Thursday, November 17, 2011

It Belongs in a Museum?

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending the closing ceremony for the Discovering Rastafari! exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  My friend Jake Homiak, anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, curated this exhibit which opened four years ago, bringing his three decades of experience in Rasta culture into an impressive, comprehensive display of the movement's history and philosophies.  I didn't know about this exhibit until spring of 2010, when one of my professors happened to read about it.  She knew I was beginning my thesis proposal for a topic related to Rastafari, so she forwarded me some information, and I emailed Dr. Homiak (at that point in time, a complete stranger) for some advice about fieldwork in Jamaica.  Within an hour, he called me on the phone, and we spoke for about 45 minutes.  Without his help, I would never have pulled off the thesis I finished in April of this year.  So I was delighted to see him for this special occasion, and also to see Bongo Shephan Fraser, a Nyahbinghi priest who guided and took good care of me throughout my two weeks in Jamaica.

Dr. Homiak (left) holds a copy of my thesis which I gave him
at Saturday's event.  I'm holding an edition of Rootz magazine
in which a brief history of the exhibit is chronicled.
Upon entering the rotunda for this special event at NMNH, we were all greeted by Nyahbinghi chanting and drumming that echoed throughout the room.  The song being chanted was "Over Land and Sea," a Rasta repatriation hymn that took on a special meaning for me during my stay in Jamaica.  That's another story.

That's Bongo Shephan on the far left, wearing white, playing the green, gold, and red fundeh drum.
He's wearing an Ethiopian shirt that I bought him at a Rasta shop on South Street in Philadelphia.

After the opening chants, several people took to the stage to express their gratitude to all who made the exhibit a reality.  Among the speakers were Dr. Homiak, Prince Ermias Selassie (grandson of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia), and representatives from the major mansions (sects) of the Rastafari movement.  My girlfriend and I enjoyed some delicious Jamaican food and drink while listening to a local reggae band, Proverbs, and then took a quick tour of the exhibit.

The entrance to the exhibit pays homage to the gates of Rasta yards, rich with scriptural professions, symbolism, and iconography.  Note the Ethiopian Coptic-style cherubim in either top corner, the Stars of David (bottom), and the title, Discovering Rastafari!, written in a font that imitates Ge'ez (Ethiopic) script.

Given a relatively small amount of space, Homiak and his colleagues did an incredible job of packing a great deal of information into this exhibit.  It gave a brief history of Emperor Haile Selassie, whom Rastas worship as Jah (God), showcasing images and memorabilia from his 44-year reign in Ethiopia, including a sword that he presented to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in gratitude for his service against the Axis powers in World War II.  The exhibit also provided some background about the Pan-Africanism that preceded the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, especially the influence of Marcus Garvey.  Important documents from the early years were on display, such as The Holy Piby, The Promised Key, and the June 1931 issue of National Geographic.  Homiak explained to me that this issue of NG, which includes several color photographs and 60+ pages on the 1930 coronation of Selassie, was carried around by some of the first Rastas in Kingston, who would use the articles and pictures to show others how Selassie had fulfilled the events prophesied in the book of Revelation.  There were also several items in the exhibit - robes, drums, Boboshanti brooms, iconography, roots beverages, staffs - that gave visitors a glimpse into a rather diverse faith and culture that has spread all over the world and taken on many forms of expression.  A looped video complemented the items on display, exhibiting the indispensable sounds of Rastafari: the music and the Iyaric language, or Dread Talk.

A key aspect of the Discovering Rastafari! mission was to show the world that Rastafari is not strictly Bob Marley and marijuana.  While they did a great job of providing a comprehensive view of the movement, and some may have chosen to exclude reggae altogether, there was a small space dedicated to reggae music and its crucial role in spreading the message of Rastafari around the world.  Images such as the one below showed how reggae in 1970s Jamaica, while certainly appealing to people of all faiths and backgrounds, revolved around the person of Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie the first.

