A photograph from Jamaica’s One Love Peace Concert in 1978 shows an ecstatic Bob Marley, dreadlocks flashing like lightning conductors, at the center of the stage. Beside him stand Michael Manley, the country’s grim-faced prime minister, and Edward Seaga, the equally tense-looking leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which was then engaged in a bloody power struggle with Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP). In a gesture of peace, the three men clasp hands above Marley’s head.
In the late 1970s Jamaica was on the verge of civil war. Each party disparaged the other’s leader. Manley, the radical leader of the socialist PNP, was mocked as “Fidel Castro’s poodle,” while Seaga, as the head of the capitalist JLP (which its rival believed was bankrolled by the US), was cast as “CIAga.” Since 1962, when Jamaica won its independence from Britain, the two parties had become pathologically partisan. Both held the unshakable belief that, as the political activist Donavan Phillips said, “When your party is in you eat; when the other man’s party is in you starve.” The nightly news showed gunmen—political enforcers—crouched behind burned-out vehicles firing at each other. The violence led to hundreds of deaths.
Marley, as a Rastafari whose creed dictated separation from the state, declared allegiance to neither party, but after it was announced that he would headline a free concert sponsored by the prime minister’s office, he was targeted over his perceived support for Manley. In 1976 Marley had been shot and wounded by JLP gunmen who broke into his compound. He fled to the UK. But two years later, as the violence escalated, both warring political parties sent emissaries to London to plead for his return. They were desperate to recruit him for a peace concert they hoped would stop the bloodshed.
Marley’s part in the improbable and fleeting truce between Manley and Seaga signified the changing fortunes of Rastafari, the pseudo-Judaic sect and social movement founded in Jamaica in the 1930s by the charismatic street preacher Leonard Howell. Until the One Love Peace Concert, it was inconceivable that a man who identified with such a despised group could be regarded as a peace broker.
Like most Jamaicans, Rastas are descendants of enslaved Africans, but unlike their compatriots they regard themselves as Africans in exile. “Jamaica is an Island,” they say, “but not I land.” Their destiny is Zion, the biblical Land of Israel, which in the Rastafari vision is transposed to ancient Ethiopia, a utopian otherworld to come. A century ago, many black people in the diaspora took comfort in the notion that actual ships, such as the fleet of the Black Star Line envisaged by Marcus Garvey, would take them to Ethiopia. In his final composition, “Redemption Song,” Marley channeled one of Garvey’s most inspiring speeches, from 1938, in which he prophesied that self-determination would lead to redemption: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
Rastas adopted the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, as their spiritual leader, and believed that he was Jah, God incarnate. Though the emperor (born Tafari Makonnen) did not conceive of himself as a representative of Rastafari, he was venerated as a deity for his part in the restoration of the notion of an ancient African civilization. Selassie’s mission on earth, Rastas believed, was to champion black men and women the world over. His commitment was unquestionable, never more so than in 1963 when he addressed the UN with a speech that Marley later put to music: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned…the African continent will not know peace.”
Over the decades, as more members joined, Rasta creeds and practices evolved. Rastafari was never a homogenous movement, but the aggregated groups, arranged at first in small numbers of “yards” or “houses” and then into larger assemblies of “mansions,” came to be bound by a uniform system of beliefs. All Rastas see the institutions that maintain the status quo in Jamaica as agents of Babylon to “down press” (suppress) them. By “chanting down Babylon,” they voiced their opposition to colonial oppression. In Trenchtown, Marley attended Rasta “groundation” ceremonies (gatherings with Nyabinghi drumming, discussion, and the sharing of ganja-filled chillum pipes) that often began with a chant: “Death to the white man and his brown allies.” Suspected of fomenting a rebellion in Jamaica in the 1950s, Rastas were rounded up and imprisoned in large numbers.
Harassed by the courts and the Jamaican police and army, they increasingly withdrew from society. They were feared, especially by the middle class, as unfathomable “black heart men” and vilified as feckless, work-shy criminals, drugged up to their eyeballs with marijuana (“ganja”), spouting otherworldly nonsense. Two decades later, Marley, the most famous Rastafari worldwide and poster boy for the movement, was portrayed as a unifying force, seemingly the only person able to mediate between the two political parties. When Jamaicans described the peace concert later, they likened Marley to Christ on the cross between the two thieves.
