Monique Bedasse, an assistant professor in history and African and African American studies, is a historian whose work crosses national boundaries, retracing the paths taken by people in the African diaspora. Her new book is Jah Kingdom: Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism in the Age of Decolonization. In anticipation of her upcoming faculty book talk at Olin Library on March 5, we sat down with Bedasse to talk about Rastafarian politics, Tanzania, and the body as archive in historical research.
Let’s start with the background for this project. How did this idea come about?
I went to Tanzania for the first time in 2005 to study Kiswahili at the University of Dar es Salaam. My intention was also to begin research for a project on Tanzania’s participation in the liberation struggles of southern Africa. I’m Jamaican so I took note of the images of Rastafari everywhere–on the buses that roamed the streets of Dar, in the markets, on artwork, all over. This did not surprise me as popular representations of Rastafari have become very common around the world. But then I started to talk to Tanzanian Rastas and I was struck by the fact that those I encountered chose to emphasize that they were “serious Rasta” or “Rastafari by faith.” They made a clear distinction between “serious Rasta” and those who were merely admirers of Bob Marley or marijuana smokers. A Rasta couple owned and operated a store that sold what they referred to as “traditional African clothing.” I was really intrigued by this desire to declare an African identity in continental Africa through Rastafari. Then I met a Rasta woman who informed me that Ras Bupe Karudi, a highly respected Jamaican Rastaman, lived in Dar, that he was “very serious,” and that though she was happy to provide me with his number, it was not likely he would talk to me. My first meeting with Karudi lasted four hours. A week later he delivered a box of primary documents to me. These sources set me on a very different path and from there I started to do research in different archives around the world, along with oral interviews with the people who actually repatriated, Tanzanian state officials and others.
In the book you argue that Rastafari is often understood through its cultural expression, which risks overlooking the significance of repatriation, black radical politics, belief, and diaspora in the history of the movement.
Most people think of Rastafari’s international growth through the prism of culture: reggae music, art, etc. And so the assumption is that this is the most significant way in which Rasta has traveled. I don’t deny that it is an important medium through which Rastafari accomplished global recognition. But I am asking readers to make a conceptual leap: to think about Rastafari’s international growth less in terms of its transmission through popular culture and more in terms of the movement of Rasta people. I focus on movement through repatriation to Africa and to Tanzania in particular. When we make shift this away from popular culture to repatriation then we focus on Rastafari’s international growth in terms of the actual evolution of the movement from within; through the perspectives of Rastafari people. This opens us up to the history of how these Rastas-on-the-move remained connected to black radical politics and how, through repatriation, they became deeply entrenched in a pan-African network that included scholars, laypeople, state actors, black power activists, pan-Africanists and freedom fighters from the liberation movements of southern Africa. Furthermore, we do not lose sight of Rastafari’s religious imaginaries and rituals.
You said that Ethiopia remains the promised land for many Rastafarians. What drew the Rastafarians you write about in this book to Tanzania instead?
This repatriation happened within the context of the rise of Tanzania as a mecca of pan-African activity in the 1960s. The country’s first and most influential leader, Julius Nyerere, was a well- respected pan-African leader and world statesman. Pan-Africanists around the world were aware of Tanzania’s reputation and many Black Power activists and others traveled to Tanzania. But it is also the case that by the time my historical actors in particular begin to make the move to Tanzania in the mid 1970s, there had been a Marxist coup in Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, the movement’s divine figure, was removed. Though Ethiopia remained the “promised land” for most Rastas, Selassie’s subsequent death and the turmoil in Ethiopia led some to explore other parts of the continent. For Joshua Mkhululi, the Rastaman who initiated this particular repatriation, it was a very pragmatic decision: he was aware of Tanzania’s reputation and he wanted a “peaceful place” to “resettle.” For those who followed him, they were inspired by the fact that Tanzania granted permanent residency with the option for citizenship and land to Rastas.
I was struck by the phrase, “trodding diaspora,” which you use to describe Rastafari’s global growth. What does that concept mean for your work?
Rastafarians use the word “trod” to refer to travel or journey on both a physical and spiritual level. I coined “trodding diaspora” and use it as a theoretical framework to capture what I’m trying to do with the book. It has four components. First, it reinforces movement as a critical part of Rasta history. As Rastas on the “trod,” they moved within, between and beyond the boundaries of any particular nation-state. Second, it centers Rastafari’s understanding of Africa as the root of diaspora and underscores the fact that Africa spoke back to its diaspora and helped to shape it. This means that Africa was not merely a root waiting to be claimed, rejected or framed. And it’s important that I have both movement (routes) and roots discourses in this framework because previous ideas of diaspora have separated transnationalism from the idea of an African root. Many have assumed that if we’re preoccupied with Africa as the root of diaspora it means that we’re not interested in movement and we’re not interested in routes (as opposed to roots). And so I’m arguing that such a dichotomy is a false one and that they coexist.
The third point is that we must take seriously this transition from dream to reality. There is an idea of Africa that meets the realities of continental Africa on the ground through the repatriation, and this process is important.
Finally, trodding diaspora brings us to the archive. I’m making an intervention about how we write diaspora. To reconstruct this history is to understand that because my historical actors imagined the world and actually lived their lives on transnational terms, my research process could not be contained in any particular nation state. In the same way that Rastafari disrupted the idea of a Jamaican nation state, it also disrupted the idea of a national archive as the way that we conduct research. And so in following Rastafarian bodies on their journey I was also following the archival trail they created. Theirs was a trod that crossed all of these national boundaries, making them far less rigid and concrete. I could not have reconstructed this history had I not followed these Rastas around the world to locate primary sources. I also make the argument that these Rastas on the move embodied the archive. This is related to the fact that Rastas have always been reticent and skeptical when it comes to sharing knowledge of Rastafari with scholars. They have certainly left documents for historians to engage but they take with them all of this knowledge, which is ever-evolving and they are also producing new ways of being Rasta, learning from these travels and not always leaving written documents behind. The idea of them traveling with this knowledge is at the heart of what I call this embodied archive.
What can we learn about the evolution of Rastafari through attention to the experiences of Rastafarians themselves?
Fundamentally, this is what I call an interior history of the movement. Rather than an emphasis on the perspectives of those who have adapted Rastafari to very different local circumstances around the world, I am concerned with the movement’s evolution from within. Rasta was marginalized in Jamaica when it emerged in the 1930s. So the fact that we now think of Rasta as Jamaican culture means that Rasta went through this transition that could not have been foreseen in that period. This standard approach to Rasta’s evolution reinforces a linear transition from, in the words of one Rasta scholar, “outcasts to culture bearers.” But this has largely been the history of how the wider society has responded to Rastafari. This framework also assumes that the serious concerns of Rastafari were no longer relevant in the post-independence period; that their critiques of racism, capitalism etc. were the preoccupations of a bygone era. But, as Jah Kingdom shows, conditions of inequality across the black world were reproduced in different ways after the end of formal colonial rule. Rastafari was a very important part of a black radical community that witnessed, theorized about and sought liberation from oppressive circumstances in the post-independence period.
Monique Bedasse talks about her new book Monday, March 5 at 4:30 p.m. in Olin Library, Room 142 as part of the Library Faculty Book Talk Series.