Five Questions: Darren J.N. Middleton

My review of Darren J. N. Middleton’s Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction (2015) recently saw publication in the Oxonian Review (31.2). The review put me in touch with the book’s author. After a warm correspondence, he kindly agreed to a short interview. The five questions I ask loosely cover the central topics of Rastafari and the Arts. His answers, written via e-mail, are incredibly fascinating! He covers everything from the rise of Rastafari in the 1930s and the Jamaicans in the English East Midlands in the 1980s to the power of dub-poetry in the time of brexit.

Darren J. N. Middleton is Professor of Religion and Director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program at Texas Christian University, USA. He was born and raised in Nottingham and educated at the Universities of Manchester, Oxford, and Glasgow. He has taught in Memphis and Fort Worth. He has published ten books and a number of articles on both religion and art. An edited volume on “Rastafari Livity” is currently in the works. His personal website: http://darrenjnmiddleton.com


FIVE QUESTIONS: DARREN J.N. MIDDLETON

1. Personal

AA. I will begin with a personal question. As you mention, Rastafari has a particular capacity to be “symbiotic.” Folks in Senegal mix Rastafari and Islam; in Japan, Rastafari and Zen Buddhism; in Israel, Rastafari and Judaism. Ethiopian Orthodox Rastas and secular Rastas are widespread. How did you discover Rastafari and, as a Christian, how has Rastafari informed, influenced, or contributed to your beliefs?

DJNM. Thank you for your interest in my work, Alex, and for your five questions, which have inspired me to ponder some things anew. Very generally, I was born and raised in a part of the English East Midlands that included many neighbourhood Jamaicans. Many Jamaicans settled here in the post Second World War economic boom. Their children were born later, in the 1960s, and many of them became my friends and schoolmates. The Rastafari religious movement, which surfaced in Jamaica in the 1930s and then in the UK in the early-to-mid 1970s, was part of my council housing estate’s atmosphere and action. I grew up and came to voice around Rastas, to cut a long story short, and the words and sounds of these women and men of deep, abiding faith soon seeped into my suggestible soul through cultural osmosis. Reggae music was my life’s soundtrack: Aswad, Janet Kay, Dennis Brown, Eek-a-Mouse, Burning Spear, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Black Uhuru. For me, a bookish coal miner’s son, reggae music stimulated so many questions: How do Rastas read the Bible? Who is the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah? Why is His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie referenced so frequently? What is Babylon? Is “livity” synonymous with “spirituality”? Are black people the true Israelites? Is Africa “home”? My Rastafari friends spun riddims and parsed patois, especially Iyaric or “dread talk,” and many appeared happy to indulge my curiosity, to reason with me, and to help me “overstand,” in the language of the Rastafari. Truth is, I have been trying to overstand ever since! I never took a course on Rasta during my university years. Yet I have journeyed to Jamaica, Japan, West Africa, and the USA – all in search of the varieties of Rastafari experience. Any overstanding I possess – if “possess” is the right word here – is down to the many, kindhearted sistren and bredren who invited me to “sit in the dust” and talk with them about God, life, and meaning.

Darren Middleton TCU 2015

Darren J.N. Middleton

I wasn’t raised Christian. I converted when I turned 17 or 18, and then a dear friend of mine helped me to plug into a local Baptist church. I found and made friends with several Jamaicans in this congregation, and a few of them made it possible for me to experience extended, inexpensive stays in Jamaica. I admired the Baptist church’s non-conformist tradition, and I often wondered why Jamaican Baptists could not see a reflection of their own face, as it were, in Rastafari’s prophetic desire to chant down Babylon via its own biblically-grounded non-conformism. Although I eventually trained for the Christian ministry, I followed my American girlfriend to Memphis, Tennessee, where I landed my first teaching tour of duty shortly after finishing my doctorate on the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis. I was ordained in the USA, and I served one church as its theologian-in-residence, but the nature of my present post at TCU, which I took up in 1998, obliged me to focus on academe. Rastafari friends, and I have so many around the globe, have informed my Christian discipleship – I converted to Catholicism a few years ago now – in at least three ways. First, Rastas have helped me appreciate the Bible’s complexity: the way it sometimes speaks with more than one voice on a single issue (theodicy, for instance); how one ignores scripture’s preferential option for the poor at one’s peril; and, how the Good Book invites interpretive freeplay and doctrinal development rather than shuts down debate and sponsors Final Truth. Rastas are avid readers of the Bible. And they are vigorous debaters. Wherever two or three Rastas gather to read and discuss the Bible, there one finds disagreement(s); and that’s as it should I be, I suspect! I admire the Rasta reverence for scripture, then, and I have found myself quite moved over the years by the Rastafari’s insistence that the Bible upholds God’s concern for social justice as the hallmark of genuine spirituality. Sometimes I have allowed myself to become mired in arcane theological debates, as though “orthodoxy” represents Christianity’s Alpha and Omega, but then I have heard Rasta, especially Rasta reggae, and its call to concentrate on “orthopraxis” has made demands on my soul – again, that’s as it should be! Second, the Rastafari emphasis on “livity,” on how spirituality may best be understood as a way of life, a manner of being-in-the-world as a child of Jah rather than the recitation of a stolid creed on a rote month of Sundays, has challenged me to see Christian discipleship as something active, vibrant, and evolving. Third, I think Rastafari’s many artistic dimensions, some of which I address in the book, have helped me rejoice in the way music or literature or painting can be a visible sign of an invisible grace. I am quite happy to admit that Rastafari has refined my Catholic Christian sense of the link between aesthetics and sacramentalism.

