on national symbols

Some of us might recall that six years ago Jamaicans near and far were outraged on social media, in the newspapers, and on the television all because Ishawna posted an Instagram caption to end all Instagram captions: “Me nuh wear tablecloth like Miss Lou. #RipMissLou.” The year was 2017 and this one caption successfully pitted Ishawna fans against Miss Lou loyalists, the young against the old, and, perhaps unexpectedly, rebellious individualists against patriotic nationalists.

Jamaican national icon Miss Lou (L) and the 2017 IG image of dancehall recording artiste Ishawna (R)

Loop News Jamaica’s report on the social media firestorm explained that Ishawna “possibly naively [did] not recogniz[e] or appreciat[e] the national cultural significance of the bandana outfits that school children at the primary level and below are required to wear at least once per year as a national symbol.” For many, Ishawna’s photo and caption were interpreted as culturally insenstive or as proof that Ishawna was taking Miss Lou for a “joke ting.” Yet for others, they took the opportunity to reflect on why Ishawna might have dismissed bandana — a national symbol — as a mere tablecloth. Writing for the diaspora-facing website Jamaicans.com, Allan Cunningham is one such someone. In fact, in response to the tablecloth incident, he issued a public apology to Ishawna.

…[T]he real culprit is us!…the previous generation. […] Please accept this as my apology and here’s hoping that you will be motivated to read and understand the role of culture in the development of our society and the impact of cultural icons such as the Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley. 

Read more of Allan Cunningham’s words here: https://jamaicans.com/ishawna-apology/

As the quote suggests, rather than dress down Ishawna for appearing to be insensitve to the meaning tied to bandana cloth, Cunningham accepted some responsibility for his generation’s failure to teach Ishawna’s generation of the fabric’s cultural significance. (For more on Jamaica’s unofficial fabric and the silk-turned-cotton roots of the Hindi “bandhana”/”Chennai”/”madras” cloth, see this article by Dr. Orville Taylor.)

School girl in bandana head scarf and dress

Fast-forward; it’s now 2023. Ishawna and Jamaica have both moved on and one hopes that primary level teachers and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) have doubled-down on educating young people about the significance of bandana cloth and why it is worn on Jamaica Day and Miss Lou’s birthday. (Spoiler alert: My informal querying of Jamaica’s students suggests little progress has been made in that regard. While most of the young people I have asked know that bandana is regarded as a cultural symbol, few to none are able to say anything beyond Miss Lou as an answer when asked why bandana is of any cultural significance.)

So, how does a bandana start lead us here? How does it all connect? As I see it, we are in a similar situation today. The present cultural kick-up is due to the perception that current dancehall hit-maker Valiant‘s newest single “Rasta” (produced by Countree Hype) seems irreverent towards Rasta. And just as happened in 2017 as a result of Ishawna’s words, the subtext of today’s public, social media debate centres on what is known and not known about the symbols pertaining to a particular aspect of Jamaican culture.

Here’s how reggae recording artist Kabaka Pyramid ignited a debate on Twitter this week:

Kabaka Pyramid’s 12 March 2023 Tweet

For me, “Rasta a joke ting a Jamaica now apparently” is a big statement that might be better approached as a question. Winning the 2023 Best Reggae Album GRAMMY award for The Kalling (2022), Kabaka Pyramid’s catalog of lyrics express his Rastafari beliefs and worldview. The title track of the latest album offers these words: “When yuh tek up Rasta banner, do nuh tek it fi nuh joke/ It’s more than just di locks upon yuh head an’ what yuh smoke/ Di words dem dat yuh spoke, energies yuh evoke/ Dem must be a reflection of di King.” Press play below and listen for yourself and see how Rastafari symbols are highlighted lyrically and visually.

Kabaka Pyramid – “The Kalling” ft. Stephen Marley, Protoje, Jesse Royal 

I’d like to point out and discuss a few symbols presented in the “The Kalling”: the Star of David, King Selassie I and Empress Menen, as well as the red, gold, and green drums.

This is the current Ethiopian national flag.
Haile Selassie I with hands positioned in the star of David. For Rastafari, this symnbolizes the divine on Earth.

The featured drums are painted in green, yellow, and red because those are the three colors that are presented horizontally on the flag of Ethiopia.

The imperial Ethiopian flag (in official use from 1897- 1974) was adopted as the Rastafari flag.

(Note that the Lion of Judah was only officially depicted as a part of the Ethiopian flag from 1897 -1974, but that flag has persisted as the Rastafari flag into today).

The colored drums in “The Kalling” signal the Rasta practice of Nyabinghi chanting, singing, and reasoning that is amplified by the drum. If you zoomed in on Stephen Marley’s hands you will have seen his index fingers and thumbs connected in the foreground with the other digits interlaced behind in what forms the Star of David. (For a more explicit historical reference, observe the above image of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I — the embodiment of God on Earth for Rastafari — displaying what has become the signature symbolic hand gesture of Rastafari faithful.) The salute was depicted in the video and viewers have “no beef” because they find no disconnect between the imagery and the lyrics. Valiant’s “Rasta” single, on the other hand, while it also presents the hand salute, it includes “Rasta” costumes alongside behaviors typically denounced by Rasta. More to my point here, the video curiously includes what might be described as false symbols, those being the Jamaican craft market souvenirs — red, gold, and green scarves and tams, dreadlock wigs, and musical instruments. Kabaka P suggests that this video signals that “Rasta a joke ting,” but I would pose a slightly different (but still very related) question: What happens when the symbols of Rastafari are co-opted or appropriated as, or diminished to be generic symbols of brand Jamaica?

