From Judah to Jamaica: The Psalms in Rastafari Reggae

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Rastafari reggae bears a profound but problematic relation to the Judeo-Christian biblical texts, particularly the Psalms. Involving multiple religious and cultural transmissions, orders of intertextuality, the adaptation of Judaic psalms into reggae songs clearly constitutes some form of appropriation, an act of reinterpretation that has religious, political, cultural, and ethnic implications. This analysis aims to reconcile conflicting narratives explicating this relation and reinterpretation, approving the creative adaptation of biblical texts while resisting a trend in some of the prominent Rastafari scholarship to diminish or denigrate the Judaic experience out of which those texts originate. Rather than a form of “hijacking”—a favored metaphor in the recent secondary literature—the appropriation and transformation of the Psalms into Rastafari reggae is better understood as a tribute to the enduring power, relevance, and appeal of the biblical texts. The two forms of religious art enrich and reinforce one another, representing original and ongoing traditions of words and music as revolutionary cultural resistance and spiritual empowerment.



Rastafari reggae bears a profound but problematic relation to the Judeo-Christian biblical texts, particularly the Psalms. Involving multiple religious and cultural transmissions, orders of intertextuality, the adaptation of Judaic psalms into reggae songs clearly constitutes some form of appropriation, an act of reinterpretation that has religious, political, cultural, and ethnic implications. This analysis aims to reconcile conflicting narratives explicating this relation and reinterpretation, approving the creative adaptation of biblical texts while resisting a trend in some of the prominent Rastafari scholarship to diminish or denigrate the Judaic experience out of which those texts originate. Rather than a form of “hijacking”—a favored metaphor in the recent secondary literature—the appropriation and transformation of the Psalms into Rastafari reggae is better understood as a tribute to the enduring power, relevance, and appeal of the biblical texts. The two forms of religious art enrich and reinforce one another, representing original and ongoing traditions of words and music as revolutionary cultural resistance and spiritual empowerment.

Rastafari reggae—the intersection of the two distinctly and definitively Jamaican phenomena, the millenarian religious movement and the popular music form—has been the object of extensive sociological, religious, and cultural investigation for decades (Chevannes, Barrett, -Nettleford) and more recently (Murrell, Spencer, McFarlane, Williams, Daynes).1 It has been well established that Rastafari reggae is and should be regarded primarily as a religious and highly political form of art, at once the expression of revolutionary resistance, spiritual consciousness, and pan-African cultural unity. Of international importance, reggae must be understood as no longer Jamaican alone, but expressive of a whole diaspora culture; the music and lyrics unite millions of people of color in their experience of exile, captivity, alienation, and estrangement.

This analysis of Rastafari reggae explores the deep resonances and thematic connections between Judah and Jamaica, despite a separation of more than twenty-five hundred years of geographic, historical, cultural, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and textual transformations. The growing scholarship has generally recognized how prominently Judaic biblical texts, particularly the Psalms, feature in Rastafari reggae songs and religious discourse. Still, much remains to be analyzed in the secondary literature, concerning the profound but problematic relation of Rastafari to the texts from which they borrow so extensively. Rastafari reread and restyle biblical verses as they adapt and appropriate them, a process which has several times been characterized with ironic approval as a kind of “hijacking” (Nettleford; Murrell and Williams). Insofar as this appropriation reflects a textual and spiritual “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor,” to call it “hijacking” is (despite the metaphor) apparently not to suggest or impute any actual wrongdoing. Instead, more fairly and charitably, the transformation of Judaic writings into reggae psalms may be understood as a tribute to the potency, currency, and enduring resonance of the ancient texts, their continuing relevance across time and place. Rather than calling it -“hijacking,” I would sooner say, with Nettleford, that “Rastafari has a genealogical pedigree and is an integral part of a discourse that turns on the age-old resistance to oppression” (314). These conflicting narratives can be navigated more equitably, in a constructive and conciliatory reading that affirms Rastafari appropriation but resists revisionism or denigration.

In covering this same subject, some of the prominent Rastafari scholarship (especially Murrell) has made needlessly disparaging comparisons between Judah and Jamaica.2 Elevating the Rastafari reggae transformations of the Psalms and other biblical writings, Murrell appears to diminish or denigrate the Judaic experience out of which those texts originate, and to reduce their Judaic meaning and significance in comparison with what he takes Rastafari to achieve with some of the same texts. Too little credit is given to Judaic cultural and religious accomplishments in exile: Murrell’s implication is that the original psalms of the Babylonian captivity represent a kind of wallowing in self-pity, lamentation, and capitulation. It is not until Rastafari take up and transform the Psalms that they are supposed to acquire their character as a “revolutionary call for justice, liberation, and protest against Babylonian oppression” (“Psalms” 17). Against such negative comparisons and insinuations, and in place of the “hijacking” model, I argue that the transformation of the Psalms into Rastafari reggae is a testimony to the lasting power of the original texts: retaining their distinct identity even in translations of translations, never lost in assimilation, the Psalms and other Judaic writings remain potent revolutionary and anti-colonialist discourse, as well as profound religious, spiritual, and artistic expression. As Homer is to the epic, so the Hebrew Bible is the defining literature of exodus, diaspora, exile, captivity, liberation, and return.

I Judah to Jamaica: “Babylon” and “Zion”

Verses, names, symbols, and concepts from ancient Judah can come to figure centrally in a religious movement of modern Jamaica only through an unusually varied and extensive series of religious and cultural transmissions. This process of conceptual transformation and confluence has been the object of interest and inquiry in its own right, as scholars have attempted to trace “the twisted path to a Rastafari hermeneutics as the movement ‘hijacked’ Judeo-Christian Scriptures and converted them into vehicles for identity, ‘ideation,’ and liberation” (Murrell, “Introduction” 15–16). Rastafari reggae involves orders of intertextuality, multiple reconfigurations of language, meaning, names, and symbols, and the continual development and accrual of layers of additional semantic content and commentary. At one time literally grounded in concrete geopolitical and historical actualities, “Babylon” and “Zion” go on to become abstract concepts that pass themselves on like “memes” through modulating traditions, practices, and translations, eventually to occupy a crucial position in the religious art form of an Afro-Caribbean heterodoxy. The complex path of influences and inheritances by which the Psalms become Rastafari reggae songs goes back, according to tradition, all the way to the time of David, to whom some of the original psalms are ascribed. Evidence to place and date the Psalms historically is almost completely lacking, however, and thus there is room for considerable disagreement about these texts especially, as compared for example to many of the prophetic writings (Wanke 163). Still, in broad terms, the path of migration may be said to extend from pre-exile Israel and Judah, to the first waves of Assyrian deportations of the northern kingdom in the eighth century bce; to the sixth century Babylonian captivity and destruction of the Temple, and then the return and restoration; to the flourishing and fixation of the Hebrew scriptural tradition in the Persian or Second Temple period; to the Roman occupation, the watershed destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, and the diaspora. Meanwhile the Septuagint, already in Koiné Greek for centuries, is taken up in the rise and spread of early Christianity in the Hellenized Roman Empire, to be Latinized, Europeanized, handed down through a thousand years of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation developments in the West, ultimately to become the “Old Testament” of the 1611 “Authorized” or King James version (KJV) of the Bible, making its way to the “New World.”