The Rastafari still commemorate the anniversary of Selassie's visit to Jamaica
in April of 1966, known as Groundation Day.  Those who witnessed
his arrival describe the events of that day as a supernatural occasion.

Several years of planning went into making Discovering Rastafari! a reality; but from what I have heard, the exhibit was not without its opponents.  I am not well informed of their arguments against it, so I am in no position to criticize their views.  I can only attempt to sympathize, both with those who were not happy about the exhibit, and with those who exulted in the Smithsonian's recognition of their culture and history.  I can understand, in some sense, that a very rich tradition with a unique worldview cannot be adequately contained within four walls in a small room; so I can see why some might deem it blasphemous to attempt to represent Rastafari in this way.  I can also understand the suspicions many Rastas may have about any institution, especially one within the heart of Babylon, presumably created to serve the ideologies and isms of the western world; so I can see why someone might accuse the creators of this exhibit of trying to misrepresent Rastafari.  There may have been other objections, equally valid - not because of their accuracy, but because most of the 81-year history of the movement has consisted of a struggle between the Rastafari and oppressive entities who have mischaracterized the Rastaman and his lifestyle.

I have an easier time sympathizing (and rejoicing) with those who saw this exhibit as an opportunity to share the beauty of Rasta livity (a term for the faith, lifestyle, culture) with an uninformed world, especially in an academic setting.  A few scholars, Homiak standing out among them, have earned the trust of several well-known figures in Jamaica's Rasta communities, demonstrating a supportive objectivity that enables a sense of pride and validation for those Rastafari who welcome such academic analysis.  Having written a thesis about certain aspects of Rastafari, in which I did my best to demonstrate a deep respect for their livity, I was moved by the excitement in the rotunda and the exhibit on Saturday night.  The Rasta bredren and sistren present that night were glowing with gratitude for what took place in that museum for the last four years.

We all look for some type of validation for our lifestyle choices, our beliefs, our identities.  When we hear about a museum, a documentary, a book, or some kind of spectacle that puts our precious traditions in the spotlight, we might be quick to react with suspicion or cynicism.  We might experience a mixed bag of feelings about who's representing us.  We might look at our own cultural treasures as things that can't be contained on paper or in pictures, but can only be lived and experienced.  And in some sense, people don't belong in a museum (to borrow a phrase from Indiana Jones), because our complexities and contradictions could never possibly be contained in a building.  But I think we are drawn to galleries and exhibits, movies and magazines, because we need to be challenged to see something, familiar or not, from a different angle.  And when you're being represented by a compassionate and skilled artist, photographer, or curator, you can rest assured that people will come away with a wealth of reasons to respect you.

(all photos courtesy of Jomary Sánchez-Montañez)

Monday, November 14, 2011

First Impressions (thesis excerpt)

(Exactly one year ago yesterday, I made my first visit to a Nyahbinghi, also known as a Groundation, a Sabbath service for the Rastafari of the Nyahbinghi Order.  These are some reflections I wrote at the end of the day, along with some thoughts I had later on in light of further research.  Included in the third chapter of my thesis, "Methods and Approaches," this story sheds some light on how I undertook reasoning with the Jamaican Rastafari, given the little up-close experience I had previously gathered with this culture.)

My first day on the island of Jamaica was full of unexpected adventure and conversation. I woke up early on Saturday to pick up my guide, Bongo Shephan Fraser, and we drove out into the countryside for the Sabbath service at a relatively new Nyahbinghi camp. Along the way, Shephan explained to me that this Nyahbinghi congregation has only been regularly observing the Sabbath for about three years, though there has been initiative among the Ancient Council (administrative board of elders) for several years to encourage the Rastafari to gather every Saturday for worship, reasoning, and readings from the Bible and the speeches of Haile Selassie. His Majesty was a strict observer of the Sabbath, Shephan explained, so the Rastafari people must follow his example by abstaining from work whenever possible, drumming, chanting, meditating, and studying holy texts throughout the day. Many members of this particular congregation typically fast for most of the day, according to Shephan; however, I was relieved to hear that we would walk down the road for some lunch when the bredren took a break from worship in the tabernacle.

