Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Writing About Figuring Out What I'm Writing About

I'll be defending my masters capstone (thesis) at the end of the year, after several months of fieldwork and writing, with my wedding somewhere in the middle of the two. My research will be taking me deeper into the Rasta communities here in the Philadelphia area, as well as New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Trenton, NJ, along with a few possible interactions with Rastafarians in Puerto Rico. My capstone committee consists of some brilliant scholars who are helping me formulate all sorts of questions about music and linguistic expression, vibrations, and performativity. While I'm already having a great learning experience, even before I have done any fieldwork (and very little introductory writing), I am having a difficult time pinning down the central question of my thesis. I know I want to focus on the Rasta concept of "the I" or "InI" (I-and-I), along with their notion of word-sound power, examining how this idea is articulated in creative expression, and how it might challenge dualities of "I and Other," "You and I," and so on. But that's about as far as I've come.

So I'm taking some advice from my advisor, which was recently echoed by some friends, and just writing, hoping that the ideas will start to fall into place.

This InI concept has intrigued me since I first heard it in Bob Marley's lyrics nearly 20 years ago, but I became especially curious about this topic after Jake Homiak read a draft of my undergraduate thesis and challenged me to consider to what extent the Rastafari in Jamaica had made me feel like an "outsider" during my stay there. Other common themes from that brief study include the idea that, in the words of Bongo Shephan, "Music transcends all boundaries," along with the view that vibrations from words and drums have a tangible effect on the cosmos. In attempting to synthesize these lessons from my previous research and conversations with Rastafarians, I have been contemplating vibrations, expressivity, and the meaning-making, structure-defying power of language and music. These trains of thought are well on their way to the fields of ecomusicology, performance studies, and ritual theory; however, I want to begin preparing for this phenomenological ethnography with an appropriate, if not selfish, frame of reference: I.

Before delving into the theoretical and ethnographic material about the I and word-sound power, I want to share what I have perceived in some of my past observations of the Rastafari community. My own tellings of my own experiences with Rastafari culture will help to reveal my motivations - a deep love for music, a fascination with language, and a frustration with perceived social boundaries as obstacles against peaceful collaboration and coexistence. A few examples will serve as an introduction, for the reader, and as an exercise in articulating my research focus, for me. In this blog post, I will reflect on some distant memories of my first encounter with Rastafari.

The first Rastafarians I met were in St. Lucia, where I went with a group from my church to help with a summer camp at a church there. I was 14 years old, and although I was familiar with Bob Marley's Uprising album at that point, the only things I knew about Rasta were what the leader of our short-term team had told us: they smoke a lot of weed and worship a dead emperor. Despite being discouraged from engaging in conversations with a group of Rastas who hung out next to the church, I did stop to talk to them once. They seemed friendly enough, and I saw no harm in breaking the rules of my less-than-tolerant superiors. I don't remember too much of the conversation, but the three points I took away from our brief chat have stuck with me:

1. The Rastaman who did most of the talking had a sort of militant tone - not angry or hateful, but one of authority and conviction. I was reminded of this in Jamaica when I mistook such a tone for anger, and a bredren pulled me aside and let me know I had not offended anyone, but that, "We Rasta are a people of fire, so we speak with fire." It is easy to mistake the Rastafarian "burn" for a violent attitude; however, this style of speaking, which I have also witnessed in reasonings at Nyahbinghi gatherings, is evidence of the word-sound power concept, which I will explore in my thesis.

2. He said something about everyone being God. I wish I could remember his exact wording, but what matters is that it intrigued me at the time. In the last few years, I have heard many similar remarks in Rasta discourse. A phrase often heard in the Boboshanti service is a unique example: "Man of right is God in flesh; Woman of right is Goddess in flesh. Man of wrong is Satan in flesh; Woman of wrong is Sataness in flesh." I will be analyzing such statements in my thesis, particularly the interchangeability of "Jah-in-I" and "I-and-I." 

3. He also said something about how he could never die, even when his body is in the grave. Again, it would be helpful if I could remember the exact words he spoke to us that day. Instead, I can only associate this memory with other Rasta ideas I come across in my research, which might help to explain what he meant. This clip from an interview with dub poet Mutabaruka is an interesting (although perhaps not entirely orthodox or typical of Rastafari thought) take on what happens after death. Start at 2:00.

So I approach my thesis research with a curiosity based in past experiences with Rastafari, hoping to shed some light on statements I have heard, symbols I have seen, and rituals I have experienced. In soliciting the perspectives of my Rastafarian collaborators, I hope to bring some balance to my own biases. However, by examining the vantage point of the author as "I," my reader and I might begin to consider this InI language as a possibility for co-understanding or co-presence in this reasoning.

Next time, I will reflect on some experiences at live music events, considering the liturgical character of reggae and Nyahbinghi performance. This will help to ground my work in ritual theory, but more importantly, it will reveal how I am attempting to use language (along with audiovisual media) to create a field of expression in which other I's can co-experience my inquiry.

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