Rastas’ Revolutionary Lamentations for Social Change

Tuning Hebrew Psalms to Reggae Rhythms: Rastas’ Revolutionary Lamentations for Social Change

Nathaniel Samuel Murrell

How do we read the psalms in a strange land? Think Reggae.

Cause, the wicked carried us away captivity, required from us a song, but How can we sing King Alpha’s song inner strange land? (repeat)

(The Melodians on Psalm 137)

How did an ancient Hebrew lament, sung as an “inner jihad” against Babylonian culture in the sixth century B.C.E., and still recited as grace after meals during weekdays at modern Jewish tables, become not only a Black lamentation but a popular liberation theme song in Rasta reggae lyrics? Of what relevance are Hebrew Psalms to the non-Jewish neo-Christian indigenous Rastafarians whose anti-Christian rhetoric, nonetheless, depends heavily on the Bible for its self-definition and ideology? That Hebrew Psalms have found a permanent home in the musical rhythms of Rastafari (the movement) is a tribute to the powerful reggae cultural revolution of the last decades, but it also shows how profoundly the Bible resonates with the political ideology of the Jamaican Rastafari.

Why the Hebrew Psalms?

Ever since their appearance in Jamaica the 1930s, Rastas have wedded a social political philosophy to Judeo-Christian scripture and its messianic tradition. As a leading authority on the Rastafarians comments, “The Hebrew Bible remains an indispensable source of inspiration for Rastafarians (as for Jews), in the same way that the New Testament does for Christians.” [1] Rastas have taken carte blanche narratives, poetry, and prophetic materials of the Older Testament and Africanized them to express their sense of identity, [2] as well as to nurture hope and faith in the liberating possibilities of “Jah,” the living God. The Rastas devotion to the Bible is influenced by several realities: their upbringing in a colonial Jamaican-Christian culture where the Bible still functions today as the mother of all books; references to Ethiopia and Africa in the Bible; the belief that the Bible is a book with and about Black people; the appeal biblical stories and poetry have for Rastas (especially stories in the King Jame s Version of the Bible, KJV); and a biblical vocabulary common in Caribbean society. [3] The KTV [4] provides a language through which Caribbean peoples often communicate religious ideas. This allows Rastas to quote biblical text almost indiscriminately in every conversation and ritual assembly.

Although Rastas quote the Hebrew Bible at will, they find the poetry in the Psalms most appealing. As a result, the poetic beauty and power of the Psalms have found a permanent home in reggae rhythms and Rastas’ religious and political discourse. This is most evident in the use of Psalms of lament and imprecations (e.g., Ps. 54, 55, 59, 64, 68, 69, 70, 82-87, 137) in Rasta “itations” (personal reflections) and “lamentations.” These Psalms supply the lyrics for popular reggae songs that publicize the movement’s ethos and definitive mission — liberation and freedom from political domination and equality for the people of God. The Psalms also “support” the important trademarks of Rastafari: smoking ganja, shouting JAH!!!, and acting like sparks of the divine. In their rereading of Psalm 104, for example, Rastas justify their growing of marijuana and smoking of the Chillum Pipe in the very creative translation: “JAH causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and HERB FOR THE SERVICE OF MAN” (Ps. 104:14). [5]

The Psalms gave the Rastas the trademark name “JAH” for their hero and deity, Ras Tafari, Emperor Haile Selassie I; the title JAH is found once in the Psalms as an abbreviation for Yahweh (or Jahweh), the four-letter word (tetragrammaton) YHWH. Psalm 68:4 reads, “Sing unto God, sing praises to His name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice in him.” The Rostafari Manifesto modifies and conflates Malachi 3:7-10 with a verse from the Psalms in the statement: “JAH has spoken Once; Twice have I heard this; Power belongeth Unto the Most High. Shall a man rob JAH? Yet ye have robbed I… Saith the Most High.” [6] In relation to JAH and Rastas’ self-definition, Psalm 82:6–“I said, ‘Ye are gods’; ye are sons of the Most High” (KJV)–provides biblical warrant for Rastas’ claim to their own divinity as followers of JAH. Rastas are sparks of the divine or children of JAH Rastafari “who,” says Rastaman Tennyson Smyth, “in His Imperial Majesty represents the BLACK MAN’S DIVINITY. [7] As Jos eph Owens explains, “Basic to Rastafarian conception of divinity is this… dictum: God is man and man is God. While God is to be found in every man, still there must be one man in whom he exists most eminently and completely, and that is the supreme man, Rastafari, Selassie-I.” [8]