Upon arriving at the Nyahbinghi center, a friendly Dreadlocks Rasta opened the gate for us and greeted us with what sounded like a formal salutation, reciprocated by Shephan (I was still having a great deal of trouble understanding the native accent and patois at this point). Red, gold, and green flags, matching the gate and the clothing of several nearby people, were flapping in the breeze as we drove up the hill to the tabernacle. We parked next to a building with the faces of Selassie and Empress Mennen painted on the front, and within moments of entering this cool, unlit structure, I was sold a tam, but told not to wear it inside of the tabernacle. Only a few people were nearby, as no drumming had begun yet; but those who witnessed my arrival immediately began shouting out names to me, mistaking me for their other light-skinned friends. When they realized I was a new face, they enthusiastically welcomed me to their camp, very interested to know why their priest had brought me along. One man approached me with a coconut in one hand and a machete in the other, asking me if I was thirsty. As I had never drunk straight from a coconut before, I made a mess all over my shirt, which earned me a few friendly laughs. Still, it was a refreshing and welcoming start to my first of two Sabbath visits.

Three priests were among the first people I met that day. We only spoke briefly before the service began, but our conversation seemed promising. When I mentioned that I was a reggae musician, they asked me if I liked Bob Marley. As it turned out, these priests “taught Bob Marley everything him knew about Rastafari,” and were close with the legendary Mortimer Planno, whose gravesite I had the privilege of visiting, thanks to these elders. I tried to summarize my research topic for these priests, Rastafari who have been active in the movement long enough to remember the days of frequent police brutality and persecution of the Dreadlocks. Their initial, firm response was one that I would hear in every one of my interviews: Rastafari accepts all, regardless of color or creed. Feeling the need to explain a bit further, I cited some examples of lyrics and moments in history where certain Rastafarians expressed a distrust or resentment of the white man. Rather than assume that this is racism responding to racism, I said, I came to seek a better understanding of these attitudes, especially as they are manifested in ideas about music. Seeing that I had done a bit of research on the movement, not just on reggae, these priests expressed their excitement for helping me to learn more.

A few bredren had been drumming in the tabernacle for several minutes when Shephan said it was time for him to tend to his responsibilities. While he walked toward the drums and began chanting, one of the elders motioned for me to come and sit with him. Bongo Roy was well into his eighties, locks in a net and tucked into his pants, his cane occasionally tapping the floor along with the heartbeat of the fundeh drums. I joined him on the bench and followed his lead throughout the service, standing and sitting at the appropriate moments. As several bredren entered the tabernacle, an open, round structure with benches along the perimeter and a decorated altar in the center, many of them greeted me with a smile and a handshake, or sometimes a slight bow with the right hand over the heart. After some time, the chanting stopped, a creed or prayer of some sort was recited, a few announcements were made, and then Shephan introduced me and asked that I say a few words about the purpose of my visit. I kept it brief and simple, preferring to be more of a passive observer for my first experience of Rasta worship. I even left my camera in its case that day, in order to absorb this occasion with my complete attention.

The bass drum is one of three drums in the kete system of Nyahbinghi drumming.
Like this one, they are often decorated with images of Haile Selassie and Empress Menen.

A few things were no surprise to me: the drums, the chanting, the sacramental herb, the laid-back atmosphere where worshipers could come and go rather freely, and the fact that, out of the approximately thirty people present, only two were female, and only two were children. Most of what I saw and heard during the service, however, was pleasantly surprising. The Psalms were read with reverence, although there was a brief stir when one of the bredren raised a question over which psalm was supposed to be read that day. And while it is no secret that “queens” have a traditionally quieter role in the movement, two of these psalms were read by a woman, and two were read by the child next to her. These same two also participated in a discussion on a selected speech of His Majesty, consulting a dictionary whenever there was a question over the meaning of a word. The priest read Selassie’s speech line by line, stopping after each sentence to ask for thoughts, and this repeatedly led to lively debate, bredren standing up from their benches to approach someone they disagreed with, or to address all encircling them. Two of the priests present, several years senior to the priest then reading the speech, said something like, “Read the whole speech first, then go back and discuss line by line.” This suggested to me that there may be some traditions that the older generation holds more strictly to, that there is not so much universal agreement on; more importantly, however, it shows the high regard that the Rastafari hold for the speeches of Haile Selassie, the words of Jah Himself.

