Growing Up a Surfer and Rasta in Jamaica. It Means Being More of an Outsider Than You’d Think. A Scuttlefish Feature.
by Inilek Wilmot
Marine biologist, fisherman and musician Inilek Wilmot (second from right) talks about the myth and reality of growing up a Rastafarian – and a surfer – in Jamaica. Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
Inilek Wilmot. Not too Far from Trenchtown. Photo: Billy Wilmot.
I grew up Rasta in Jamaica; I also grew up surfing on that rock. I didn’t and don’t however, see myself as a ‘Rasta-surfer’ – distinct from other surfers my family and I knew. The Jamaican surfing community was – and still is – so small that we’ve only ever seen ourselves as just surfers. We were spread across Jamaican cultural and socioeconomic borders but were a small enough tribe that there weren’t really any sub-groups – except perhaps being from Kingston, Bull Bay (the coastal community near Kingston where I grew up), or out east in rural Portland. Each of these subsets had their unique qualities, but whenever and wherever we came together, the fact that we were surfers has always overridden everything else.
From Left: Brothers: Icah, Inilek and Ivah Wilmot, Trinidadian Pro Surfer Jason Apparicio and Billy Wilmot.
Photo Courtesy: Steve Gorrow
But to persons outside the surfing community, my Rastafarian family was peculiar. Thanks to my dad, an incredible surfer who believed the sport could present an opportunity for Jamaica’s underprivileged kids, and a well-known reggae musician who also had a role on a Jamaican TV drama called “Royal Palm Estates,” surfing skyrocketed into Jamaican attention when we were teenagers. Then, like it or not, my three brothers and sister became minor celebrities. So we were a double dose of peculiar, because contrary to what you might expect, a Rasta kid in Jamaica was not as common as you’d think, and a Rasta surfer kid was almost unheard of.
Because of all this, my siblings and I had unique childhoods; quite different from others in our age group, other surfers we grew up with, other Rastas from our generation, or the Rastas who came before us. For all those who have wondered, and never wondered, what follows will be a glimpse into what life was like for a Jamaican surfer kid, growing up Rasta through the 1980’s into the 2000’s – with a focus on how Rasta and surfing shaped my life.
What It Means to Be a Rastafarian.
I see Rasta as a complex of identity, religion and lifestyle. The term can be applied to diverse variations of this complex, and so it is hard to define specifically who a Rasta is, or what it means to say one is a Rasta. There are several schools of thought within the Rasta community driving the active evolution of the lifestyle-belief system, but there are common, uniting threads. First and foremost is the inspiration drawn from and belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie (born: Tafari Makonnen in 1891), also known as Ras (or King) Tafari, from whom the movement gets its name. Ideas about Ras Tafari and the biblical story of the divinity of this Ethiopian king are the foundation of the movement and the identity and belief system side of Rasta. The other side is a lifestyle that seeks to find balance and find harmony with nature and humanity.
Newspaper illustration drawn by Charles H. Alston for the U.S. Office of War Information Domestic Operations Branch News Bureau, 1943
I believe to be a surfer and a Rasta and is to be within the ocean like currents of history. To be the offspring of that ‘Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,’ which brought Africans from the west coast of their continent to the Americas. The people deposited by slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean have endured extreme physical, mental and emotional hardships. Rasta represents their spirit of endurance and survival in one particular form.
At a young age I was aware that, again, contrary to popular opinion, Jamaica didn’t love its Rasta population. In fact, this could be said without a second thought through most of the ‘Rasta era’ of Jamaican history. It’s ironic that Rasta has become the iconic image of Jamaica, and that first-time visitors expect to find a nation dominated by Rastafarian culture; with Rasta colours flying everywhere, ganja smoke blowing, dreadlocks flying in all directions and the words and phrases ‘Irie,’ ‘Jah,’ ‘Peace and love’, ‘Hail the I’, ‘Ises’, among others jumping out from the conversations they hear around them.
Inilek’s Father Billy. Portrait by the Rasta Artist as a Young Man. Image Courtesy: Billy Wilmot.
