Jo Diamond's lecture on the topic, " Rastaman Down Under: A Reggae-Based Riff on Musical ‘Scripture’ in Marginalized Aotearoa New Zealand”


On 28 March, 2008, the ISS hosted Jo Diamond, scholar of indigenous Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand  cultures and ISS board member, as speaker for the third edition of its Distinguished Speaker Series. The lecture, entitled "Rastaman Down Under: A Reggae-based Riff on Musical ‘Scripture’ in Marginalized Aotearoa New Zealand," was a presentation of preliminary findings from her current research on Maori cultural and political history. Diamond examined the scripturalized intersections of Bob Marley’s legacy and indigenous expressions of Rastafarianism in present day Aotearoa New Zealand.

Diamond introduced her work by invoking the reggae-riffed voice of Che Fu, a popular artiste in the Pacific Islands and also a vocal advocate for land-reclamation issues in the region. Diamond foregrounded Che Fu’s interpretation of Bob Marley’s “Get up Stand Up” against her visual commentary explanation of Maori belief systems and the evolution of prophetic figures of protest in the Aotearoan encounter with European colonization. This prophetic tradition of political protest continues today in millennial movements and the Green Party’s advocacy of policies ranging from the legalization of marijuana to the protection of the environment. Diamond locates the burgeoning of these outspoken protest movements in Bob Marley’s visit to New Zealand in 1979, when indigenous Aoteraoans made immediate connections to the Maori struggle as a marginalized people.

Immediately following Marley’s visit and as a continued reference to his philosophy, Aotearoa experienced an increased production of reggae music coupled with a gradual articulation of Rastafarianism in a distinctly Maori key. Between 1979 and 1995, the reggae band Herbs rode the musical wave that Marley’s visit triggered in New Zealand and went on to gain international fame and recognition. Other bands like Trinity Roots and Fat Freddy’s Drop continued the popularity of reggae as other musicians incorporated such riffs with the traditional Pacific Trad and electronic dub. The hybridized musical movement encompassed popular reggae themes of Babylon, Rasta and ‘jammin’ as new vocabularies in the Maori language of cultural change and protest against colonization.

Along with a living tradition of indigenous prophets, Maori Rastafarianism drew from the reggae roots in Caribbean and Ethiopian traditions. Judith Binney noted these cross-continental connections in her book Redemption Songs, which places the Maori prophet Te Kooti (1829-1891) alongside Haile Selassie and Bob Marley in their use of scripture-d templates for articulating their lyrics and hopes. In his prophetic role, Te Kooti employed flight-from-Egypt templates for his visions in which the Maori escape the oppressive colonizer and also regain their former resources in terms of land and autonomy. Te Kooti also included hair as a scripturalized aesthetic. Citing Numbers 6:5 and locating the passage’s continuity in the cultural importance of hair for the Maori, Te Kooti set the template for later prophetic traditions’ emphasis on hair’s importance as visual signifier in Aotearoan Rastafarianism, with its visibility accentuated by dreadlocks.

Te Kooti’s successor, Rua Kenana (1869-1937), continued the protest under a vision of ‘Canaan’: his name echoes the biblical nation, and the idea of Canaan-as-other was used to forge a uniquely subversive Maori social identity. He founded isolated settlements with private standards and codes to assert their autonomy and resist the imperialist government. The vocabulary of Rua Kenana’s movement resounds with Maori transliterations that underscore the text-ures of the prophetic melding of different worlds: as Mihaia or Messiah, Hudai or Jews, Hiona or Zion, and apotros or apostles. Diamond speculates that the Maori heritage of music in chants and its rich poetic tradition facilitated the transition from this earlier prophetic tradition to Rastafarianism. Thus it seems likely that their native poetry and musical sensibility predisposed the Maori to adopt and develop the reggae-riffed scriptures during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Kinship groups in Maori culture trace themselves back to various prophets; Rastafarianism in Aotearoa functions in much the same way.  Proponents of claim movements in Ruatoria rally around the Ngati Dread movement, which advertises Rastafarian colors and advocates the growth and use of marijuana, all while grounding its genealogical ties to Te Kooti. In a self-defining moment, the Ngati Dread articulates its varied roots in the words of its creed, “The Rathaman was here right from the beginning, but for me the beginning was the word and the word was God. God is not blond-haired, blue-eyed, God is brown. We're Rasta - everything we do is for Rastafarai.” Such scripturalized claims continue to resonate in mainstream politics and governance. Nandor Tanczos and the Green Party promote indigenous issues alongside Rastafarian ideals. The fusion of prophetic protest movements with a reggae worldview has been immensely popular; inhabitants today regard Aotearoa as a Rastafarian country. Nevertheless, Aotearoan Rastafarianism consists of a particular Maori interpretation with its own historical and cultural nuances.

Rastafarianism remains palpable in modern day Aotearoa New Zealand. Dreadlocks serve as conspicuous popular expressivity in popular media and culture. Aotearoans celebrate Waitangi Day, a New Zealand national holiday that commemorates a treaty with Britain, on February 6, also Bob Marley’s birthday. Accordingly, today’s Waitangi celebrations signify the Rastafarian color on Maori expressions of the past and hope for the future. The prominence of Aotearoan Rastafarianism has incited scholarly appreciation of Rastafarianism as a fundamental reference point for academic discourse and research in and on New Zealand. In making lateral inferences across other areas of research, Rastafarian ideas resonate in contexts of marginalization, where weaving as a culturally devalued expression articulates its universally applicable philosophy. Thus, in Diamond’s eyes, weaving and the Maori appropriation of Rastafarianism serve as metaphors for the promise of respect between cultures and of mutual cooperation that reinforces and strengthens the colorful tapestry of society at large.

In sum, Diamond forces us to consider the dynamic and often surprising processes of cultural contact, resistance, and assimilation. Questioning how a society’s beliefs, ideas, values and systems transform yet remain inextricably linked to earlier expressions of the same, Diamond forces us to think through issues of hybridity and essentialism. The Aotearoan experience of cultural imperialism prompted the subversive fusion of Maori culture with scripturalizing counterculture of Rastafarianism. Not strictly limited to its expression in New Zealand, this kind of hybridity often goes hand in hand as hallmarks of one cultural phenomenon are blended and redefined by their incorporation into another cultural context. The result of such hybridizing practices is often a kind of scripturalizing whereby appropriated and newly created signs acquire meta-meanings that have the effect of fashioning community.         

Questions for further discussion:
Diamond’s work suggests that the embracing of one colonized culture’s scriptures by another marginalized community, even at great distance, articulates shared resistance to colonialism writ large. If the borrowing is one-directional, what sort of relationship between colonized communities should we say this scripturalizing creates?

Waitangi Day celebrates a foundational treaty with Britain that accords special rights to the Maori as well as establishing the nationhood of New Zealand. Might we see this kind of holiday as itself a kind of scripturalizing—the commemoration of a document upon which a people stakes its identity? (We might also think of July 4 as U.S.A.’s Independence Day as one of many correlates.).

By pointing out the layering of Waitangi Day as well as the broader melding of an already scripturalized Rastafarianism with Maori traditions, does Diamond’s work propose that what is already scripture-d tends to lend itself to further significations and scripturalization? 

To see the event flyer, click here 


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