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Exploring Ras Tafari Culture

April 2011

Jamaican attorney, Marcus Goffe, Legal Advisor to the Ethio-Africa Diaspora Union Millennium Council, introduces the Ras Tafari culture and explores what the community is doing to protect and preserve its cultural identity.

Ras Tafari is a unique and distinctive community and culture comprising mainly Africans and descendants of the African Diaspora. Its formation was inspired by the coronation, on November 2, 1930, of a black African named Ras Tafari Makonnen as Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia1. His followers, known as Rastafarians, believe that, according to Christian biblical prophecy2 the Emperor was the manifestation of God or “Jah” on earth. The Ras Tafari community seeks to preserve its African ancestry and the traditions it has inherited and sustained in the face of slavery and colonialism. The community has always strongly affirmed its desire for repatriation to Africa, the physical and spiritual homeland of its ancestors, millions of whom were forcibly displaced during the 400-year transatlantic slave trade.

“Nyahbinghi” is a fusion of earlier
African-Jamaican forms. Ras Sarge seated
before a three drum ensemble (repeater,
bass and funde). (Photos: Jake Homiak,
International Rastafari Archives Project,
Smithsonian Institution, USA)

Although a relatively young community, Ras Tafari culture has a broad reach, permeating popular culture globally. This is in large part due to its influence on reggae music and the success of musicians like Bob Marley, whose work has spread Ras Tafari philosophy far and wide. Migration has also expanded the culture’s reach with communities established most notably in Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, the United Kingdom and other European countries, as well as in countries of Central and South America. The Ras Tafari community is trans-boundary, physically rooted in Jamaica, but spiritually rooted in Africa generally and Ethiopia in particular.

Although considered indigenous to Jamaica, in the non-legal sense, the Ras Tafari community does not qualify as an indigenous community under prevailing international norms, because it did not exist prior to colonization. The Ras Tafari community emerged against a backdrop of poverty and oppression and identifies its members as descendants of indigenous Africans forcibly displaced to Jamaica by slavery and colonialism.

The Ras Tafari culture is a unique fusion of African cultural traditions and Caribbean cultural influences. Having adopted the red, gold and green colors of Africa, Rastafarians can be easily identified by their traditional hand-knitted tams (“crowns”), scarves and other adornments, as well as by the traditional dreadlocks worn by many.
With the broad appeal of the Ras Tafari worldview and the global standing of reggae music, traditional Ras Tafari symbols and imagery have been popularized and used extensively in commercial products ranging from T-shirts, jewelry, arts and crafts items, smoking paraphernalia, hats, clothes, bags and shoes. Very few of these products are made by Rastafarians, and none of the monies accrued from their sale benefits the Ras Tafari community.

The Ras Tafari community is most often associated with creating and popularizing reggae. At the root of this distinctive music are the oral testimonies relating the Ras Tafari’s struggle to preserve their religious and cultural identity in Jamaica. Originally inspired by their experience as marginalized Africans in Jamaica, reggae music evolved from traditional Ras Tafari drumming patterns and the community’s spiritual ideology.

Although much has been written about the Ras Tafari over the past 80 years, to date it has largely come from secondary sources. Little has been based on anthropological research involving first-hand interviews of community members. This has often led to the Ras Tafari being misunderstood and misrepresented, in turn fuelling prejudice and discrimination against the community. Empowering the Ras Tafari to tell their own history and define their identity themselves can help to overcome such misrepresentation, misappropriation, and discrimination, thereby safeguarding the interests of the community. With a diminishing number of community elders, there is a growing urgency to document their testimony as a legacy for future generations.

Similarly, there is a need to further explore and record the evolution of traditional drumming techniques, chanting and ceremonial rituals, with a view to their preservation and protection. These ceremonies form the basis of Ras Tafari traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) and community continuity, enabling them to bond and interact as a cohesive whole. Many of these ceremonies – so-called “grounations” or “nyabinghis” – have been featured in documentaries made by those outside the community, but little research has been undertaken by the community itself.

I-tal garden

The Ras Tafari believe that “word, sound is power!” according great importance and significance to the community’s distinctive chants and rhythmic drumming. The ceremonial beating of decorative Ras Tafari drums, handmade from goatskin or cow-hide, along with the spiritual cleanliness of community members, is believed to evoke protective as well as offensive powers. Allowing the community’s traditions to be recorded and preserved and its cultural products to be produced by outsiders heightens the risks of misinterpreting their symbolism and meaning. If the community itself does not record its cultural expressions and interpret their meaning its core identity and cohesion is weakened, and outsiders’ interpretations become the primary reference.