It was thus in the classic English translation of the Bible that Jamaicans discovered the Judaic texts, but even then the reception was further modulated, mediated by resistance and interference. One may have expected missionary efforts to have been undertaken on the part of eighteenth-century British colonialists to convert indigenous and slave populations and spread Anglican Christianity, as had been done with Catholicism in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Instead, according to Barrett, “the English planters in Jamaica adamantly refused to share their religion with the slave population”; for the Africans of Jamaica, “the Church of England and its high liturgy was considered too sophisticated” (17). “After England took over Jamaica and established the slave trade, no attempt had been made to Christianize the slaves” for nearly two centuries. It was only through later “nonconformist” denominations like Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians that black Jamaicans were introduced to Judeo-Christian religion and the King James Bible (20).

It is plainly the King James version that reggae psalmists take up and adapt to their own revolutionary purposes, as a number of characteristic examples will show. The language of the “Old Testament,”3 and especially of the Psalms, appears frequently in Bob Marley’s lyrics and in other reggae songs, notably the classic anthem “Rivers of Babylon,” which is an extended quotation of KJV Psalm 137 (and some of Psalm 19). This song deserves close analysis, as it is emblematic of the Rastafari reggae tradition, and both song and psalm have been the subject of singular attention in the scholarship. Rastafari identify especially with the ancient symbolism of “Zion”—understood not to be in contemporary Israel or the Middle East, but in Africa, and particularly Ethiopia—and they live in “Babylon,” which refers to realities of oppression far from Mesopotamia, which is (as Peter Tosh says) “everywhere” (Steffens 255). For Rastafari, “two systems exist: Zion and Babylon, the good and the evil.” Babylon is both “the embodiment of evil in biblical literature” and also “a symbol of bondage, not only for ancient Israelites but for all people held in slavery and oppression, especially black people” (Murrell and Williams 343).

Through an imaginative and highly subversive reinterpretation, Rastafari read themselves as portrayed in the texts and symbols of the Babylonian exile and the pre- and postexilic periods. In their “free-style approach” to the texts, making such an identification is not difficult: Rastafari are said to “hijack biblical materials and concepts and relate them to any situation or problem when their language and imagery fit the categories and ideology of the interpreter or movement” (Murrell and Williams 343). Judaic biblical verses thus provide many lyrical and conceptual points of departure for religious reggae songs, just as they offer symbols (like the Lion of Judah) that become badges of Rastafari cultural and religious identity. The core religious vocabulary of Rastafari reggae originates in the King James version, but nearly all the names, places, and words have undergone extensive and creative deformation of language into Jamaicans’ own distinctive idiom. Key words and phrases are retained, but almost never strictly verbatim; reggae songs freely adapt and inflect the anglicized texts in a highly stylized vernacular that is unique to Jamaican and reggae culture. “I-an-I,” for example, is a preferred pronominal form; according to Steffens, the expression “means ‘you and I’ or ‘I and the Creator who lives within I,’ indicating that there is no separation, that disunity is an illusion” (Steffens 256), and affirming Rastafari union and identity with “the Divine, who indwells ‘I-an-I’ ” (Murrell and Williams 334). These innovations notwithstanding, the overarching religious themes of Rastafari reggae are recognizably, indeed unmistakably Judaic: captivity, oppression, exile, diaspora, longing for freedom and return.

“Rastafari reggae” thus designates a specific subset: reggae music is only one form of Rastafari religious expression—i.e. not all Rastafari is reggae—and certainly not all reggae is Rastafari. Representing far more than mere entertainment, this now classic form of reggae is not, as it were, “just music”—any more than the original psalms were; whether at the First or Second Temple, or by the rivers of Babylon. Insofar as they are derived from particular biblical verses set to music, many Rastafari songs—at least in what has been called reggae’s “churchical” mode (Barrett 267)—may be considered distant but direct descendants of the psalm form itself. Reggae songs and themes have resonated even with indigenous peoples who have been colonized on their own land (“Reggae on the Rez”) rather than being carried away into captivity or driven into exile (Alvarez 580).

Clearly some form of appropriation has occurred, when Judaic psalms become reggae songs, and this appropriation has religious, political, cultural, and ethnic implications. No doubt it reflects among other things the broad appeal of these writings, as they speak to what Rastafari would call “downpressed” peoples everywhere, offering them the symbolic language of religious resistance in which they can express their own struggle for freedom. A dominant theme in the Judaic tradition is the fundamental consciousness of bondage and liberation, a pattern emphasized through repetition that goes all the way back, etched in memory, embodied in that injunction of Deuteronomy: “Remember that thou wast a slave in Egypt” (24:18).

I see in the Psalms and in Rastafari reggae the same basic “memes”—a kind of cultural counterpart to genes4—and the ability of these texts and concepts to spread and adapt while yet maintaining their distinct identity neatly mirrors the migration and endurance in diaspora of Jewish people themselves. This pattern of textual migration reflecting the movement of peoples and cultures is repeated again in the dissemination of Rastafari culture by means of reggae as well as by the movement of people. As Murrell notes, “reggae music has been the most powerful force behind the international spread and popularity of Rasta culture” (“Introduction” 9). In a symbolic sense it closes the circle: the music effects cultural return and reconnection to Africa. “Whereas migration has resulted in centers of Rastafari presence in Canada and Britain,” according to Chevannes, “the general influence of reggae is responsible for the spread of Rasta to the African continent” (262).

In general, when discussing the movement’s Judaic origins, the Rastafari scholarship prefers the name “Israelites” and tends not to distinguish between Judah and Israel. The primary focus (as in this analysis) is usually conceptual and textual rather than historical derivation, and so subtler underlying distinctions, such as between the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, are often overlooked. Context and biblical quotations alike, however, reveal that when reference is made to the “Israelites” in the Rastafari scholarship, what is meant almost exclusively is the experience and writings of the inhabitants of Judah, i.e. the southern kingdom centered in Jerusalem.5 Having escaped the fate of the Samarians of the northern kingdom, those who return to Zion-Jerusalem bring with them the Judaic texts, the religion and culture, the ethnic identity and modus vivendi that survived the Babylonian captivity (Dubnov 312). It is therefore appropriate to recognize the exiles of the Babylonian conquest and those of the first-century diaspora alike as “Jews” rather than “Israelites,” and indeed “Judaism” itself has been given the reference-work definition as “the form which the religion of Israel assumed in and after the Babylonian exile” (Davies and Finkelstein v).