To Leonard Howell, one of the Jamaican pioneers of Rastafari, the prophetic declaration in Psalm 68:31–“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”–was an indispensable paradigm for positing the messianic fulfillment of the Bible in the person of Haile Selassie I. At his coronation on November 2, 1930, Negus Tafari Makonnen son of Ras Makonnen of Harare was crowned emperor of Ethiopia and earned the supreme rank of Negusa Nagast (King of Kings), to which he appended “his Christian baptismal name, Haile Selassie. He then became known to the world as Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” [9] This alleged eschatological match with Revelation 5:5 and 19:16 led Howell to believe that Selassie is the expected Jewish-Christian messiah. Based also on Acts 2:29–“He shall come through the lineage of Solomon, and sit on David’s throne”–Howell declared Haile Selassie I the Christ. [10] After his resurrection, this Chris t predicted in the Psalms lived in Africa and, in 1930, emerged in the person of Selassie I. A later modification of this myth declared Haile Selassie I the Christ returned from the dead.

Rastas found the Psalter appealing also because its imprecatory literary genre is specially suited to their lamentation against colonialism in their fight for national identity and social change in Africa and the Caribbean. The lament Psalms provided a vehicle for the earliest musical expressions of Rastafarian culture and spirit, a spirit of dissonance and resistance to certain values in Jamaican culture. Although the Psalms are modified and used occasionally to offer praise to JAH Rastafari, the living God (e.g., “It is a good thing to give thanks unto Jah, and to sing praises unto thy name, O Most High” Ps. 92:1; 68:4), Rastas use them primarily as a linguistic political tool to chant down the enemy, “Babylon,” in musical rhythms. The Psalms provide revolutionary vocabulary against the “Babylon shitstem” (the corrupt political and economic system of the West) and allows Rastas to implore the wrath of God on the “wicked of the land.” With their fondness for the poetic words of Psalm 35 in the KJV, Rastas pray:

Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me;

fight against them that fight against me.

Take hold of the shield and buckler, and stand up for mine help.

Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me…;

Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul;

let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt….

(Ps. 35:1-4)

Another of their favorites is Psalm 55:

Because of the voice of the enemy,

because of the oppression of the wicked:

for they cast iniquity upon me, and in wrath they hate me….

Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues:

for [we] have seen violence and strife in the city.

Wickedness is in the midst thereof;

deceit and guile depart not from her streets. (Ps. 55: 3, 9, and 11)

When the Rastas began putting music to these Psalms as their own lamentations, the melodies adopted from traditional Christian hymns and Jamaican revival groups like Zion and Pocomania were their primary musical expression. Since Rastas plagiarized the lyrics and melodies of those Christian hymns, they sounded much like Jamaican “Store-front Churches” without the clapping and stomping. But in their search for a new musical form and idiom that could express their committed Afro-centric ideology and cultural heritage, the Rastas adopted drumming and other instrumental techniques from several Afro-Jamaican folk traditions, chief of which are the Burru drums and Kumina dance derived from Central Africa. In the 1930s, the Drums played by a dwindling group of Burru men — encouraged in Jamaican slave communities a hundred years before — represented one of the few African musical forms that survived intact in Jamaica. Rasta pioneers combined Burru drumming with Kumina rhythms and other cultural forms to create the ir musical base in their Nyabinghi assembly/ celebration.[11] As Neil Savishinsky says,

One of the most important links in this chain connecting African and neo-African music to Nyabiughi and reggae was an early Rastafarian named Count Ossie. Steeped in both the Burru and Kumina drumming traditions, Ossie eventually teamed up with other like-minded Jamaican musicians and set about creating a new style of African-derived music that catered to the needs of Kingston’s growing Rasta population. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he also influenced some of the Island’s leading non-Rasta pop musicians, a number of whom went on to form the definitive ska band of the decade, the Skatalites.” [12]

