Black History Month
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
by Lisa McDonald
Live Music Head
Although Ethiopia is the cornerstone of Rastafari,
the movement is rooted in a philosophy
that transcends nationality, geography and ethnicity.
Its foundation is the deep heritage of indigenous African wisdom,
the meta-physical knowledge systems and the philosophies
of transformation and transcendence that originate in Africa.
Rastafari articulates an inclusive narrative, experience,
identity and vision for all humanity.
The movement reminds people to awaken to
a new kind of global consciousness,
not limited by any type of boundary
but rather one that is based on our commonality, the I and I.
By re-claiming African heritage, Rastafari has given its adherents
a new historical address and a new historical destination.
For what was lost is now found, and the movement has created
a spiritual and ideological space where people can develop
a new relationship with their own higher Self.
This is the mystical revelation of Rastafari,
the process of discovering the original African being within ourselves
and the eternal identity at the root of what it means to be human.
The movement continues to grow because it is
a universal message with a common purpose.
It is indeed the story of our ancient future.
Directed, co-produced and written by Stuart Samuels, RasTa: A Soul’s Journey documents the travels of Donisha Prendergast, granddaughter of musical legends Bob and Rita Marley, as she explores the roots, evolution and impact of the movement known as Rastafari. In the opening scene, Donisha describes a car accident that she survived, what being a Rasta Woman means to her, and the importance of the journey she’s about to take. The journey that’s meant to help her discover and connect with where she comes from, where she’s been, where she needs to go, and where she needs to be.
Her journey begins in Ethiopia, where His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, and a defining figure in Ethiopian and African history is revered by the Rastafarian Movement as “Returned Messiah of the Bible”. Donisha talks with people here as she travels through Shashamane, the spiritual land of Rastafari. Selassie had donated 500 acres of Shashamane so that the Rastafarian Movement, Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) officers, members and settlers from Jamaica, and other parts of the Caribbean, would have a place to go in Africa.
The second stop on Ms Prendergast’s journey is London, England where between the late-50s and the late-80s, some of the most violent riots happened, largely due to tensions between black and white communities. The film touches on the Brixton riot of 1981. The entire United Kingdom had been affected by the recession, and Brixton was an area with serious social and economic problems, the local African-Caribbean community suffering particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than average crime rate. While in London, Donisha talked with people about Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who the government proclaimed “Jamaica’s First National Hero”, a leader who inspired a global mass movement and economic empowerment known as Garveyism, which closely resembles the Rastafarian Movement. Garveyism is the complete, total, and never ending redemption of the continent of Africa, by people of African ancestry, at home and abroad. Marcus Garvey, says Donisha, “died from a broken heart”.
Next stop: Israel. Rastafarianism being rooted in the bible, it only made sense for Donisha to travel to the Middle East to see firsthand how the Rastafari Movement relates to Hebrew and Judaic people. And from what’s depicted in the film, it seems the “one love” message embedded in roots reggae carries as much power to the Israelis as it does the Jamaicans. As an aside, Stuart Samuels also co-directed and co- wrote Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream, which chronicles how Jewish immigrants founded and built Hollywood in the early 20th century. The film garnered Samuels best director honours at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival and best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
Next stop: South Africa. At this stop, Prendergast examines the connection between the politics of Nelson Mandela and the music of Bob Marley. We learn about the Rasta rising of the 1990s, Apartheid, and equal rights and justice from the conversations Donisha has with the South African people living there today.
Next stop: Canada. In 1967, Canada celebrated its centennial year with celebrations across the country. One of the most popular events was the Montreal International Expo, where the first international head of state to arrive was the King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, who developed relations with the Canadian government, especially regarding educational programs in Ethiopia. We see Donisha playing drums on the streets of Toronto and talking about the importance of drums in reggae music with Dalton Higgins, who believes the Rasta way of life may be getting lost in the vast pool of Toronto’s multiculturalism, and how not many are eager to take on the burden of what living the life of a Rasta really entails. Multiculturalism was a new word to Donisha, and a word she will remember first learning in Toronto. The doc also shows 1970s footage of Bob Marley as he prepares to perform at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The last stop on the journey is Jamaica, Donisha Prendergast’s home town. She was born not far from Hope Road in Kingston, the capital and largest city in Jamaica. There are historical black and white images in the film of Selassie when he first stepped foot on Jamaican soil, and all the people who came out to greet His Majesty. Reggae music was first developed in Jamaica, and toward the end of the documentary, The Rasta Chant, reggae music most moving for this writer, makes an appearance via Bunny Wailer, the singer-songwriter-percussionist who was also a musical cohort of Mr Marley. The story of Pinnacle is also brought forth during this part of the journey. Pinnacle is a Jamaican town or commune that was formed by Leonard Howell in the 1930s as a safe-haven for thousands of blacks to live and work, located in Sligoville, St Catherine. Howell, born in Jamaica, was a preacher known as “The First Rasta”. Between 1941 and 1957, Pinnacle was raided several times and hearing about the government’s retaliation against the Rasta Movement brought out the most emotion in Donisha. The truth of how ugly humanity can be will do that.
Bob Marley makes several appearances in the documentary. The singer-songwriter and rhythm guitarist who fronted the ska, rocksteady, and reggae band The Wailers, remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music, and is credited with helping spread both Jamaican music and the Rastafari Movement to a worldwide audience. Marley’s music was heavily influenced by the social issues of his homeland, and he is considered to have given voice to the political and cultural nexus of Jamaica. Rita Marley also makes an appearance in the film. She sits with Donisha and tells the story of meeting her husband Bob for the first time, what it was like to watch him die, and what it means to her to be a Rasta Woman. Donisha Prendergast, daughter of Sharon Marley and niece to Ziggy Marley (leader of reggae band, The Melody Makers), seemed most happy upon returning to the nurturing countryside of her upbringing.
Having shared stories with journalists, film makers, professors, poets, dancers, community activists, singers, writers, broadcasters, and the everyday spiritual folks she met during her travels, this journey could also be called “Rastafari and The World”; a well-produced historical document, as well as a warm-hearted love story of self-discovery, and what it means to accept and have pride in your ancestry.
Donisha Prendergast currently lives in Miami, Florida pursuing a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Film and Digital Production.
RasTa: A Soul’s Journey website…
Royal Ontario Museum website…