The topic of this particular speech was a great one for me, as a student of anthropology, to hear upon my first full exposure to Rastafari reasoning. Most Rastas I had met in the past have objected to the term “religion,” stating that “way of life,” “movement,” or “culture” are preferable words. So I felt the need to tread lightly in my academic shoes, careful not to use words that might be accurate in Western categories, but might also demonstrate a lack of respect for my hosts. But this speech was one in which Selassie expresses the importance of religion for all of mankind, and the teaching priest that day was well aware that this term would possibly confound some of the bredren in the tabernacle. He asked for the child to consult the dictionary and to read aloud the definition of “religion.” After this was discussed, he asked the congregation if they thought that the Rastafari faith fit this definition. One man replied, “Yes, but if you ask most Rastafari, they would say this is not religion.” The priest countered that it is not the place of any Rasta to speculate on the opinions of another (this was an important sound for me to hear that day, as my research deals with speculation on the opinions of others concerning the opinions of others). Voices rose in volume and intensity for a few moments, one man walking around the tabernacle and gesticulating while arguing his point in an accent too thick for me to decipher. But before long, the bredren came to agree that, while many Rastafari throughout the movement’s history have openly rejected the term “religion,” it is a worthy label if His Majesty uses it, and the definition is not objectionable.

The Nyahbinghi tabernacle is a circular structure with open windows and doorways,
representing the welcome extended by the Rastafari to the world.  As a
popular hymn goes, "The door is open wide.  Rastafari bids you come.
There is nothing you will have to pay.  Just be wise and step inside,
and do not be like some who would let their chances pass away."

After some more chanting and prayer, the congregation took a brief lunch break. Shephan and I took a short walk and bought some corn porridge and kallaloo, talking all the while about what the scriptures say about religion. Unlike the legalistic, institutionalized religions that Rastas reject for many reasons, true religion consists of showing genuine love and concern for others, we agreed. Echoing my thoughts on the Epistle of James, Chapter 1, verse 27, Shephan told me that the Rastafari frequently repeat the following words in their creed and in their everyday conversation: “Let the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the aged protected, and the infants cared for.” These words assured me that I was among kindred spirits, for sure; but they also set the stage for the unexpected turn of events we found upon our return to the tabernacle.

With typical Jamaican hospitality, a member of the congregation greeted me with a vegetable sandwich, and although I was already full, I could not refuse it. But while I ate it, another man approached me with a request. One of the bredren had been bitten by a scorpion the day before, and at this point he was in need of immediate medical attention. Very few who were present owned a car, and those who did either had to stay to fulfill their duties at the tabernacle, or perhaps preferred not to drive on the Sabbath. I explained to them that I had less than a day’s experience on the left side of the road, but I would be more than glad to take the man to the hospital. When I saw this man shaking and sweating, and I heard that the nearest hospital was at least a half hour away, I hesitated no further, and I lost any sense of disappointment I may have briefly had over the fact that I would miss the rest of the Sabbath worship. I tried to keep up with conversation in the car with Shephan and another man who sat in the back with the suffering bredren. But while it may have been an interesting reasoning about my purpose on the island, or the subject matter of the morning readings, I could focus on very little besides the winding roads and the heavy breathing and moaning of the man behind me.

