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Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica.

Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica. CHARLES PRICE. New York: New York University Press, 2009. xx + 267 pp. (Paper US$ 22.00)

"You cannot join Rastafari. It is not something you join. That is foolishness. It is something inside of you, an inspiration that come forward" (Ras Sam Brown, p. 6).

The voice of the scholar has sounded the way Rastafari has been inscribed in history. This account by Charles Price is a refreshingly non-otherizing take of the establishment of the character of the Rastafari worldview. Price has also managed to preserve the transcripts of a generation of fast declining Rastafari elders through a retrospective ethnography. This has been used as a picturesque ground to demonstrate the inner logic of the New World African's metamorphoses of identity and establishment of community, as linked to Black identity transformation theorizing. We are thus facilitated on an exploration into realizations of Rastafari as both destination and ongoing process in the context of nigrescence theory. In this way Price removes the meta-narrative of Rastafari becoming, usually almost entirely anchored in resistance, to ground the ontology as one of being.

Furthermore, the story of Rastafari is most often constructed from its points of origin as narratives of the founding pillars of the movement whose now mythic contributions establish the framework of the emergent Rastafari identity. The engagement of the congregation within the Rastafari experience is sometimes taken for granted and especially the members' journey(s) into the fold of the Movement is insufficiently taken into account. In this contribution by Price, the Jamaican Rastafari is brought into light as highly "contrived" racialized agents within the postcolonial national reconstruction process. This is significant largely due to the sophisticated logic employed by the Movement to incorporate the very essential margins of the society--as accomplices and teachers within the struggle for becoming African (again).

Price is therefore able to share the patterns of transformation to Rastafari, as largely represented and "involving the careful identification of a specific experience or set of experiences that moved the narrator [a 'convert'] into the path of becoming Rastafari" (p. 99). This is further actualizing the notion of "each one teach one," prevalent with the Rastafari movement as it relates to the almost insidious method of proselytizing the faith.

It is commendable that Price has taken the time to look at the Rastafari movement from the point of a close walk with some individuals who may have been overlooked by other researchers. The product he thus renders is a highly sensitive scholarly tome which can be likened to a scribe/translator/disciple on a pilgrimage and encountering guardians/sages en route. This has given him a genuine intimacy with the lives and most importantly the stories carried by these individuals. To this extent Price resurrects that tradition observable in the work of early scholars such as Carole Yawney, Jake Homiak, and Barry Chevannes through their anthropological methods. However, given the project brought by Price, his scrutiny is decidedly new, especially as he is able to place this engagement within a wider African American process of becoming, and in so doing he achieves a level of universal measurability and value.

Becoming Rasta is also timely for its archival value as it is able, through its excavation of identities, to illustrate and preserve the painstaking, and often missed, narratives of self-actualization that established the framework for subsequent Rastafari generations to negotiate the African Presence. The referencing of individuals such as Sam Brown and Mortimo Planno help us to understand the pedagogical roles such leaders played in the urban space in inspiring the transformation to Rastafari and sustaining the congregations. The notion of genuine learning about the neglected aspect of the African self and the way this knowledge gave "a feeling of belonging" or "a brighter perception of the future" provides a sketch of the dearth of African information and the struggle to insert this content within a colonial Jamaican landscape. The stories of co-existence in Babylon, while seeking not to compromise the Rastafari revelation of human freedom, are thickly represented; the battle for space--bulldozing of Rasta settlements; the fact that Mortimo Planno lived in an abandoned car for four years; the search for a new and pure language with the teaching/learning of Amharic language in Kingston; the search for our history within and without the Bible; the ambivalence about education as presented officially/institutionally; and the thirst for genuine knowledge and sovereignty.

The testimonies of Rasta Ivey, Brother Dee, Brother Bongo, Ras Brenton, Brother Yendis, Empress Dinah, and others are immortalized through this account--broadening their respective contributions from that of idiosyncratic manifestations of the Rastafari faith and locating them within a wider Pan-African conversation about the postcolonial reconstruction of an African worldview. Perhaps this is the most subtle and overarching contribution of Becoming Rasta--the articulation of an often dismissed element of Africa in the Caribbean who are able to challenge global hegemony by going truly within. This capacity inspired by the leadership of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I becomes a new way of being.

This has been articulated with scientific precision without a loss of the novelized entertainment value. To this extent Price's reading of Rastafari is a part of what Planno would describe as a new Faculty of Interpretation, and further expands on the textual representation of Rastafari as a diasporic way of being--indeed, as expressed by Yasus Afari Rastafari poet, as a Jamaican "gift" to the world.


Institute of Caribbean Studies

Rastafari Studies Initiative

University of the West Indies

Mona Campus, Kingston 7, Jamaica

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Author:Niaah, Jahlani A.
Publication:New West Indian Guide
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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