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Casey Taylor is micro-dosing Aleve throughout the day and evening.
“This rhythm has been going mad all summer,” says Teejay, the bartender at a hostel tucked away in Jack’s Hill, a rural enclave high above the Jamaican cultural heartbeat of Kingston. He’s holding his phone and pushing it closer to my face so I can see it better than he can because it wouldn’t be Jamaica if people weren’t kind and hospitable to those who love their country back. Dancehall music is once again gaining a niche in the United States club scene, but in Jamaica it’s long been a movement, blaring from the speakers of passing car windows. In the country where Burning Spear sang that Christopher Columbus was a jam blasted liar in 1976, where music is the vessel for the Spirit, there’s no such thing as “genre.” There are evolutions of the Spirit that crackles in the cool breezes descending off of the Blue Mountains, Jah’s gift to the Western hemisphere.
The rhythm in question is “Big Bunx Riddim,” a two-minute and thirty second panic attack with sharp staccato snares and the kind of fuzzed out bass that would make an Impala’s trunk cave in. The Big Bunx Riddim EP features six different Jamaican artists hopping in and off the flow on their own tracks. It starts with the laid back cool of Roze Don’s spliffed out monotone on “Bakshat” and ends with “Mad Out” by Valiant – a track I heard at least a dozen times from the windows of various cars in a five-day period.
Valiant is from Kington’s St. Andrew parish, but the 24-year-old is from a more rural area of the dense region. The visual for Valiant’s take on the rhythm is as frantic and bonkers as the rumbling bass itself. He goes wild in the streets surrounded by gyrating women, some of whom have hypodermic needles to put him down. I don’t blame them. The song is hot enough that Valiant might take over every speaker on the streets, at least for a little bit.
Outside of Jamaica, reggae and dancehall are often held in separate regard, particularly given reggae’s origins in the Rastafari movement and some decidedly un-Rasta orthodoxy amongst the dancehall scene. However, a few days in Kingston will change that perception, as the Rastafari philosophy’s impact on dancehall is clear: instead of a movement intended to create icons like the pop music of the United States, it is a movement made to create more movement. Like all Jamaican music, it starts and ends with the rhythm, and everything develops from the power of the drum. Bongo Herman – living legend, Rastafari, friend to Bob Marley, and one-time performer for His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I – once said that reggae is a rhythm of the heart, which is why people can’t help but move their bodies even as Bob Marley recites poetry directly implicating his listeners in Babylon. Dancehall has the same animating effects as reggae, it’s just evolved for a faster resting heart rate, acquired after decades of imperial meddling by culture vultures and the requisite irritation that causes.
If dancehall is intimidating, that seems to be part of the point. Critics tend to focus on the music’s lurid subject matter as a means of diminishing the art form – “It lacks the cultural awareness of the peaceful Marley message!” – but these criticisms usually come from people who don’t understand that the drums have a message of their own. The separation between reggae and dancehall’s liberatory power is as artificial as the separation between Garveyism and Rastafari epistemology. These expressions are addendums; apocrypha in the true religion of Jamaica rather than entirely new denominations.
“That is when Bob was a rude boy,” the man says, pointing at a laminated picture of an adolescent Bob Marley holding two pistols. Marley’s non-violent image was important to him later in life as he became an avatar for peaceful resistance to colonial oppression, but the jarring juxtaposition of the writer of Three Little Birds holding two guns is a reminder that nonviolence is an ideology found by those inundated with bloodshed.
The man speaking is Bongo Herman, a Rastafari adherent and percussionist whose name is synonymous with the origins of reggae music. Bongo has a stand in the courtyard of the Bob Marley museum and unlike the official gift shop that is primarily focused on selling Marley merch to tourists, Bongo is selling history that doesn’t survive the censorious eye of corporate brands. Ethiopian nationalist flags, personal recordings of albums and performance DVDs, and the Kingston merchandise designed to appeal to tourists but sporting the iconic red, green, and yellow of Ethiopia rather than the colors of the Jamaican government’s flag. Bongo is friendly with anyone who stops by, but most of the stuff at his stand is only meaningful for types who refer to Haile Selassie I as the Lion of Judah in casual conversation.
Herman is a Kingston legend, but he’s toured the world. Shared a stage with Michael Jackson. Traveled to play with his friend and confidante Bob Marley. Sister Rita Marley escorted Bongo to Africa so he could see the promised land, Ghana, which he still speaks of today. And Bongo is quick to remind you that many popular reggae songs throughout eras and decades featured his work on the drums. He will also correct people who put up a peace sign when he invites them to take a photograph with him, reminding them that in photos with Bongo Herman you are to hold up one finger, because there is One Love.
