The Rastafarian Movement, The Rastaman Stereotype & Its Representation in Popular Media

INTRODUCTION

In the movie, Never Been Kissed, Drew Barrymore starring as Josie Geller – a young up-and-coming journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times – finally gets her first big break where she must go undercover as a high-school student in attempts to obtain a scandalous story. As part of her assignment, Geller attends a local reggae nightclub where she mistakenly consumes “special ganja cake” containing “vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin THC” and exclaims in a later conversation that she was “so cool” and “made friends with a whole table of Rastafari. Not just one, a whole table” (“IMDb: Never Been Kissed (1999) Quotes,”). This is one of the many examples of the misrepresentation of Rastafarianism within popular media. Consequently, there is an apparent and significant disconnect between the Rastafari Movement’s religious basis and political activism and how it is viewed in popular culture, especially within the music and movie industries. Ultimately this paper is composed of several components to emphasize the image of Rastafarianism that continues to reoccur in popular media and attempts to combat this stereotype by:

  1. Describing the origins of the Rastafari Movement and its significance
  2. Illustrating how reggae music promotes the Rastafari stereotypes
  3. Detailing the use of this Rastaman stereotype within American cinema.

RASTAFARIANISM & ITS HUMBLE CARIBBEAN ORIGINS

Image of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia provided by the Getty Images (1).

Initially, the Rastafari Movement maintained very traditional and religious origins when compared to the radical rebel-rock inspired associations it came to represent in reggae music by the late-Twentieth Century. It originated in 1930, where Emperor of Ethiopia Ras Tafari Makonnen provided the foundation and name for Rastafarianism which developed in Jamaica (S. A. King, 1998). The main principles or beliefs of early Rastafarians included repatriation or return of all black people to Africa, emphasized black nationalistic ideals, and supported non-violence (S. A. King, 1998). During the 1960s a new age of political activism became incorporated into the Rastafari Movement, emphasizing “racial pride” in an attempt to bring about much-needed social improvements for Jamaicans (S. King & Jensen, 1995, p. 17; S. A. King, 1998, pp. 39, 50). Ironically, Rastafarians progressed from encompassing the dregs of Jamaican society to “being a central facet of contemporary Jamaican culture” in the early to late Twentieth Century (Szeman, 2004, p. 109). And although the Rastafari Movement lacked the “organizational routinization” that accounts for a political group’s success and persistence over time, the movement’s familiar symbols of marijuana and dreadlocks, although misused, still persist today (Szeman, 2004, p. 111).

REGGAE: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE MISUSED

This influential blend of “American rhythm and blues and Jamaican ska,” another music genre similar to American punk-rock, provided an outlet where Rastafarianism could thrive and resulted in a major international social awareness (S. King & Jensen, 1995, p. 18). However, there seems to be an emphasis on the Rastafari lifestyle in popular media rather than active involvement in its political stipulations. In the 1970s, reggae was considered a symbol of the Jamaican lower-class – which was influential to many countries and musicians – and was used to express hardships the working-class faced (S. A. King, 1998).This stemmed from the political conflicts in Jamaica at the time, where promises for political reform were not upheld by Michael Manley (elected Prime Minister) and the People’s National Party (S. A. King, 1998). In other countries, like the U.S., record companies advertised reggae as new “rebel music” to appeal to society’s youth but had initial difficulties with its incorporation into the general rock music genre (S. A. King, 1998). According to Stephen A. King (1998), Island Records successfully marketed a campaign to promote reggae using the now “popularized reggae star” Bob Marley. Bob Marley and the Wailers detailed general social issues in Jamaica, denounced various forms of oppression (police authority, technology, etc.) and “called for significant changes in society” (S. King & Jensen, 1995, p. 18).

Bob Marley & The Wailers live at Crystal Palace Park (4).
Bob Marley & The Wailers live at Crystal Palace Park (2).

The worldwide reach of reggae and its association with Rastafarianism even permeated into Cuba despite the country’s strict cultural isolation from the rest of the world, resulting in an Afro-Cuban youth movement (Hansing, 2001, pp. 735-736). Katrin Hansing in “Rasta, race and revolution: transnational connections in socialist Cuba” suggests that Rastafarianism represented a worldwide cultural explosion that was transported “through the medium of culture, particularly music” (p.733). According to Hansing, although Rastafarianism originated in Jamaica, it “lost its original territorial moorings and became a traveling culture” (p. 733).  Hansing’s statement validates the inherent flexible nature of the Rastafarian Movement, allowing it to be used and understood in a variety of ways, and unfortunately leading to significant misrepresentation and misuse. One positive impact of this popularized Rastafarian stereotype was it allowed for a more personalized and universal experience for reggae listeners who could relate to the Rastafarian desire for unity, freedom and social progress (Hansing, 2001; S. King & Jensen, 1995).

 

Bob Marley & The Wailers Album Covers from 1973-1980 (5).
Bob Marley & The Wailers Album Covers from 1973-1980 (3).

