It has often been observed that the island of Jamaica has
had a phenomenally big influence on the rest of the
world, out of all proportion to its relatively tiny size,
especially in the field of music, and conceivably
likewise in religion.
It was in Jamaica in the 1920's that the Rastafarian
movement began. During the following few decades, the
Rastas remained a small and obscure group, little known
outside of the island. But since that time, their
inspirational message has spread around the globe,
largely due to its hugely successful propagation through
the medium of reggae music. Today, there are an estimated
one million Rastafarians worldwide.
Jamaica often seems to have a strange dual significance
for Rastafarians. On the one hand, it is the typical
'paradise island', with a warm climate, lush vegetation
and glorious beaches. But on the other hand, in
historical terms, it is the place of continued exile for
the Black African Diaspora. Poverty is a major problem
among the Jamaican masses, for whom the miserable 'ghetto-living'
is all too often a daily reality. Jamaica has therefore
been called 'Jamdung' (literally 'pressing down'), a
bitter expression of perceived state oppression.
Amid such an atmosphere of dejection, it is no surprise
that Garvey's 'Back to Africa'
movement, with its hopeful message of a better life in
the 'Promised Land', inspired a large following. To this
day, one of the principle aspirations for the Rastafarian
is repatriation to the African homeland, though
increasingly it is also interpreted symbolically rather
than literally. In any case, in line with the bibilcal
imagery, the Jamaican state is identified with 'Babylon', though similarly this term may be
applied to any society whose poor are oppressed.
Over the years, a career in music has been one of the
only feasible routes leading out of the ghetto to a
better life and a kind of salvation. The combination of
reggae's vibrant rhythms with the arresting impact of the
Rastafarian claim that the Almighty God is 'a living man'
is an inspirational and valued contributor to this
powerful metaphor of emancipation via the rising
crescendo of musical and spiritual vibes. Thus in the
long run, even Jamaica herself, though previously
condemned as the whore Babylon, seems to have been sufficiently redeemed
to become affectionately known as 'Jah-Mecca'.
It is worth remembering that, despite its
disproportionately large influence on the rest of the
world, Rastafari is far from being the dominant religion
in Jamaica, which remains one of the most important
strongholds of Christianity.
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