woensdag 3 mei 2017

Dream meanings (in Reggae)

As I expect most people in the world – who after all need to sleep - I have a relationship with “dreams”. I remember good and bad dreams. For some years (when I was around 11) I wrote some of them down, even had a (paper) notebook devoted to it. I did not really keep that up or ever did it too structurally, so after a period I stopped. I later encountered people who really kept writing their dreams down more structurally – well into their adult lives - , attaching spiritual and symbolic meanings to them, guiding them.

I became a bit more sceptical about it in time, although I thought that at least some of my dreams had to have some kind of deeper meaning: they were that odd yet symbolical and forceful, raising questions. Later, I acquired some scientific, psychological (Freud and Jung) and biological knowledge, making me look at my dreams in different ways.

Medical knowledge taught me that when you remember your dreams, it simply means you were not sleeping that “deep”. It could mean that you slept bad because you were worried, ill, or consumed the wrong food/drinks too late. Psychosomatic or biological.


Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, taught that dreams express the unconscious and (un)fulfillment of desires. Freud saw dreams as “a disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes”. Interestingly, he argues that the meanings of dreams (especially of adults) are there, but concealed. This meaning from the unconscious can be “decoded” by examining symbols, but also through free association. Freud later stressed that again, having become annoyed about how one of the several terms he coined, namely “phallic symbol” (in relation to dream interpretation), got a life of its own, with misinterpretations, lacking proper associations relevant to one individual person dreaming. Freud objected against the fact that all dreams require a “sexual” explanation, as some thought was his point. He never contended or wrote that, Freud said.

Other views on this exist, but such explanations seemed plausible to me. From then on I mostly remembered only the relatively more “meaningful” dreams, that left a special impression with me, after I woke up.

Among the dreams I wrote down (in my teens) I remember one in which I ran along on a road with Arab-looking people, some of whom said “the wall is going to fall” (in Dutch, oddly enough), leaving me puzzled in that very dream (what wall did they talk about.. the one we ran along?). The landscape looked arid and “Middle-Eastern”. I found this impressive, without knowing why. Yet.. it was in the 1980s, so well before the Berlin Wall fell down, yet the landscape and people in my dream did not seem to refer to the East Bloc or Berlin.. Dreams have to have inherent absurdities. Probably, having seen such scenes on television news (where the Middle East recurred prominently then and now) simply influenced such dreams.

In another dream I was in a nearby village in the Netherlands from where I lived (named Hillegom, a village I knew a bit as I once worked there in a farm), and I carried a red box along through that village. I met some people, was at a bar with that red box with me on the table. At the end of the dream, I dared open the box and flames of fire came out. This was one of those dreams that impressed me enough to write it down. I guess some Freudian or Jungian interpretations can be let loose on such dream symbols, haha.. (red box, fire, difficult “secrets” kept, perhaps?).

Other dreams just reflected that I felt a bit ill, hungry, or ate or drank wrong things/too late. Such dreams were mainly “stressful”.. Nothing spectacular happened in such dreams, yet I felt stressed, tense and uneasy in them.. like I had some heavy task to do that could not wait, and was panicking. Often I was happy that I woke up from such “stress dreams”, and that I did not really have such tasks as in the dreams. Other dreams I had were pleasant and good, and I found it a pity that I had to wake up. Like many people I have good and bad dreams.


Beyond modern Western interpretations, dreams of course have different meanings in different cultures and religions, also throughout history.

That dreams convey “messages” from the spiritual realm is in fact quite common throughout different cultures, even in earlier European ones. Messages from the spiritual realm, from gods or God, or –also – from ancestors and ancestor spirits. One finds it in the Bible (“prophetic dreams”). It is known in Islam (dreams convey messages from past martyrs to present-day Muslims), while in Buddhism and Hinduism dreams tend to have special, spiritual meanings too.

Even more interesting are dream interpretations among indigenous peoples, such as the Amerindians or the Aboriginals. The Aboriginals of Australia attach especially much importance to “dreams” as “guiding” in their life, and as spiritual connection to the ancestors, with a community function. Therefore they ascribe also much cultural importance to symbols in them, and their meanings and references.

Likewise interesting is how the phenomenon of “dreams” is viewed in relation to “real life”, or better said: the waking hours. Some cultures detach dreams from real, waking hours (along with sleep), while in some cultures dream and waking hours become more intertwined, also in rituals, daily customs etcetera. Thus as a third stage bridging daily waking hours and sleep. This was/is for instance the case among some Amerindian cultures, as well as the already mentioned Australian Aboriginals.