The name “Babylon” proves especially difficult to pin down geographically, and among the many phenomena that it comes to signify, in this discussion perhaps the name corresponds least of all with the actual historical city and empire, Babylon (sometimes called Neo-Babylon, Babylonia, or Chaldaea). It is to be expected from the standpoints of both Judah and Jamaica, indeed from all biblical traditions, that any representation of Babylon so conceived and constructed will not exhibit a high degree of historical objectivity. After the initial Judaic representation, Babylon appears again in the Christian Bible as an allegorical, even archetypal symbol of imperialism and corruption, the towering city that has become mighty, but which must surely fall—as indeed the first biblical Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great, ushering in the joyful return of the exiles to Zion (Ezra 1–6, 2 Chron. 36) c. 538 bce and the beginning of the Second Temple period (Ackroyd 136). In Christian scripture, Babylon appears most prominently in the apocalyptic vision of Saint John the Divine, that book of the New Testament most like the prophets of old, and therefore of particular interest to Rastafari. From the original Judaic captivity, to the Revelation of the New Testament, to the first Protestant, to Rastafari reggae, all manner of writings and songs “chanting down Babylon” have turned it into the generic name for colonial and postcolonial diaspora, captivity, oppression, and exile. No one wants to be on that side of the story: Jewish or Christian, neither Bible favors the oppressor, and the Psalms and prophets alike tell against any group holding others in captivity or occupation.

II Rastafari, Religion, Reggae

If conflation of Israel with Judah, the persistence in calling “Israelite” what is more appropriately “Judaic” or “Jewish,” may not reflect the most careful practice in scholarship, it is certainly consistent with Rastafari hermeneutics, as for example in Barrett’s account (under the heading The Black Person Is the Reincarnation of Ancient Israel):

Deeply influenced by the Judaeo-Christian religion through the use of the Bible, the cultists have been unable to break away from the word “Israel.” To them “Israelite” and “Ethiopian” are one and the same name—simply referring to a holy people. According to the Rastafarians, they, the true Israelites, have been punished for their sins by god their father through slavery under Whites. This sin led to their exile in Jamaica. (111)

Thus “black Israelites” is one form of Rastafari self-identification. “This designation,” as Nettleford explains, “draws on the Judaic dialectic of scattering, exile, and return—scattering via the trans-Atlantic slave trade, exile in plantation slavery (hence Babylon), and return to a promised land, seen as black Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular” (320). Although such concepts and symbols from Judaism run deeply in Rastafari discourse, there are also defining elements of the movement that can in no way be considered Judaic (or Israelite for that matter). Combining disparate religious and cultural influences, much about Rastafari as a new theological movement appears to be unique, what Murrell rightly calls a “tertium quid,” neither Christian nor African, but “a different kind or religious species among New World (if not New Age) or nontraditional religions”:

Rastafari is a modern Afro-Caribbean cultural phenomenon that combines concepts from African culture and the “Caribbean experience” (social, historical, religious and economic realities) with Judeo-Christian thought into a new sociopolitical and religious worldview. (“Introduction” 4)

While there is considerable variety on individual doctrines, and the scholarship documents several subgroups, sects, and offshoots of the movement (Barrett, Chevannes), Rastafari religious belief has historically been oriented centrally around the figure of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I. The main tenet of Rastafari faith is often said to be the divinity of Haile Selassie (Murrell and Williams 336). “While Rastafarians, by their very nature, are not a homogeneous group,” according to Murrell, “true believers subscribe to the most important Rasta doctrine, that Haile Selassie I is the living God” (“Introduction” 6). As a political theology, the movement thus locates both God and King in the person of Selassie. Viewed by many Rastafari as a kind of returned Christ—also a figure of both King and God incarnate—Selassie is most often revered by true believers as “Jah” himself (the Rastafari name for God, from Psalm 68:4). While this representation and worship of the divine in human form could be considered neo-Christian, it is clearly antithetical to Judaism, coupled and overlaid though it may be with Old Testament biblical language. The theological orientation and entire sensibility surrounding it appear markedly un-Jewish, but they do bear resemblances to certain lines of messianic expectation and prophecy of the Second Coming in Christianity. Rastafari revere His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M.) as he was crowned in 1930, “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” As Barrett notes of the coronation: “He took the name Haile Selassie (Might of the Trinity), to which was added ‘King of Kings’ and the ‘Lion of the Tribe of Judah,’ placing himself in the legendary line of King Solomon” (81). These formulations appear to be a direct New rather than Old Testament adaptation, however, combining verses of the Revelation, including the one Rastafari are said to regard “as the most important text in the New Testament” (Murrell and Williams 341): “Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof ” (Rev. 5:5). These lines, along with the verse describing a figure with the “name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:16), are taken to be fulfilled by H.I.M. whose name and title had been Ras Tafari Makonnen. Within the symbolic framework of a “return to Zion,” the movement anticipates repatriation of the pan-African diaspora to Ethiopia, led by Selassie as Jah:

The Rastafari ever since the movement’s rise in the early 1930s have held to the belief that they and all Africans in the diaspora are but exiles in “Babylon,” destined to be delivered out of captivity by a return to “Zion,” that is, Africa, the land of our ancestors, or Ethiopia, the seat of Jah, Ras Tafari himself, Emperor Haile Selassie’s precoronation name. Repatriation is one of the cornerstones of Rastafari belief. (Chevannes 1)

Reggae musical expression is also central to Rastafari belief and practice, though as we have seen, not all Rastafari is reggae and not all reggae is Rastafari. It is clear that even the relation between Rastafari religion and reggae music is itself somewhat problematic, has changed over time, and therefore stands in need of some clarification for purposes of this discussion. Framing her analysis particularly in terms of “the musical construction of diaspora,” Daynes rightly demarcates both the necessary distinction as well as the close connection between the two sets: “While reggae music and Rastafari do not completely coincide, and although reggae music cannot in any way be considered as ‘Rastafarian music,’ they remain linked by a tight relationship; many reggae artists are rastamen, and their faith is hence reflected within the lyrics of their songs” (26). The evolution of Rastafari and reggae appears over the course of two generations of scholarship to have involved considerable improvement, in terms of what had been some objectionable elements: some of the sexism, racism, and what could be called the exclusionary revisionism.

Comparing editions of Barrett’s pioneering work in the field, The Rastafarians, the evolution of the Rastafari-reggae relation may be seen even in the course of one book. The Preface begins with almost a paean to the music itself, sounding many of the themes under consideration here: “The effect of reggae,” Barrett writes, “is magic; it is Africa, Jamaica, soul, nature, sorrow, hate, and love all mingled together. It sprang from the hearts of Africa’s children in ‘Babylon’—Jamaica. It is liminal music that sings of oppression in exile, a longing for home, or for a place to feel at home” (vii). Yet in the body of the work, Barrett insists that “Rastafarian religious music is still Nyabingi,” based on African Buru drumming. Perhaps meaning to dissociate the serious religious content from what was perceived as merely a pop cultural form, he even writes of an “all-out attempt” to “separate the Rastafarian religion from reggae culture.” According to Barrett, “most Rastafarians do not even listen to reggae.”6

In a later afterword to a new edition published in 1997, however, much stronger connections are affirmed between Rastafari and reggae. For one thing, the sheer power and durability of the form has shown itself to be no passing fad; and the religious component of reggae (now distinguished as “churchical”) has also proven ineluctable:

