Rastafari Conference

A crowd of five to six hundred souls—many adorned in their best Ethiopian finery—were assembled in and around the Undercroft, an outdoor pavilion near the center of the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). A group of Rastafari drummers added color to this spectacle as they warmed up the gathering with Nyahbinghi chants. Rastafari and non-Rastafari visitors from across the Caribbean, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, England, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama and Ethiopia milled about, greeting one another as they made new acquaintances or renewed friendships. The press was in attendance, the event was being videotaped for broadcast on UWI Television, and Rastafari, young and old, were rubbing shoulders with representatives from various embassies, Jamaican officialdom and scholars from around the world. Ras Ivi Wright, one of the Elders present, reminded me that this was the very site upon which the university conferred an honorary doctorate upon His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I during his state visit to Jamaica in 1966. This was a special occasion, to be sure.

But we all knew that the event was historic for other reasons, some not unrelated to the Emperor’s visit. Not only was this day the 123rd anniversary of the birthday of Marcus Garvey, it marked a convergence with the 50th anniversary of the university’s publication of The Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica (1960). Now in its eighth printing, this booklet is easily the most widely circulated and arguably the most influential document ever produced on or about the Rastafari. Amidst the atmosphere of social prejudice and violence directed against members of the movement by a hostile society during the 1950s, a handful of Rasta leaders persuaded then university Provost Sir Arthur Lewis to undertake a study that would clarify the nature and goals of the Rastafari to the wider public. The hope was that the university would make recommendations to the Jamaican government to address the needs and aspirations of the brethren and sistren.

Ultimately, this is what the three co-authors of The Report did: recommended, among other things, that economic improvements should be made accessible to Rastafari in the areas of housing, social services and education; and that the government assist those who wished to repatriate to Africa by sending a technical mission to the continent to explore possibilities for repatriation. A nine-man mission was, in fact, sent which included three Rastafari delegates: Mortimo Planno, Douglas Mack and Filmore Alvaranga. Departing in April of 1961, the mission visited five African nations – Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ethiopia – and indirectly set the stage for the state visit of His Majesty five years later. It was the university that also published two divergent reports on the findings of the 1961 Mission: a majority report, signed off by the non-Rastafari delegates, and a minority report penned by Planno, Mack and Alvaranga.
Much, of course, has taken place within Rastafari over the past fifty years. It developed its own music – reggae – and a long line of musical ambassadors to the world. As part of this phenomenon, Bob Marley and Rastafari are now synonymous to millions. Rasta culture and livity has “gone international” crossing virtually all continental and language barriers and, as the conferee list attested—the movement has attracted scholars and generated scholarship from all over the globe. In Jamaica, Rastafari are now professors, lecturers and students in the very university that first subjected them to study. While the authors of The Report probably never imagined the global trajectory that Rastafari would take, they did correctly realize that there were those in the movement who would never renounce their attachment to Africa and their desire to return to the land of their ancestors irrespective of how Jamaica might accommodate them. The reality is that Jamaica has not fully come to terms with its own Rastafari community (most remain economically marginalized) and, despite the presence of Rastafari communities on the continent, the movement has yet to realize its vision of large-scale repatriation.

Much credit must be given to the Chairman and Coordinators of the conference, Professor Barry Chevannes and Dr. Jahlani Niaah, respectively, for organizing three days of meetings in which Rastafari of all ages, colors and national backgrounds, as well as scholars of Rastafari, could come together in an unprecedented exchange of views. As Barry Chevannes later said, “There are those who came from within and those who came from without…,” but all spoke with each other in dialogue rather than merely at or about each other. The prelude to the keynote address set the tone for the entire dynamic of the Conference as it made the inclusiveness of Rastafari integral to the proceedings. The Abuna from Kingston’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church offered a formal benediction for the success of the sessions that were to take place. Honored Rastafari representatives provided inspiring statements as part of the opening ceremony — all giving thanks for the guidance of His Imperial Majesty. Ultimately, all of their remarks came full circle to emphasize the underlying importance and inevitably of repatriation. Their speechifying set the stage for the keynote address by Sir Roy Augier, the only surviving co-author of The Report. After reviewing the history of positive relations between the Rastafari and the university over the past half century, Sir Roy spoke his mind on the issue of repatriation. “Some of you will not like what I have to say,” he began. “Repatriation made possible with support from abroad [i.e., from the ex-colonial governments] will never happen.[…] No matter what Garvey had dreamt of, what you dream of, these countries could not and have not made any provision, despite the technical mission, to fund any person. […] There is much work here. Why not turn Jamaica into the homeland?”

