – overall – male-dominated. It is, however, I think a mistake to attribute this gender difference to African or black Jamaican music. Also White pop culture or music genres tend to be male-dominated and -defined: from country, to rock, to house, to heavy metal: generally led by men with a few exceptional women.


Rastafari is also described as male-dominated. The recent book 'Rastafari: a very short introduction' by Ennis B. Edmonds (Oxford University Press, 2012) makes a point of it, devoting a chapter to gender relations within Rastafari. Rastafari is male-led, Edmonds describes, and meant primarily as an emancipation movement of black men, while black women are expected in practice to have serving, secondary roles in the movement. They tend to enter the movement through males, Edmonds also writes. On the other hand, he also writes how this secondary female position has been questioned from the beginning in the Rastafari movement. Furthermore, the absence of too tight structures and rigid guidelines in Rastafari in practice leave the women more space than maybe some men want. Nonetheless, Edmonds points at the difference with other Afro-Jamaican spiritual traditions like Myal, Burru, Obeah, or Kumina where women tend to have more leading roles in religious practice.


As Edmonds also explains, Rastafari is partly focussed on the Bible, albeit specifically on rereading it from another (Black/African) perspective. This female subordination within the movement is thus based upon the Bible, more than on African retentions. Contrary to what some (want to) believe: gender relations were at the time of European colonialism (say: 18th c.) not more equal in Europe than in sub-Saharan Africa at the same time. Other authors have before and recently questioned the rigidity of this female subordination within Rastafari. These authors, such as Maureen Rowe, also acknowledge the male dominance in Rastafari, but point at changes and flexibility from the movement’s beginning. Over time more and more has changed, and since the late 1970s even some more structural changes toward gender equality have become evident. Since then women entered on their own in the Rastafari movement (not necessarily through a man anymore) and started to choose their own dressing and other ways.

The very readable recent book (with chapters by different authors) ‘Rastafari in the New Millennium’ (Syracuse University Press, 2012), edited by Michael Barnett, devotes a part (three chapters) to gender relations within Rastafari. In this work, also the Bible as inspiration for (most) Rastas is presented as source of female inequality. In the Bible women are presented throughout (mostly) as irresponsible factors, by bringing lust and corruption, thus disturbing men’s larger plans, starting of course with Eve eating the forbidden apple. In line with this the Bible propagates male control over women. Many Rastas follow the Bible in this regard, though some more loosely. The Twelve Tribes of Israel mansion (=subgroup) within Rastafari is relatively more Biblical or Christian-influenced – they believe in Christ and that Haile Selassie is a “reincarnation” of Christ. At the same time Twelve Tribes allowed to enter some “progressive vibes”, apparently, as women were eventually allowed there on ritual gatherings as equal to men earlier than in the other mansions/groups (Bobo Shanti, Nyabinghi), though also in these latter groups things are said to have changed. This change toward female equality generally set in more structurally since the late 1970s, and seems to meet not much resistance from Rastafari men or elders, allowing thus an increased independent female role within Rastafari in the present. Some inequalities remain though.

Even if Edmonds, and other authors, are partly right - though I think especially Edmonds exaggerates certain parts - one must be careful that such criticism will not be misinterpreted. How he formulated some gender aspects in Rastafari, especially Edmonds (Rowe and other authors less) – maybe without intending to – presented Rastafari as a type of macho, male vindication movement, born out of an unpleasant combination of male insecurity, patriarchal sense of superiority, and sexual frustration. This is also said (and more appropriately, I think) of Fundamentalist Islam and the Talibaan in Afghanistan. Female subordination by the way also applies to Hinduism, and to Christianity in earlier times for that matter.

Luckily it is not so bad and unequal in Rastafari as in these latter religious movements. Mainly because Rastafari is first and foremost a Black Power movement, emancipatory and liberating, largely born out of a response to colonialism, historical racism, and slavery. Secondly, because its structure is relatively loose.