So tuned to the beat of Burru drums, the early Rasta lamentations, comprised of mournful dirges of Christian songs, hymns, and psalms from the Psalter, were social, political, and religious commentary on the unfavorable condition of the black Jamaican masses, and of the Rastafarians in particular. As the movement responded to harassment and persecution from the Jamaican public and the “Babylon police” in the 1950s, these lamentations became increasingly militant with a strong revolution and liberation motif. By the 1960s, Rastas had developed an impressive repertoire of musical lamentations adopted to their peculiar method of black revolutionary protest and call for political, social, and economic change in Jamaica. In 1969, The Melodians, comprising Brent Dowe, Tony Brevette, and Trevor McNaughton, sang Psalm 137 in new Rasta voices under the title “Rivers of Babylon.” The song remained local until “Bonnie Em,” singing under the influence of reggae star Bob Marley and the Wailers, did a Cover Disco Version in 1975, which became an immediate hit internationally.

At the heart of the Rastafarian retuning of Psalm 137 is the belief that during the Israelites’ Babylonian exile, the enthusiasm for creating and singing happy songs and psalms so characteristic of the ancient Israelites was lost, or abandoned altogether. The Israelites sang sad songs (like Psalm 137) in captivity but those dirges did not inspire a public call for national identity and resistance to the cultural and political domination of the Babylonians. Rastas seek to reverse the Israelite’s Babylonian experience by singing Hebrew songs as protest against Black people’s oppression in “Babylon” with cool reggae revolutionary rhythms rather than military might. Psalm 137 thus becomes a call not to capitulate in silence to Babylon or assimilate its cultural values; not to wallow in the mire of hopelessness and self-pity or wish for the former days of the nation’s glory; not to offer imprecations to a God who is not there for Rastas, silent, hidden (deus obsconditus), and indifferent to the people of African descent; but a militant song to rub Babylon’s nose in the dust — to chant down Babylon in “ah ridim” — and effect social change.

If in fact the exiles lost their religious enthusiasm, as Rastas claim, they had every reason not to ingratiate themselves in happy songs in Babylon. In 722 B.C.E. the northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. Later “when the Babylonians seized hegemony from the Assyrians, Jerusalem and the southern kingdom fell to them in 586, and the Jews were dispersed and exiled.” [13] The invading army captured and blindfolded the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, and took him off in chains to Babylon. It is well known that the Babylonian army burned the temple, the palace, and the large residences; they destroyed the city walls, started the deportation of leading Israelites to Babylon, and led off the chief religious leaders and military officers to execution (2 Kings 25:1-12, 18-21). Then the Edomites, “a perennial enemy of Judah from the southeast, took advantage of the prostration of the city both to jeer and to loot (Obad. 1, 11-14; Psalm 137:7; Lam. 4:21-22). Within the city there was widespread starvation and even reports of cannibalism (Lam 4:5, 9-10).” [14]

As William Holladay observes: “The exiles, deported to Babylon five hundred miles to the east, had to endure not only the knowledge that their beloved city Jerusalem was physically destroyed and its people scattered but, more particularly, that kingship in the line of David was at an end, at least temporarily, and above all that the temple in Zion, Yahweh’s throne, was destroyed,” [15] exactly as the pre-exilic prophets predicted. The people’s sense of national identity that rose to its zenith in the glory days of David and Solomon, ca. 1000 to 922 B.C.E., was shattered and, after many years in captivity, some of them lost touch with their pristine Hebrew culture and language. So what was there to sing about? Why should they sing happy songs in Babylon? Their city was razed never to rise again to its original strength, [16] and Israel, though a nation until 70 C.E., ceased to be an independent state. Jewish writers Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin have said: “Between 70 C.E. and 1948, Israel the nation exi sted while Israel the state did not exist”; [17] not until 1948 would survivors rise from the ashes of the Holocaust to form an independent state and nation destined to play a critical role in international politics.

But did the Israelites also abandon their faith in Yaliweh as the Rastas claim? Most Israelites seem to have held on to their religion in Babylon while some, probably accustomed to adopting what two distinguish Jewish scholars, Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer, most recently called “the pagan idols prevalent in the land of Canaan,” [18] lost hope in the God of their ancestors, the God who seemingly abandoned them in Babylon. Many Israelites who heeded the words of the prophet Jeremiah before the exile to settle down, build houses, and grow food had acquiesced to their captors’ cultural traditions and settled to a relatively successful life in Babylon. Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer show that tensions between the cultural “assimilationists” and those who remained faithful to the ways of the ancestors were a source of factionalism in Jewish communities under Hellenistic and Greco-Roman rule. [19] During the dismal period of their Babylonian captivity, the Hebrew peoples quite understandably could have lo st their enthusiasm to sing happy songs of Zion and, in the interest of their own safety, also may not have publicly sung songs of protest and struggle for liberation from Babylon. From the Rastas’ point of view, nowhere in the Bible is the sense of Jewish abandonment, hopelessness, and self pity more implicit than in Psalm 137; and nowhere is Babylon more culpable.