Reggae music has also become popular in almost every aspect of Jamaican life, both religious and secular. Reggae is used in the rituals of the Catholic Church and among the Rastafarian brethren, who divide reggae into two forms: “churchical” and “heartical.” Churchical adopts the reggae beat to all hymns; heartical is the regular dance music. (267)

More significantly, Barrett can now sum up Rastafari beliefs, to the extent that they may be articulated, with the following propositions, none of which appears objectionable, and indeed all of which I would call affirmative and progressive:

1. Patriotic love is expressed for Africa and especially Ethiopia . . . 2. The hair of Black people is celebrated . . . 3. Reggae that is used in worship services must be purged of lewdness and sexism . . . 4. Oppression of all kinds is denounced in reggae . . . 5. Reggae calls for truth and righteousness among Rastas. (268–69)

The evident changes in the movement as perceived and articulated by Barrett represent what seems a significant move in the right direction, and compare favorably with some of the earlier Rastafari “main articles of faith” as for example given by Chevannes:

5. The slaves who came to Jamaica are the Remnants of an entire people. 6. The Remnant = Israel = Ethiopians = Royal Family. Those people who today refer to themselves as “Israelis” are impostors. 7. The Remnant is exiled in Babylon, or Jamaica. 8. The Remnant will be saved by Repatriation. (230)

Strategic priorities, some of the values, and perhaps even the general orientation has changed, as is to be expected when a religious movement—“a still-evolving reality” (Nettleford 317)—undergoes a vital process of internal progression, as well as takes into account external trends and changes in consciousness. “From a period of religious crudity,” Barrett writes, Rastafari “has moved through the many stages to what one may call ‘religious refinement’ ” (245). The “modest change” that may be seen in the evolution of Rastafari ideology, as described by Murrell, includes reevaluating “their patriarchal view of sexuality”; additionally, “the idea that ‘the white man is evil’ has also become less prominent in later Rastafarian thought, and the concept of Babylon has broadened to include all oppressive and corrupt systems of the world” (“Introduction” 6). Again this appears more inclusive, progressive, and affirmative; but arguably these attitudes were present all along in the “positive vibration” of the best of Rastafari reggae.

It must be noted that reggae music too has never ceased to evolve, and the classic reggae of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff’s generation has since given way to many new styles and subgenres, including “ragamuffin” or “ragga,” which position themselves against what seem the abstractions of Africa, dealing instead with the immediate realities of contemporary Jamaican urban culture. Chude-Sokei’s pointed contrasts strongly reinforce that not all reggae is Rastafari, that there are numerous developments in the culture surrounding reggae music which clearly do not bear upon the Rastafari themes we are considering here. As he writes in 1994 of the ragga generation:

In this case the “Africa” central to a Rastafarian Pan-Africanism has been symbolically dislodged. The generation which celebrated Marcus Garvey as a prophet and Africa as “Zion” has been assaulted by the children birthed by it. . . . For the Rastafari brethren, “Zion,” the promised land of Ethiopia, was both precolonial utopia and the imminent future of black people who were destined to survive the time of Babylonian hegemony. With ragga, however, the abstraction of Ethiopia/Africa . . . gives way to . . . particular “Yard” (Jamaican) realities which do not function as global signifiers of black exile because they are so rooted in the urban myths of Jamaica’s postcolonial history. . . . The sentiments of raggamuffin music and culture are very different from the nostalgia and longing for “elsewhere” that characterizes much of the kind of reggae and cultural production that comes out of Bob Marley’s generation. The “Waiting in Vain,” “Back to Africa,” “Rasta Wann Go Home” exile narratives have given way to cultural expressions from those who see the new battles as immediate and local—through gun-sights and across dirty inner-city streets. From an aesthetics of exile and absence to an aesthetics of raw, materialistic presence. (Chude-Sokei 80)

III Bob Marley

In what may be called its classic form, then, Rastafari reggae represents a decades-old tradition. At the head of that tradition stands one person, above and beyond all others: Bob Marley, “the most famous Rastaman who ever lived” (Steffens 253). Robert Nesta Marley O. M. (1945–1981) “did more than any other person or group to introduce Rastafari, reggae, and Jamaica to the rest of the world. Even in death his influence is still being felt” (Chevannes 270). An unsurpassed master songwriter of classic reggae anthems, hailed by the entertainment media in 2005 (what would have been his sixtieth birthday) as “still the world’s biggest rock star” and a “Third and a First World superstar” (Henke 4), Bob Marley remains the chief cornerstone of Rastafari reggae internationally, articulating in words and music the experience of an entire culture. In a sense he personally embodied that culture; far more than just a “rock star” or even a national hero (he was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit), Bob Marley was more like a psalmist and prophet of his people. “Not by coincidence did rock critics, unnerved by the appearance and demeanor of this Third World rabble-rouser, begin to refer to Marley as an ‘Old Testament prophet’ ” (Steffens 258). Barrett calls him “the central charismatic figure,” “the high priest and evangelist” (216) and the “song-prophet” of Rastafari, crediting Marley above all others with forging what would become a permanent bond between reggae and the Rastafari movement:

Reggae is a cultic expression that is both entertaining, revolutionary, and filled with Rastafarian symbolism. The symbols are readily understood in the Jamaican society, but the real cultic dimension of reggae was unknown until the Rastafarian song-prophet, Bob Marley, made his debut in New York. Marley stamped his personality on reggae until the sound became identified with the Rastafarian movement. (viii)

Marley’s lyrics and spoken comments leave no doubt as to his own consciousness of following in a prophetic tradition, his sense of divine calling and inspiration, “the idea that he was an appointed messenger”; and his songs have been called “the true, new psalms” (Steffens 253). “From his earliest days,” Henke writes, “he used his music to advocate for social change—for freedom for all mankind, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status. His roots were in the Third World. His message touched people around the world” (4). His enduring appeal is not just Jamaican, not only to the African diaspora, but international, cross-cultural, in this respect not unlike the biblical texts that he draws upon. In 1978 Marley was honored with the UN Third World Peace Medal from the African delegations to the United Nations, presented “on behalf of 500 millions of Africans” (Steffens 260; Henke 48). And indeed Marley’s audience continues to grow, as the posthumous Legend album went platinum ten times over, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “With sales of more than 10 million in the U.S. alone, Legend—a best-of spanning the Island Records years (1972–1981)—remains the best-selling album by a Jamaican artist and the best-selling reggae album in history” (“Bob Marley”).

In addition to a number of Bob Marley songs with Babylon or Zion directly in the titles (“Babylon System,” “Zion Train,” “Iron Lion Zion”), many others make reference to one or both of them in the lyrics. Even in a song titled “Jamming,” for example, primarily a reference to playing music, Marley sings in the bridge about “Holy Mount Zion / Holy Mount Zion / Jah sitteth in Mount Zion / And rules all creation” (Marley 53). In fact the lyrics further reveal that the participants are “Jammin’ in the name of the Lord” (52), which would actually not be an inappropriate contemporary description for what the original psalmists, singers and musicians were doing.