Unlike its TCEs, little is known about the wealth of Ras Tafari traditional knowledge (TK). As strong advocates and adherents of a natural (“i-tal”) lifestyle, the Ras Tafari are, for the most part, vegetarians. I-tal signifies the unity of the individual with nature and includes a diet of natural foods that increases life energy or “livity”. Many Ras Tafari are agriculturalists and, along with others in Jamaica, continue the traditional agricultural and farming practices and methodologies passed on by previous generations. Traditional Ras Tafari land-based cottage industries include the production of artistic works, sculpture, jewelry, and clothing from coconut, banana, calabash and other natural fibers. These typically bear the distinctive Ras Tafari images, colors and symbols.

The community’s TK also includes know-how in relation to preparing and using herbal medicines in the treatment of a range of ailments and illnesses. The community is well known for its root wines or tonics, which are widely produced in Jamaica and the Caribbean. As holders of a rich heritage of TK and TCEs, the Ras Tafari community can be understandably upset, frustrated and at times angered by the misappropriation of their cultural assets by outsiders. Today, thousands of products and services are being passed off as affiliated with, or representative of, the Ras Tafari community – a problem that has been magnified by the Internet and the expanding online market place. Protecting the rights of the Ras Tafari community and regulating the sale of authentic Ras Tafari products is no easy task.

With the assistance of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO), the Ras Tafari community has embarked on several initiatives aimed at protecting the community’s rights over its TK and TCEs. In June 2007, the leaders of several branches or “mansions”3 and organizations of Ras Tafari met to establish the Ethio-Africa Diaspora Union Millennium Council (the Millennium Council), an umbrella organization seeking to advance the common interests of the Ras Tafari community, particularly in relation to cultural heritage and intellectual property (IP) rights.

In July 2007, the Millennium Council invited South African lawyer Roger Chennells to Jamaica. Mr. Chennells is well known for having represented the San people of southern Africa in their efforts to protect their TK of the appetite-suppressing “hoodia” plant. Together with WIPO, Mr. Chennells led a series of seminars in Jamaica on TK and TCEs. These events were well attended by members of the Ras Tafari community as well as those of the Maroon4 community. The seminars were especially important because, although cultural misappropriation had been a hot topic for many years, this was the community’s first opportunity to formally consider how IP, among other tools, could be used to empower them to do something about the misuse.

In 2008, the Millennium Council became an ad hoc observer to the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property, Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) and has since actively participated in its international deliberations. The Council also works closely with WIPO and JIPO to develop and implement a range of tools to protect Ras Tafari cultural traditions.
The Council has developed a model IP contract for use when researchers, filmmakers and others visit Ras Tafari communities to make audio or visual recordings. It has also drawn up an Intellectual Property and Cultural Heritage Policy, outlining the procedures outsiders must follow in order to access the community’s TK or use its TCEs. The JIPO fully supports these community initiatives and is working with the community to implement and enforce them.

Unauthorized commodification trivializes Ras Tafari cultural practices.

The setting up, in 2008, of a WIPO Working Group for the establishment of a framework for protection of TK, TCEs and genetic resources in CARICOM5 countries is further evidence of positive progress. The Ras Tafari community actively participates in these consultations and looks forward to the creation of an effective regional legal framework to protect the TK, TCEs and genetic resources of indigenous, local and other cultural communities in the Caribbean.

In August 2010, the Millennium Council organized, in cooperation with WIPO and the JIPO, the Ras Tafari Global Fora in Kingston, Jamaica, on the theme of “Traditional Knowledge and Community Rights”. The various forums focused on identifying and clarifying the rights of communities, in particular in relation to human rights, cultural laws, IP laws and TK norms. This provided an ideal opportunity for the Ras Tafari and other communities to better learn how to use the IP system to protect their cultural and commercial interests. The Millennium Council, through JIPO, has also requested WIPO to assist with an audit of Ras Tafari IP assets, TK, TCEs and genetic resources. Plans are also in place for the community to identify and register collective trademarks to protect authentic and original Ras Tafari assets.

The Ras Tafari hope that, in 2011, Jamaica and the Caribbean will be able to take part in WIPO’s successful Creative Heritage Project. This would go a long way to empowering certain communities in Jamaica, including the Ras Tafari, to document and archive their living heritage and culture. With the assistance of WIPO, the JIPO and others, the Ras Tafari community in Jamaica will continue to work to preserve, protect and manage its cultural assets and to realize its collective right to cultural self-determination and development.

1  Revered as the King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah
2  Christian Bible - Revelation 5:5 and Revelation 19:16
3  These include Bobo Shanti, the Nyabinghi, the Twelve Tribes of Israel and others. The term is taken from the Christian bible, verse John 14:2, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
4  Communities of runaway slaves were established in Jamaica in the 17th century. The term, ”maroon”, is derived from the Spanish word “cimarrón”, meaning fugitive or runaway.
5  The Caribbean Community

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