On the evening of February 9th, the Iniversal Development of Ras Tafari (IDOR) celebrated the earthstrong of the King of Reggae with the launch of the Bob Marley Message Music Project, an inter-spirituality event that has been in development for the past year or so. Hosted by Dr. Paul Rhodes at Madison House, an historic residence in the center of Baltimore, the project launch drew a group of some 30 plus individuals nearly as diverse as the eclectic collection of art that graced nearly every room of the august residence. Gathered were members of IDOR’s organizing committee including Ras George and Ras Wayne Rose, and members of their families, Brother John Senior and Sister Pauline, Sister Ichelle, Ras Shamou, Rabbi Jess Bass, Sister Jackie and Rabbi Martin Siegel, among others. A number of long-term students of Rabbi Seigel were also present, other members of IDOR, including Mama Wollette and Ras Beckham, supporters of the African children’s museum project, including Sister Ester from Ghana, and Ras Robbie Shillingham, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has worked with Rastafari among the Maori of New Zealand, two of his students, along with myself, Sister Amy and my daughter Jill.
Selections of Marley’s music echoed through the rooms of Madison House as additional guests filtered in over the first hour of the gathering. A number of individuals took time to tour the house and view the impressive collection of African, Caribbean, and Jewish art in the form of painting, ceramics, carved masks and other sculptures. Happily, all were treated to food generously provided by our host, Dr. Paul and members of the organizing committee. Notable were the delicious potato-filled perogies from Dr. Paul, the wonderful Ital ‘sip’ and finger sized veggie patties from Ras John and Sister P, and the unique and tasty bean paste pizza prepared by Ras George! Appetites were sated as many mingled and socialized. An informative video on Bob’s life edited by Ras Wayne’s son Menelik added considerable interest to the program and provided the basis for a focused gathering that formed in a side room. Suffice it to say that all were well fed with interests piqued by the time we prepared to open the program itself.
Here a few words about Rabbi Martin Siegel, the evening’s presenter, are in order. Rabbi Siegel, at 85 years young, is an exemplary figure who, I believe it is fair to say, has unbounded faith in the ability of individuals to “be a blessing” to their fellow human beings. Although he studied in Jerusalem with Rabbi Martin Buber, one of the masters of Jewish theology, and has been a visiting professor at several universities, including Johns Hopkins, he is essentially uninterested in touting academic credentials. Nor is he interested in protecting the boundaries of religious canon, despite having led a Jewish congregation in Columbia, Maryland for many years. Having conducted Bible studies over the past four decades, Rabbi Siegel is focused on finding new ways to make the ancient wisdom of the Judaeo-Christian tradition relevant and accessible to those in the 21st century. As part of this mission, the Rabbi discovered and began to study the songs of Bob Marley over the last two years. Perhaps Bob’s lyrics—“…and I saw John coming, with a truth from an ancient time”—were the catalyst; but whatever the case, the Rabbi’s immersion in the corpus of Marley’s song texts and his interest in exploring the universal spirituality of these texts are now the basis for an active interfaith collaboration between himself and the IDOR community.
Behold How Good and Plesant it is for Brethren and Sistren to Dwell Together in Inity. Our program opened with a benediction by Ras George who delivered variations of Psalm 1 and Psalm 133 and closed by honoring the Elders among us. The format for the evening’s program was simple. The IDOR organizing committee had agreed upon five of Bob’s songs—Natural Mystic (1977), War (1978), Positive Vibration, Real Situation, and Exodus—to be presented. They would first be performed by singer and guitarist Ras Yoel, a Baltimore-based artist, after which Rabbi Siegel would provide his own biblical/spiritual exegesis of the songs. But of course there was the general expectation that all present would join in the singing. In addition, Ras Wayne appealed to the customary “each-one-teach-one” protocols of Rastafari tradition, eschewing a lecture format in favor of a participatory approach in which multiple and diverse voices would be engaged with the Rabbi’s interpretations. So it has been from such time—in the legendary Rastafari yards and camps of Kingston—unto this time where ever I-n-I are gathered. It should be noted, however, that despite the framing of the program with Rastafari protocols, the overall thrust of the event emphasized an ecumenical exploration of man’s shared spirituality.
This was clear from the manner in which Rabbi Siegel approached Bob’s song ‘Natural Mystic.’