The fact that today, there could even be a debate over the statement: ‘Jamaica doesn’t love Rasta’ is itself testament to tremendous change in the last couple of decades. While I still believe that Jamaica doesn’t love Rastas, I have seen that Jamaica has come to accept Rastas, and I would venture to say that Jamaica may even now like Rastas.
“Rasta Man” by Billy and The Mystic Revealers.
It’s important to go back a bit and understand what Rasta is beyond reggae music, irie feelings and ganja smoking in order to come to terms with my reality from an early age.
Rasta manifested in the early 1900’s as a radical Afrocentric movement on a colonial island (Jamaica was liberated from British rule in 1962) where the upper class and most influential were white to light skinned: a relic of the ugly history of slavery. This was manifested among the lower economic class, or the nearly 100% black descendants of enslaved people – a people long robbed of any feelings of self worth by not being able to identify with any cultural history beyond their enslavement. Because of this, they could only aspire to be like their enslavers and to not be like themselves. This was the dominant aspiration among most Jamaicans at the time Rasta first manifested, and it kept the pyramid of society together – for all of the base aspired to be a part of the pyramid. But Rasta manifested with a radically different aspiration, which was to be African and not of Jamaican society – or the British commonwealth.
From the perspective of the privileged class, there were frightening ideas within the Rasta movement. Ideas of black supremacy and entitlement to reparation for the inestimable value of lives lost and destroyed from 400 years of slavery. I’m sure it was also very alarming that the first ‘prophet’ of the movement was Marcus Garvey, a brilliant Jamaican who played a large part in inspiring the civil rights movement in the USA. Garvey is mentioned in the very first paragraph one of Malcolm X’s autobiography: “The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her (Malcolm’s mother) that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.”
Marcus Garvey Would Become a Icon of Rastafarianism.
Among the middle and lower classes there was also concern, mainly because of the religious views of the Rastas. Christianity is deeply entrenched in Jamaica, and our island has one of the highest number of churches per capita. So it was very alarming for the population at large when this group started chanting ‘bun jesus’, ‘we nuh want nuh white god’ and ‘Haile Selassie is the almighty God.’
Imagine if Jesus Flew Into Washington, DC For a Visit. Then Watch This Fascinating Documentary of Haile Selassie’s 1966 Visit to Jamaica.
The suspicion, fear and disgust that the society felt towards Rasta was expressed in several ways. Its least aggressive form was name calling. Rasta were dubbed ‘dread’ and their hair ‘dreadlocks’, or ‘knotty dreads.’ They were also called ‘black heart men’ and became the antagonists of stories told to frighten children. Rastas were beaten, their dreadlocks were cut off, and some were even executed. Jamaica’s first prime minister, Alexander Bustamante, made the infamous statement “Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive!”, and in the police training schools, images of Rastas were used as targets on the shooting ranges.
I was born in 1984, three years after the passing of Bob Marley – who arguably did more to popularize Rastafarianism than anyone. By this time much had changed; Rasta were beloved across the world and had also focused the attention of the world on Jamaica. There were now three generations of Rastas on the island and they had advanced from the outskirts of society. I grew up among Rasta doctors, lawyers, journalists, poets, artists and business owners. The Rasta community had become more diverse and had faced unique and shared challenges. But the diversification and integration of Rasta into society did not happen as a result of society welcoming those on the outskirts. It was more the result of persons within Jamaican society identifying with Rasta and determining themselves to be Rasta. It became easier to accept these Rasta aunts, uncles, children and friends, and for Jamaican society to then extend this acceptance to the other Rastas on the outskirts.
Inilek Wilmot is a Jamaican professional surfer, musician, Scuttlefish writer and is the director of the Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary. Currently, he’s working on coral gardening, fish and turtle conservation projects. He also happens to be a damn good writer who understands his home island in a way few outsiders – or locals for that matter – ever will. Visit his family’s Jamnesia Surf Camp here: http://jamnesiasurf.com/
Here’s his series on Growing Up Rasta:
Here’s his first story for The Scuttlefish: Where There is Life There is Hope. An Ode to Maurice and the Seafarers