2. Religion

AA. In “Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction” (2015), there is a sense that Rastafari is going through a process of “liberalization.” The Reggae Compassionate Act—in spite of some controversy—seems to have marked an important step away from the sexism and homophobia often present in Jamaican music and Rastafari. These changes are undoubtedly positive. But, is there some fear that liberalization is the halfway house to secularization and atheism? I think of the current “crisis” in the Anglican Church, as church attendance plummets and conversions increase.

DJNM. I am sure what you describe is possible and plausible, because we know that liberalization in Christian circles has led some believers – in other centuries as well as our own – to experience a faith crisis, even deconversion. Do Rastafari deconvert? I am sure some do. Snoop did. But seriously, there’s little or no work on such falling away from the Rastafari faith, so my reflections are limited and limiting; as we move into the movement’s ninth and tenth decades, I think scholars will start to investigate and then analyse such things. I feel certain that Rasta will continue to reconfigure itself. And the process of becoming Rasta, as Charles Price’s recent work shows, will come to involve and mean so many things: improved gender relations, qualified Christologies, reimagining herbal fidelity, revised notions of Blackness, and the movement’s branding. I suspect that some kind of “secular Rasta livity,” an observably “progressive Rastafari” in and for the new millennium, will emerge in the next fifteen years or so, but I would struggle to see this trend as an unwise, negative, or worrying move. It’s what I would expect of a faith that’s largely acephalous, idiosyncratic, and given to constructing local theologies. At the present time, though, it seems that scholars and cultural critics have their hands full trying to account for other occurrences, such as the movement’s need for centralization; the Rastafari’s development of end-of-life rituals and liturgies; and, the phenomenon of “mansion-hopping,” where mansion-hopping entails the existential shift from, say, membership in the Bobo Shanti mansion to membership in the School of Vision.

3. Visual

AA. There is a great scene in the movie “Rockers” (1978) where Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace walks his brand new Honda motorbike to (what seems to be) a record shop. The yard is filled with colourful paintings, some of Haile Selassie and others of Marcus Garvey. Jah Wise, one of the Rastas there, proceeds to paint a Lion of Judah on the gas tank of Horsemouth’s motorbike. In your book, you discuss artworks by Ras Terms, Lois Cordelia, Marcus Wilson, and Ejay Khan. Can you speak a bit about the history of the visual arts and, perhaps, the importance of the “visual” in Rastafari? The images associated with Rastafari—the Lion of Judah, a ganja leaf, ites, green, and gold, to name a few—are incredibly pervasive.

DJNM. The Rastafari are no strangers to the visual, in all its many forms, and yet they’ve often struggled to secure proper recognition for their imaginative endeavors. Drawings and carvings of figures like His Imperial Majesty, Garvey, and others (Leonard Howell, the Prophet Gad, Prince Emmanuel Edwards, etc) have been around since the early 1950s, and these days there’s a robust tourist trade in such items, yet many of the first Rastafari painters and handicraft makers were outsiders to the official art world, shunned for two basic reasons: they were, for the most part, self-taught or untrained, hence seemingly unsophisticated, and they depicted subjects and themes (Selassie’s divinity, Garvey’s racial exceptionalism) often deemed too wayward or errant for conservative artistic or theological audiences. 1980 changed everything. It was the year that Jamaica’s National Gallery devoted a section to “intuitive” painting and sculpture. Several Rastas were among the featured artists. And some of them became famous: Albert Artwell, Deloris Anglin, Ivan Henry Baugh, Everald Brown, Samuel Elisha Brown, Leonard Daley, Ras Dizzy, Ras Daniel Hartman, Allan Zion Johnson, Jah Lloyd, Bongo Silly, and others. Subsequent exhibitions devoted to this work – colourful and creative renditions of Rastafari theology in mixed media (murals, oil-drum-lid painting, etc) – appeared in Germany, where there’s an impressive Rastafari presence, in the same year, 1980, and again in 1991. Readers interested in knowing a bit more about this history would do well to locate Wolfgang Bender’s Rastafarian Art, which is a lavishly illustrated and decidedly instructive book on the subject. I am pleased to say that more and more museums around the world, including the Smithsonian, have taken turns to display Rastafari art in various exhibitions throughout the last sixteen years.

