Closeup/International Affairs

Fairer wind for Jamaica

Reggae also has charms to soothe the savage breast

Adele Freedman May 29 1978
Closeup/International Affairs

Fairer wind for Jamaica

Reggae also has charms to soothe the savage breast

Adele Freedman May 29 1978

Fairer wind for Jamaica

Closeup/International Affairs

Reggae also has charms to soothe the savage breast

Adele Freedman

It was an exceptional concert even by Jamaican standards. Beneath a full moon that seemed made-to-measure for the occasion, Kingston’s top reggae singers gathered in the National Stadium last month to celebrate the beginnings of a national peace movement, a reggae follow-up to a grassroots “peace treaty” announced in the heart of the Kingston ghetto last January. Signalling the end of years of gang warfare, the concert was bound to be an emotional occasion—and it was just that.

The eight-hour event peaked as Bob Marley, Jamaica’s undisputed reggae shaman, careened into a hypnotic rendition of his song Jamming. Knees pumping and

braided “dreadlocks” swirling around his head in time to the music, he drove home the message: “Jah Jah children must unite, life is worth much more than gold ...” Moments later, leaving his backup musicians to their own discretion, he stepped to the front of the stage to issue an invitation. Would the prime minister and the leader of the opposition care to jam with him in the name of Jah (Jehovah) the Lord? The audience of 30,000 stared incredulously as Edward Seaga, head of the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP), made his way onstage, followed by Prime Minister Michael Manley. Beside Marley, who was becoming more

and more ecstatic every minute, the two men looked tense and uncomfortable. Even to please their supporters, they couldn’t blend into the rhythmic swaying of the musicians on stage.

At Marley’s prompting, the two politicians—long-sworn enemies—were seen clasping hands sheepishly. Marley’s mission was accomplished. The ghetto’s most famous citizen, whose inflammatory protest songs had advertised the plight of Kingston’s poor to the entire world, had forced two political enemies into symbolic accord. It was an example of what the

people, singing the people’s music and preaching the people’s philosophy, could accomplish—if they tried.

The implications of the Peace Concert can only be appreciated against the economic and political situation in Jamaica, an island of two million people whose resources were for centuries gutted by hungry superpowers, leaving the indigenous population bereft not only of food but of pride. Having gained independence from Britain in 1962, Jamaicansare now reaping the thorny consequences of colonial rule. Ask any Jamaican, of any political persuasion, how he is, and he’s likely to answer: “Times tough.” It isn’t difficult to see why.

Thirty-five per cent of the labor force— and these are only the official statistics—is unemployed. Everywhere you go you see young men and women wandering Kingston's dusty roads aimlessly, complaining of boredom or speculating on the possibilities of emigration to Miami or Toronto, two of the largest havens for the disconsolate.

With virtually no money in the treasury—government cheques are actually bouncing—Manley has been forced to curtail imports. At the Kingston airport, farm workers returning after fulfilling threemonth work contracts in Canada or the States can be seen trying to wheedle the contents of sagging cardboard cartons— cornflakes, rice, flour, sugar, even butterthrough customs. Soap has become a luxury. Cigarettes can generally be bought only through the black market. Gas costs $3 a gallon. There is even a shortage of gui-

tar strings—a sad state of affairs in a country where music figures so large.

To smooth things over as best they can, the government-controlled media offer a steady diet of paternal advice on how the people should conduct their lives. One nationwide campaign encourages breastfeeding as a substitute for imported baby formula; another suggests that everyone plant a backyard garden. “He does not have a lot of land space,” runs a full-page newspaper ad showing a father and son conferring under a corrugated tin roof, “so he plants his food in the old tins and tyres.” In the face of such economic disintegration, it is hardly surprising that taxi drivers keep their doors and windows locked lest pickpockets reach inside and snatch their passengers’ wallets.

It is clear from the poverty of the Kings-

ton population that the needs of the people haven’t yet found real political expression. On the contrary, political activity seems only to have exacerbated the already intolerable conditions. Every political constituency in Kingston has its party strongholds, defended—until last January, at least—by armed ghetto youth gangs.

The slums of West Kingston, an area of one square mile with a population of 36,000, are no exception. One section, Tivoli, a planned community development carved out of what was once the most degraded shantytown, is JLP territory; Matthews Lane along the way supports Manley’s People’s National Party. Once a street declared for one party, there was no turning back. Over the years, neighbors and even members of the same family were turned into enemies under pressure of political partisanship. Since Seaga represents the area of West Kingston. Manley found it convenient to cut financial aid to that region, with the result that of the 3.000 people in one JLP stronghold, only 100 are employed. (The government is Jamaica’s biggest employer.) As if discrimination weren’t enough, the police, so powerful that they almost operate as an autonomous force in Kingston, had the local people

fearing that they could enter the ghetto at any time and shoot up the population. The violence reached its height in June, 1976, when Manley declared a state of emergency and jailed a number of respected, nonviolent JLP community leaders. It was at this point that the ghetto population began to realize that something had to be done. One ghetto youth summed it up last month: “Political parties claim to be on the side of the people, but in the interests of government they move away from the people.” The initiative for peace was left to those whose lives were most affected by its absence: the ghetto people themselves.

