Jamaica’s 1972 poll was the Caribbean island’s first reggae election. Even though Rastafarians typically didn’t participate in politics, their theology was gradually gaining attention through its icons, music (reggae), language and symbols. The progressive People’s National Party (PNP) under the leadership of Michael Manley used this effectively in its campaign.
The PNP asked reggae singer Max Romeo if they could use his song Let the Power Fall. “It wasn’t intended to be a slogan song,” Romeo told Dorian Lynskey in his book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day. “But Michael Manley heard it and thought it would be a good slogan for the party and I said, ‘Yeah, go ahead’. He was a good man. There was a lot of suffering in Jamaica and he was aware of it.”
The PNP swept to power in the non-violent poll after 10 years of the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) at the helm. Liz Kerr wrote on the University of Vermont’s Dread Library website that Manley’s victory was largely because of his appeal to the urban youth and the “sufferahs”, as the unemployed and dispossessed are called. Many among the younger generation saw Rastafarianism as a Jamaican expression of black power.
Two years into power, the PNP formally introduced democratic socialism as its policy. By the time campaigning started early in 1976 for the 15 December poll, class and race were firmly on the agenda – both parties chased the poor, black vote. The JLP also scrambled to use Rastafarian symbols, language and music in this campaign. Politicians even dressed up in the ubiquitous knitted Rasta cap, the tam, and Kariba suits to be down with the Rastas.
“Rasta had gained acceptability and respectability, it was accepted as a part of Jamaican life,” explained Anita M Waters in Race, Class, and Political Symbols: Rastafari and Reggae in Jamaican Politics. “The Rastas sensitised the national consciousness in attitudes toward black and poor.”
But the parties’ Rasta-pleasing messages and clothing got drowned in bloody violence as the 1976 elections became marked by strife; 100 people were killed in the first six months of that year. Members of the JLP were accused of being directly involved in the violence.
The ghetto’s newspaper
It had a dramatic effect on reggae because the genre was – as singer Jimmy Cliff called it – the ghetto’s newspaper. Perhaps the most potent song, worthy of the front-page lead of that “newspaper”, was Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon.
It’s the title track of a magnificent album released in 1976, which with The Heptones’ Party Time (1977) and Junior Murvin’s Police & Thieves (1977) formed part of a reggae Holy Trinity, all produced by the genius Lee “Scratch” Perry in his legendary Black Ark studio.
That Romeo co-created one of the ultimate conscious reggae albums might have come as a surprise to many people. He was, as All Musicdescribed him, a “purveyor of the most abject slackness” (sleaziness). Romeo, born Maxie Smith in 1944, started his career in the 1960s when his debut song Wet Dream made the UK singles top 10 chart in 1969 and launched a new style of Jamaican music that included overtly sexual lyrics. The BBC later banned Wet Dream.
But in the 1970s Romeo took an oath to Rastafarianism and embarked on a more conscious route, resulting in the politically charged, religion-focused War Ina Babylon.
With the title song, Romeo wanted to deal with the election-related violence looming around any Jamaican street corner, claiming it was “dread out there”. Producer Scratch was keen, but suggested a change that would become one of the best-known opening lines in reggae: “It sipple out deh,” or “it’s slippery [dangerous] out there.”
This warning in Romeo’s keening, admonishing voice set the scene of 1976’s sweltering, sweaty and ominous Jamaican summer, with political tribes fighting their war:
War inna Babylon, tribal war inna Babylon
Let me tell! It sipple out deh
Despite the politicians’ pro-Rasta “narratives”, it was grim out there:
The barber-men nuh like de Dreadlocks-man (ah-ah)
The Dreadlocks-man nuh like de barber-man, no (ah-ah)
The policemen nuh like de Dreadlocks-man (ah-ah)
The Dreadlocks-man nuh like de policemen, no
Romeo laments powerlessly:
I man satta at the mountain top
Watching Babylon burning red hot, red hot
Life didn’t improve after the elections, it got worse. No wonder Rastas remain suspicious of politicians and their “politricks” to this day.