Generally, “the visual” became important in and for the Rastafari because it first served as an example – another example is music, naturally – of the reclamation of a self and a cultural agency denied by Babylon. It still serves this function. Rastafari is a way of rebuilding blackness as well as fortifying Afrocentric creativity; and Rastafari intuitive art is a broad, democratic way of documenting as well as expressing black Rastafari theology without feeling bound to the dictates, edicts, or canons of received wisdom/authority. Such art celebrates Africa, not the West, and the Earth’s Rightful Ruler, not the false and corrupt leaders of the world.

I should say that the Rastafari art featured in my book derives from outsiders as well as insiders, folk who were generous with their time and their images. Readers can see their images, and a few more besides, on my personal website. One of my favourites is Ras Terms “SpaceNTime,” which the band Ishence used as album art cover. This artwork squeezes so many symbols and images into a painting – red, greens, and golds; dreadlocks; undetonated Italian bombs; the African continent; the constellation of Leo, and so on – designed to accentuate Selassie’s cosmic rule, his Lordship over space and time.

SpaceNTime-Magazine

“SpaceNTime” by Ras Term.  Source

4. Music

AA. In your book, you discuss the history of Reggae as well as the rise of Dancehall in the mid-1980s. I often hear a distinction made between “conscious” Roots Reggae and the “slackness” of Dancehall. Do you think these categories are fabricated by music critics? Are these categories too divisive or does Dancehall truly promote the materialist culture that Rastafari decries?

DJNM. I think the categories have been discussed by music critics and scholars alike. They seem real, certainly true of a specific time, which is to say the period of the mid-to-late 1980s and into the 1990s. I do know that when I hosted “Jah Music,” a radio show on WEVL FM 90 (Memphis) in the early 1990s, I was inundated with requests for Mad Cobra, Shabba Ranks, and other early dancehall artists. The punched-up riddims were infectious, I admit, but I struggled with the lyrics, which seemed to glorify guns, objectify women, and extol hypermasculinity. But my listeners loved it! These days, insightful academics like Carolyn Cooper have a way of appreciating dancehall music as fostering black female empowerment. Dancehall creates the space for black women to own and perform their bodies, in life as well as on the floor, and although Cooper has her critics, those who read her work are seldom unmoved.

One final thought: I suspect that the aforementioned categories promote a tidy binary that’s unhelpful in today’s reggae music scene. The New Roots era, ushered in by the likes of Chronixx and Protoje, is a vibe where lyrics marked by spiritual uplift commingle with the latest dancehall riddims to create an arresting, fresh word and sound. Two recent albums that symbolize this trend of conscious dancehall, for want of a better description, are Makonnen’s Rockers Revolution (see the video for “Red Eye”) and Rseenal Di Artillary’s Aluta Continua X Vitória é Certa. Both artists appeared on our university’s campus this past April, playing to a packed and appreciative audience. Shabba Ranks’s Trailer Load A Girls is in our rear view mirror, so it seems, and up ahead, blazing a trail, is the New Reggae Generation of Makonnen, Rseenal, and others, like Iyah Gift.

5. Literature

AA. My academic interest lies in Modernist poetry. In my review, I mention that Rastas have a “historical sensibility”: a strong sense of the “presentness of the past.” The concept seems Modernist and, in particular, (T.S.) Eliotic. Recently, Modernist scholarship has begun to “open up”: an increasing number of non-British, non-Male, non-White writers are becoming “canonized.” Is there any sense that dub poets like Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Benjamin Zephaniah are consciously influenced, participating, or contributing to the “History of Literature” (with capital letters)? Or do they avidly avoid or reject canonized writers and traditional modes of writing?

DJNM. I think there was a time when the writers you mention felt little or no anxiety of influence from the poets and writers of yesteryear, although I do recall that Zephaniah once assembled a very creative drama for British TV, something he called Dread Poets Society, and I remember thinking at the time that this was an innovative way for a modern, Black British poet to engage his foremothers and forefathers in the form. This said, I think Zephaniah’s always wanted to perform and write for the people around him, ordinary people, and not worry about anything beyond the sound and sense that he prefers. I find him endlessly fascinating. And quite timely. If you’ll permit me a political aside, which nonetheless illustrates the “historical sensibility” idea that you note, last week I found myself flipping to the chapter on Zephaniah in my book, shortly after the Brexit result was announced, and reading again his poem “The British (serves 60 million),” which was penned several years ago. This playful yet serious poem remains for me, the no-longer-able-to-vote-ex-pat-that-I-am, a clarion call to the cultural otherness of the Britain I know and love. I have read a lot of LKJ and Muta, and I’ve seen them perform many times; it seems that both work with an abiding sense of what’s gone before, in Caribbean as well as English verse, without losing sight of what’s important to them: Garveyism, African unity, social justice, and how black lives matter. They are not T. S. Eliot, nor were meant to be; yet do I marvel at how Jah, or something akin to Jah, calls to these black men and bids them sing.


Header Image: “Black Uhuru” (2010) by Lois Cordelia. Lois Cordelia via Darren J.N. Middleton’s personal website.

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