Last January, some youthful supporters of both political parties were picked up by the police—a common occurrence—and jailed in the same cell. With time to ponder the destructive consequences of years of exploitation by opposing politicians, they began to discuss the possibility of peace. On the night of January 9, PNP supporter Bucky Marshall, who had just come out of jail, and his JLP counterpart, Claudius Massop, headed an all-night candle-lit vigil in the streets of the ghetto. The next day they announced an effective truce, triggering mass revelry. A young reggae performer, Jacob Miller, immediately broadcast the news by cutting a single, set to the tune of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, called The Peace Treaty Special. Another reggae song, The War Is Over, quickly rose to No. 4 on the Kingston

hit parade. Peace had come to West Kingston.

News of the truce soon reached Miami where Bob Marley had been living in exile since being wounded by gunmen in Kingston in December. 1976. It was the truce and the Peace Movement that grew from it that

paved the way both for Marley’s return to Jamaica and the Peace Concert, proceeds donated to the Peace Movement. Marley’s return to Kingston had a two-fold importance. It was his way of denying to his followers that he had sold out to fame and big money; and it marked the emergence of

West Kingston’s reggae community as an active political force with an increasingly coherent ideology. Although 16 reggae acts participated in the Peace Concert, it was Marley who set the tone for the event. His clapboard headquarters on the Hope Road also served as headquarters for the

Peace Council. During the hectic days before the concert. Marley was often to be found there giving ear to the blandishments of film-makers, photographers and members of the press. Every word of his was mined for a message. “You just can’t force a white people’s philosophy on the black people,” he told one interviewer, “especially the people of Jamaica—because nowhere on earth are people as spiritual as the ones in Jamaica.”

What then is the black people’s philosophy? For Marley and an estimated 50,000 inhabitants of Kingston, it is the Rastafarian religion whose tenets and principles have been evolving since 1930. Based on the Old Testament and the Book of Revelations, Rastafarianism traces the roots of black Jamaicans to Solomon and Sheba, stressing Africa as the home to which black people must someday return. Rastafarians ÍS believe in the divinity of Haile Selassie, deQ ceased Emperor of Ethiopia (otherwise 5 known as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah) who, as both African and emperor became the focus of black striving for power and dignity. But even without accepting Selassie as the living God, it is possible for Jamaicans to identify with Rastafarianism as a social movement that provides black people with a sense of their historical and cultural identity, as well as

the biblical language to interpret their complex experience. In psychological terms, this means that only after the Jamaican population accepts who they are and where they came from will they be able to lay the foundations of social action. The way Marley expressed this was: “All youth unite and come together and then we do things.” Commented Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Peace Council: “Brother Bob is saying what all Rastafarians say: get back to yourself and get conscious.” The only difference is that Marley is saying this in some of the most powerful music that has ever been linked to a political movement: reggae.

As if to provide one last reason for the people to organize for peace, the government sent security police into West Kingston on April 17, five days before the concert, to squelch a peaceful demonstration protesting against the appalling sanitary conditions in the area. The incident was then used by the government to discredit the Peace Movement. Minister of Security Dudley Thompson issued a public warning that, “If one policeman is killed this year, the people who did it will be shot down like dogs”—a somewhat unnecessary threat considering that none of the three people killed during the demonstration was a policeman.

But despite premonitions that the concert might erupt into a bloodbath, it unfolded peacefully, almost silently. In fact.

it wasn’t really a concert at all. but a night -long consciousness-raising session led by the country’s reggae elite. Hardly any applause broke the eerie stillness—unusual behavior for a Jamaican audience. This time, people had assembled to receive the “message,” and they weren’t disappointed.

For many artists, the event was an excuse to confront the representatives of Babylon—in the persons of the police who provided security—head-on. More often than not, their protests centred on marijuana, considered a sacred herb by many Rastafarians, and under different circumstances might have provoked arrest. Lighting an enormous spliff (marijuana cigarette), Jacob Miller descended the stage and tendered a policeman this burnt offering; the cop demurred. Without waiting for him to reconsider. Miller grabbed his helmet, jammed it on top of his dreadlocks, and remounted the stage to continue his rendition of Dreadlocks Can’t Lick Him (his) Pipe in Peace, lamenting the harassment Rastafarians face for smoking marijuana.

Peter Tosh, one of the original members of Marley’s backup group. The Wailers, struck a militant note. Dressed completely in black, he addressed himself directly to the prime minister. “I am not a politician.” he hissed, “but I suffer the consequences”—citing the soap shortage as an example. Why, he then asked, had he been tormented by the police whenever he lit up a joint? It was time for the “shit-stem,” as he repeatedly referred to the system, to change. By the time he had outlined his plan for replanting vacant fields with marijuana for export, he too had a lit spliff in hand.

But if anyone symbolized the concert’s theme of One Love that night, it was Marley, who made his entrance using a wellknown hymn as his battle cry: “The lion of Judah will break every chain and give us the victory again and again.” “We are kings and queens, princes and princesses,” he murmured mystically at the moon. Five songs later, he had Manley and Seaga on the stage with him. “My whole life flashed before my eyes,” said one woman in the audience who had served seven months in detention. “All the violence and the shooting. Now the politicians can never afford to ignore the people again.”

Whether the Peace Movement will succeed in keeping the common people out of reach of political manipulation remains to be seen. Jamaican politics operate on a particularly visceral level that might strike outsiders as odd, if not incomprehensible. But now that the youth of Kingston are undergoing a form of spiritual awakening, and for the first time are taking an interest in controlling the reins of their destiny, the balance of political forces is bound to change. Things will doubtless continue to be chaotic but that will not detract from the fact that, as Marley notes in one song, “You think it’s the end; but it’s just the beginning.”^