Thursday, April 19, 2012

U-Roy: African Roots, 1976

This album seems to be a compilation of music from at least two sources. The A side is all U-Roy cuts, some of which are undoubtedly avaliable on other blogs, and the B side is all instrumental cuts from King Tubby's studio. I thought I would post this album to share the cover art and because the opening song, Joyful Locks, is so classic. Like most (or all?) of U-Roy's songs, it's a remix. He sings over Linval Thompson's "Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks" rhythm with some of the original vocals dubbed back in. U-Roy's version preserves both the theme of Thompson's song and the spirit of the lyrics that he drops in his rendition. For example, even though he omits the warning, "(don't you cut off your dreadlocks) because Jah Jah will chastise you, even hurt you," he keeps Thompson's reference to the story of Samson and Delilah, a parable that some Rastafarians deploy to emphasize the importance of hair as a significant component of one's relationship with the divine. And although he drops the line about men with dreadlocks being righteous in spite of their reputations as evil, he does say, "don't look back, and don't don't you cut off your dreadlocks," and "got to be truthful most of all to Jah." In other words, having committed himself to God, a Rastafarian should concern him or herself primarily with the divine relationship; all other relationships should be secondary, and the people who scoff at the Rastafarian's path should be of no concern. As U-Roy says, "let Jah arise and all his enemies be scattered away."

In this light, the story of Samson and Delilah takes on a new relevance: Delilah stands in for the people and institutions that make up Babylon, the blanket term for all that is spiritually maladjusted and/ or motivated by greed. The Rastafarian must treasure his or her locks, through which the divine relationship is realized, but must also protect this relationship because his or her devotion and purity of heart are under constant siege by Babylon. As Johnson says in both versions, "Samson was a dreadlocks so Delilah betrayed." In other words, the evil that confronts Rastafarians' is not strictly the collateral damage of being poor and marginalized in the modern world. The evil inherent in Babylon motivates Babylonian subjects to consciously interfere with the Rasta's quest to abstain from all that is impure. Jamaican police (and police around the world) consider the Rastafarian evil or dangerous because they define marijuana, the Rastafarian's sacrament, as evil, and many members of society at large, especially the wealthy, reject the Rastafarian notion that greed and inequality are inextricable from Western society. Some try to persecute those who blame the unequal distribution of wealth and power on a culture of greed, and Rastas take this doctrine further than most. Rastafarians allege, reminiscent of the teachings of Christ, that spiritual purity overwhelmingly tends to be mutually exclusive with the ambition necessary for the accrual of wealth; there is simply not enough room in one soul and one lifetime for these disparate traits to coexist without one eclipsing the other. Babylon is a cultural atmosphere that favors the ambitious, and it defensively attacks those who criticize it and try to escape it.

This song encapsulates the kind of appeal that reggae, loved by musicians across an unusually wide spectrum of ethnicities, has to enthusiasts worldwide. In places like New Guinea, where capital and sovereignty elude so many indigenous people and power is the privilege of a small, mostly stagnant elite as well as foreign capital, reggae was adopted and endowed with local meaning. The same is true in so many Native American communities, many of which have achieved legal sovereignty but still struggle against poverty, marginalization, and discrimination. The music also has a surprisingly long history in various corners of the Arab world, whose people have for over a year been toppling despotic rulers. For most non-Jamaican communities of listeners (except for those in Black Africa and the African diaspora,) it is not the Africanist-Abrahamic God called Jah that draws people to the music, but rather the way reggae recognizes the torment that people face when walking a difficult but righteous path. I genuinely believe that it is the emphasis on living a righteous life in an evil world and the analogy between different kinds of oppression that makes reggae a global language, not the ubiquity of marijuana in the lyrics that arguably accounts for reggae's popularity among most Anglo-American listeners.

This song in particular can speak to just about anyone on the grounds that it can be difficult, even scary sticking to one's convictions, but without the strength to do that, we are truly powerless, just as Samson was when he allowed the holy relationship to which he had devoted himself to be severed along with his hair. It's true that God returned his powers to him one final time so that he could bring down the temple on his captors, but he died in the process and his old life was never restored. The message is that when it comes to sticking to one's beliefs in the face of adversity, the stakes are high and if we falter we may never regain our footing. It's a message that can resonate as easily with a Jamaican Rasta as a New Guinean in danger of losing his or her ancestral lands permanently to Chinese lumber interests.

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