Some African cultures, such as those involving “spirit possession”, attach a spiritual meaning to dreams too, also ascribing dreams a role of conveyor of messages of ancestors or spirits/deities. Regular dreams are seen as “spiritually balanced” and healthy, as a connection with spirits is ongoing. This is the case with the Vodou religion in Haiti, based largely on African, Benin/Togo region precursors.

That dreams convey messages is accepted, yet not all dreams are equally meaningful within Vodou, and further advise or guidance – from “houngans” (priests) - is necessary to determine its meaning or actual relevance. This is an interesting down-to-earth counterweight to “supernatural” seeming irrationalities that some associate “spiritual meanings”of dreams too.

Also Yoruba culture (in what is now Nigeria and Benin), traditionally had a similar spiritual message function ascribed to dreams (as in Vodou), similarly distinguishing between meaningful or less meaningful dreams. “Dreaming”as such is not seen as exalted or enlightened among the Yoruba, it only becomes meaningful with further interpretation and rituals in waking hours. Either way, Orisha spirits/deities tend to have messages in dreams that are interpreted in traditional Yoruba culture, and its continuities in the West, having survived the Atlantic Slave Trade, in Yoruba-based folk religions as Santería in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad, and Candomblé in Brazil.

So, the necessity of dreams for spiritual balance is empahasized in these African cultures, while distinctions among their functions are also made. The same applies to Bantu cultures, like of the Zulu, the latter referring to what they call “the shade” giving messages through dreams.

Scholars point out that despite universalities shared, there is a general difference in meanings attached to dreams between African and (modern) European cultures, namely that in African cultures one often dreams also “for others”, with messages for other people/the community, and not just for themselves as in the modern Western world, shaping their ritual interpretation.

As with many things - however - in this (unfortunately) dominantly Eurocentric World, the dream interpretation in several age-old cultures outside of Europe, do in fact not differ in complexity and “layers” when compared to the theories of Freud, Jung and others, shaping Western scholarly thought (and spread throughout the world).

The link between dreams and spirituality seems an obvious one, dreams being an “uncontrolled”, mysterious area for humans. The supernatural functions of dreams in traditional religions, as well as in Christianity and Islam attest to that. In the Bible furthermore (in books Joel and Acts), a distinction is made between Dreams (for old men) and Visions (for young men), both with spiritual functions.


In popular culture and daily life –beyond religious cadres - people try to make sense of dreams too, and their surreal aspects. “Dreaming” is associated colloquially with “hoping”or “wishing” in many languages, including English, Dutch, French, and Spanish, as a simplified Freudian take. Many poems or pop songs attest to this, including to other psychological roles of dreams, such as escape from worries or a painful or deprived real life. There is a duplicity also here. “Dreaming” is at the same time in many European and other languages associated with “unrealistic” escaping, not being able to cope with or understand reality, and therefore “dreams” become negative. A type of laziness or irresponsibility. Like day-dreaming. Not real life or serious enough.

Martin Luther King’s famous speech I Have A Dream used it in the positive meaning of “hope”, perhaps echoing an idea of a ”vision”, beyond a dream, of a better future that seems far-fetched yet possible.

I find it interesting to study this use of “dream(s)”and “dreaming” in popular culture – notably music. I will focus especially on a genre I know most about: Reggae music from Jamaica.


Reggae is interesting, because it is an internationalized popular music genre, inevitably functioning in a modern Western World, but with (often) connections to a spiritual movement, Rastafari, the aforementioned spiritual aspects come back again. Rastafari is furthermore Afrocentric and Jamaican culture mostly African-derived, returning us also to African views on dreams. In addition, Reggae knows many lyrics about social issues and protest, alongside love songs as in most other genres.

How do all these influences (including the Bible, Freud, and African folk religions), reflect in Reggae song lyrics, when involving “dreams” as term or phenomenon?

The Rastafari movement is both African and Bible-based. That is how it stands, despite critique of some Rastas against the Eurocentric (King James) Bible’s role in the movement. It does play a role, and therefore also the mentioned distinction between “dream” and “vision” made in some Bible books, with “vision” being more progressively prophetic than “dream”, and often valued more.

Yet, the word “dream” and derived words (plural dreams, dreaming etcetera) recur regularly throughout Reggae music, even in some relatively well-known songs. Relatively more often in love and romance-themed songs, must be said, but also in songs with Rastafari or social messages.


The different meanings ascribed by human kind, in fact all over the World, to dreams, ranging from spiritual, to hope, healing, or community functions.. All these can to differing degrees found in Reggae lyrics. Most common is, as in other English-speaking areas – and international pop culture -, dream as a metaphor for “hope”, of getting out of the present situation. In a sense often similar to “vision” or equivalent, though not always. Both (dreams and vision), anyway, can “come true”, according to lyrics.