How Many Ways to Read a Psalm?

In Rastas’ reading of the Psalms, Babylon towers as the enemy of God’s people, the poor and oppressed, and becomes a symbolic paradigm of the evil that Rastafari is committed to “chant down” (destroy). Rastas seek not to deny the validity of traditional readings of the Psalms, but to reinterpret them in their exilic experience in the Caribbean. Psalm 137 echoes the melancholy of a people dislocated from their familiar surroundings and taken forcibly into Babylonian exile; the psalm has a basic motif in which “the single subject of the lament is the enemy,” [20] the Babylonians. Many scholars read this psalm as a part of Book V of the Psalter, which contains Psalms 107-150, and regard it as one of the “Communal Psalms” (14, 44, 53, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 123, 126, 129, and 137), [21] most of which have lamentations and imprecations. Rastas love the imprecatory prayers of these Psalms because they implore God to afflict the evildoers with disaster; or they express a wish that evil befall the enemy. Thi s is seen in the vengeful prayer in 137:9, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock” (New Oxford Bible). As Toni Craven says: “These prayers invoke God because of a particular experience of calamity and petition God to judge and punish the enemy harshly.” [22]

Although characteristically Hebraic, the imprecatory or lament literary genre is not an exclusively Jewish Psalter phenomenon; which may justify the Rastas’ use of that genre in the psalms. Embedded in the Book of Jeremiah, for example, are six laments or confessions which show the prophet complaining to God rather forcefully and protesting his innocence while crying out for vindication over his enemies (cf. Jer. 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:19-23; 20:7-18). [23] Bernard Anderson expanded the idea of the pervasiveness of this literary style to include the Book of Job, Lamentations, and other traditions from the ancient Near East. He said, “This may be seen, for instance, in the magnificent ‘Prayer of Lamentation’ to Ishtar which comes from the neo-Babylonian period (approximately the time of Jeremiah). It begins with a long ascription of praise to Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven.” [24] Robert Alter adds, “Psalms, at least in the guise of cultic hymns, were a common poetic genre throughout the ancient Near E ast, but as the form was adopted by Hebrew poets, it often became an instrument for expressing in a collective voice… a distinctive, sometimes radically new, sense of time, space, history, creation and the character of individual destiny.” [25]

The lament Psalms are generally vague in their reference to concrete historical situations, but Rastas are correct in contending that Psalm 137 locates the lamenting community on the banks of the rivers of Babylon. This reading agrees with Bernard Anderson’s that this psalm is “concerned with the historical scene of change, struggle, and suffering where God meets people and lays a claim upon them…. [It] is a folk song that cried out for vengeance against the Babylonians who destroyed the nation of Judah in 587 B.C.E. and the Edomites who assisted them in the sack of Jerusalem (cf. Obediah 10-14).” [26] In Psalm 137, as in 79:10, Psalm 42:3,10, and Lamentation 2:15, the Israelites’ captors taunted them saying, “Where is your God?” and demanded that they sing one of their old happy songs of Zion. [27] But the people replied: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (KJV) or pagan country? Couched in this question and answer response is a subtext concealing a quiet inner resistance or “jihad” to Ba bylonian culture and domination. This is made clearer in the prayer that God would punish the oppressor proportionately to the crime committed against the people.

