The Appropriation of the “Dreadlocked Rasta”

Watch a scene of the documentary movie, Reincarnated, featuring Snoop Lion and tell me that you do not think it is a spoof. I had to actually stop watching when I got to the scene where he smokes four joints in a row and then talks about how smoking makes him feel more “spiritual.” While the movie is supposed to follow Snoop Dog’s progression into his Rasta persona “Snoop Lion,” it seems like he is just absurdly stoned throughout the entirety of his so-called pilgrimage. There was no moment of enlightenment or self-discovery, it was just another poorly executed publicity stunt that appropriates and commercializes Rastafarianism.

Creative projects such as this, reflect the widespread stereotype that Americans have of Rastafarianism. When we think of the movement we are quick to envision a man with dreadlocks, who is wearing a red, gold, and green striped shirt, and smoking a joint filled with “ganja.” Invariably, overplayed songs such as “Three Little Birds” and “Legalize It” also come to mind. On Google Images, the keyword: “Rasta,” brings up psychedelic images of pot leaves, Bob Marley, smoking paraphernalia, and revealing Halloween costumes. Besides a prevalent stoner culture and appreciation for reggae music, the American public is largely uninformed about the rich and resilient history of a movement which pushes for resistance against all forms of oppression. Yes, peace, unity, love, and all that kumbaya is an easy sell, but there is so much that has been left out.

Rastafarianism is an the afro-centric religious and political movement that took hold in Jamaica during the 1920’s and 30’s, stemming from inspiration by Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie I. The key beliefs are that God or “Jah” is black, a rejection of the structure and beliefs imposed by Western Civilization, and redemption in a final return to Africa. The movement tapped into the suffering and alienation that people of color have experienced for over the past four hundred years. It was an outlet for discontent and impoverished youth to reclaim their black identities. When Rastafarian began to advocate for change in Jamaican politics, religion, and class structure, during the 1950’s, the members were labeled as subversives by the government. Even with strong opposition and discrimination, droves of impassioned recruits continued to pledge their allegiance to the young ideology.

Central to the movement is the ritual smoking of marijuana — the holy herb. Despite popular belief, marijuana is not used for recreational purposes, rather it is used during religious meetings to heighten feelings of unity and peace between members. In this state, they believe they are closer to God and have the ability to understand the truths of the universe. Moreover, Rastas argue that smoking eliminates the longing to value Western ideals such as materialism and destructive pleasures. Therefore, it is not a surprise to them that most governments around the world regard it to be an illegal substance. Rastas have long had clashes with law enforcement over their right to smoke something they consider sacred.

Another important component of Rastafarianism are dreadlocks. During the time of slavery, colonialism, and even post-colonialism in Jamaica, dreadlocks were considered to be associated with Africa and barbarism. Rastas donned the hairstyle as a political statement against oppressive powers that had kept them from wearing their natural hair for so long. They also considered the dread to resemble the mane of a lion, an animal that was considered to be both the most powerful and humble creature in the animal kingdom. Similar to the smoking of marijuana, dreadlocks made Rastas conspicuous to the government. Many Rastas faced police brutality, forced relocation into the bush, and unemployment on the basis of their hair.

Lastly, red, gold, and green — often thought of as stoner colors — correspond with the colors of the Pan-African flag. Red symbolizes the blood that has been shed by the African people in their struggle for freedom and equality, gold represents the abundance of wealth in Africa, and green stands for the rich natural vegetation found in Ethiopia. Rasta’s adopted the colors to demonstrate solidarity with African countries against colonial and western rule. Regardless of nationality, they believe that all people of African descent should work together to forge their own collective destinies.

After reading about the true meanings of fundamental Rastafarian symbols, the Bob Marley bobble heads and marijuana leaf earrings you can find in just about every shop on Telegraph Street in Berkeley, seem painfully politically incorrect. Similar to Native American symbols and feminism, American consumerism has concealed the movement’s commitment to grass-roots empowerment, choosing to represent its adherents as one-dimensional caricatures.

More than just loss of meaning, the appropriation and commercialization of Rastafarianism has created a rupture in who is deserving of respect. The reggae artists who provide music to American audiences are glorified in music videos for their incessant smoke sessions, scantily clad island women, and wild beach side parties. However, visit a a genuine Rasta community in Jamaica and you will notice that being Rasta is not as “cool” as it appears to be on screen. Existing often as second-class citizens, many Rasta’s live on the outskirts of Kingston and can only make a living selling hand carved pipes to tourists. Their appearances, beliefs, and practices, are not taken seriously by both Jamaican society at large or the outside world.

I am not saying that we can’t appreciate all of the beautiful, syncretic aspects of Rastafarianism, just that we just need to develop a larger understanding of how our dominant culture is actively extracting what is wants from the movement, and leaving out what it does not profit from. We need to take the time to self-educate and not just blindly accept everything around us just because it has been that way since we can remember. The fine line between appropriation and appreciation is slowly making its way into American consciousness but for now we will just have to turn a blind eye to the plight of teenagers buying their first “Rasta” style pipe.