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'We are all Rastas' - Chevannes highlights the influence of Rastafari

Published:Sunday | August 29, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

The inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference, held from August 17-20 at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica. Done by Roy Augier, who gave the opening keynote address, M.G. Smith and Rex Nettleford, it marked the beginning of a continuing relationship between the UWI and the Rastafari movement.

In his closing address inside the N1 Lecture Theatre on Friday, August 20, Professor Barry Chevannes attributed the life work of Professor Rex Nettleford, who died on February 2, to Rastafari, that contact beginning with the two weeks of data gathering for the study, beginning July 4, 1960.

Weaving the UWI and Nettleford's involvement with Rastafari into a text which centred around silence, its utilisation and tones, Chevannes said that silence is a paradox. One can speak in silence, but it can also be used as a weapon of resistance. "But silence may also be used as aggression. Our people have been aggressed by silence," he said.

Chevannes said that leading up to his death, Nettleford had been working on a book, the title of which would have been Engaging the Silence.

"The central theme of that book was the silencing of the African presence in Jamaica, the Caribbean and this hemisphere," Chevannes said. And he attributed Nettleford's attraction to Rastafari to determination not to remain silent.

Aggressed with silence

"It was for this reason that Rex was drawn to the Rastafari. He knew that although silence has all these uses, when you are aggressed with silence you cannot counter that aggression with silence. You have to speak. And he recognised that the greatest voice, the loudest voice resisting the silencing of the African presence, was the Rastafari," Chevannes said.

He said that Nettleford's encounters with Rastafari defined his career, tracing his early years briefly - a student at Cornwall College at a time when the Montego Bay school was populated by the sons of the wealthy (which also meant light-skinned), attending the then University College of the West Indies (UCWI), going on to Oxford and then returning to the Caribbean.

"The exposure that was provided by the Rastafari in that 1960 and 1961 encounter was to reshape his thinking," Chevannes said. Chevannes told him that many times, in recounting his memories of those early years, that (UWI principal) Arthur Lewis would sometimes come with him into the field to the Rasta. "On one of those trips Arthur Lewis said to him 'we are all Rastas'," Chevannes said.

Nettleford was one of the members of the aborted 1962 Technical Mission to Africa. However, Nettleford had interacted with dancers in Ghana. When Nettleford came back to Jamaica, the Ghanian government invited him to return to establish a national dance. "It was the Rastafari that gave him that opportunity," Chevannes said.

So, Chevannes said, it was perfectly logical that, when Nettleford did his first book Mirror Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica, one of the chapters was dedicated to Rastafari and the call of Africa.

"It is impossible not to be touched by Rastafari if one is in search of an identity in which Africa is a central component," Chevannes said.

He also spoke about Walter Rodney, who was prevented from returning to Jamaica in 1968, sparking a march by UWI students, that protest overtaken by violence. "Walter was prevented from returning to the country because he was accused of consorting with revolutionary forces," Chevannes said. Those 'revolutionary forces' were Rastafari in communities now labelled 'inner-city'.

"To most of us, Rastafari represented that voice that engaged the silence, that broke the silence imposed on us by racism," Chevannes said. And that is why Lewis said "we are all Rastas".

"He knew that they were a voice when, as a people, we needed a voice. We were being crushed by silence. It is a silence about Africa, your connection to Africa, the achievements of Africa."