“Dreams coming true” is a common, almost “ cliché” use of dreams, especially common in love songs. Some formulaic uses of the term “dream” can be found in Jamaican music, especially in love songs. Even there, though, there is enough originality in using the term. Dreaming about a loved woman – common also in other music genre’s lyrics – is one such formulaic or cliché use found in some reggae songs. Not that the artists are really to be blamed: they just use the English language, with all its common metaphors.. simply to communicate.

Likewise, in most pop music genres with “dream” in the lyrics, it refers to “wishing” in relation to love (personal relationships). The Everley Brothers’song (All I Have To Do is) Dream” is perhaps the best known globally, even though somewhat overrated in my opinion. Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House, another well known hit (musically a bit better than the Everley Brothers’one in my opinion). Also, the “classic” Italian tune Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Plu) by Domenico Modugno, is about someone “dreaming” about “flying” (“volare” in Italian), but also through a love affair with a woman. Also Otis Redding’s fine and well-known I’ve Got Dreams To Remember is a love song. Lyrically it is interestingly formulated, though. Likewise the opening lyric of a song of Spanish “Flamenco pop” artist Chiquetete, a song called Aprende A Soñar (Spanish for “Learn To Dream") hints toward somewhat deeper interpreatations of dreaming. “Let the passing of time be detained only in the sphere of the clock.. (and start dreaming)..” Despite this nicely put philosophical opening line, it turns out to be a love song too, with matching clichés.

Other, more creative or original lyricists approach dreaming more playfully, such as Tom Waits’s interesting Innocent When You Dream, which is not really a love song, as few of Tom Waits’ songs are really (just) love songs..

“Dreams in lyrics” becomes however more original if what is dreamt about is not “good loving” regarding one woman/man or relationship, but rather social change. Along the lines of Martin Luther King’s emotive yet beautiful I Have A Dream speech. Equally eloquent, though, was Malcolm X’s statement that Black people in the US are not living the American Dream, but “experiencing the American nightmare”.


Reggae, more than other genres, has often social and protest lyrics, as well as many Rastafari-inspired lyrics. Many – if not most – other popular music genres tend to focus much more on love and romance themes, some genres even exclusively. Love relationships are universal and shared by all humans, explaining the appeal, although it is also a “safe” choice: safe commercially on the one hand, but also “safe” politically, relevant in contexts of dictatorships and censorships. Cuban son and salsa “hit songs” in Cuba, should either praise the Communist leadership (Castro cum suis) or be about love, sex, or romance, albeit playfully.

Also in Spain under Right-wing dictator Franco (1939-1975) some Spanish (Flamenco or other) hit songs passed censorship when about often formulaic love themes, and nonpolitical. Also under dictator Trujillo (1930-1961) in the Dominican Republic, local Merengue songs were promoted, as long as they had no political, rebellious themes. To keep the people happy, so to speak, with popular music, but in a controlled manner.

Notwithstanding all the inequalities and social injustice separating the haves and the ghetto have-nots and poor people within Jamaica, there is at least a degree of freedom of speech there, notable in Bob Marley’s rebellious lyrics, even after Chris Blackwell’s commercializing production. Such rebellious protest lyrics can be released and made public in Jamaican Reggae, yet whether is will be the most commercially successful is unfortunately dubious. That Inner Circle’s mediocre tune Sweat (“Girl I want to make you sweat”) became a reggae crossover hit in several countries is telling enough.

“Dreaming”or “dreams” about social change is indeed found in Reggae lyics, but often with a specific Rastafari or locally influenced accent. Zion Is A Vision (1992), a quite well-known, nice song (in the reggae scene, that is) by Garnett Silk is a good example, with vision being here used as dreaming about Zion (Africa, Ethiopia), Haile Selassie, and a “family reunion”.. a dream Garnett did not wish to wake up from, as he says in the lyrics.

More “political” so to speak, Pablo Moses’s earlier song Revolutionary Dream (1975) - from the album of the same name - is about overthrowing as warriors the oppressive forces keeping one down and in poverty. A “wonderful vision”, Pablo Moses sings, he woke up from..

More neutrally positive, if idealistic, is an earlier reggae song, recorded by the Wailers (and Bunny Wailer), namely Dreamland, about living in balance with nature, provided with fruits, “safe and free”. The “far across the sea” in the lyrics, though, probably refers to the African motherland, without naming Africa as such.