There's a natural mystic blowing through the air / If you listen carefully now you will hear
This could be the first trumpet / Might as well be the last
Many more will have to suffer / Many more will have to die
Don't ask me why…
Things are not the way they used to be / I won't tell no lie
One and all got to face reality now
Though I try to find the answer / To all the questions they ask
Though I know it's impossible / To go living through the past
Don't tell no lie
There's a natural mystic blowing through the air
Can't keep them down
If you listen carefully now you will hear
Such a natural mystic / Blowing through the air
This could be the first trumpet / Might as well be the last
Many more will have to suffer /Many more will have to die …
Noting that he had recently seen a YouTube video of Marley performing in New Zealand, the Rabbi stated that “Im not sure I understood all of the words, but the vibrations of what Bob Marley sang stayed with me.” Singling out the idea of ‘vibrations’ as an energy behind the words, what he said next is worth quoting at length:
At the beginning of creation—there was an energy…the big bang in scientific terms…it’s called the wind of god in the Bible. First manifestation of the creator that made this existence possible. The limitation on the wind became sound…and sound was limited and became letter…and letter was limited and became words…and the words are what we have to guide us. So behind words are the original energy of creation. What I heard in Bob Marley’s songs was the energy of creation. He has the ability to give words this energy; and there’s nothing more profound you can do in your life that get in touch with the underlying energy that is the basis of existence. […] What Bob has done…as have other people with scriptures…he has taken that energy and given it a capacity to reach human beings…and given it words to lead us. And that’s the great gift of what it means to be human—to be able to touch that original energy, to be transformed by it. So what I get from Bob Marley is an introduction to the original energy of creation.
For the Rabbai, Bob’s ‘natural mystic’ is the original energy of Creation and the sounding of trumpets, blown with breath, are likewise part of that mystic. Marley’s line “this could be the first trumpet, might as well be the last” is a warning to man over the ways in which many have been captured by an egoistic, self-centered, materialistic world. He went on to argue that the ‘mystic’ of which Marley speaks is too encompassing for the intellect to grasp; that we can only approach it through an awareness of our own spirituality—spirituality being that network that links the individual to the original energies of creation.
On top of this I offered the view that Marley wrote this song at a critical juncture in his live—less than a year after at attempt was made on his life by gunmen in Kingston while he was in self-imposed exile in London. Bob was perhaps also reminding himself, as well as the world, that this ‘trumpet’ might very well be the last. The point is one of a need for ongoing mindfulness and critical self-examination—a theme that permeated the discussions during the evening.
Ras Yoel then transitioned to the “War:
Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another…inferior
Is finally…and permanently…discredited…and abandoned
Everywhere is war / Me say war
That until there no longer…first class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the color of a man's skin / Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes /Me say war
That until the basic human rights / are equally guaranteed to all
Without regard to race / dis a war
That until that day…the dream of lasting peace,
World citizenship…rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion…to be pursued, but never attained
Now everywhere is war…war
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes / that hold our brothers in Angola
In Mozambique…South Africa…Sub-human bondage
Have been toppled…Utterly destroyed…
Rabbi Siegel did something different with this song, arguing that war exists not only at the political level of national states, but also within each individual. The real ‘war’ for revolutionary change, he argued, must being within each person, extending to how one treats people who are different from you and who one may feel threatened by. Indicating that he had once been “very involved with the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King,” he went on to say that he had become skeptical of social movements because of the egoism and arrogance he had witnessed as they developed. As he spoke, however, I reflected on the fact that not all social movements are the same. I am reminded of how so many Rastafari elders I have known refused to ‘join’ any kind of organization within the framework of the movement, insisting on the autonomy of their allegiance only to the Emperor.
Ras Wayne suggested that we all might be gathered to heal our own little ‘wars’ and to continue the Rasta creed as sounded in the heartbeat of the Nyahbinghi: “do good, do good.” Sister Ichelle chimed in, pointing out that Bob had composed ‘War’ from the words of Emperor Haile Selassie I’s 1963 speech before the United Nations.
This is a speech in the conclusion of which the Emperor returned to the responsibility of each individual to transform him- or herself into a ‘member of a new race,’ owning their primary allegiance not to nations but to the community of mankind. In an age of rising nationalism, racism, classism and other ‘isms’, the message remains more relevant than ever. In the ensuing dialogue, Brother John emphasized the need to “look inside ourselves” and the Rabbi underscored the need for humility—citing a Jewish proverb about the wise man being one who “learns from every person he meets.” For my part, I was brought back to Rastafari precepts in reasoning where humility is required to be both a listener and a speaker and, if necessary, to agree to disagree, as communicants pursue a mutually respectful pathway to knowledge.