“This is the side of Bob that gets lost,” Bongo says, pointing to photos of Marley and his crew of misfits helping to promote the cause of Sahel self-determination in Africa, away from the Arab and European slave societies applying pressure from the North and the South. Bongo doesn’t talk about the struggle with remorse or anger but a form of Dharmic acceptance that runs through the Rastafari theology. Leonard Howell, the first Rasta, was fascinated with Hindu spiritualism and ascetic practices that arrived in Jamaica when the Brits used Indian indentured workers as a legal loophole to bypass the colonial ban on slavery. Conveniently enough, the indentured Indians also allowed the British to run their plantations without employing the emancipated Black people of the Caribbean.
Despite scholarly portrayals of the Rastafari as Ethiopianist (i.e. believing Ethiopia is superior to the rest of Africa), Marley’s house is filled with the material evidence of his commitment to the Sahel region of Africa and its indigenous people. On the second floor, tucked away beneath a weathered wooden map of the motherland with pins where Marley performed – the weathering stronger around the pins, scraped away by millions of gentle fingertips tapping the map out of respect – is a wooden sign from his show in Zimbabwe claiming solidarity with Comrade Robert Mugabe (before some of Mugabe’s later work). But at the top of the placard, much smaller than the portrait of Mugabe, is the divine core of Marley’s message: an etching of Mbuya Nehanda, the spirit medium at the center of the Chimurenga revolt against white colonizers. Politicians come and go. Ideologies spring forth from the universities every decade. Communists and Socialists and Libertarians and Free Market Capitalist Oligarchs. All of these things will die with time, absorbed into the din of the other words we use for failure. Meanwhile, the Mbuya Nehanda has never died.
Bongo Herman and his stand are a reminder that the war is not over. The darker-skinned person is still the imperial target of the broader “civilized” world as represented by the governments of Russia, or the UAE, or the Big Bad Wild West – whether it’s about territorial expansion or cultural exploitation. The Chinese government is even in on the scheme now, though opinion can vary on their involvement given that the folks in Beijing are investing in renewable energy imperialism rather than exclusively developing extraction markets.
The Marley museum is true to Marley’s “one love” mantra and doesn’t touch the political aspects of Black Power much during the tour, although the guide did briefly and solemnly mention that the British colonists would forcibly shave the dreadlocks of Rastafari – their visible spiritual commitment to Jah – if they were caught smoking ganja. A conversation with Bongo Herman is a salve; a reminder of what happened in the margins that the Marley family often avoids acknowledging, if only because the Marley family must maintain its peaceful image as the reluctant face of the modern Rastafari movement. Celebrity sells, which can be a difficult reality to face in a movement in need of funding but built around subduing the Ego in favor of all people.
“Most people do not see this one,” Bongo says with a wry smile before producing a laminated photo of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I stealing a kiss from a beautiful woman during his state visit to Jamaica in 1966. The Lion of Judah is notorious for his dramatically serious presentation to the world in photographs or speeches – it was his life’s mission to prove to the world that African kingdoms were just as dignified as any in the European world as a means of offsetting the “savagery” propaganda used against Sahel civilizations. For anyone deep in the world of Ethiopian lore, the photo is indeed pleasantly jarring. Selassie is smiling from ear to ear as the beautiful woman leans in for an embrace from the pious Lion of Judah, who acquiesces because he is still human after all. At the bottom of the picture is a quote from one of Selassie’s many speeches. Knowledge paves the way to love, and love in its turn fosters understanding, and leads one along the path of great common achievements.
“I played for him,” Herman says when he asks if I would like a photograph next to the woodblock rendering of Lij Tafari Makonnen, the Lion of Judah when he was just a boy. Next to him is a younger Rasta who spends most days by his side, aiding the elder percussionist whose beat helped untold young Black men find their dignity in a country run by people hellbent on stealing it from them by force. “I played my drums for His Imperial Majesty on his state visit to Jamaica. If you want to live forever, then you never never die. Never never steal, never tell no lie. Wanting for your own, you don’t have to roam. All you gots to do is praise the Most High. I wrote that song the night he came to visit in 1966.”
There’s an energy to the streets of Kingston that even the maddest dancehall rhythm can’t capture; a vibrancy of chattering community and common interest against the imperial capitalist. Marcus Garvey is on the money here now. Jamaica is finally free. The campus of the University of the West Indies practically buzzes with a new generation of Caribbean abolitionists. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it’s going to make all of us move.