Marcus Garvey is important for the Rastafari movement. Moreover, he was a Black Power precursor to both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Garvey was a prophetic activist, yet was at the same time an interesting, multidimensional personality, who put Black advancement first, yet gave it a personal touch, by speaking in sincere and direct terms. I see this as positive, because it allows you to “trust” a person. Everything (also private things) openly and public is too much to ask (and psychologically not recommendable), but as much as possible or wise seems good to me. Else you end up as people who, as my mother called it (I translate from Spanish), “have more hidden than out in the open”. Like many politicians or people in high places, for instance. Or criminals.

One 1927 poem by Garvey, called A Summer’s Dream, deals with a dream he described, and seems quite personal, and seemingly about a love relationship, although a deeper, metaphoric meaning (beyond just one love partner) is certainly possible. I considered the poem, despite common Biblical and heaven references, actually quite touching and impressive. The Summer Dream in question was nightmarish, and unlike with good, “paradise dreams” of lyrics I mentioned before (Garnett Silk’s Zion In A Vision), Garvey was glad to wake up out of it, finding it not to be real. What’s more, with the line “I came to my senses”, he places such upsetting dreams in a negative light, as of lesser value than reality.

http://nyahbinghi.ca/garvey-speeches/view-garvey.asp?word_title=A Summer~s Dream

Elsewhere in Garvey’s poetry and writings, “dream” is also used positively, or in common meanings of (community) “hope”.

Haile Selassie I, also crucial in the Rastafari movement, used the term “dream” in his beautiful speech/address for the United Nations in 1963, reproduced in the lyrics of Bob Marley’s classic song War. “until that day (when the philosophy that some races are superior to others has ended and been discredited), “the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, and the rule of international morality will remain in but a fleeting illusion..to be pursued but never attained”. The dream is not criticized as such, but a dream that has no eventual link with reality (beyond a “fleeting illusion”) is. Dreaming is not enough, so to speak.

The absurdities of actual dreams could have inspired some musicians, and maybe they have, although the effects of narcotics are a fierce competitor to this. LSD trips probably inspired several songs or video clips in some genres. The fact that dreams tend to be absurd and their meaning often unclear, make them less suitable for musicians and songwriters and singers, after all often out to “tell the world a (sensible) story” with their lyrics, . A genius like Jimi Hendrix is maybe an exception to this rule. Other, visual artists, like painter Salvador Dali and partly Pablo Picasso, however said to use dreams as main inspirations for what they would paint on the canvas.

In Reggae perhaps only the idiosyncratic Lee “Scratch” Perry, or instrumental reggae, such as the more spacey Dubs by King Tubby and others come close to such inspirations out of absurd dreams.

The British (duh) band London Underground also made an interesting song for the Reggae-focussed On-U label in Britain called “Dreams Are Better”. The song is Reggae-like, but overall experimental musically (some Punk influences are there too), while the lyrics are likewise (somewhat) alternative to other lyrics in that “dreams” are preferred over the confusion and illusion in reality. I guess I kind of liked that song when I first heard it, because it had a nice dubby groove..

In most Reggae lyrics “dream” is a metaphor”for “wish” or “desire” as in other music genres, yet with relatively more “social” or spiritual wishes when compared to other genres with love songs dominating.

Somewhat different is the well-known reggae tune by the sweet-voiced Jackie Edwards, the nice 1975 song My Dream About Ali Baba (covered by others), a song with lyrics just relating a dream, with all its absurdities, influenced by children’s story books.

Critical of “dreams” is Ini Kamoze’s intriguing (Living In A) Dream, which is quite poetic and layered, as it treats the distinction between dream and reality at an abstract level, with a lyric like “got me buzzing like a computerized machine”.

Several songs discuss dreams as positive, prophetic visions of a better world, future and place, from a Rastafari perspective, as some already mentioned (Garnett Silk, Pablo Moses), and further in lyrics by e.g. Prince Fari, Culture (song Elijah) or Winston Reedy’s also fine Judah’s Dream, here with literal Biblical references.

Also recent reggae songs, such as by Busy Signal and RC (Dreams of Brighter Days, 2013), or My Dream by Nesbeth, use dream in the sense of positive hopes or wishes/ambitions, whereas Sizzla calls for “chasing your wildest dreams” as a positive goal to get out of poverty and pain (in the song Wildest Dreams). Dennis Brown JR also sings he “never will stop dreaming”. In these songs as goals and hopes wider than love or romance relationships.


If there is something that can be concluded from this, it is that there is a duplicity of meanings attached to dreams and dreaming in Reggae lyrics. Just like in traditional Yoruba culture, and in a way in the theories of Sigmund Freud, and perhaps to a degree universally, world wide. This can be summarized as: dreams are necessary in human lives, but not enough..