Marcia Douglas’s new novel, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, casts Marley in another messianic role. The King of Reggae, in the book’s central conceit, has returned to earth fifteen years after his death in 1981. He enters the body of a destitute Rasta street preacher called Fall-down (a fallen angel), who before accepting Marley’s spirit could be found wielding a staff on the streets of Kingston, his approach preceded by the jingling of his brass Africa-shaped earrings, guiding traffic with the principle that “all directions lead to hell.”
Douglas uses this fantastical premise both to illuminate the mysticism of Rastafari and to pose questions about Marley’s continued influence on Jamaica’s spiritual life. “Signs and symbols surround us on a day-to-day basis,” she said in a recent interview, “but do get overlooked in the hustle of our fast-paced world. This book, in a very fundamental way, is about the secret gates in front of us, which we do not see.” In the story, it is through such a portal, in the clock tower in the Half Way Tree district in Kingston, that Marley travels between earth and Zion.
Messiahs have regularly featured in Jamaica’s history, warning of the world’s wickedness and the imminence of Armageddon. Travelers who come into contact with Rastafari, especially those from rural communities, are often bemused by their appearance and the way they use Old Testament language even when discussing mundane matters. The phrase “I&I,” referring to the speaker and God, becomes a first-person pronoun; it denotes the belief, central to Rastafari, that God resides in the individual.
Douglas is interested in exploring the ways in which the resurrection of Marley, Haile Selassie, and others points to a long-standing current of Caribbean thinking that is only partially tethered to the structures of modern life. Beliefs in animism, spiritualism, and Obeah (witchcraft) persist under the surface of Jamaican society, even among the educated elite. For Rastafari, power emerges not only from inviolable faith but also from their dreadlocks, which many adherents grow to satisfy a Nazarite vow not to cut their hair. In the 1950s the police often tried to humiliate Rastas by cutting off their locks. In Kei Miller’s novel Augustown (2016), the brutal shearing of a youth’s dreads hastens the arrival of the “autoclap,” a cataclysm that by the end of the novel has enveloped all of the book’s characters. In The Marvellous Equations of the Dread, disaster is foreshadowed by the treatment of a deaf Rasta woman called Leenah, who as a child had her dreadlocks cut off and set on fire by a spiteful teacher. The smell of burning hair has followed her into adulthood.
Marley, whose father abandoned him soon after his birth, found father figures in Coxsone Dodd, the owner of the record label Studio One, and the Rastafari teacher Mortimo Planno. An immense, gnarled bullfrog of a man, Planno inducted Marley into the ways of Rastafari and championed Rastas (who were sometimes referred to as “beard men”) for challenging the state’s authority. His language often resembled that of the beguiling tricksters in the Jamaican folktales known as Anansi stories. “The total colonial System,” he wrote in an unpublished monograph, The Earth Most Strangest Man, “is Threatened in the Caribbean with a bearded Revolution.”
Planno was one of the earliest Rastas to write cogently about the movement, but the first Rastafari character to appear in a novel was the protagonist of Brother Man, written by Roger Mais in 1954, around the time the first Rastafarian community, outside Kingston, was raided by the colonial government. Brother Man is a simple cobbler who inspires locals through his reputation as a healer. He’s a Christ-like figure in the cloistral slums of Kingston, a man with deep understanding who “spoke with such simple directness that it seemed to give a new import to everything he said.” But when it is reported that a Rasta has killed a man and raped his girlfriend, Brother Man is scapegoated and violently attacked by his neighbors, the poor “sufferahs” whose privations he shares.
Mais’s sympathetic portrayal of Rastafarians set him at odds with the prevailing middle-class prejudices of the time, and was in sharp contrast to V.S. Naipaul’s comic skewering of his idiotic Rasta character, Man-man, in Miguel Street five years later. Man-man goads his followers to treat him as a resurrected Christ who must be crucified one day. But when they call his bluff and start to stone him, as instructed on the day of crucifixion, he is appalled. His erratic behavior eventually leads to his incarceration in an asylum.
Man-man was inspired by Alexander Bedward, the messianic preacher often seen as a precursor to Rastafari, who also ended his days in a psychiatric institution. On December 31, 1920, his followers assembled in Kingston and, intoxicated by his preaching of “flying away home,” climbed trees and awaited Bedward’s signal to jump and ascend to heaven. At the appointed hour they leaped and plummeted; many were left with broken limbs. Jamaica’s main newspaper, then called The Daily Gleaner, printed a mocking headline a few days later: “Bedward Sticks to the Earth.”