Using the first lines of psalms is one of Bob Marley’s more overt methods of working biblical material into his lyrics. The single “Jah Live” (recorded within days of the announcement of Selassie’s death in 1975) contains the lines “Fools sayin’ in their heart / Rasta your God is dead,” clearly a styling of the first line of Psalm 14 (and also Psalm 53), “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” The song continues: “Let Jah a-rise! / Now that the enemies are scattered,” again clearly an adaptation of the first line of Psalm 68: “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered.” Psalm 68 is an especial Rastafari favorite, for it is in verse 4 of the KJV that the tetragrammaton YHWH is shortened to the form universally preferred by Rastafari: “Sing unto God, sing praises unto his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice before him.” Thus Marley sings of the anticipated “movement of Jah people,” in a repatriation song titled “Exodus” that draws together multiple lines of the Hebrew biblical tradition: “Exodus / Movement of Jah people / We know where we’re going / We know where we’re from / We’re leaving Babylon / We’re going to our father land . . . / Exodus / Movement of Jah people / Send us another Brother Moses / Gonna cross the Red Sea” (Marley 44–45).

In one of his more multilayered biblical references, Marley picks up on the psalm and the well known line quoted in the New Testament both by Jesus in reference to himself (Matt. 21:42), and by Peter (1 Pet. 2:6–7) who connects it with Isaiah’s “Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone” (28:16). “Ride Natty Ride” on the Survival album includes the quotation: “But the stone that the builder refuse / Shall be the head cornerstone,” a direct adaptation of “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Ps. 118:22). And, in one of his more psalm-like moments, Marley eschews standard reggae band arrangement for a song “unlike anything he had ever recorded: an acoustic ballad, without any hint of the reggae rhythm” (Henke 54). Originally appearing in 1980, the “haunting and bittersweet Uprising” album (Steffens 262) ends with the track “Redemption Song.” Here (unlike the “band version” included in the One Love compilation) was Marley most like the poet-prophet, the bard accompanying himself on a stringed instrument, the solo singer-songwriter of psalms. He asks: “How long shall they kill our prophets / While we stand aside and look? / Yes, some say it’s just a part of it / We’ve got to fulfill the book” (Marley 98–99). In these verses Marley takes up a stance and a theme which places him in a line of prophetic biblical figures, including Jesus himself who laments “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee” (Matt. 23:37). Adding poignancy to Marley’s lyrics are the assassination attempt on his own life—he was shot by gunmen in 1976 but survived—and his subsequent death from cancer at thirty-six, just a year after the song (Steffens 253, 259).

IV Psalm 137: “Rivers of Babylon”

One of the most important Rastafari reggae adaptations of the Psalms comes not from Bob Marley but the lesser-known group “the Melodians,” turning the classic opening verses of the lamentation Psalm 137 into what Murrell calls “a popular liberation theme song in Rasta reggae lyrics” (“Psalms” 1), the anthem “Rivers of Babylon.”7 The Jamaican film The Harder They Come was something of a cult hit when it appeared in 1972; the soundtrack album (Mango Records) proved especially popular, throughout the 1970s and beyond. “Rivers of Babylon” was one of the standouts of the album, and as Murrell notes, it became a kind of Rastafari theme song. Oddly, in his extensive comparison and analysis of Psalm 137 and “Rivers of Babylon,” Murrell fails to mention The Harder They Come, but only the recording artist “Bonnie Em.” According to Murrell, “the song remained local” until her “Cover Disco Version in 1975, which became an immediate hit internationally” (“Psalms” 7). The soundtrack, however, was recently ranked an impressive number 119 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (, which gives some indication of its lasting impact and influence. Clearly The Harder They Come brought this song of the Melodians as well as the music of other classic reggae performers to a much wider audience.

The Melodians’ anthem adapts lines directly from two KJV psalms, 137 and 19. In the lyrics taken from 137 there are the usual modifications of dialect, and also interesting exchanges of first person plural with third person singular forms. As we have seen, Rastafari often avoid the first person singular, preferring the “I-an-I” affirmation of the unity of “I and the Creator who lives within I” (Steffens 256). So too the first person plural is often modified, not used in normal form: here the Melodians sing “he” where the original has “we,” and it is possible that Haile Selassie is the intended referent. Significant too is the recasting of key theological language in Rastafari terms: the “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,” the “Alpha and Omega,” contracted into “King Alpha” [or Alfa]:

By the rivers of Babylon, where he sat down,
and there he wept when he remembered Zion.
’Cause the wicked carried us away captivity,
require from us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?

Comparison shows these lyrics have excerpted and shortened but not substantially altered the content of the original KJV psalm:

1. the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2. hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3. there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4. shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

The lyrics adapted from these verses are repeated several times at the beginning and end of the song; they are accompanied by refrains of “Sing a song of freedom brother” and “Sing a song of freedom sister” and other vocalizations. The intervening section (the bridge) adapts and repeats Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord.” Again with their distinctive restyling, the Melodians substitute the first person plural for the singular, but they sing as one, with “our mouth” and from “our heart”:

So, let the words of our mouth
and the meditation of our heart
be acceptable in Thy sight
Over I [or ‘O Fari’].

The subsequent lines of Psalm 137—it has only nine verses in total—do not appear in “Rivers of Babylon,” but they are significant in their own right, and while verses 5 and 6 have been elevated to a kind of common Jewish prayer, in most appearances of Psalm 137 in the Judeo-Christian scholarship verses 8 and 9 have been conspicuously redacted, for reasons that will immediately be obvious. “Throughout the centuries,” according to Blech, “Jews have recited this psalm daily before the grace after meals as a constant reminder that sustenance in exile still leaves us unfulfilled” (54). Rabbi Blech presumably means verses 5–6 only, which the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh gives as: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, / let my right hand wither; / let my tongue stick to my palate / if I cease to think of you, / if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory / even at my happiest hour” (Tanakh 1272). Blech omits any mention of the concluding verses 8–9. Likewise Dubnov’s history describes how the exiles’ “intense longing for home found expression in stirring hymns that are now found in Psalms, one of which (137) became the hymn of national mourning”; he quotes the psalm and even includes verse 8, but still cuts off the climactic last verse (319).

Recollecting the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, and the jeering and looting of the neighboring Edomites, the last three verses of Psalm 137 offer a notably uninhibited expression of desire for vengeance, and what Nietzsche calls ressentiment. In the KJV:

7. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.
8. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

The Tanakh translation is especially vivid and differs in small but significant ways; its exclamation point seems entirely appropriate, and the editors are to be commended for not withholding it:

8. Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;
9. a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks!

These redacted lines are precisely what gives the psalm its rhetorical power, and without them it seems denatured, as it were declawed. The concluding blessings and curses show this to be a first-rate document of ressentiment, but it is understandable that biblical scholars, wanting to show mutual tolerance, acceptance, and nonviolence, should shrink from giving the text in its full force. It is noteworthy too that the reggae song does not include these lines, as the prevalent Rastafari attitude has always been one of spiritual rather than armed resistance, fighting (as Murrell puts it) “with cool reggae revolutionary rhythms rather than military might” (“Psalms” 8). Physical violence, even imagined or fantasized, has not been advanced as part of the Rastafari agenda; the way to overcome one’s enemy is by “chanting down Babylon” rather than by taking up arms.

