RASTAFARI AND THE ARTS is without reservation, the most thorough look at RASTAFARI of all the books I have read so far – and I have read many. As a writer myself of one of these many books – albeit the first one written by a practicing member of the faith – and as a RASTA for over 40 years, I feel eminently qualified to make such a sweeping commendation. It is truthfully a real pleasure to read, full of information that is both delightful and welcome because it touches areas of Rastafari often unrevealed by other studies of the topic.
Author Darren J. Middleton, a Professor of Religion in The John V. Rich Honours College of Texas Christian University, has produced a book that ploughs new ground in the academic fields of Rastafari by looking at the movement through its artistic creative expressions and in particular, an eclectic choice of RASTA artists through whom he manages to present a deeper and intellectually richer harvest of facts, opinions and scrutiny of the world’s newest religion.
However, it has been a little difficult for me to write a review of the book simply because I am featured in it and readers of my review may consider my praise of the book self-serving. While it’s an honour to be gathered and praised in such esteemed company, to give the book and those Professor Middleton has selected to illustrate it full credit, my inclusion would have resulted in an extremely critical assessment of the book if I was not completely happy with its contents. So while it is an unusual practice for someone mentioned in a book to write a review, an independent read of its contents will certainly find it worthy of my praise. I can only ask to be forgiven, therefore, for any pride I may exhibit in reporting on the other artists with whom I keep company in this excellent book.
Prof. Middleton’s opening statement confirms that “… Rasta and its adherents have transitioned from outcasts to culture bearers… and Rastafari represents one of the twenty-first century’s most vibrant durable and pervasive religions…” His book is for undergraduate students, he explains, those with little awareness of Rastafari beyond the stereotypes of Marley and ganja, and he hopes to break down these stereotypes by illustrating the movement’s artistic diversity not just in music but in literature film and art. It’s an excellent objective which he accomplishes well.
EARLY INTEREST IN MUSIC He admits early that his curiosity about and interest in Rastafari began with music, and this is where he book gives the most attention. In fact, he devotes an Appendix to “Dr. M’s Rasta Riddims Playlist” a list of 250 songs that he offers to students to get to know Rastafari better and to introduce listeners to several dimensions of Rastafari religious life. Emphasizing how Rastafari arts are ‘the primary mechanism for the faith’s transmission”, he looks at the arts both from insiders and outsiders views, including films and artworks made about Rastafari by non-members inspired by Rastafari.
Middleton sees literary art as an informative source for learning about Rastafari and he comments on the books of Roger Mais (“Brother Man”) and Orlando Patterson (“Children of Sisyphus”) set in the early years of the Rastafari movement, comparing them with present-day works such as my own novel “Joseph – A Rasta Reggae Fable” (including a Q&A with me about my literary inspiration through my Rastafari spirituality) and the works of Jean Gouldbourne, Masani Montague and N.D. Williams.
Middleton gives due homage and praise to the founding stars of reggae, but ventures off the beaten path with interviews with almost-unknown-but-deserves-to-be-known singer Asante Amen, and India’s premier sound system Reggae Rajahs. He specially devotes space in the music arts for poetry, singling out Black British poet Benjamin Zephiniah with both an introduction to and explanation of his poetic works and history, and also a lengthy interview with him.
FILMS ON RASTA The chapter on film references some well known documentaries about Rastafari such as Oliver Hill’s “Coping With Babylon”, Monica Haim’s ‘Awake Zion” exploring Rastafari’s Jewish links, the recent “Marley” documentary, and James Ewart’s “Ras Tafari”, a collection of interviews with well-known Rastas (incuding myself). Middleton also comments on Bianca Nyavingi Brynda’s “Roots Daughters” that explores the feminine side of Rastafari’s history and introduces readers to “The Emperor’s Birthday” a 1992 documentary of a Rastafari pilgrimage to Ethiopia to celebrate the special occasion, that gives an inside view of Sheshemane and its residents.
Professor Middleton gives a look at the spread of Rastafari to Africa to fulfill Garvey’s repatriation dream in a chapter featuring interviews with Ghana’s Blakk Rasta musician and radio presenter, then takes a look at Rastafari’s spread to Japan – just one non-Black country where Rastafari has taken root. The spread has not been without its negatives and one which Middleton deplores is the commodification of the movement in hundreds of products that exploit Rastafari’s colours, icons and philosophy purely for material purpose. The irony is not lost on how Babylon seems to be winning the commercial game as usual.
RASTAFARI AND THE ARTS is a varied buffet of information brought together by a master story-teller with a fountain of research and and deep heartfelt appreciation for the topic. It is not Middleton’s first writing on Rastafari, as he has published numerous international articles and academic papers on the religion and how it’s cultural expressions have strengthened its acceptance and growth. The book is a textured addition to the library of academic studies on Rastafari, with a fresh perspective that is both an asset and a new direction. Praise and RASpect are due to the author.
RASTAFARI & THE ARTS – Published: Routledge, New York 2015