J is for … Jah

The room quietens as a tall man in a Rasta hat sidles over to the microphone.

“Jah!” he shouts (the Rasta word for God), making me jump.

“Rastafar-i!” the crowd roars in response.

I am at a BBQ at the UK HQ of the ‘Twelve Tribes of Israel’ – a Rastafari community – commemorating the ‘Earthday’ of Marcus Garvey, a black civil rights leader who died in 1940.

Based here since 1979, they own the house outright thanks to support from members over the years. After a delicious feast of Jerk chicken, rice, peas, fresh coconut water and sugar cane, I join them for prayers in the living room, covering my head with a customary scarf.

It had taken me a long time to reach this point of familiarity, having struggled for months to make any connections into the community. My last resort was to drag my friend along to London’s premier Reggae venue, Hootananny.

Scanning the room with increasing desperation, I eventually spotted a Mediterranean-looking guy with dreadlocks wearing a ‘Rasta fm’ T-shirt.

“Do you know if there are any Rastas here?”

“Of course my sister”, he smiled and pointed toward the stage. “You wanna talk to Cecil. Cecil Reuben. Behind the decks.”

Cecil, it turns out, is both the Manager and Reggae promoter at Hootenanny, flying in acts all the way from his home country of Jamaica. We trade numbers and agree to meet the following week.

In the meantime I follow a stray piece of advice from an Internet forum and head to Brixton village to search for the owner of a legendary hat shop.

I ask around for ‘The Weatherman’. When I (finally) find him I offer my hand.

“I’m Lucy!” He looks me up and down.

“Me don’t shake ‘ands” he says, shaking his head instead.

“Oh ok”, I say awkwardly retracting.

“I say ‘ello wid my ‘eart” he says, thumping his hand on his chest.

I want everybody to be my friend – a major journalistic flaw – and I can already sense he doesn’t like me, which makes me feel uncomfortable.

“Rastafar-i are Godly people,” he explains, with the tone of an aggressive preacher. “Jah is de fadda. Rasta don’t ‘ave no fait, dey know. Dey don’t believe in de fadder, dey know. Rasta don’t understand, we overstand. See?”

I didn’t really, but nodded vigorously.

“De locks, dey not Rastafar-i. You see people drunk in park, because dey ‘ave locks people tink dem Rastafar-i, but dey not”.

He laughs manically throughout our conversation, constantly challenging me on whether or not I ‘overstand’. If I say yes he asks me to repeat it back to him, which doesn’t tend to go well. I leave the conversation feeling confused.

In stark contrast, the next morning I meet Cecil.

“My queen”, he greets me, shaking my hand and revealing a gold tooth in a wide, comforting grin. We settle with a drink and begin a conversation that lasts two hours. I am riveted.

“Rasta was started in Jamaica – not Africa,” he tells me. “Marcus Garvey made the statement: ‘Black people, look to Africa, when a king is crowned. And he shall be for your redemption’”.

“Well, a king was crowned in Africa in 1930 – Haile Selassie I (pronounced Haile Selassie-i). He was given the name King of Kings, Lord of Lords and conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah. So some people in Jamaica saw this, remembered Garvey’s speech and put two and two together. Maybe this was who he meant, maybe not, who knows. I’m just being real with you.” He gives me another endearing, toothy smile, before continuing.

“There was a population in Jamaica called the beard men, they were fed up with English colonialism, so they moved up into the hills and became self sufficient, grew their own food. They started to grow locks to look like a lion, because Haile Selassie-i was the Lion of Judah. They were the first Rasta men. People would call them ‘black art men’ and warn their children not to go near them”.

“So it was similar to the hippy movement over here?”

“Yeah similar”, he nods, “people rejecting society and setting up on their own”. There is a pause. “But they still accepted the Bible. They picked out what suited them from it, and at the time it was an anti white thing, because the white man was the oppressor. But that’s not the case anymore, anyone who still thinks Rasta is only for the black man is stuck in a time warp”.

“So what changed?”

“Simple”. He leans back on his chair. “Bob Marley!” He pauses for effect.

“When Bob Marley became an international icon, he brought Rasta culture to the world. A lot of people came to Rasta through the music. Rasta is about unity. One love”. He smiles, enjoying the concept.

“Rasta isn’t really about smoking or what you eat”, he continues. “That doesn’t make you righteous. It’s about the function of your heart”.

“Isn’t smoking part of it though?” I ask.

“No. I love smoking. But not because it makes me righteous. I just love weed!” He laughs, lights up a spliff, sinks deep into his chair and starts to sing.

“One love…”