Image of imported goods for sale in craft market in Portland, Jamaica

Once upon a time, decades ago, Jamaican crafts were carved, sewn, and tuned by Rastafari artisans themselves. But nowadays, many of these goods are made in and imported from China then sold by non-Rasta vendors from Kingston to Negril. Where is the public kick-up given that these cheap foreign goods continue to enter the market and only sell because of the overwhelming conflation of Rasta symbols as Jamaica’s symbols? Should we all chant down the Minister of Tourism for this? Perhaps. As we consider the point raised by Kabaka Pyramid’s Tweet and its social media response, it reveals that there are several issues afoot. (See the comments under @SparkieBabyOfficial’s IG post here. Commenters have even treaded into intense anti-LGBTQ discourse.)

I know that I must discuss Valiant’s “Rasta” directly, but there is so much that has led to this point. Indulge me, please.

Valiant’s “Dunce Cheque” (2022) song and video were released even as some Jamaicans grew concerned that dancehall recording artistes were promoting “dunceness.”

Before “Rasta” was released on March 5, 2023, Valiant provoked a particular generation of Jamaicans in late 2022 with the hit single “Dunce Cheque.” Knee-jerk reactors loathed the song’s lyrics as “Dunce Cheque” was heard only as a song celebrating scamming and dunceness/ dunceheads (colloquial terms used to describe the poorly educated). But as the song was quickly followed with the single “Scholar,” it became clear that Valiant was addressing a bigger issue: Jamaica’s outdated education system coupled with Jamaica’s bottlenecked-pipeline to legal employment that pays workers a livable much less comfortable salary are the driving force behind high migration rates for those who can leave and high scamming rates for those who have to stay. Here are some lyrics to Valiant’s “Scholar”:

Please don’t judge me.

Just left school and nah have nuh subject.

Don’t call mi nuh dunce-head.

I am a work in progress.

Still have to come out to something.

Feel fi build a boat and run weh.

Nutten nah gwaan inna di country.

Weh mi a guh duh when mi hungry?

[Verse 1] See man wid 7 CXC still a thief.

Me aguh become the enemy

Because me ah speak.

Call center full up and minimum wage

Still ah give out .

Suh how we aguh reach?

Profle me cause mi dress up inna Polo.

Mark X ah blast police ah say fi slow down.

Like a Uptown yute alone fi roll suh…

Partial lyrics to “Scholar” by Valiant

For me, Valiant explodes the use of “dunce” with “Scholar” and explains plausible roots for the criminality outlined in “Dunce Cheque.” When there are 40+ students in a second grade classroom, for example, the students at the back of the classroom will, invariably, receive less of the teacher’s attention. If that teacher is not trained to and prepared to step out from behind the desk at the front of the classroom, those students in the back of the classroom will be ignored, typecast as dunce, and left behind. The question is, should the students who are failed by the system be considered dunce OR should the system that fails so many students be considered dunce?  I do not support criminal activity, I want that to be clear, but I want to know if a truly dunce (unintelligent) person could successfully draw down a hundred million dollars? The intelligence levels it takes to trick “clients” and evade the ops is a far cry from dunce.

As Valiant points out on “Scholar,” dunce is just a word, but it’s a hard label to shake off in a Jamaica where labels stick, no matter how harsh. Is the system dunce that thinks that parents calling their sons and daughters dunce is okay? Is the system dunce that thinks teachers calling their students dunce is going to positively motivate young people to perform better? The reality is, negative reinforcement hurts and hardens children and adults. When teachers and parents call children dunce, it can hurt them for life. Want proof? See the comedian Julie Mango’s recent video and the numerous replies it attracted:

Tweet shared by @IamJulieMango 12 March 2023

This post was longer than intended, so let me move to wrap-up. The image of Rasta and the symbols that 50+ years ago were exclusively Rasta have, in the wake of Rastafari and reggae icon Bob Marley, become symbols of Jamaica(ns) and this conflation cannot easily be undone. Thus none of the reductive or offensive stereotypes about Jamaicans broadly or about Rastas specifically will change until we change them.

Ultimately, we should question and consider this: whether bandana cloth or dreadlocks, do we, the nearly 3-million people of Jamaica today, want the cultural and national symbols we have inherited? And what does it mean to represent Jamaica with imported red-gold-green dreadlock tams (like those worn in the “Rasta” video) and similarly colored crochet bikinis, Rastaman “fertility statues,” and lion carvings sold at markets that do little to represent this nation of people whose motto is “Out of Many, One People”?

Not all Jamaicans know why Rastafari dreadlock their hair, eat ital food, or use ganja. As a majority Christian country that has historically persecuted Rasta, it is not automatic that Jamaicans *know* the significance of Rasta tenets or symbols. Just as the Ishawna bandana cloth incident proved, many Jamaicans recognize the Rasta symbols, but fewer know what the symbols mean. When Morgan Heritage sang out that “You don’t affi dread to be Rasta,” that was necessary education for the Jamaicans and foreigners equating hair with values. When Peter Tosh sang out that ganja is “good for the flu, and good for asthma,” that was necessary education for the Jamaican people equating ganja with danger. And when Jah9 sang “dem say Ital/ No meat, very little salt or sweet” on “Ma’at” she was teaching about ital living, but she also used that songscape to help listeners understand that consumption isn’t limited to food and Rastafari faithful don’t consume fear either.

For me, there is no doubt that the verse lyrics of “Rasta” are antithetical to Rasta tenets; but, for me the song is not and never purported to be a Rasta song. It is a song by a Jamaican. However you approach it or respond to it, Valiant’s “Rasta” has opened up critical channels for questioning how Jamaica, reggae, and Rasta have been conflated by brand Jamaica, some national institutions, and non-Jamaicans alike — and all at the expense of Rastafari faithful. It seems high time we re-examine all of our national symbols, otherwise the world will decide them for us.

Rasta Rubber Duck” for sale on an American website.

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