Also should be realized that Rastafari developed (since the 1930s) in a Jamaican social context: gender inequalities in it are thus simply mostly similar to the norms in the surrounding society. This also applies to the taboo - or ban - on women preparing food when menstruating. It may be in part an African retention, though some point at (again) Biblical/Christian sources. Some say this ban on menstruating women cooking is for being polluting, others say – less harsh – that it is to spare these women the work and give her rest. The Bobo Shanti among other Rastas uphold this ban on menstruating women cooking – or even segregate menstruating women from men – but the same ban or taboo can be found to differing degrees also among non-Rastas elsewhere in Jamaica and the Caribbean historically (among Afro-Surinamers for instance, both Maroons and Creoles). If and/or how the commonly used swear words in Jamaican Patois, “Bombo Clat” or “Blood Clat” (both meaning “tampons”), relate to this I don’t know..

It is thus mainly from the Christian tradition, and aspects of male dominance in broader Jamaican society (in turn Christian-influenced) that gender inequality partly emanates. It is not unthinkable that this got combined with more individual male insecurities and frustrations. Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg once said, in the Dutch journal Vrij Nederland, that globally widespread hatred for women/misogyny in essence comes forth out of some kind of “fear” for women. While he wrote this in a quasi-ironic article, I think he had a good point.


Jamaican Rastafari-adherent, dub poet, thinker and radio host Mutabaruka also critiqued the patriarchal characteristics in the Bible and of the main, institutionalized religions in this world (Christianity, Islam a.o.). He argues that the Bible and other such books were written by “insecure men”, wanting to keep women in their place or subdued. I think he certainly has a good point. He values earlier, “nature” religions, in Africa and elsewhere, for having had more attention to “feminine energy” - an energy supposed to be more aimed at sharing and caring than the male one -, a feminine energy repressed later so much with the Christian mind-set.. The latter Christian mind-set of course also shaped Rastafari (in part). The example of Mutabaruka, however, shows that also within Rastafari there are more or less pro-female thinkers, like Mutabaruka, but also others. Rastafari-inspired reggae lyrics are further rarely ever misogynist in nature, though some espouse conservative/traditional views on specific female clothing and behaviour. Such themes are not a main theme, however: criticism of Babylon (system), hypocrites, and criminals tend to be more important themes.

Edmonds in his guide to Rastafari does have a legitimate point, however, when he points at the contradiction of Rastafari setting out to question racist and European-defined notions of the Bible and Christianity, placing Africa and Black people first, while maintaining conservative notions of the subordinate woman from that very same Bible.

In any case, the two crucial, inspirational figures for Rastafari, Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie I, were not known to be too patriarchal in their worldview. Their own writings, which I read, and documented actions do even point at – for their times – relatively progressive and equal views on women. Haile Selassie was the first Emperor of Ethiopia to be crowned together with his wife, Menen (in 1930).

Marcus Garvey even called Black women Goddesses and praised their virtues, such as in his 1927 poem The Black Woman (see http://thisismr.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/the-black-woman-by-marcus-garvey/). Despite being from an earlier generation, Garvey seemed thus more progressive than Malcolm X, who I find to be overall an interesting thinker, but who at times relegated black women too much to serving roles (to black men), as did the Nation of Islam as a whole.

Besides different opinions among Rastafari, it also is the case that clothing codes in most mansions were for long - and partly still are - stricter for females than for men. Some Rastas even protest against women wearing trousers/pants, while men are allowed to wear these. A similar hypocrisy as among many Muslims and conservative Christians: men dress as they want, but women’s dressing is under scrutiny of others. Even this has changed recently, though. A comparable hypocrisy is there with regard to sexual promiscuity, or having multiple sexual partners at the same time: accepted (to a point) for men – as in Jamaican society -, but much less accepted for women.

Also, certain rituals and gatherings within the Rastafari movement - especially more conservative groups - are – or were for long - only for men (drumming, reasoning), though there has come more flexibility in this over time. Also other African-derived traditions elsewhere in the Caribbean, such as in Cuba the Yoruba-based SanterĂ­a folk religion (wherein for long only men could play the drums) had such exclusions. Similarly the Abakua secret societies (based on models from the Calabar region in Nigeria/Cameroon) found among Afro-Cubans, only allowed men as members: they even historically allowed white Cuban men before black women, oddly enough. Even in the motherland Africa itself, however, such pro-male, gender-based exclusions have in recent times been limited in these and other traditions. The African predecessor of the Afro-Cuban Abakua in the Calabar region, the Ekpe secret society, now allows women for instance.

