Updated: Mar 26
When I came across the photograph in The Observer Review in 1997 it felt white-hot, as if it would burn through the newspaper. The caption read: "Louisiana, 1863: A slave covered in welts after a whipping by his master on a cotton plantation.”
For years I kept it among my working files on my desk. Always face down.
Photographs (and video) of suffering and oppression are commonplace, have been for a long time. Dachau, Tennessee, Biafra, Hanoi, Bangladesh, right down to today. In the US some were used as postcards. Despite the anaesthetic effect of surfeit, they still can evoke moral outrage, as the case of George Floyd testifies.
Susan Sontag recalled her first encounter with such an image as, “a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany.” In her collection of essays On Photography she elaborated: “For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belson and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have ever seen-in photographs or in real life-ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was 12) and after.”
"This must never happen again," reads the inscription on the Holocaust Monument in Israel. Here in the Caribbean our Slavery Monument is our music, and its inscription is Burning Spear's: “Do you remember the days of slavery?”
This is not the history of long dead men and past events, but the memory of living people who passed through the vale of tears. Hence it's always in the present tense, such as Marley's “Slave Driver”: "Every time I hear the crack of the whip/My blood runs cold/I remember on the slave ship/How they brutalize our very soul."
I arrived at that epiphany some time between September 1974 and June 1975. A callow 18-year-old Trinidadian student who'd sleepwalked through Black Power in 1970, in Mona, I was jolted out of middle-class complacency by everything around me, Jamaica’s intense political fervour, Bob Marley’s Natty Dread, Count Ossie's Grounation and the language of Rastafari, The Harder They Come. Then they all coalesced into the moment at a concert on campus when Spear performed “Slavery Days”.
Over 40 years later “Slavery Days” still sends chills up my spine, still threatens to sear away a half-century of experience and reduce me to the helplessness of a child confronted with unimaginable horror and sadness. I can still see the bass singer Rupert Willington and tenor Delroy Hinds pointing to the horizon and intoning the unchanging, hypnotic mantra "Do you remember the days of slavery?" in response to Winston Rodney's memories:
"And they beat us/And they work us so hard/And they use us/Till they refuse us."
Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear. Photo by Sonia Rodney.
It would be unbearable, as I find Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”, but for Burning Spear’s indomitable will to survive and bear witness. Ultimately the song makes the fires of righteousness and justice burn brighter.
The bedrock of modern Jewish culture was formed of centuries of exile and dispersion in hostile lands, which climaxed in the Nazi holocaust; so too the tunnel of exile and slavery constituted the heart of black people in Jamaica. That is what was given shape and form in reggae in the 1970s. There are many close parallels between the two diasporas: the people of The Book and the people of dance, but there are many contrasts too, not least of which is the African ability to draw strength and moral fibre from pleasure and happiness. What better way to affirm the value of life? Our music can never be anti-humanist, never on the side of death, as is, say, Wagner or some metal rock bands.
“The blues are about freedom, y’know. There’s liberation in reality. When they talk about these songs being sad, the fact that you recognize that which pains you is a very freeing and liberating experience,” says Wynton Marsalis in Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz. “It must be strange for other cultures where you spend most your time trying to pretend you don’t have any of these problems, any of these situations. When I hear the blues it makes me smile.”
When you hear reggae it makes you move. It's not the soaring, lofty pleasure of jazz, the lamentation of gospel nor the laughter and mockery of calypso but a kind of release, like the surmounting of an obstacle, the attainment of rectitude through tribulation — “the harder the battle the sweeter the victory” sang Marley of a release felt viscerally and rooted in the earthy enjoyment of our physicality.
The many strands of New World black music have a complex and convoluted genealogy because of the ability and tendency of African music to absorb any and every influence and mutate with no loss to its essence. Jamaican music is no exception. Traditional folk and religious forms, proverbs and nursery rhymes all fed into mento, and calypso and rhythm-and-blues energy turned it into ska, and jazz was absorbed by both.
But it was the vastness of the Rastafari vision that gave reggae its power and glory. The strength of their faith empowered them to claim, from the lowest rung of the social ladder, the high moral ground. It became more than just music; it acquired a way of speaking, a god, an ideology, colours, a hairstyle, a lifestyle, a drug.