The man and his friend went into the emergency room while Shephan and I remained in the car, listened to his album of Nyahbinghi chants, and reasoned on a variety of subjects for about two hours. When the second man finally came back out, he told us that it had been a very close call, but the poisoned man would be okay. He would have to stay overnight, hooked up to an IV; but he would be able to return back to the camp sometime the following day. We all breathed a sigh of relief and returned back to the Nyahbinghi center shortly after sunset. A few people were still near the tabernacle, or possibly approached us when my car was spotted, to check on the status of their friend. They thanked me for helping their friend, and one of them showed a great deal of interest in being an interviewee whenever I had the chance to return. He told me he was a reggae musician, and that if I had enough time, I should come to his place to hear some of his recordings. I had to wrap up the conversation because Shephan was anxious to go home, and so was I. But overall, I felt that it had been a great start to my journey into Rastafari.

As the bredren smiled and waved goodbye to us, Shephan said a very encouraging word-sound to me. He told me that the bredren were all very grateful for what I had done for one of their own that day. “You performed a good deed on the Sabbath,” he repeated several times on the ride home. No doubt he had in mind the words of Christ in response to those who wished to criticize him for healing a man on the Sabbath day: 

What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11-13 NKJV).

Before the start of a binghi, a divine service also known as a grounation, the scriptures and
the sacramental herb are placed upon the altar in the Nyahbinghi tabernacle and
blessed with prayers.  The hexagonal altar is adorned with images of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I,
H.R.H. Empress Mennen, “GOOD OVER EVIL” (left), and statements from the Bible
and from Selassie stressing the importance of observing the Sabbath (center).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Coronation Day - Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia

Today marks the 81st anniversary of the coronation of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.  Previous to his succession to this throne, he had been known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, "Ras" being his title, usually translated as "prince."  Hence comes the name of the Rastafari movement which started in Jamaica immediately following this coronation, which was thought to have been prophesied by Marcus Garvey as the "coming of a black king," and the fulfillment of some events predicted in the Book of Revelation.  Living under the oppressive rule of Great Britain, many black Jamaicans listened hopefully to leaders like Garvey, embracing their African identity and hoping for repatriation.  So, when Selassie was crowned, some of these Jamaicans began to teach that not only was this a sign of progress for Africa, but it was also the return of Christ to save his people, the true Israelites, the black race.

Selassie's coronation was attended by representatives from 72 nations, an unprecedented number symbolic of the industrial progress that Ras Tafari had promised to bring to an impoverished Africa.  Time magazine reported on the event, and in the following June's issue of National Geographic, 67 pages were devoted to the country and its new Emperor, including several color photographs.  While giving me a private tour of the Discovering Rastafari! exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, curator and friend Jake Homiak showed me a copy of this National Geographic issue and told me that some of the first Rastas would walk around the streets of Kingston, evangelizing, carrying a Bible in one hand and the National Geographic in the other, showing people how the coronation fulfilled a series of events in Revelation.  While, for the Ethiopians, the rituals performed in this coronation were virtually identical to those of previous emperors, the circumstances surrounding this occasion, in the view of some Africans in diaspora, allowed for a certain eschatological interpretation.  Thus the Rastafari faith was born among black Jamaicans who awaited their Savior.

Here is a brief slideshow of photos from the coronation in Addis Ababa, November 2, 1930, accompanied by Nyahbinghi chanting.

When I went to Jamaica last year, I had the privilege of attending a conference at the University of the West Indies, sponsored by the Rastafari Youth Initiative Council, celebrating the 80th anniversary of Selassie's coronation.  Members of many different Rasta mansions (sects) were in attendance, and it was my first up-close-and-personal exposure to the diversity within the movement.  Below is a clip of the binghi drumming and chanting at the end of the night.  I thought this selection was appropriate for Coronation Day, as the congregation is singing, "All nations have to bow, and crown H.I.M. King of Kings."

Enjoy - or as the Rastafari would say, "Fulljoy!"  For all of my friends out there who follow Rasta, may you have a blessed Coronation Day!