In short: gender relations could be better – more equal - still in some terrains within Rastafari, but it’s far from “Talibaan-like”. Not even remotely. Now even less than in earlier times. Crucially: the gender inequality and secondary roles of women, may be here and there present, but are secondary, marginal, and not central to the Rastafari movement, which is primarily aimed at uplifting black people (of both sexes).

Queen Ifrica therefore is not a “token” nor an exceptional figure of any kind. She does not seem to be the “subservient” type of person to me (I don’t know her personally, but I assume this). And is not in any way out of place, neither within reggae, nor within Rastafari.


Besides Empress Menen, Haile Selassie’s wife crowned together with him, for the Rastafari several other black women are influential, and are praised by them. One of these is Queen Nanny – the Maroon rebel woman who in the 18th c. fought against the British colonial system of slavery in Jamaica. Also the Nyabinghi order within Rastafari - an older, traditional group within Rastafari - is named after a (legendary) Queen in East Africa who fought white, European oppressors. Somewhat ironic in light of a female name-giver, some stricter Nyabinghi elders used to hold more segregationist, traditional views on women than other groups within Rastafari, but also that has changed. Queen Ifrica in her lyrics mentions also Miss Lou (Louise Bennet): an influential Jamaican female poet, who among other things popularized/emancipated the popular Patois language use as opposed to English.


As I mentioned, like - for some odd reason - virtually every other (popular) music genre – white, black, or Asian - reggae is also male dominated. At least numerically. Most singers/artists recording were (and largely still are) men, most musicians are men, most studio owners and producers are men. Most, but not all. There were and are quite a few female singers and later deejays in Jamaican music, often writing their own songs: for instance Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, Hortense Ellis, Suzy Cadogan, Phyllis Dillon, Deborah Glasgow, Rita Marley, Sister Carol, Sister Nancy (of ‘Bam Bam’ fame: a song covered a lot, such as by Pliers), and Lady Saw. Later came Tanya Stephens (“It Is a Pity..”), Etana, and Queen Ifrica (and still later Jah9 and others). Outside of Jamaica (the US Virgin Islands) Rastafari woman Dezarie is worth checking out, because of her strong songs.

There is a gender difference, maybe, in that for especially the earlier cohort of women singers associations with men seemed more important for their careers (Marcia Griffiths worked with Bob Andy, Hortense Ellis is the sister of Alton Ellis, and Rita was of course Bob’s wife), than for the relatively more individually operating male singers in Jamaica. Sister Nancy is the sister of male reggae artist/deejay Brigadier Jerry, but she said her brother did not particularly help her get in the music business (no nepotism there, haha): she found her way herself. Sister Nancy by the way was the first popular female early dancehall dee-jay on her own. Also Queen Ifrica is the biological daughter of earlier singer (already in the ska and rocksteady days) Derrick Morgan, but favouritism or nepotism is not likely, since she did not really grow up with him. Besides this: the music in Jamaica is traditionally put to the test in the dancehall: this test for the public determines your popularity, not just strategic personal connections. A good example of an effective meritocracy!

Females entering the music scene might often be connected to male artists, but on the other hand, also most male reggae artists started their careers through differing contacts with producers and other artists. And then putting their music to the test of course..

Among the even more male world of producers in Jamaica, the most important female music producer in Jamaica was Sonia Pottinger, who produced records by Culture and other groups and artists. Instrumentalists and musicians are also mostly men within Jamaican music, with a few exceptions, though female backing singers are not uncommon.

That there is a male domination is also evident in the fact that the women singers who as an exception come more to the fore tend to have lyrics of love songs, while men seem to feel more free to have lyrics about everything, including social concerns. The same condescending difference – as all oppressive mechanisms internalized by many oppressed themselves - can be found in country and other Western pop music, of course: men sing/talk more about the world, women about her relationship with a man (the country song ‘Stand By Your Man’ being a sad example). A deep, long-lasting effect of historical female subjugation to men, to which reggae was unfortunately not immune. Also this has changed more and more within reggae, though. Queen Ifrica is one of more examples of recent, upcoming women in the reggae scene, also having socially conscious, and Rastafari-inspired lyrics.

