reggae is more than a rhythmn

it’s a belief and a way of life for over a million people

And like many other beliefs, it is based on the Bible. Scripture and prophecy. The line of King David, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba.

Island 5 north shore
(C) 2011 carol joy shannon

Most people don’t think of reggae as based on scripture. For the casual user, especially in the 21st Century, reggae is a rythmn with it’s roots in rasta culture. And, for most, rasta is dreadlocks and ganja.

It is likely that many young people have no idea that “rasta” came from rastafarian, and that rastafari is a religion.

(Christians reading this may leave at this point, but you shouldn’t, because there are a few surprises.)

The rastafarian belief, connected though it is to cannabis, claims Biblical connections through its early icon, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi. Selassi always maintained that he was “of the line of David,” and every Christian knows how important that is.

(Here is a link for some more info on Selassi. I remember the first time I saw him, marching in Kenney’s funeral procession. He was a tiny man, covered in medals, but he had so much presence, we all wanted to know who he was. No one mentioned the Jamaica connect then, though.)

Haile Selassi’s actual name was Ras Tafari Makonen, and it was upon the concept of him as prophecied holy leader, out of Africa, that rastafarianism was born.

Whether or not it is a “true” religion can be debated, but a million people around the world think so. Whether cannabis is the core belief can also be debated. But it remains: Biblical constructs are built in, and one of rastafari’s biggest ambassadors wrote songs around them.

I’m not going to get into a bio of Bob Marley here; there are plenty of them out there. But Marley’s early songs were deeply passionate about rastafari, and many of them included Bible verses, in the patois of trenchtown, some of them lengthy.

I knew a lot of this long ago — some time I will write about a 1970s trip to the Blue Mountains with some egghead sociologists from Philadelphia — but I really hadn’t thought about it too much for a long time either. After all, Haile Selassi died in 1975 and Bob Marley 6 years later. So, clearly any prophecies about Selassi were out the window. And reggae, without Bob, was just music. Really good, enjoyable music, but the shaman had left.

And the shaman became an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian shortly before his death, something I didn’t know until now. Here is that surprising twist (which confirms that even old smart alecks like me can learn new things, and be moved by them.)

I have been thinking more about Marley’s biblical references for the last six months or so, because I’ve been listening to “Redemption Song,” a lot, on Playing for Change. That led to listening to various versions of “Rivers of Babylon” (not a Marley song, the Melodians, popularized by the 1972 movie, “The Harder They Come.”) and many others from the old reggae canon.

“Rivers of Babylon” is mainly Psalm 137, verses 1-4, and the refrain is Psalm 19:14. It’s a wonderful song to sing along with, because it’s like singing a very cool hymn. A very catchy cool hymn. (A Jamaican born Euro group named Boney M made such a successful disco version in 1978 that it remains in the Top Ten of all UK music to this day!)

One of my all time favorites is “Exodus,” written when Marley himself was exiled in London. During that time, people in Jamaica called him the prophet, politicians thought him a rival, and people tried to kill him, so…….

…a recent article about that whole period is found here.

(Personal footnote below)

Exodus is also a book in the Bible, but the verses referenced in the song are from 2 Kings 4:26, 5:22, and John 4:35. (Here is a link to the lyrics from a wonderful site that finds Biblical references in modern music.)

But my favorite has always been “Redemption Song,” a song he wrote in the time period prior to his death. It was an important song to him, and he sang it with great pathos — and it is absolutely filled with verses from the Bible. According to the link above, it includes Proverbs 31:24 and 14, Revelation 11:7, 17:8, 9:1, 2, 11; Genesis 7:1, Psalm 49:7, 94:4, Leviticus 7:2 and 2 Samuel 18:30! The man knew his scripture.

Here is my current favorite version, with one of his sons, Stephen, and Robert Nesta himself.

So, the next time you listen to classic reggae – remember, it isn’t just natty dread and the spliffs. In among the al-far-i and jah are the people of Judah and Jamaica, praising and trusting in God to keep us safe from the evil all around us.

(I was going to Jamaica every Wednesday in the early to mid-70s, and it was a charged atmosphere at times, even on the tourist end of the island. The hippie days of carefree-sleepingonthebeach Negril were past. 

Later still, "tourist safety" would necessitate fenced, guarded compounds. My parents were on the boat one year and asked where to go in Montego Bay. I had no ideas, because most of us hadn't bothered to get off in Jamaica for months: it was too dangerous, even in broad daylight. 

It was the first time I witnessed first-hand the level of hate and violence that is generated under tyranny, in Jamaica's case, a couple hundred years of strict colonialism.  

A few decades later I saw the numbing effects of one hundred years of communist tyranny, but that's a story for another day.)


    1. Yes, since I retired from “show business” I have time to go down a lot of rabbit holes. One thing I have discovered is that what I think I “know” about something is often much more complex in its reality – and the other thing I’ve discovered is that age filters our memories in many ways, good and bad!

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