Such attempts to ridicule Bedward were born of the authorities’ great fear of his teaching that in Jamaica’s structural inequalities slavery had continued by another name. Bedward reminded the faithful, many of whom would later become Rastafarians, that even after emancipation the majority black population did not have the vote, and that through the political class’s willful neglect, unemployment was high, and poverty and privation were widespread.
In the 1970s middle-class distaste for Rastafari was challenged by the growing international popularity of reggae. With the profitability of this cultural export, Rastafarians were exoticized with astonishing speed. University lecturers started to “locks up” their hair and “praise Jah.” In Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), a fictionalized version of Marley called the Singer tempts “high brown” middle-class women into his bed. At a party attended by both real Rastas and dilettantes, Nina, one of these women, scours the room for impostors:
I’m already looking for [those] who found the true light of Rasta, but are really here just to give their uptown parents grief. There’s just so much sex you can have with a man who doesn’t use deodorant or a woman who doesn’t shave her armpits or legs. Maybe to be a real Rasta you have to be into man musk and woman fish.
Sympathy for the genuine Rastas—the sort that Mais expressed and Naipaul rejected—has become a central theme in recent Jamaican fiction. Middle-class authors such as Miller, James, and Douglas cast their lot with the nation’s poor sufferahs and take seriously the redemptive power of prophetic figures like Bedward, Howell, and the wise Rasta elders. These writers seem driven, through their privileged positions and a sense of civic responsibility, to illuminate the huge disparities in wealth (the yearly minimum wage in Jamaica is just over $2,600) that produce the violence and despondency plaguing the underclass.
Douglas is concerned with the fragility and deepening injustice of society that lead to the coarsening of human relations; in her novel, Jamaica is a country where families leave newborns on the steps of churches to be adopted by whoever passes, and where adolescents demonstrate their manliness through gang allegiance, robbery, and murder. Its population is lost and in need of salvation. The spiritual and revolutionary fervor once displayed by preachers seemed to diminish after Marley’s death; The Marvellous Equations of the Dread is a stimulus toward its revival.
When Marley returns, in Douglas’s fantasy, hardly anyone recognizes him. One exception is Leenah, who sees right away that Fall-down is Marley, the father of her daughter, Anjahla. The subtitle of Douglas’s book is “A Novel in Bass Riddim,” and her ambition to inject musicality into her prose is established from the first pages, in which Leenah instructs Anjahla to pay attention to Jamaica’s history:
There is a bass-line that pulsates along the faults of this island, from the Blue Mountains to Santa Cruz, from Plantain Garden to Rio Minho…. Bass riddim moves underground and the sea lurches, dragging flotsam, broken shells, and ground hipbones…. For the bones of our kin are in the waters—the grainy debris of slave cargo…. The dead can be agitated by unfinished business…. Bob has unfinished spirit things here; our underground bass is the riddim he’ll ride on his return.
Revolutionary lyrics to several of Marley’s songs—“We’re sick and tired of your ism and skism game”; “Zion train is coming our way”—are seeded throughout the novel as if they were clues to a secret code, which adds to the complex structure of the book. The Marvellous Equations of the Dread is composed of half a dozen recurring strands, including an unreliable ledger of historical events kept by a fallen angel, the unfolding news around Half Way Tree, and track titles for an album called Dub-Side Chanting with the equivalent of liner notes that chart Marley’s progress on his return to earth. The chapters are further broken up and studded with Rasta aphorisms and proverbs, so that the book gradually begins to take on the qualities of a devotional text. At times, it strains to corral its many monologues and occasionally fanciful story lines. Nonetheless, this is a brave and strange book, as idiosyncratic as the Rastas who inspired the title of Planno’s The Earth Most Strangest Man.
Zion in The Marvellous Equations of the Dread turns out to be a dreary place. But propped up on a nutmeg tree at its entrance is a sign that would surely gladden the heart of any reggae musician: “Studio D: The Dub-Side.” The holy herb that fills the yard is an unexpected bonus; the wisdom weed will fuel the endless opportunities for “reasoning” (Rasta debate) offered by eternal life.