Like many of the Jamaican male artists, Queen Ifrica and other female artists, like Etana, furthermore show a strong, individual personality, rendering their music more original and strong, in my opinion. It seems self-evident that to be an outstanding, original artist you have to have a strong, distinct personality, not be a mere appendix of another (male) person.


Finally, I return to what I briefly mentioned before: women in reggae lyrics. Though a full study of this would require more space and time, I have quite some experience and knowledge of it by now. I listen to and study reggae and Jamaican music for over 25 years now.

Despite the mentioned criticism by some of female exclusion or subordination within Rastafari, I can say that overall Rastafari-inspired reggae lyrics are rarely denigrating to women. Maybe some who do not know Jamaican Patois think that ‘No Woman No Cry’, the international hit for Bob Marley, had an anti-woman message, but it had not. In Jamaican language No Woman No Cry means in reality No Woman DON’T Cry. In the lyrics it is said to cheer up an individual woman.

Furthermore I cannot recall any Rastafari-inspired reggae expressing hatred for women because of their gender (and not e.g. personality). Some artists express more conservative views than other, criticizing women that seem to free and independent and that do not accept male authority (the Heptones’ ‘I Hold The Handle’: nice song but slightly questionable lyrics in my opinion), or Rastafari-inspired critique against women dressing/behaving loosely, wildly, or allowing abortion. Yet at the same time, many Rastafari reggae artists have lyrics against raping, denigrating or mistreating women.

There is neither very much misogyny in other reggae, not even in the “slackness” (violent/explicit) lyrics in dancehall since the 1980s (though it is not absent). Commonly vilified for being violent and sexist, such lyrics are also often “joking” and carnivalesque. If someone sings/chats he “loves punanny” - “punanny” being Patois for female genitalia or “pussy” - (several artists have sung/chatted this on songs: Shabba Ranks and others), this is maybe explicit or – arguably - distasteful, but it is not on forehand denigrating to women. We can assume that the punanny’s belong to adult women, willing to let the man in question “show love” to them (sorry, too graphic, haha). On occasion more morally questionable, macho and male domination lyrics do appear – similar to or worse than the machismo of the Heptones song ‘I Hold The Handle’ – in dancehall and reggae, but it is far from the norm. It is less common than anti-gay lyrics (which in turn are not even as common as many think).

A strange irony is further that some of the most explicit, ”macho”/sexist (let’s say playful condescending) lyrics by male artists tended to be relatively popular among women. Dee-jays like General Echo, Yellowman and others who specialized at least partly in such sexual aggressive lyrics in the 1980s had relatively large female fan bases. Maybe these female fans were attracted by the edge, “danger”, or controversy. It seems a bit difficult to understand, but the same – unexpected female fan bases – can be found in for instance hip hop, where women and girls loved the work of NWA, of which some lyrics, such as on the sexual gang bang of a young, underage girl in their song ‘She Swallowed It’, I found personally not only distasteful but also immoral, and much worse than even the worse, sexist Jamaican dancehall lyrics. Yet some females liked that album and song by NWA. I understand that even less.

Lady Saw was a female dancehall artist who had slackness lyrics that were sexually quite explicit, and became quite popular in the 1980s and 1990s, having earned thus a position in the Jamaican music scene. Lyrically, she points at her sexual independence and often shows what can be called female pride and power. But…let us beware: there we find again the subtle oppressive/downpressive mechanism of the threatening risk of a woman artist’s lyrics being confined to love and sex (men talk about world problems, females mainly about male partners) . Recently, however, Lady Saw’s lyrical focus moved somewhat more to the social and spiritual (less slackness).

Furthermore, with Queen Ifrica, Etana, and several other women artists and singers in recent times came to the fore in the Jamaican music scene with more socially conscious and spiritual lyrics, and who associate themselves with the Rastafari movement, like Queen Ifrica and Jah9. Moreover, musically and creatively they show themselves to be easily the equal to their more numerous male peers in Jamaican music, having released strong songs and albums that are overall well received among reggae fans.