The nine verses of Psalm 137 show a natural three-part outline. Part I is the people’s lament over their lost city and their sad condition in Babylon. In the first 4 verses the writer, most likely an exilic Jew writing under the influence of post-exilic reflections, speaks for the community in a melancholy tone, in the past tense, and in the first-person plural:

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down

and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs,

and our tormentors for mirth, saying,

Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” [But]

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (NOAB)

While the first part of Psalm 137 is reflective of the well-known lamentations of the ancient Hebrew community (e.g.: Ps. 44, 58, 60, 74, 90, 123), Part II, comprising of verses 5 and 6, contains a pledge never to forget the holy city, Jerusalem. This is a reflection on the past glories of the nation, an identification with the suffering people, and a desire to keep alive memory and faith in Yahweh. J. Clinton McCann says: “It is not surprising that the central concept of remembering links verses 5-6 to verses 1-4, where the exiles remember Jerusalem (v. 1), and to verses 7-9, where the Lord is called upon to remember Jerusalem’s fall…. Remembering means faithfulness to God’s place and God’s ongoing purpose. Remembering is an act of resistance — “in a foreign land” (v. 4). God’s people could not sing but they could remember.” [28] Essentially, “in the case of Psalm 137, grief and anger sustain the remembrance that makes faith, hope, and life possible ‘in a foreign land.’ In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, outrage, in that order.” [29]

The rage and outrage, as acts of remembering, are expressed in the last three verses that comprise Part III of Psalm 137, the vengeful prayer that God will avenge Israel on Edom and Babylon for what they did to Jerusalem. This element of the “vindication Psalms,” otherwise called imprecatory or cursing Psalms (Ps. 7, 35, 59, 69, 70, 83, 109, 137, 140), provides a political idiom and tool with which Rastas hope, remember, and fight the evil Babylon. In verse 8 the daughters of Babylon, whom the Psalmist says ought to be destroyed, contrasts with daughters of Jerusalem. Here, at the end of their sad song, the exilic community cries out in vengeance:

Yahweh, remember what the Sons of Edom did

on the day of Jerusalem, how they said,

“Down with her! Raze her to the ground;

Destructive Daughter of Babel, a blessing on

the man who treats you as you have treated us,

a blessing on him who takes and dashes

your babies against the rock.” (Jerusalem Bible)

The question I raised earlier — “How should one read the lament Psalms and what relevance might Psalm 137 have for a modem indigenous group as Rastafari” — is quite topical. McCann says: “In the twentieth century, Psalm 137 cannot help reminding us of the Holocaust, the monstrous victimization of the Jewish people during World War II…. To remember is to resist the same thing happening again.” [30] According to Anderson, although a twentieth-century “community cannot automatically join in this psalm, we must remind ourselves that Psalm 137 has found many parallels in modern life–for instance, during World War II when the pride of France was violated by Hitler’s armies, or when brave little Finland was overrun by Russian forces. The question… [is] whether these all too human cries have a place in our speech to God.” [31] To this question, the Rastas echo a resounding yes! Psalm 137 speaks to African peoples’ Babylon condition, a state of political domination, poverty, and racial discrimination against t he people of JAH. Of course, as David Pleins says, “The communal laments do not offer an easy road out of this sense of abandonment, but they do offer the language that a community can use to begin speaking to God from out of the midst of communal distress. How does the community penetrate the veil of divine silence?” [32] (bold mine)

Re-tuning Psalm 137 to Reggae Rhythms

In their creative use of Psalm 137, Rastas penetrate what they see as the veil of divine silence on the “rape of Africa” during centuries of slavery, Muslim and Christian colonialism, and downpression (oppression) of the sons and daughters of Africa. Rastas break the silence by “hijacking” the song (not at gunpoint but at the hermeneutical point, i.e., in their own way of adopting and interpreting scripture) that the Hebrews created by the rivers of Babylon, and using it as a revolutionary call for justice, liberation, and protest against Babylonian oppression. In this way, Psalm 137, as a Rasta lamentation, instills hope and faith in a seemingly hopeless cause, the economic, social, and political liberation of a people. Tuned to the reggae beat and intoned on the guitar, the repeater, and the bass, the singing of this psalm in the Rastafari Nyabinghi or ritual cultic celebration is one of the most authentic and passionate expressions of the Rastafarian spirit, a spirit of strong dissonance and rejection of t he Babylon culture. In the Rastas’ Nyabinghi, which may parallel a lively Christian worship service, speeches are made against the Babylon system (“shitstem”), the heroes of the movement and courageous Rasta Brethren are celebrated, and words of “thanks and praise” are offered to Jah Rastafari, the deity.