In the end, Rastafarianism within reggae served slightly different goals than its original religious ideologies but also brought awareness to international concerns that were occurring within Africa, not just Jamaica alone (S. A. King, 1998).Thus, the movement became a cultural fad, where the desire for revolution and action for the betterment of Jamaicans and blacks was lost among international fame. Even reggae album covers of the 1970s “emphasized the Rastafarian’s symbol of black defiance, dreadlocks or displayed colors of red, green, and gold” and the Rastafarian lifestyle including ganja or marijuana smoking became the central focus of the music genre (S. A. King, 1998, pp. 40,48; Szeman, 2004). As a result these new “pseudo” Rastafarians, such as those found in Cuba and the Americas, identified themselves more so with reggae music than the Rastafarian Movement and overall lacked association with traditional Rastafarian principles (Hansing, 2001; S. A. King, 1998).

THE MISREPRESENTATION OF RASAFARI WITHIN AMERICAN CINEMA

Before showing examples which misuse Rastafarianism within American film, a general overview regarding the representations of race in popular media should also be provided. Unsurprisingly, news coverage and television programs have proven to influence society’s social and racial views. This results in stereotypes regarding the appearance and behaviors of a particular race, usually African Americans (Armstrong & Neuendorf, 1992). In a study, Armstrong and Neuendorf (1992) obtained results regarding the perceptions of white and black Americans by white college students and determined that “TV News Exposure predicted relatively more negative stereotyping of black personality and character traits” (p. 29). On the other hand, TV Dramas resulted in “relatively more complementary beliefs about black personality or character traits” aka “Stereotype Favorability” (Armstrong & Neuendorf, 1992, pp. 30-31). The results from this study, in addition to Mastro and Kopacz (2006), demonstrate that either negative or positive representations of minorities in media illicit stereotypical responses from viewers. Furthermore, Mastro and Kopacz (2006) also show how society’s racial and ethnic views – developed from mass media – consequently affect race-specified policy decisions in politics. With this in mind, the stereotypical representations of Rastafari in the American movie industry are undeniably expected; however, it does not provide justification for exploitation or condone discriminatory stereotypes by any means.

Within American cinema there seems to be an absence of the “understandings of the very real complexity of the Rastafarian movement, both with respect to the sophistication of its critique of Western modernity and the originality of its structure” (Szeman, 2004, p. 109). This then results in the stereotypical image of Rastafari that we are all familiar with: smoking ganja, having dreadlocks, playing reggae music, hating “Western modernity” while living in small, rural Jamaican communities and anticipating their final return to Africa (Szeman, 2004, p. 109). The movie industry tends to exploit aspects of this Rastaman stereotype in many subtle or not so subtle ways, such as the “albino dreadlocked sporting villains in The Matrix Reloaded” (Batson-Savage, 2010; Frank, 2007; Szeman, 2004, p. 109). Kevin Frank (2007) and Tanya Batson-Savage (2010) criticize this form of racial misrepresentation in American cinema within a variety of movie genres including science-fiction action thrillers (Predator, Marked For Death, Transporter 2) and kid-friendly family movies (Shark’s Tale and  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl). Where Batson-Savage highlights the many issues with Hollywood’s portrayal of Jamaicans through the use of the Rastafari stereotype, Frank argues that the use of Rasta dreadlocks inspires fear in viewers (Batson-Savage, 2010; Frank, 2007).

Image from the 1978 movie Predator (6).
Image from the 1978 movie Predator (4).

In the Si-Fi classic, Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger starring as Dutch goes into the Central American Jungle with a team of commandos to perform a search and rescue only to encounter a deadly other-worldly Predator. This creature’s “scariness is reinforced through subtle racial manipulation of its humanoid features” and the Rastaman stereotype is maintained with its dreadlocked hair, ultimately representing a kind of Rastafari solider (Batson-Savage, 2010; Frank, 2007).Eventually, the Predator is defeated in an attempt to kill Dutch as it acts as a suicide bomber (Frank, 2007). Likewise, in the movie Marked For Death, Steven Seagal as John Hatcher has a showdown with his supposed enemy Screwface, an “evil Jamaican drug lord” that corrupts “innocent high school football players and cheerleaders with drugs” in a typical American suburb (Batson-Savage, 2010; Frank, 2007, p. 57). During the pivotal scene of the movie, Screwface reveals his “secret weapon: two heads and four eyes” and Hatcher proceeds to behead and rid the world of this evil monster (Frank, 2007, p. 58).

John Hatcher and Screwface face-off in the 1990 film Marked For Death (7).
John Hatcher and Screwface face-off in the 1990 film Marked For Death (5).

As an alternative to the association of Rastafarian symbols to the evil, violent and bestial characteristics shown in these two films, Transporter 2 solely utilizes blatant stereotyping. A scene in particular is described in detail by Batson-Savage (2010) where the main character Frank Martin played by Jason Statham hails a taxicab by stepping into on-coming traffic (pg. 52). The Jamaican taxi driver is immediately identified as an “irate Rastaman” shouting “Bombo-claat, man! Move out di way! Cho! Wha you a do? Cho!” as reggae music plays in the background while a Jamaican flag is emphasized in his backseat (Batson-Savage, 2010, p. 52).  In this scene, The Rastaman stereotype is supported by both visual and auditory cues, causing unsuspecting viewers to assume this portrayal of Rastafari as somewhat accurate and valid.