V Hermeneutics and “Hijacking”

Part of the point in showing the preceding adaptations and appropriations of the Psalms was to demonstrate their relative proximity and fidelity; in what we have seen above from the Melodians and from Bob Marley, despite idiomatic and theological deformation of language, there does not appear to be any interpretive violence done to the texts, nor in terms of content has much been changed at the most fundamental level. This is why it is difficult to accept what has become the catch phrase in the Rastafari scholarship, this idea of “hijacking.” When Nettleford first used the term without quotation marks, others followed usually with so-called “scare quotes” added. Nettleford glossed the phrase to mean taking religion back from the “oppressor,” which can mean only from white Anglo postcolonial culture, and it was seen as the continuation of a subversive tradition already underway in various precursors to the movement: “Having one’s own God in one’s own image was a grand flowering in Rastafari of what had begun earlier in Myal and developed in Zion revivalism and Pocomania, with the hijacking of the oppressor’s God in a move that served to discommode the oppressor” (315). Murrell disambiguates the metaphor of hijacking to remove any suggestion of physical violence—it takes place “not at gunpoint”—but it is “revolutionary,” disrupting the theological “silence” about what has happened to Africans around the world, from slavery and colonialism to racism and oppression:

Rastas break the silence by “hijacking” the song (not at gunpoint but at the hermeneutical point, i.e., in their own way of adopting and interpreting scripture) that the Hebrews created by the rivers of Babylon, and using it as a revolutionary call for justice, liberation, and protest against Babylonian oppression. (“Psalms” 17)

Murrell’s implication is that before Rastafari took and transformed some lines from the psalm, it was not already a “revolutionary call for justice, liberation, and protest against Babylonian oppression,” which is problematic in itself. But if “adopting and interpreting scripture” in one’s own way represents “hijacking,” as Murrell and Williams themselves note, the more obvious appropriation would be the various forms of Christianity, Eastern and Western: “for the Jewish experience to be adopted by other groups of people using the same Hebrew Scriptures is not unusual. Christians have done it for more than nineteen hundred years” (334). It was first by the early Christians that nearly the entire Hebrew scriptural tradition was appropriated—or misappropriated, depending on the extent to which Christian “hijackers” claimed priority and ultimacy, such that Judaic ownership and authority was supposed to be superseded, or Jews portrayed as “usurpers” of their own religious writings. Through a “hermeneutic of common association,” Rastafari may therefore be said to be “following a long Christian tradition, but with a difference” (334). When Martin Luther wrote in 1520 of “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” he was continuing what was already an established post-Judaic practice of comparing one’s own experience to that of the exile and captivity, of taking up Judaic symbols, stories, and themes into one’s own language and religious texts, starting with the New Testament itself and particularly the Revelation.

Rastafari appropriation thus places them well within a long line of heterodoxies and offshoots, whose name is legion—which indeed may be said to include not only Christianity, but to a considerable extent Islam (in that many of the figures and narratives in the Quran are direct adaptations and retellings of the Judaic biblical tradition). This need not be impugned as some kind of theft, however, whether on the part of Christians, Muslims, or Rastafari. Indeed, the formative Christian interpretive practices of Jesus himself and of the apostle Paul (e.g. in the epistle to the Hebrews) show continuity with rabbinic scriptural commentary, and the development of Christian hermeneutics bears family resemblances to the Jewish traditions of midrash and Gemara. The “Black biblical hermeneutics of Rastafari” too may be seen as continuous with these traditions: Murrell and Williams describe the Rastafari practice of “citing-up” the Bible, involving “a combination of proof text, running oral and written commentaries (in somewhat of a rabbinic style), associations of traditional myths and stories with contemporary parallels,” and the “search for texts that they believe speak to specific contemporary events and issues” (328).

Further, if it is indeed a matter of “hijacking,” then it is always already a case of Judeo-Christian scriptures that may be said to have been “hijacked,” and it is from white colonialists that they are taken. Rastafari have had to fight “against centuries of extensive use of Scripture in support of racism and white oppression” (Murrell and Williams 351). Nettleford explicitly calls it “wresting the Christian message from the Messenger as a strategy of demarginalization” (315). It is clearly from Anglo culture, not from Jews, that the Bible is “hijacked.” But there can be no question about Judaic ownership and authorship, at the most fundamental level. Despite the many layers of cultural, religious, and linguistic accretion, the rightful Judaic origins of the biblical tradition are clear, obvious, and undisputed. As religious belief, there is nothing objectionable about Rastafari reading themselves into the Psalms and other books of the Old Testament. It may be an article of faith for Rastafari religious experience and practice that the King James Bible is really “a book written by and about Blacks” (Murrell and Williams 326); it may be a fact that “to Rastas, the biblical personalities, writers, and common people were all black” (327). “But Rastafarians go beyond the identification of Blacks in the biblical text and the association of the black experience with those of the ancient Israelites; Rastas go on to ‘blacken’ biblical peoples and biblical theology. That is, Rastafarians believe that they are the very Israelites depicted in the Bible” (333).

There is, further, a long held tradition, adopted by Rastafari, that Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the ancient Israelites, remnants of the Lost Tribes who are connected to the Judaic narrative through more than just a complex spiritual and cultural lineage, but one that is ethnic, genetic, and therefore direct and historical. This set of beliefs originates in precursors to the Rastafari movement, for example among Black Jews who identify themselves as Ethiopian Hebrews, or Falashas, and their influence is evident in Rastafari doctrine (Murrell and Williams 333–5). Rastafari “believe that they become one with the suffering people of Israel, share in the lineage of Solomon through Selassie, and partake of the Divine, who indwells ‘I-an-I’ ” (334). One African-American rabbi summarizes the series of reconnecting links succinctly: “[Blacks] are in truth Ethiopian Hebrews; Jacob was a Black man; Blacks are descendants of the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which established the royal line down to the present Haile Selassie.”8

It is not within the purview of this discussion, nor is it necessary, to evaluate the veracity of such claims in order to legitimate Rastafari religion. They have the interpretive freedom to reconfigure the texts to their own circumstances and cultural forms, understood as an expression of religious belief and identification. So long as it is not presented as a scholarly “theory” there should be nothing subject to criticism in this creative borrowing. “The black biblical hermeneutic of Rastafari that is at work here is a hermeneutic of faith rather than a rationalistic, academic discipline. It is a hermeneutic designed to aid a ‘downpressed’ people in their self-definition and in the procuring of liberation in Babylon” (Murrell and Williams 340). To the extent that biblical texts help them in that struggle, this may be seen as yet further evidence of the ongoing appeal of the Judaic writings and themes, and occasion greater appreciation for the respect that Rastafari do pay to the Bible.