The lyrics of the Rasta version of the psalm contain not-so-subtle changes and new material not found in Psalm 137. In an attempt to state the question as cynically as the Israelites posed it by the rivers of Babylon (but not endorse it), Rastas made little or no change to verse 1:

By the rivers of Babylon,

where we sat down,

there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

Here the political-theological redaction on Haile Selassie’s royal highness clothed in divinity as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end for all human history in verse two is obvious:

Cause, the wicked carried us away in captivity,

required from us a song,

How can we sing King Alpha’s song

inner strange land? (Repeat). (bold mine)

In the first two lines of verse 2, the pronoun “us,” according to the Rastafarian interpretation, refers specifically to people of African ancestry whom the “wicked Europeans” carried away into captivity in the Americas. Us and We in the third line, people of African descent, can sing King Alpha’s song in the strange land of Babylon — Jamaica and the West — where Blacks are held captive to economic deprivation, racial prejudice, and the other fruits of colonialism. In Rastafarian thought, King Alpha, Haile Selassie I, replaces Yahweh as the giver and object of the song. The Rasta version of verse 2 locates the Babylonian captivity in the adverbial modifier “inner” (Jamaican patois for “in a”) strange land.

The chorus inserted after verse 2 is a deliberate theological interpolation and political redaction in the Rasta version of Psalm 137. The lyrics of the new material contain a revolutionary call to sing the “hijacked” liberating Hebrew-Rasta song of freedom with a united voice in an undaunted spirit. Jammed in reggae vibrations and Jamaican patois-type lyrics, this marvelous chorus gives Psalm 137 an unmistakable Rastafarian signature: faith in Jah Rastafari and a clarion call to unite in the fight for freedom and liberation:

Sing it aloud, awn, awn, awn, awn [and on]

sing the song of freedom, sister, awn, awn, [and] awn

Sing the song of freedom, brother, awn, awn, [and] awn

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa Whoa

We gonna sing and shout it, awn, awn, [and] awn

We gonna jump and shout it, awn, awn, [and] awn

Shout the song of freedom, awn, awn, [and] awn.

So, let the words of our mouth

and the meditations of our hearts

be acceptable in Thy sight. Oh, FarI. (Repeat)

Sing it aloud, sing the songs of freedom

We got to sing it together, awn, awn, [and] awn

We got to shout it together, awn, awn, [and] awn

Whoa, oh, oh, …

Unmistakable in this Rasta version of the psalm is the insertion of a verse adopted from another psalm used as a Christian liturgical refrain that is well liked in the Caribbean-“So, let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight. Oh, FarI.” FarI (Rastafari, who is there for I, for me) replaces Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian God, as the object of adoration and imprecatory prayers. This insertion or redaction is not a mere scribal emendation, or lyrical variation in reggae rhythmic style. This is a true “roots” attempt to read scripture in the language, cultural context, and vision of a hurting people seeking to revolutionize the text as well as the social political narratives that inform morality relative to justice and equality in society.

To this end, Rastas have more than doubled the length of the first third of Psalm 137. The not-so-subtle changes in the lyrics are intentional interpolations designed to create a new political theology of the Psalms, and a new Christian theology as a whole. These changes seek to radicalize how one perceives, de-constructs, and re-imagines the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible and the West. God should not be the God of the oppressive brokers of economic and political power and privilege but the God of the “dowupressed.” God is a human deity who could be touched with the feelings of the Rastas’ infirmity. Like the God-man Christ of Christianity, the Rasta God is both human and divine: “God is man and man [sic] is God. God must be experienced within the context of human life…revealed in the humanity of the man-God, Ras Tafari Selassie.” [33] This novel revolutionary political theology proffers a reciprocal relationship between God and humans where human dignity, liberation, and justice are the norm.

An important aspect of the Rastas’ use of Psalm 137 is the fact that the song is often sung from the same album recordings of other revolutionary reggae songs from Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh. For example: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” (“Redemption Song,” by Bob Marley, from Uprising, 1980); “Gel Up! Stand Up!… We gonna stand up for our rights” (“Get Up Stand Up,” Peter Tosh, from Equal Rights, 1977); and “I’m like a stepping razor, don’t you watch my size, I’m dangerous” (“Stepping Razor,” Peter Tosh, Equal Rights, 1977). Bob Marley’s 1977 hit “Exodus” urges Jamaicans and people of the African diaspora:

Open your eyes and look within

Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?

