Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Word, Sound, Power, and I

[The Rastafari] have a slogan that says, "WORD, SOUND and POWER," a trinity. To them the word is both sound and power. It is sound not only because its effect is aural but also because it is capable of quality, capable of being "sweet," of thrilling the hearer. It is power because it can inspire responses such as fear or anger or submission. The articulateness, tonal variation, pitch, and formalisms are the Rastafari version of the sweetness of the sermons in lower-class churches, and to describe this level of expression they use the word "to chant" (Barry Chevannes, in Rastafari: Roots and Ideology, 1994, p. 227, italics mine).
The quality of sound, rather than the qualities (measurable and transcribable aspects), may be understood in terms of perception, how the vibrations of a particular act are heard or felt by minds and bodies rather than recording instruments. In a phenomenological ethnography of linguistic and musical expression, while there is certainly room for transcription and technical description, it is within this particular notion of quality that we can frame an experience of expressivity in order to inform an analysis of cultural life. Word-sound power (alternatively written as "word-sound-power" or "word, power, and sound," in addition to Chevannes' usage above) is a Rastafarian concept that signifies the shared experience of sound quality, the agency and spiritual potential of a speaker, and the collective resistance against linguistic forms imposed by colonial rule. When a Rastaman "sounds" (speaks, chants, or beats a drum), quite often he is cognizant of the layers of meaning beyond the indexical definitions of his words or the theoretical components of his musical performance. His tone, rhythm, and timbre are all significant, along with the wordplay involved in "I-an-I consciousness," the creative linguistic practice of Rastafari.

Manipulation of words is among the well-known aspects of Rastafarian cultural life, as it has been used extensively in reggae music, in which the oppressor (up-presser) is known as the "Downpresser Man," understanding becomes overstanding, and the objective "me" is frequently replaced with an "I" that retains the individual's self-determination. Central to this way of speaking is the InI (I-and-I) concept, the idea that all people share the same Iniversal (universal) I, which asserts equality while making a statement about the sort of objectification that, for example, the early Rastafari movement resisted in colonial Jamaica. Yasus Afari, a Rastafarian dub poet and scholar, writes, "Consistent with the RASTAFARIAN philosophy of one love, self, family, inity (unity), oneness and humanity, the I and I language reflects the RASTAFARIAN concept of one-in-all and all-in-one; the one-for-all and the all-for-one"(Overstanding Rastafari, 2007, p. 114, emphasis in original). In some cases, this re-creation of words is aimed at replacing syllables with word-sounds that reflect Rasta ideas: for example, me-ditation becomes I-ditation, u-nique becomes I-nique. In other cases, however, the beginning of a word is replaced with the letter I for no other reason than to reiterate the centrality of the I within the Rasta worldview.

Afari keenly observes that the spoken word is a means by which "thoughts, minds and persons can be transported" to the world that is being expressed through the sound (115). As he demonstrates within his own writing and performance, the word-sounds of Rastafarian discourse "re-mould, re-shape, and re-direct the perception of both the Jamaican and the English language and... revolutionize and re-calibrate the mentality and psyche" (125). InI language strives to create or restore a harmony between the various components and meanings of spoken words, which Rastafarians assert has been lost or suppressed by the Babylon system (a term generally used for institutionalized oppression, especially colonial rule, but which may also refer to any sort of evil in societies and individuals). More than merely symbolic expressions of an imagined ideal, Rasta speech acts are intended as transformative energies, sounds that constitute a new reality. As performative communication, "Dread Talk" may certainly be described as a means of constructing a desired social order; however, Rastafarian perspectives seem to attribute a more tangible creative power to the performance of sound, the vibrations of which have a measurable effect on the cosmos (see my previous entry on Vibration as Dialogue). I will be exploring this aspect of word-sound power in my forthcoming fieldwork, as I consider this creative process of communication with the Iniverse as an extension of the socially transformative power of performative speech. Placing the material world within the scope of linguistic communication, we can see how the environment and all living things might fall within "RASTAFARI's responsibility to free the people with the positive vibes, language, music and the creative energy of the Rastafarian Livity" (127).

In another useful definition of "Word-Sound-Power," R.A. Ptahsen-Shabazz draws a connection between this Rastafarian principle and the Dogon concept of Nommo, which I will explore in a forthcoming post. Noting the importance of "the accurate and proper use of the spoken word in defining, describing, and communicating reality," the author writes, "the Rastafari overstand that language in significant ways creates and governs external reality and should be used to bring spiritual clarity, positivity and further overstanding/innerstanding to that external reality" (Black to the Roots, 2008, p. 216, italics in original). Much in the same way that God/Jah spoke the world into existence (consider the repetition of "Let there be" in Genesis 1, along with the "Word" of John 1), a human agent "creates and governs" reality through word-sounds. Cosmology aside, even in a strictly social sense, the Rastafarian articulates a new order in which individuals are no longer placed into a hierarchy of "I and Thou," but rather given equal consideration and identical agency. The "InI vibration" is one that resonates among the "members of a new race" for which Haile Selassie I appealed to the United Nations in 1963. As this word-sound, "I and I," becomes more commonplace among Rastafarians and people around the world, perhaps it can ring in (either literally or on a conceptual level) an era in which common ideas about "you" and "others" no longer hold the human intellect captive to selfishness and discrimination.

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