Further delights come with complications. When Marley arrives in Zion, his first encounter is with a toothless old man in a torn shirt peeling sugar cane whose identity soon becomes clear: His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie. In Zion, it seems, you check in as you checked out from earth. Marley’s missing dreadlocks, lost during the final stages of the aggressive but failed medical treatment of his cancer, are not restored; Selassie’s dentures are still in a glass of water by his bed back on earth. Douglas offers a compassionate portrayal of Selassie as a pious Christian, a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church who has taken his rightful place in Zion.
After Selassie’s death in 1975, his family bequeathed to Marley the emperor’s ring, which, it was believed, had been passed down the generations from King Solomon and bore the royal insignia of the Ethiopian monarchy: black onyx with a lion engraved in gold. In Douglas’s Zion, Marley is thrilled to be able to give the ring back to Selassie. When the emperor points out that it is a replica, a crestfallen Marley determines to return to earth with the fake ring to find and replace it with the original. And so the quest begins.
Back on earth, Fall-down becomes convinced that Marley is calling him from the other world. He walks in the direction of Marley’s siren-like voice into the bowels of the clock tower and reemerges as Marley himself, delighted to once again have dreadlocks but slightly unnerved by a “feeling of standing on Jonkanoo stilts” (he has grown several inches). But Marley has no memory of his mission to find the ring; all he remembers is that he has a week before he must return to Zion.
Though some Rastas live in settlements that provide for subsistence farming and serve as tourist centers, in cities many eke out a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets. Fall-down/Marley’s odyssey suggests the perils of street life in Jamaica, where there were more than 1,200 murders last year. Toward the end of the book, police shoot and kill Leenah, aiming at Fall-down/Marley, who had broken into the clock tower and emerged “naked with a staff in his hand, chanting down Babylon.” Her death is pitiful but seems inevitable; the violence in the novel is so random that everyone’s death feels foretold. Nonetheless, in Zion, Leenah will be reunited with Marley, and in the great cosmic scheme of this book there’s constant traffic between this world and the next.
As a child I was always counseled to be kind to destitute strangers, since I might unknowingly be entertaining angels. It’s a sentiment reflected in the novel, in the fear of some who encounter Fall-down/Marley that he might be a duppy (an unhappy spirit roaming the earth), but it’s also an admonition drawn from the Bible: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The earthly cast of The Marvellous Equations of the Dread do not seem to have received that memo. Fall-down/Marley is treated with the kind of scorn reserved for homeless Rastas, to whom Jamaicans’ reverence for Marley (as witnessed when the entire island turned out to line the route of his funeral procession) never did extend. By bringing Marley back as a street Rasta, Douglas has restored him to his presanitized state and accents his simple but revolutionary message that Babylon is bent on the destruction of the poor. Fall-down is so hungry that his belly is knocking on his backbone. But his daily plea to strangers, “a patty and a box drink for this ring,” arouses suspicion—fake Judah rings are already much in circulation. Haile Selassie’s ring can’t even be traded for a cheap snack.
The tragicomedy surrounding the fate of the ring in Douglas’s novel resembles the disputes over its provenance that took place after Marley died. For the reggae singer, Haile Selassie’s ring was invested with great symbolic power. In his biography Catch a Fire (1983), Timothy White recalls Marley admitting that wearing the ring gave him a sense of awe: “Ya know, sometimes dis ring, it burn my finger, like fire.” Soon after Marley’s death in 1981, his family and elders from the Rastafari sect Twelve Tribes of Israel began squabbling about who should take ownership of it. Marley was eventually buried with the ring still on his finger. In response to angry protestations from Rastafari representatives over whether that was really the case, Marley’s mother replied, “De ring gwan back ta where it come from, same as Bob… It back on His Majesty’s mighty hand.”
As the novel unfolds, finding a volunteer to claim the fake ring takes precedence over discovering the original. Eventually, Marley gives the ring to a stranger, the only willing recipient. It is the culmination of his quest. The passing of the ring to someone essentially anonymous underscores Douglas’s implication that if we pay attention we’ll find that there are successors to Marley in our midst. As for Marley, Douglas suggests that he has passed on the onerous responsibility to continue Haile Selassie’s work on earth, if only temporarily:
The Prophet knows that the work is not for him alone….He will dwell in this nyahmbic place, a dub-side warrior/holding communion with H.I.M. and the ancestors/visiting the visions of the youth and the dreams of the old ones urging the people on—Wake up! Wake up! Until one day when the earth tilts just-so/he will be called back again.