Finally Ras Robbie Shillingham, now a professor at Johns Hopkins, spoke about living in New Zealand for five years. There he worked with the Rastafari community among the indigenous Maori peoples. Rhetorically, he asked how do these peoples on the other side of the world have such an affinity for black struggles in African and the West? Then—resonating with the ‘natural mystic’ that joins all people—he spoke about how the Maori, after hearing Bob’s songs — remembered them as as coming from the stories and narratives of their ancestors.
As our dialogues and reasonings became more engaged over the course of the evening, happily, I add, taking up more time than expected, Ras Yoel and the Rabbi closed with “Positive Vibration.” The Rabbi began with some pointed remarks about love which he described, much akin to I-n-I, as “the highest force in the universe:”
Rastaman vibration, yeah / Live if you want to live
Rastaman vibration, yeah, positive / That's what we got to give
I-n-I vibration yeah, positive / Got to have a good vibe
Iyahman Iration, yeah, Irie ites / Wo-wo-ooh…Positive vibration, yeah, positive
If you get down and you quarrel everyday / You're saying prayers to the devils, I say…
Why not help one another on the way? / Make it much easier…just a little bit easier
Say you just can't live that negative way / If you know what I mean
Make way for the positive day / ‘Cause it's new day…news and days
New time (new time) / and if it's a new feelin' (new feelin'), yeah
Said it's a new sign (new sign) / Oh, what a new day
Pickin' up? / Are you pickin' up now?
Jah love, Jah love (protect us)
Focusing on the song’s repeated use of the phrase “Jah love,” Rabbi Seigel pointed out that ‘Yod Hay’—translated in English as “Jah”—is the ‘unknowable’ level of God—a level expressible only as love. Love, he argued, cannot exist until an individual experiences it. Folding in previous references to Marley’s songs discussed that evening, he went on to say that to the extent that one knows love and is capable of being loved, the individual is expressing the “essential energy of creation.” “If you want to know God, know how to love.”
Others offered comments on the song with Sister Ichelle talking about the struggles she witnessed as a young girl in Ochos Rios seeing her father, a Dreadlocks, being forcibly trimmed by police. Affirming the positive value of coming together to “make life easier,” she offered the aspiration that, if we do that “…we can make this world such an awesome place.”
Ras Shamou, a school teacher and member of the organizing committee, offered testimony about inscribing the words of “Positive Vibration” on a poster that hangs on the wall of his classroom. To his students who are sometimes prone to act impulsively thinking only of themselves, the poster has served to a ‘positive change’ among his students.
Mama Wollette (aka Daughter Dena Beresford), her Kingman Ras Beckham and Brother John Senior also offered remarks. Mama Wollette shared her view that Bob was a chosen one who had risen to be near the Most High in his works. But she also added that he didn’t do this alone. In her view, his legendary bass guitarist, Family Man Barrett, provided the hypnotic baseline behind Bob’s lyrics that helped to deliver the message. The two, she noted, “…coming together creating the ONE.” For his part, Ras Beckham, lauded Bob—noting as many have that “Bob is still here with us. I eat and drink Bob every day.”
One of Ras Robbie’s Johns Hopkins students, a native of Baltimore, expressed thanks for being at the event, adding that even though he was born in the community and attending Johns Hopkins, that this was “a kind of community and learning” that wasn’t otherwise accessible to him. And Ras John provided final remarks. He dwelt at some length on our ongoing need to “to examine ourselves,” looking not only within ourselves, but also our relations in our households, to our neighbors and in our community. In his final words, Ras John thanked Dr. Paul Rhodes for hosting us and “our ancestor, Bob Marley” at Madison House. Although he was likely unaware of it at the moment he spoke, Ras John was flanked—fittingly—by two reliquary sculptures of the Kota people of Cameron—sculptures used to protect the remains of their ancestors. A natural mystic, feh true!
Indeed, Robert Nesta Marley, the planetary icon whose music has reached every corner of the globe, is still with us. Marley’s lyrics have served as a voice for the voiceless and oppressed, an inspiration to all who stand against injustice, in addition to representing a ‘truth from ancient time’ that continues to warrant our close attention. IDOR’S recent gathering at Madision House in his name is testament to the fact that 38 years after he transitioned—Bob Marley is still bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, near and far.
Hail Ras Tafari!
Text by Jake Homiak
February 20, 2019