We know where we are going,

We know where we are from

We’re leaving Babylon

We’re going to our Father’s land. (“Exodus,” 1977)

Rastas say this is no time for them to abandon their song of freedom and liberation to the enemy by the rivers of Babylon. They refuse to hang up their harps of protest on the willow trees of captivity and fall prey to self pity, melancholy, and helplessness. They will sing King Alpha’s song in the strange land of Babylon as a song of subversion, dissonance, and rejection of the Babylon “shitstem” (system). Rastas will continue to chant down Babylon in “ah ridim” and not let the enemy force them to be what they do not want to be. In his 1979 hit “Babylon System,” Marley echoes the protest:

We refuse to be what you want us to be

We are what we are

and that’s the way it’s going to be

You can’t educate I for no “equal opportunity”

Talking about my freedom, people

Freedom and liberty. (Survival, 1979)


By taking over Hebrew Psalms and using them as munitions to resist the Babylon culture, Rastas’ unorthodox Bible reading has created a new political theology of the Psalter. The adoration, enthronement, sovereignty, and power of Yahweh — who Rastas view as distant and removed from human disaster like African slavery and the Jewish Holocaust — are retuned to a theology of “JAH Rastafor-I,” God with humans and humans with God. The theology of personal piety, on which Hughes Old says classical Protestantism has thrived since the days of Martin Luther, [34] is lived out in a political theology of liberation, equality, and justice for the people of God. The theology of lamentation as a means of quietism and refuge in self pity from the “troubles of the world” and oppression by the enemies of “Israel” is retuned to the theology of revolution in peaceful protest against the oppressors.

Rastas love the Bible, think of themselves as a special kind of Jews, and followers of the Christ-Selassie I Messiah. But Rastas detest Jewish and Christian readings of the scriptures that separate the person and character of the God of the Bible from human responsibility, as in, for example, government policies that result in the exploitation of the poor and the downtrodden. In some ways, Rastas read the Bible with a spirit reminiscent of advice Karl Barth gave to his religion students at the University of Basel. Rastas “read with the newspaper in one hand, as it were, and the Bible in the other. They search out the manifold correlations between contemporary events and the sacred recorded history’ [35] of the text. Clearly, “The Rastafarians are responsible for constructing their own ‘local theology’ — forged within the Jamaican context and articulated in poetic and lyrical form.” [36] Their reading of the Bible is intentionally unorthodox and nontraditional. Nonetheless, their creative returning of the Ps alms to the reggae beat and Afrocentric thinking keeps the Bible alive and fresh in contemporary biblical conversations. Popularizing the Psalms in the now internationally known reggae revolution shows not only the power and influence of the Psalms in Western culture, but their strong appeal to contemporary movements and groups that are able to claim and convert these ancient Hebrew songs of praise, imprecations, and laments into expressions of hope, resistance, subversion, revolution, liberation, and social change.

NATHANIEL SAMUEL MURRELL is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and co-editor/author of two books on Caribbean religion and culture, including the award-winning Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader.


(1.) Rex Nettleford, “Discourse on Rastafarian Reality,” in Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, ed. Nathaniel S. Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian McFarlane (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 320.

(2.) The biblical stories are made Rasta narratives; the Messiah promised to the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible came to Rastas in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was rejected and killed but rose again in the person of The Ever Living One, Ras (prince) Tafari, the late Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

(3.) The Bible is everywhere in the society: Students study it in school for their General Certificate of Education (the London GCE); people swear by it in the courts “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God!” Most Caribbean couples take their marriage vows on biblical authority or principles. Gideon International and other organizations routinely place the Bible in hotels and motels for private reading. Politicians use biblical concepts to appeal to the masses at election time; and, of course, the Bible is taught in churches and synagogues. In an environment where there is no ‘separation of church and state,’ biblical concepts interface with the people’s religious and political thinking. As a result, Rastas “cite-up” (quote) biblical passages with predictable frequency in their reasonings (social, political, and theological discussions) and Nyabinghi.

(4.) Except when stated otherwise, all quotations from the Bible in this essay in reference to Rastas are taken from the KJV, which Rastas use.

(5.) Issembly of Elders, The Ethiopian-African Theocracy Union Policy: EATUP, True Authentic Fundamental Indigenous Original Comprehensive Alternative Policy: FIOCAP (Kingston, Jamaica: Jahrastafari Royal Ethiopian Judah-Coptic Church, n.d.), paragraph X: 12. See also XI (hill) and (II] on Genesis 1:11; and 2:4-5.

