In the words of the great philosopher Morgan Heritage, ‘You don’t haffi dread to be rasta’. Yah, man. You don’t need dreadlocks to respect Rastafari. So, if you’re a reggae lover like myself, go on and bop your head, even if you’re missing that natty loc ingredient. Reggae is the music of the masses. It’s not just music; it’s a movement that lyrical activists have often used to mobilise against social, economic and political injustice.
The one man who needs to grow some locs, y’know, just for legitimacy’s sake, is Raila Odinga. The former prime minister loves reggae so much that he doesn’t want it to stop. He has little patience for anyone who stands in the way of reggae. His catchphrase of choice is, “Nobody can stop reggae”, which I like to interpret as ‘nobody should try and stop reggae’, but hey, I could be way off with that interpretation.
I mean, what do I know? I love reggae, but like most pseudo-reggae lovers, the length and breadth of my knowledge of the genre can be found between Bob and Marley. Riddle me any Bob Marley song, and I’ll quote you the lyrics faster than a contestant on Steve Harvey’s Family Feud.
OK, maybe not any song. Probably just Bob’s best-known hits, or like five greatest hits. Anyway, there’s one song that speaks to me in this moment. It’s a song that, ironically, is off the Bob and the Wailers’ 1974 album ‘Natty Dread’.
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That song is ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’. The title speaks for itself, and the lyrics don’t hold back either: ‘Them belly full, but we hungry; a hungry mob is an angry mob; a rain a-fall, but the dirt it tough; a pot a-cook, but the food no ‘nough’.
These are the kinds of songs that reggae artists have been churning out since the mid-20th Century when reggae became a thing. The genre has been going strong ever since, so I suppose Mr Odinga is right – nobody can stop reggae, or as I like to interpret it, nobody has stopped reggae yet.
At the rate we’re going, with the appropriation of the common man’s stance to further an elitist agenda, reggae might even stop itself. I will say it again; reggae is the music of the masses. It’s not just music; it’s a movement; a movement that is often used to mobilise against social, economic, and political injustice. It cannot be reduced to a catchphrase. Anyone who attempts to trivialise the significance of music – and particularly reggae music – to a population that has little else to celebrate will eventually come face-to-face with their frustrations.
Then again, we all know that Odinga uses the term reggae metaphorically. He says reggae but means change, which is in order. Reggae is all about change.
Change from bad to good; from worse to better. It’s not about cosmetic surgery, the kind that transforms things on the outside but leaves the status quo untouched on the inside. By latching onto the reggae narrative, the former premier is leveraging on a long history of protest music to achieve a short term goal.
But if Lucky Dube was right, and ‘nobody can stop reggae’ then there might come a time when even Odinga himself will not be able to stand in its way. As the Dube song goes, ‘But somebody said to all the bald heads; respect the Rastaman; cause he’s the only one; only one left in Jah creation’.
All wo(men) are equal under Kenyan law, but if one man chooses to subject himself to the canons of Rastafarianism, then he must understand that the Rastaman is the only one left in Jah creation.
I cut my locs when I turned 40, but I don’t haffi dread to be a Rasta for life. I’m a cultural Rastafarian, not a religious one. I’m a Rasta because I believe in justice, for all people, all the time. That’s all.
So, that ‘Natty Dread’ album. It was the last Marley album before his death in 1981. The last song on that album was ‘Redemption Song’, a song that may as well be named, ‘Revolution Song’. A lot of things have been said about this song over the 40 decades it’s been on the airwaves.
It’s been sung and re-sung with different interpretations over the years. Still, at the end of the day, reggae speaks to the masses like only reggae can: ‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds’. See, there is reggae, and then there is manipulation. Choose ye this day, which tune you are willing to dance to.
Ms Masiga is Peace and Security Editor, The Conversation