The Rastafari present erupted in protest! Irrespective of what any individual Rastafari might hold on the issue of repatriation (e.g., that one may be reunited with Africa on spiritual or cultural levels), the public commitment to literal and physical repatriation is widely regarded as an article of faith for the older brethren and sistren in Jamaica. Professor Augier’s sincerely held, if unpopular, statement in the face of what was clearly expected opposition, set the tone for a good deal of debate, discussion and reasoning over the next few days and weeks. Sir Roy showed considerable resilience in quelling the uproar, repeatedly imploring, “Let’s try reasoning, let’s try reasoning [about this].” By the time he had finished his keynote, there were no more appreciative members of the audience than the Rastafari themselves who resolutely defend their positions as “men-of-words” but who also respect that same quality in others. The brethren and sistren could disagree — and disagree strongly — without being disagreeable! Sir Roy’s address put into play one of the two main themes for the conference: the idea of “negotiating the African presence” in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Diaspora, inviting ones to assess how far Rastafari has come in the past fifty years — and how far I-n-I have yet to go. The diversity of conference participants from around the world itself became a main theme.

There were also some notable backstage intrigues that had played out between the organizers of the university conference and members of the Ethio-African Diasporic Millennium Council (MC), as supported most notably by Bunny Wailer. For the past four to five years, the Millennium Council has emerged as a new Rastafari organization that has been engaged in dialogue with the Jamaican state on matters of cultural equity and economic compensation over the decades of abuse that Jamaican Rastafari has suffered at the hands of government. In addition, the issue of defining and protecting Rastafari intellectual property rights has become a cause célèbre for the Council. The latter emerged as a point of contest between the university and MC based on the desire of the latter to assert ownership of any intellectual property generated by the conference. Suffice it to say that when the university and the MC failed to reach agreement on this issue among others, the council decided to hold their own meetings at the site of Bunny Wailer’s yard on Old Hope Road. Events there opened on August 15th, 2010.

For many of us, this became the pre-opening to a week of intensive Rastafari interactions and reasonings that brought together traditional Elders, new faces from the Rastafari Hispanic and Francophone world, younger Rastafari scholars and even some of my own colleagues from Washington, D.C., notably Dr. Peggy Bolger, Director of the Center for American Folklife at the Library of Congress. Dr. Bolger was there to participate with myself and others on a panel organized by Ras Marcus Goffe, the lawyer for the MC, on intellectual property rights. The intellectual property issues raised by the MC and the discussions from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) participants were, in my view, the most substantive contributions to the Millennium Council proceedings that week. The unfortunate side to the Old Hope Yard venue was that at least some of the participants that week were split in two venues.

Much of what happens in an event of this kind occurs outside the formal presentation of papers and talks given within the academic setting. An important and welcome venue in this regard were the grounds of the Bob Marley Museum that were opened to participants during the week and served as the site for various meetings in the evening both before and during the formal conference began. One of the most significant of these meetings centered around a presentation on the Rastafari mission to Harar, Ethiopia (the birthplace of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Selassie I) in November of 2009. The mission or “Trod,” as it is more properly called, involved an international group of participants. The debriefing at the Marley Museum was an event in itself, with the arrival of Mutabaruka, who provided his own views on repatriation to the African continent at large, as opposed to Ethiopia exclusively.

At the conference opening, Ras Frank-I Tafari of Antigua emphasized the importance of a pan-Caribbean, as opposed to a Jamaica-centric, understanding of contributions to the development of Rastafari. Ras Frank-I emphasized that The Report itself was made possible by Sir Arthur Lewis, a St. Lucian, who was then Provost of the university and that Edmond Hawkins Lake, an academic from Antigua then at UWI, was one of the members of the 1961 Mission. Indeed, Roy Augier himself was not born in Jamaica, although he’d made his home there for most of his life.

Ras Iration I, another well-traveled Elder who has had experience outside Jamaica, drew attention to the role of the Anguillian proto-Rastafari preacher Shepard Robert Athlyi Rogers. Rogers, he pointed out, was the author of The Holy Piby (otherwise, The Black Man’s Bible) that was influential in early Rastafari circles. Ras Iration also sought to “…remind I-n-I for the record that the fundamentals of Rastafari were not exclusively a Jamaican formulation” and that “this suggests to us that the Rastafari success has entailed a higher and deeper level of cooperation and development among I-n-I brothers and sisters that make I-n-I one Caribbean family!”
Presentations on Rastafari in Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Barbados, Panama and the Caribbean generally, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Ethiopia and New Zealand contributed insight and understanding, regarding the dynamic diversity of the movement and how it continues to create new spaces and expressions of Rastafari livity around the world. This was best summed up by Ras Sela Seales saying, “Rastafari is always in a constant state of becoming,” and underscored with the screening of Rastafari at Home and Abroad, a new film by Susanne Moss, soon to be released.

In counterpoint to what might be called Rastafari “outernational” there were a range of outstanding presentations that focused on the continuing struggle of Rastafari in the place of its birth. Ras Ivi gave a heart-rending account of the struggles and triumphs of Rastafari over the past 80 years in Jamaica. Others continued the theme of the history of agonistic and oppressive relations that the colonial and post-colonial state has wreaked upon the sons and daughters of Jah, including Marsha Inubia Hall’s astute offering “From Back ‘o Wall to Tivoli: The Garrisonization of Rastafari Roots.” But among the insightful presentations, nothing exposed the raw pathos of the Rastafari struggle for social justice more so than the much-awaited screening of Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens, a documentary film by Deborah Thomas and John Jackson.