Mystic Revelation of the Rastafari at the funeral of anthropologist Prof. Barry Chevannes, UWI, Mona, Jamaica, 2010. Photo by Kim Johnson.
Poor, uneducated, rural and deeply spiritual, with the help of ganga, the Rastas imaginatively reversed time and history and all it had taught them, especially by white Christianity. They returned to Africa to find a black emperor and prophet of God, and then made the journey to Jamaica as proud Africans.
“Rastafarianism is a true faith in the sense that its believers have taken that step beyond mere rationality into the acceptance of a view of the unknown, unknowable and unprovable, which is faith,” said Michael Manley. “To them Haile Selassie is the symbol of god on Earth and God himself is as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. The true Rastafarian, therefore, has traced his identity beyond mere history and geography to the ultimate source of all things, for the believer, the Creator Himself. But he has arrived at his Creator through the images and the soil of Africa. By that act he has rediscovered the self that was mislaid in the Middle Passage.
That audaciousness included a deliberate deconstruction and reformulation English syntax and lexicon. Their argot combined an African style of speaking in proverbs with Jamaican patois and the motifs and language of the poetic King James Version of the Bible, particularly its Old Testament story of exile and redemption. It gave them access to sixteenth-century English, an intrinsically language un-devalued by modern over-usage and commercial and political appropriation.
Who else can make an antique tongue sound natural and contemporary? Take the Psalms 1:1-3:
"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners... And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper."
And listen to Marley's "Forever loving Jah":
"Cause just like a tree/Planted by the rivers of water/That bringeth forth fruit/Bringeth forth fruit in due season/Every thing in life got its purpose/Find its reason/In every season/forever yea."
Bob Marley performing live on stage at the Brighton Leisure Centre earlier in 1980. Photo by Mike Prio.
There is no lamentation: “Old Man River, don’t cry for me/I’ve got a running stream of love, you see.” And rolling underneath you hear the irresistible rhythm of a locomotive that cannot be stopped or derailed: "So, no matter what stages/Oh stages, stages, stages they put us through/We'll never be blue."
Jamaican slavery was followed as in the USA by a brutal capitalism, which maintained the hierarchy and its attitudes. I know no other Caribbean country as rigid and conservative in its racial and class segregation. “Four hundred years,” sang Peter Tosh, “And it’s the same, the same philosophy.” (“And God spake on this wise, That his seed shall sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them unto bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years.” Acts 7:6)
In the chasm between the reality of suffering and the reality of freedom, between a cruel, violent society and Jah’s love, between Babylon and Zion, faith can be as rich and as tangible as reality. Marcus Garvey took that dream to Africans scattered throughout the English-speaking world. And the Rastafari elaborated Garvey’s dream and passed it to the messengers of reggae who carried it to the world.
The deep pleasure offered by this music is a dialectic at work that cannot be grasped with the mechanical rules of deductive logic. You see, pleasure and pain are not simple mutually exclusive contradictions, not in the way of strong/weak, long/short, wherein all criteria except one (power or length) remain stable. It's not simply that pain feels bad and pleasure feels good. Pain is specific, pleasure is diffuse; pain has clear functional reasons (to prevent something, eg. walking with a broken leg), pleasure is mysterious (why do we dance?). By analogy, the opposite of love isn't hate. The opposite of love is separation. Or indifference, which is in turn also the opposite of hate.
The mechanism Africans in the diaspora developed to cope with slavery, our music, was not opposite of pain, which is anaesthesia. It was pleasure, which is a negation of the negation. If the negation of a pain is anasthetic, the opposite of that is aesthetic. In this case, music. That is what still boggles people. The blues is about heartbreak but is deeply pleasurable at the same time. "Slavery Days" is a beautiful song.
With their unlikely faith Burning Spear and Bob Marley and all the other reggae warriors gave the entire world a dream of freedom, just when the libertarianism of the sixties fizzled out. Encountering it in 1974 divided my life into two parts. Forever, yea.