In my reading, the appropriateness of the originally Judaic tradition for Rastafari does not depend upon any purported lineage, but rather derives from the widespread appeal and applicability of the biblical texts themselves across ethnicity, language, culture, and geography. Rastafari need not be actual descendants of Israelites for the Psalms to have potency and currency for them, any more than African-American slaves would have had to be, for the stories of the Exodus to have so inspired and resonated with them. Barrett reports secondhand a speech quoted by Ras Mack, said to have been delivered by Haile Selassie himself in 1954, which encapsulates the kind of reconstructive reading I want to offer in place of the “hijacking” model: “We in Ethiopia have one of the oldest versions of the Bible but however old the version may be, in whatever language it may be written, the words remain the same. It transcends all boundaries of Empire and all conceptions of race, it is Eternal” (127). Even as a devout nonbeliever, I would say that the power and vitality of the Hebrew Bible is universal, available to all; no one needs to “hijack” it, to draw upon this inexhaustible wellspring of inspiration and to make it their own.

In the last sentences of his article Murrell offers some credit where it is due, to what he acknowledges as “the power and influence of the Psalms in Western culture”:

Popularizing the Psalms in the now internationally known reggae revolution shows not only the power and influence of the Psalms in Western culture, but their strong appeal to contemporary movements and groups that are able to claim and convert these ancient Hebrew songs of praise, imprecations, and laments into expressions of hope, resistance, subversion, revolution, liberation, and social change. (“Psalms” 25)

It is true that the reggae song brought these verses to a broad international audience beyond white Judeo-Christendom. Murrell suggests further, though, that until “claimed” and “converted” the Psalms were not expressions of hope, resistance, liberation, etc. in the first place—a rather narrow reading that applies, if at all, to only some of the psalms. He purports, however, to be talking about the Book of Psalms as a whole; indeed, this is a central objection to Murrell’s reading, that he extrapolates too often and draws too many speculative conclusions from Psalm 137 alone. By restricting his reading and analysis to the one psalm of lamentation and a few verses from others, he derives and imputes to Rastafari an interpretation which is overly limited and therefore misleading. “From the Rastas’ point of view,” he writes, “nowhere in the Bible is the sense of Jewish abandonment, hopelessness, and self pity more implicit than in Psalm 137” (“Psalms” 11). Even if this may be so: what about the other psalms? Psalm 137 is clearly prominent, but just as Rastafari draw on multiple psalms, from the pre- and postexilic periods as well as those from and about the Babylonian captivity, so too must analysis of Judaic experience be directed to more than the one lamentation psalm. Murrell presents a view that is needlessly negative and inarguably incomplete: a reading that does not take into account the psalms of the return to Zion-Jerusalem and other essential stages in the Judaic narrative. Any discussion of the Psalms in relation to the Babylonian exile must also deal with the return, the restoration, and the Second Temple, “the central point of reference of Psalm literature” (Wanke 184). This is probably the most important period in the formation of the Hebrew Bible as it would come down to posterity: “It was during these centuries that the biblical text took a form resembling that of the present day and acquired something close to its later authority” (Goodman 38).

VI Return and Reconstruction

Since Murrell ascribes the view given in his account to Rastafari generally without attribution, my argument is against that reading rather than with Rastafari themselves. Neither do I take this constructed or projected reading of the Judaic experience to necessarily reflect Murrell’s own views on the subject personally. What he presents, however, is objectionable whether it comes from him or from the unattributed Rastafari view he is relating. Either way it disparages the Judaic expression of Psalm 137, while the Rastafari version is read as an empowered, revolutionary call for action and resistance. Several negative comparisons of this kind between Judah and Jamaica are implied by Murrell, in his suggestions that something positive is being done with the texts by Rastafari that contrasts with capitulation, hopelessness, and self-pity on the part of the Jews in captivity in Babylon.

One paragraph in particular of Murrell’s article bears consideration at length, since it presents numerous points of contention. By saying what Rastafari are not doing with the Psalms, the implication is that this is what the “Israelites” were doing: using the Psalms “to wallow in the mire of hopelessness and self-pity or wish for the former days of the nation’s glory.” Conversely, what the [ Jews] were supposedly not doing—not inspiring resistance, for example—is what Murrell takes Rastafari to positively achieve when they sing essentially the same songs. For Murrell the Rastafari movement transforms the Psalms in some way that potentiates them beyond the original:

At the heart of the Rastafarian retuning of Psalm 137 is the belief that during the Israelites’ Babylonian exile, the enthusiasm for creating and singing happy songs and psalms so characteristic of the ancient Israelites was lost, or abandoned altogether. The Israelites sang sad songs (like Psalm 137) in captivity but those dirges did not inspire a public call for national identity and resistance to the cultural and political domination of the Babylonians. Rastas seek to reverse the Israelites’ Babylonian experience by singing Hebrew songs as protest against Black people’s oppression in “Babylon” with cool reggae revolutionary rhythms rather than military might. Psalm 137 thus becomes a call not to capitulate in silence to Babylon or assimilate its cultural values; not to wallow in the mire of hopelessness and self-pity or wish for the former days of the nation’s glory . . . but a militant song to rub Babylon’s nose in the dust . . . and effect social change. (“Psalms”).

By “those dirges,” Murrell can mean only the lamentation psalms (Pss. 44, 60, 79, 85, 126, 137), not the psalter as a whole, but even then it seems plainly false that the original psalms “did not inspire a public call for national identity and resistance to the cultural and political domination of the Babylonians” and that they became this way only for Rastafari. Actually no one knows what was in the minds of these writers and singers; “the internal life of Babylonian Jewry remains completely closed to us.”9 Still, scholars generally agree that it was precisely during the Babylonian captivity and under conditions of exile that Judaic collective self-identity as well as the authoritative versions of numerous biblical texts were forged (Collins 54; Dubnov 312). This was a process of survival by exclusion, of self-critique and self-purification, holding ever more strongly to tradition and identity in the face of unrelenting pressures to assimilate.10

The religion of the restoration, of the return and rebuilding of the Temple, was precisely the result of what Murrell’s reading claims was lacking: “national identity” and resistance to “cultural and political domination.” The Judaic religion of the returnees “reflected mainly exilic conditions and ideals” (Baron 162), and includes some of “the masterpieces of prophetic literature,” Ezekiel and Second Isaiah (Dubnov 313). It was not in Judah, as Dubnov notes, but in “the land of exile,” that “the process of spiritual regeneration which was to save the nation after the downfall of the kingdom took place.” There was never any inner capitulation; what they were doing in Babylon was not wallowing in hopelessness and self-pity, it was consolidating and conserving their religious and ethnic identity.11 Under certain circumstances it is appropriate to refer even to diaspora, exile, and captivity as a kind of test: not by God, but as it were “on the forge of history.” Dubnov compares the results of those tests for Judah and the northern kingdom:

The fifty-year “Babylonian captivity” (586–537) was the test of maturity with which history confronted the people of Judah. The “Israel” of the kingdom of Samaria had been subjected to the same test in the eighth century bce and had failed to pass it: a great part was simply drowned in the Assyrian torrent. But the people of Judah weathered the harsh test and proved there are organisms which are tempered but not crushed on the forge of history. The Judeans kept their national and religious unity even in exile . . . Their part of the nation escaped the fate of the northern kingdom, thanks to the greater national and spiritual fortitude that grew out of a prolonged and unique evolution. (Dubnov 311–12)

Murrell’s reading thus fails to do justice to the remarkable survival, resistance to assimilation, purification, and self-definition of the Judaic communities in exile. Both their textual achievements and their internal religious self-critique bear witness to enormous resilience and determination, and so the implication that in Babylon the exiles were capable only of lamentation and capitulation seems both uncareful and unfair. What clinches Murrell’s greatly oversimplified Jewish history is the implication that the destruction of the First Temple was effectively the end: “So what was there to sing about? Why should they sing happy songs in Babylon? Their city was never to rise again to its original strength, and Israel, though a nation until 70 ce, ceased to be an independent state” (10). What little consideration is given to the return, restoration, and the entire Second Temple period is relegated in Murrell’s account to an endnote.