(6.) EATUP, xxxiv (1), 63; Smyth, 32.

(7.) Tennyson Smyth, The Living Testament of Rasta-For-I (Kingston, Jamaica: Ras-J-Tesfa, 1980), 30.

(8.) Joseph Owens, “The Rastafarians of Jamaica,” in Troubling of the Waters, ed. Idris Hammid (San Fernando, Trinidad: Rahaman Printery, 1973), 167; Michael N. Jagessar, “JPIC and Rastafarians,” One World (February 1991): 15.

(9.) Clinton Chisholm, “The Rasta-Selassie-Ethiopian Connections,” in Chanting Down Babylon, 166-67.

(10.) Barbara Makeda Lee, Rastafari, The New Creation (Kingston, Jamaica: Jamaica Media Productions, 1981), 30.

(11.) Neil J. Savishinsky,” “African Dimensions of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement,” in Chanting Down Babylon, 127; Kenneth Bilby and Elliott Leib, “Kumina, the Howellite Church and the Emergence of Rastafarian Traditional Music in Jamaica,” Jamaica Journal 19, no.3 (August-October 1986): 22-29; Verena Reckord, “From Burru Drums to Reggae Ridims: The Evolution of Rasta Music,” in Chanting Down Babylon, 231-52.

(12.) Savishinsky, “African Dimensions of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement,” 128.

(13.) Richard L. Rubenstein and John R. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 27.

(14.) William L. Holladay, The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 54.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) According to Rubenstein and Roth, although the Jews were allowed to return and rebuild the temple and restore Jerusalem under Persian rule, “politically, Jewish life remained under Persian authority until the conquest of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) brought Jews under Roman control” (Rubenstein and Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz, 27).

(17.) Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why The Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 35.

(18.) Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Jews, The Essence and Character of a People (San Francisco: Harper Collins Pub., 1998), 35.

(19.) Ibid., 38-39. Hertzberger and Hirt-Manheimer say, “The revolt of the Maccabees… was just as much a civil war as it was a struggle of the Jews against an outside oppressor…. Never was factionalism among the Jews more intense than during the great revolt against Rome, which began in 66 G.E.”

(20.) Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trans. Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox Press), 192.

(21.) Toni Craven, The Book of Psalms, Message of Biblical Spirituality (Collegeville Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992), 17, 22; Bernard W Anderson, Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for Us Today revised and expanded ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), J. David Pleins, The Psalms, Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993). In addition to the works cited on these authors, see the two helpful collections in Interpretation (January 1985 and April 1992).

(22.) Craven, The Book of Psalms, 22, 50.

(23.) Anderson, Out of the Depths, 65.

(24.) Ibid., 66.

(25.) Robert Alter, “The Psalms, Beauty Heightened Through Poetic Structure,” Bible Review 2, no. 3 (Fall 1986): 30.

(26.) Anderson, Out of the Depths, 87; Craven, The Book of Psalms, 51.

(27.) Anderson, Out of the Depths, 89.

(28.) J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms, The Psalms as Torah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 118.

(29.) Ibid., 119.

(30.) J. Clinton McCann Jr., “The Psalms as Instruction,” Interpretation (April 1992), 119. Also Patrick D. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 8, 48–52.

(31.) Anderson, Out of the Depths, 89.

(32.) Pleins, The Psalms, 32.

(33.) Michael N. Jagessar, “JPIC and Rastafarians,” One World (February 1991): 15. Jagessar says Rastas “do not deny Jesus’ divinity, but many believe he was a black man and that Selassie fulfills the prophecy of his second coming.”

(34.) Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “‘Enthraned on the Praise of Israel’: The Praise of God in Old Testament Theology,” Interpretation 39, no. 1 (January 1985): 5–19; Hughes Oliphant Old, “The Psalms of Praise in the Worship of the New Testament Church,” Interpretation 39, no. 1 (January 1985): 20–33; Gerald T. Sheppard, “Theology and the Book of Psalms,” Interpretation 46 no. 2 (April 1992): 143–55.

(35.) Joseph Owens, Dread (Kingston, Jamaica: Montrose Printers /Sangster’s Book Stores, 1976), 37.

(36.) Darren Middleton, “Poetic Liberation: Rastafarianism, Poetry and Social change,” Manchester, New Series 34 no. 2 (1992): 18.

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