 

Representation of the Rastaman persona in the character Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of The Black Pearl (8).
Components of the Rastaman stereotype integrated within the character Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of The Black Pearl (6).

Consequently, not even happy and good-hearted Family movies can escape from utilizing the Rastaman stereotype that is so widespread and rampant within the film industry.Where Frank (2007) discusses the “symbolic potential dreads offer black people” through the “violent removal” of Rastafarian villains in Predator and Marked for Death, he also suggests the same “by also giving dreads a white face” in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (pp. 58-59). According to him, the famous Jack “Sparrow and other European pirates are given weaves of dreadlock extensions marking them automatically as deviants at best, demonic at worst”. Sparrow specifically utilizes “red, gold, and green among the colors of beads on one of his locks” as his “hair alludes to Rastafarianism” (Frank, 2007, p. 60).

The Rastafarian jellyfish Ernie and Bernie in DreamWorks Shark’s Tale (9).
The Rastafarian jellyfish Ernie and Bernie in DreamWorks Shark’s Tale (7).

This is also evident within DreamWorks’ Shark’s Tale, where jellyfish Ernie and Bernie utilize their tentacle dreadlocks as “Rastafarian mob enforcers” on the citizens that live in the movie’s tropical reef metropolis (Batson-Savage, 2010, p. 51). Thus, these films demonstrate the misrepresentation of the Rastafari Movement in addition to illustrating the negative connotations associated with Rastafari, specifically within American cinema. As a result, this signifies the large extent of the skewed perception of Rastafarianism in popular media, which is exclusively attributed to society’s overall lack of knowledge on the subject.

CONCLUSION

Several topics were discussed and a thorough investigation was performed to illustrate the stereotypical image of Rastafari that prevails within popular media. To effectively demonstrate the exploitation of the Rastaman stereotype and the misrepresentation of the Rastafari Movement, the movement’s religious and political Jamaican origins were described along with its historical significance. In addition, the association between reggae music and Rastafarianism was explored, showing how reggae served as an international agent in popularizing the Rastafari cause while, unfortunately, originating the Rastafari stereotypes we see today. An overview of race representations in television and news media illustrated how particular forms of popular media influence society’s racial perceptions and stereotypes. This provided a basis for a final discussion of how the Rastaman stereotype is wholly misused and exploited in various genres of American film. Thus, the root of the problem seems to be society’s lack of knowledge regarding the Rastafari Movement where the Rastaman stereotype has become so commonplace, resulting in society’s general insensitivity to such cultural exploitation and racial discrimination. The only way to combat this is to spread the word regarding the historical and cultural significance of the Rastafari Movement. Raising awareness is at least one step, even if small, in the right direction.

WORD COUNT: 2100

REFERENCES

Armstrong, G. B., & Neuendorf, K. A. (1992). TV entertainment, news, and racial perceptions of college students. Journal of Communication, 42(3), 153-176.

Batson-Savage, T. (2010). Through the Eyes of Hollywood: Reading Representations of Jamaicans in American Cinema. Small Axe, 14(2 32), 42-55.

Frank, K. (2007). “Whether Beast or Human”: The Cultural Legacies of Dread, Locks, and Dystopia. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism(23), 46-62.

Hansing, K. (2001). Rasta, race and revolution: transnational connections in socialist Cuba. Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies, 27(4), 733-747. doi: 10.1080/13691830120090476

IMDb: Never Been Kissed (1999) Quotes.   Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0151738/quotes

King, S., & Jensen, R. J. (1995). Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”: The Rhetoric of Reggae and Rastafari. The Journal of Popular Culture, 29(3), 17-36.

King, S. A. (1998). International reggae, democratic socialism, and the secularization of the Rastafarian movement, 1972–1980. Popular Music & Society, 22(3), 39-60.

Mastro, D. E., & Kopacz, M. A. (2006). Media representations of race, prototypicality, and policy reasoning: An application of self-categorization theory. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50(2), 305-322.

Szeman, I. (2004). Rastafari: From Outcasts to Culture Bearers. (Book). Utopian Studies, 15(1), 109-111.

 IMAGE REFERENCES

  1. Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia [Online Image]. Retrieved December 13, 2014 from https://avaxnews.net/tags/Tafari%20Makonnen
  2. [Untitled Online Image of Bob Marley & The Wailers live at Crystal Palace Park]. Retrieved December 13, 2014 from islandmusic.coconutnetworx.com
  3. [Online Images of Bob Marley & The Wailers Album Covers]. (1973-1980). Retrieved December 13, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. [Untitled Movie Still of The Predator searching for Dutch]. (1978). Retrieved December 13, 2014 from avp.wikia.com
  5. [Untitled Movie Still from Marked For Death]. (1990). Retrieved December 13, 2014 from mubi.com
  6. [Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean]. (2003). Retrieved December 13, 2014 from http://www.tuenlinea.com
  7. [Online Image of Ernie and Bernie from Shark’s Tale]. (2004). Retrieved December 13, 2014 from standard.co.uk

 

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