What was there to sing about? What about the fact that the story doesn’t end in Babylon? Murrell’s entire wallowing-in-self-pity hypothesis, derived as it is from only the one psalm, faces numerous textual examples to the contrary; but only one psalm in turn is needed, six verses long, to answer decisively this rhetorical question Murrell has posed:

1. When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream.
2. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them.
3. The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.
4. Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.
5. y that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
6. that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him (Ps. 126).

The psalm of joyful return is just as representative of Judaic experience as the lamentation by the rivers of Babylon. And the same songs continue to resonate across cultures and continents, inspiring and giving hope to the “downpressed” everywhere. It is not a zero-sum game, where the original songs must be diminished in some way in order to champion the reggae “cover” versions. Ultimately the strong spiritual parallels shared by the Rastafari and the Judaic narratives, bonding inseparably the one to the other, prevail and outlast any attempt at devaluation of either side. Credit and recognition is due on both ends: what Rastafari have added to the Psalms and other biblical texts is considerable, uniquely their own, and irreplaceable, in creating the enduring international form of reggae. Both Judah and Jamaica respond to Babylon with classic works of religious and revolutionary art, pointing the way to liberation and redemption.

1) Since so many different phenomena will be referred to by the same names, and the same thing sometimes called by different names, clarification is required for all primary nomenclature: groups, movements, and places. Prevailing usage has mainly been followed, but certain conventions not generally established have also been adopted. So, for example, rather than “Rastafarians” or “Rastas,” I prefer the trend in the scholarship toward “Rastafari,” used both nominally for the religious movement and its members, and as an adjectival form (as in “Rastafari belief and practice”). “Rastafarianism” as a designation for the ideology of the movement is seen but not preferred in the secondary literature. Certain periods, events, and other terms are often seen capitalized (“the Exile,” “the Diaspora”), but not to privilege any one set of terms, I have mostly avoided such capitalization (one exception being the Temple, as in “the Second Temple period”). Likewise I have not used traditional capitalized pronouns for Jesus (He, Him, etc.), nor for Haile Selassie (as Rastafari would have it). In citing sources, rather than attempting to standardize and make consistent all references, I have preserved variants in usage, capitalization, spelling, and other conventions where possible.

2) Probably the foremost contemporary authority doing work on Rastafari reggae, Nathaniel Samuel Murrell has catalogued the extensive literature on the complex relationship of Rastafari religion to the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and has contributed a good deal himself to the scholarship. He is principal contributor and chief co-editor of Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, one of the most important anthologies in the field (I cite his “Introduction” to this anthology, as well as his chapter with Williams on Rastafari hermeneutics). It is particularly Murrell’s 2001 article “Tuning Hebrew Psalms to Reggae Rhythms: Rastas’ Revolutionary Lamentations for Social Change” (cited as “Psalms” in the text) that provides several points of contention for this discussion. For this online article neither pages nor paragraphs are numbered; citations give approximate paragraph numbers.

3) In the context of the King James version it is appropriate to employ the designation for that Christian construction and reconfiguration of the Judaic scriptures, the “Old Testament”—increasingly unacceptable as a name for the Hebrew Bible, but suitable in this instance as the source with which to compare the vernacular adaptations. Where authentically Judaic alternative translations may be appropriate, the Jewish Publication Society’s 1985 Tanakh has been consulted.

4) On memes, see the work of Richard Dawkins (e.g. The Selfish Gene 2nd ed. 1989), especially “Memes: The New Replicators”; see also Daniel Dennett (e.g. Consciousness Explained, 1991).

5) Of course all the tribes of Israel are originally “Israelites,” but the term becomes somewhat problematic after the Assyrian conquests of the 730s–720s bce. More narrowly, the designation may be said to refer to the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel, lost in the first exile, and therefore precisely not the psalmists and prophets of what is called the “exilic” period—by which is meant the captivity of Judah in Babylon. Although its beginning is marked by catastrophe—destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and decapitation of the nation—this exile is only temporary, and it is followed by the return, restoration, and rebuilding that is usually called the Second Temple period.

6) Barrett 245. He continues: “Although outsiders link reggae with the Rasta religion, few people know that the music is an imitation of the Rastafarian religious drumming known as Nyabingi music. Bob Marley was an established singer of reggae before he embraced Rastafarianism; Jimmy Cliff is one of the early founders of the movement, but he has left it at various times. Many of the reggae stars who sing on stage today are not Rastafarians even though they wear dreadlocks. Most Rastafarians do not even listen to reggae” (245).

7) “Rivers of Babylon” is credited on the Jimmy Cliff soundtrack album The Harder They Come to Dowe, McNaughton, Farian, and Reyam. The group’s name was originally spelled (or misspelled) on the liner notes as the “Melodions.”

8) Murrell and Williams 335. They cite “a leader of the Black Jewish Order” in New York City, Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthews, who proffers this series of connected claims.

9) Bickerman 350. “The Hebrew and Aramaic records of the Babylonian captivity, written on leather or on other perishable material, have disappeared without a trace” (Bickerman 344). Apart from the Psalms, whose dating is uncertain, “what we know comes from the prophets of the Exile, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah” (350).

10) See Bickerman: “How did these Jews survive as Jews in Babylonia? How did they maintain themselves spiritually as part of ‘the people of Israel,’ deprived as they were of the Lord’s grace-giving presence and unable to offer sacrifices that appeased the Deity and cleansed from sin? How could they resist the appeal of the genius of heathenism, of the gods who displayed their might and splendor? We should not underestimate this temptation” (Bickerman 354). See also Baron: “It became questionable whether the artificial wall of the Law, the exaggerated emphasis on segregation and holiness, would suffice to save Jewry and Judaism from strong assimilationist forces pressing from the outside, or whether a majority of those deported from Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of their predecessors from Samaria, would succumb” (Baron 159).

11) Dubnov 312. “Torn from their homeland . . . for the first time the emigrants from Judah fathomed the profound doctrine of their prophets, that the chief strength of a nation is not in armed might, not in the kingship, and not even in the territory it occupied, but in spiritual unity . . . The instinct of national self-preservation gathered momentum, away from home, and there was a greater sense of unity among the captives in Babylon than there had been among the free citizens of Jerusalem” (312).

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