The Coral Gardens Massacre took place in 1963 when the government of Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante unleashed the Jamaican security forces and constabulary upon the island’s Rastafari population with a directive to “shoot first and ask questions later.” The unrestrained use of force by the Jamaican state followed the murder of a gas station attendant near Montego Bay over what was essentially a personal land dispute with a local Rasta. The brutality directed against the Rastafari community was unprecedented and, to this day, there is no accurate count of how many Rastafari were terrorized or killed. Bad Friday taps into the deep reservoir of community memory over this traumatic event – one that the Rastafari community has kept alive as a cause for reparations.

Two other conference themes, gender and “revolutionary self-criticism” warrant mention. At major Rastafari gatherings it is always heartening to see confident and outspoken Rastawomen, such as Queen Mother Moses and Sister Ijahnya Christian, speaking clearly for the Omega principle within Rastafari. Both were on panels that contributed to reasonings on gender equality in the framework of Alpha and Omega balance within Rastafari. The offerings of Icil Phillips and Rachelle Gray concerning the contributions of RasTafari women to African consciousness in Barbados; and those by Nazli Elena Tovar on Rastafari women in Mexico were similarly welcome. My presentation about the career of my late research partner, Sister Carole Yawney, a Toronto-based anthropologist, made its points about gender. Although Sister Carole had been grounded in the patriarchal settings presided over by Mortimo Planno in Trench Town during the 1970s, Carole joined several Rastafari women (including Sisters Maureen Rowe and Charmagne Montague) in taking on the community for its subordination of women.

While Rastafari certainly have much to agitate for in terms of restorative justice from the state, there are those who came with their own commentary and internal critiques of the community. These talks focused on replacing “victimhood” with the empowering concern to create and build sustainable projects that can develop the community. Here the work of Ras Imo on tofu production and Ras Karl Phillpotts’ work with the Shashamane Foundation, which underscored the Creed of Rastafari (i.e., “the hungry be fed, the naked clothed…”), were much to the point. Bobo Shanti Priest Douglas Smith threw down a challenge for the community to organize effectively and to create a basis for internal accountability for what gets projected to the wider world as “Rastafari.” Leachim Semaj raised similar issues in a presentation entitled “From Peace and Love to Fiya Bun: Did Rastafari Lose its Way?”

It is impossible to characterize fully the body of cultural and intellectual offerings that flowed from this first Inaugural Rastafari Conference. The range and diversity of participants was impressive, to say the least. The specially-prepared exhibition in the UWI Library on Rastafari and the photo montage of Rastafari history and Elders (provided by the International Rastafari Archives Project at the Smithsonian), along with the other art and photography exhibitions mounted by the delegation from Mexico, all expressed a deep interest in honoring and dialoguing with the community. Barry Chevannes and Jahlani Niaah created an ambience that the Rastafari community at large needs to consider more carefully. UWI campus might serve well as a future community space for Rastafari in a deeper way than heretofore considered possible or desirable. In listening to the personal history of Ras Frank I, it’s clear that there has been precedent for this. Frank I spoke nostalgically about his own experience at UWI as both student and teacher during the ‘70s. During that heady decade, the university campus was a place for young students and young Rastafari to intensively and regularly interact with renown Elders like Ras Boanerges, Bongo Time, Pa- and Ma-Ashanti, among others. Shortly before leaving I traveled with Bongo Shephan Fraser around the island to various Rastafari yards and camps, one of which was the former site of the Golden Jubilee Nyahbinghi at Angel Ites in St. Catherine. It was here in 1980 that the international Rastafari community celebrated another 50th anniversary — the 50th anniversary of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I. There I reconnected with Ras Clinel “Ras Lion” Robinson, a bredrin I knew from the early ‘80s. Talk turned to the events at the conference and to the keynote by Professor Augier that had launched it. Ras Lion spared no time in going right to the point of repatriation and what he felt was the disparaging way in which it had dismissed by Augier. Shephan concurred, and I added that Augier probably had little sense of the frequent connections and the many overlapping networks that Rastafari in the Diaspora now have to Rastafari communities on the continent.

With this, Ras Lion excused himself and disappeared briefly inside his single-room gates only to emerge with a sheath of paper which I immediately recognized as his vernacular “archives.” Shuffling though a pile of correspondence and newspapers, he pulled out a 2003 edition of the Jamaica Daily Gleaner. The headlines read: “Queen Says No to Rastas.” This, as perhaps every Jamaican Rastafari remembers, was the response from Buckingham Palace to the Rastafari appeal for reparations from the British Crown some years back. Holding it up in front of us, Ras Lion simply said, “I doan care if it tek a thousand years, Babylon haffa send wi home. Repatriation is a MUST! Yuh hear mi — yuh feh tell dem dat, Sir.” Argument sealed. Praise Rastafari!