Social Media and Identity Theory

I'm slowly but surely getting familiar with Google+, and I see a lot of potential for networking with fellow musicians and academics, as well as connecting with old friends who never could get into Facebook.  The newest rival of Facebook hasn't quite caught on yet, and Zuckerberg loyalists love to point out that, despite the initial surge, many users have all but abandoned their Google+ accounts.  In my opinion, to see this coming required no prophetic potential at all: we are creatures of habit, and it takes a lot for us to let go of what we're comfortable with and try something different.  I only recently joined Twitter, and although I always intend to Tweet every band or blog update, I sometimes do so solely on Facebook, forgetting that I have other outlets to utilize.  New habits don't form easily, but the good ones are worth the effort.

So why do I think Google+ may be worth the effort?  My first impression of the site is still one of the main reasons I like it: the "Circles" feature is a clever and helpful way of visualizing our social relationships, and therefore more accurately reflects how identity is formed or conceptualized in real life.  Instead of an initial "acceptance" of someone into our social sphere, followed by grouping him/her under "Friends," "Acquaintances," "Work," "Family," etc., we take note of someone's first impression on us (either a public profile or a post shared by someone already in our circles), and we put them in one or more circles based on that interaction - not necessarily the categorization they would have us make for them.  Then, what we share with each circle varies depending on several factors: the function of the group, how much respect we're given within it, the appropriateness of the content we're sharing, and so on.  We also meet certain individuals in one context and think, "That person would fit in well with my other group of friends," so we introduce them, and new connections are formed.  For example, my blog posts are all shared with my "Anthro" circle by default; but if I'm blogging about reggae, I'll also choose to share the link with my "Rasta," "Music," and "Reggae" circles.  There's only so much I can share with "Friends" or "Family," so I share certain information with those to whom it seems most relevant.

This approach, viewing our social relationships in terms of common interests or goals, is consistent with social identity theory, and I have already seen how my own sense of "who I am" manifests differently from setting to setting.  Theorizing "group" in terms of self-conception, social psychologist Michael A. Hogg writes, "A group exists psychologically if three or more people construe and evaluate themselves in terms of shared attributes that distinguish themselves collectively from other people."*  The "Circles" feature of Google+ plays right into this phenomenon of identity formation in group contexts, and Facebook made a great move by following suit and improving their grouping options and offering a new "Subscribe" option for people you want to "follow" but not "friend request."  In other words, they took what worked from Google+, Twitter, and their own features, and they improved their site.  This is how competition works - just one more reason why we shouldn't be afraid to try new things.

But this doesn't mean that Facebook or other social networking sites will adapt by imitating what all the newcomers do.  In fact, conforming to popular theories in social psychology seems a bit uncharacteristic of Zuckerberg, whose outdated views on identity earned him some harsh criticism last year when he said, "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."  Not only did this come as a slap in the face to those who are concerned about online privacy; it also rung false in the ears of anyone who knows anything about identity politics or contemporary psychology.  We act in our own best interests when we filter our output appropriately for a given audience.  There is certainly something fun and self-indulgent about publishing information on your own wall, especially with the new Timeline on Facebook, in a format that you can call "my space" to occupy as you wish.  But the inherent individualism in this approach is perhaps the antithesis of "social," and Facebook would be wise to continue balancing its Zuckerbergian epistemology with innovations that mimic the ways in which identity forms in traditional communities.

I've noticed many people on Google+ seem to object to Facebook mainly because they feel that they are being treated more like consumers, whereas in their new circles, they are in more intuitive human relationships.  Depending on how prevalent this perception becomes, Google+ might not be a great venue for marketing and advertising.  And maybe that's just fine.  I can see myself using Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ in three different ways, all useful.  And since Google+ is still young, we can only imagine at this point what will result from integration with Google Apps.  The new integration with Blogger is just one example of how Google+ might prove to be very useful to all kinds of online entities - even businesses.

So I have some questions for you:

What is your favorite social networking site, and why?  If you're using Google+, what are some of the features you're using?  What are some of the advantages over Facebook, Twitter, and other sites you're familiar with?  What have you learned about your own identity/ies through your use of these sites?

*Hogg, Michael A. (2006). Social identity theory. In Peter J. Burke (ed.), Contemporary social psychological theories (pp. 111-136). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.