Growing up a Surfer and Rasta in Jamaica. Part III. A Trial by Fire and Herb. A Scuttlefish Feature.
by Chris Dixon
Growing up Rasta. Photo Courtesy: The Wilmots.
My parents were once active in the Twelve Tribes of Israel organization – which is one of the major houses of Rastafari. Twelve Tribes came about for the purpose of repatriation to Ethiopia. The iconic Rasta colors; red, green and gold, when worn or arranged with the red at the bottom is indicative of the Twelve Tribes. You may have noticed this arrangement in the head-dress of Iconic reggae singers including Bob Marley. Twelve Tribes is also the Rasta movement with the strongest reggae music legacy. At their headquarters in Kingston, there is a music room located front and centre, which has honed many reggae greats.
The other major groups are the Bobo-Ashanti and the Nyabinghi Order. The Bobo-Ashanti wrap their locks in turbans and have separated from society in their communal village called ‘Bobo Hill’ in the hills of 9 Miles, Bull Bay. Curiously I have never visited the camp–which is only a mile from where I grew up – for no other reason than I’ve never had a reason to. However, my earliest exposure to the Bobo was in the person of a family friend named Priest Harrold who would visit regularly. He was without exception immaculately neat and one of the most pleasant persons I’ve ever known. As a little boy he would refer to me as ‘My Lord’.
Bobo is a priesthood which may or may not be similar to monkhood. Their name honours the Ashanti of West Africa who are ancestral relatives of Africans in the Caribbean. They live by a very strict set of rules within their community. While there are many reggae music icons from the Bobo-Ashanti, such as Sizzla and Capleton, their traditional music consists of hymns and chants.
“It’s Jah Jah we’re praising.” From the Mystic Revealers’ album; “This One’s for Jah.”
The Nyabinghi Order is the oldest of the Rasta movements, known for its communal drum circles which last for days. Nyahbinghi are non-violent activists, believing that it is for Jah to make the final judgment and punishment. However, the movement uses word-sound power to bring about change and liberation. I’ve only attended a few binghis (drum circles), but the memories are awesome. A massive tabernacle is constructed by the group which houses the gathering. There is always a massive bonfire, and then there is the chanting and drumming throughout the nights for days on end. Hundreds of voices singing together.
When they got to having babies, my parents were no longer as active in Twelve Tribes and so we were not a ‘part of the community’ in that sense, but while we did not grow up participating in the Rasta community, we did grow up Rasta in terms of the lifestyle and moral values. When I think about it, the core value was simply to do good. It is simple to say but to do good always requires constant self evaluation, situational evaluation and some kind of moral compass bearing.
Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
Indeed, interestingly enough, one of the major expectations that the general Jamaica public has with regards to Rastas is morality. Aside from the lifestyle differences, Rastas are expected to be of and are held to a higher moral standard than others; people will even hold Rastas to a higher moral standard than they hold themselves.
My parents had a very keen sense of morality and humanity and all our major life lessons came under this theme, but all in all, my parents were not extreme in their Rasta complex. For them it was more about one’s intentions and actions as a Rasta than the little nuances of everyday life. They also never taught us Rasta beliefs in a religious sense. I actually can’t remember ever being taught anything about Rasta as a religion by my parents. It wasn’t until one day at high school, after being grilled by classmates about my “silly religion,” that I finally asked my father why he never taught us anything about the Rasta religion specifically. His response was that I should read the Bible from front to back.
“Don’t sit and idle, pick up your Bible. Read one chapter every day.” From the Mystic Revealers’ song “Rasta Man.”
I never made it all the way through it, but there was a lesson there – a lesson in parenting and a lesson about being an individual. A lyric of Burning Spear that I have come to love holds the same lesson “It is good when a man can think for himself.”
It’s Good. From Burning Spear’s Album: Man in the Hills.
At one time I asked my father why we wore dreadlocks and he pointed me to the bible again. It was a part of the Nazarite vow, which is pretty much the prototype for the Rasta lifestyle. The vow is a commitment to a lifestyle pathway to holiness or purity, and one of its many requirements is that you let the locks of your head grow. He pointed out that this vow is for a prescribed time that you must determine yourself, and that at the end of that time you can remove your locks, but that doesn’t make anyone less of a Rasta. The vow also spoke of making animal offerings at the end of the period as a sin-offering, but dad explained that Jesus died for our sins and so this was not necessary and that prayer would suffice. None of us were ever asked to take this vow, but that lesson put things into perspective.
Inilek and Billy. Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
With regards to the lifestyle side of our upbringing, we were not the perceived stereotype of the hardcore Rasta family; who eat uncooked food or refrain from walking on manmade surfaces and wear no shoes in order to keep themselves connected to the earth, etc. I guess maybe it could be compared to not really being a part of the biker community but having biker parents and a wardrobe full of hardcore biker clothes all through your life. So, yeah, I was a kid with dreadlocks, but back in the 80’s to 90’s dreadlocks were not a fashion statement as they are today. In fact, at university was the first time anyone asked me if I was a real Rasta or just wore dreadlocks. In my formative years in Jamaica, it was just a given that dreadlocks meant Rasta.
And of course, all this brings me to the stereotypes surrounding “herb.” Growing up, herb was simply around constantly, and because of this, I never thought anything of it. It was something adults did and we knew we were simply not to do as kids. As a teenager I tried it a couple times, but never picked up the habit, which always comes as a surprise to Rastas and non-Rastas alike. I never had a negative or positive perception of herb. It was just something that some people do. And herb is not just a Rasta thing in Jamaica, a lot of Jamaicans smoke it and carry on normal lives. Herb is only ever a problem when confronted with the law of the land.
Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot and Steve Gorrow.
Now as for how the outside world perceived our family; I think being born into a Rasta home as we were set the stage for an identity crisis and a social trial by fire. This is primarily because we inherited what is still considered today a radical worldview, without having lived the experience that brings one to such views. This was compounded by the fact that Rasta parents tend not to pass on their beliefs to their children in the same way that Christians do; and I reference Christianity because it is by far the dominant religion in Jamaica. Unlike Christianity, winning people over to Rasta is not a core value of Rastafarianism.
Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
In fact, Rastafari beliefs encourage free thinking through one of its core values; ‘reasoning‘, which is deep intellectual discussion among members and non members. The end result is that during my earlier years I felt a bit of a social outcast for views that I did not live the experience to develop and was not old enough to even fathom. However, I have come to realize that I was actually incredibly fortunate to have had the freedom of being ‘outside the herd’ in a sense, free from that silent peer pressure which is in my opinion a mild form of brain washing. This allowed me an outside-in perspective of Jamaica’s most popular religion and the ability to see that all these kids I grew up with were also inheriting these radical ideas – but they were served up very normally in a large common dining hall. I also developed the opinion that all inherited views are radical somewhere and to someone; how radical they are is really a function of context. And so in my opinion, all of us were very similar. In a sense I was dining in an adjacent room but we were all in the same building. But in the opinion of the majority of my peers, and I’m assuming here, I was the different one dining over there in that Rasta room.
Sister Imani, mom Claudette and brother Isack. Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
In the end, surfing played a bigger role in my lifestyle during my upbringing than being a young Rastaman, while being a Rasta did more to shape my outlook on society than surfing did. Surfing to me is bliss. It is perfection in an imperfect world, a perfect escape, a bubble within which the complexities of the universe align and become simple. But it starts at the shore and stops at the beach.
Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
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 Inilek’s first story for The Scuttlefish: Where There is Life There is Hope. An Ode to Maurice and the Seafarers