The Rastas Are Coming, the Rastas Are Coming!

There's a war on in Bob Marley's Jamaica. A dreadlocked lion stalks the beast of Babylon. And the rich bitch on the North Coast hopes they do it quickly like they do the goats

Bob Marley performing live on stage at the Jaap Edenhal, Amsterdam on June 13th, 1976. Credit: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns/Getty

Michael Monley, the prime minister of Jamaica, was paying his last respects. A ranking PNP (People's National Party) hard-liner had been shot point-blank. Probably some JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) sportboy did it, although plenty of people had reason, considering the guy in the coffin was known to have a few notches on his gun - that's not a manner of speaking, that's literally. Apparently this cowboy used to pull it out wherever he was - at a cocktail party or a King's House reception for the Cuban hospital committee - he'd get it out and just oh so nonchalantly feature the notches on the butt. At one point he was Michael's chauffeur. So this was a solemn state occasion.

Michael doesn't show up on the street so much these days, not like he used to before the bottom fell out. He can't take the chance. This day, as the funeral procession wound through the streets of downtown Kingston, it took a wrong turn; the graffiti changed from Seaga Is a CIA Agent! to PNP! Assassin! and Michael found himself in JLP territory. It was a near thing. Six of Seaga's sportboys came hauling past in a hot Cortina shooting everything in sight and the PM was lucky to escape unscathed.

It's possible, of course, that this is not what happened. They may have been PNP sportboys in the car - by what oversight, after all, did the procession swing right? - it's possible the thing may have been staged so Michael could blame it on the JLP, if not the CIA, and get all the Gleaner correspondents off his back, not to mention most of his old friends who've been giving him a lot of pious libertarian cant on his proposal for a paramilitary palace guard to protect all those stupid little party buildings that have been going up in flames and safeguard the rights of passage of public figures. Everybody suspects the PNP of burning their own buildings...and so on. Nobody really knows, so you end up believing everything you're told and not believing a word anybody says. What's certain is that the heat's on down here.

You don't hear a lot about it. So far, the government has done well to keep the lid on. Manley shows up on the BBC in his sharp bush jacket talking a lot of dapper radical common sense about the endemic psychology of dependence afflicting the psyche of any post-colonial society, and the essential need to direct all that useful energy going bad into something productive and pride enhancing, like digging ditches on the Spanish Town Road. And everybody is disarmed by the amiable high-minded couth of it all. Not until this year, now that Bob Marley's Top Ten, has the word got out and spread. The bottom's fallen out. There's a war on in Jamaica, the government is under siege, and Manley's in the hot seat.

Manley, remember, came to power in his shirt sleeves. He went up into the hills carrying the rod that Selassie had given him - the Rod of Correction he called it - and they flocked to him in jubilant throngs. He wept for them. After ten years of slack JLP government, Manley won in a landslide. His campaign record, "Better Must Come," went to Number One in Jamaica, and he took to the job right away.

There was something a bit ominous about the LP he put out, a kind of sampler of his thinking. And then there was a little white book of resonant pensées and a hardcover called The Politics of Change. On the cover was a moody head shot of Manley in shadow, his chin in his hands, his brow furrowed, grappling with the imponderable gravities of post-colonial adolescence, thinking. Well, the Rastaman out at the beach has a look at that portrait and he says, "It look like Michael write the book, but him not sure if he write the book right..."

That was in 1972, and Manley looked good for a run. He won not only because he milked the aspirations of the dirt poor and downtrodden, he had the support of the money too - he wasn't going to be pushed around anymore by the big bauxite outfits and the hotel owners. He had the right idea about that. And he started wrong. For a while there, if you hit the spot in Jamaica, the word was "bauxite!" That was the charisma of the whole bauxite adventure. Michael staged an OPEC-style face-off on bauxite, the Alcoa and Reynolds board rooms quaked and grumbled and threatened to go to the World Bank, but Michael kept it up, refused to accept arbitration, and the companies started talking about all that bauxite in white Australia. But they've got close to $800 million invested in Jamaica and they gave ground. Manley won a hefty new levy, and the right to see the figures. And just then, the bottom fell out. Aluminum slumped, and it's still slumping. Nobody says "bauxite!" anymore. Now it's "Roots!," "Natty!" or "Ites!," meaning "Higher Heights!" Meaning the Rastas are coming.

Bauxite was the main vein of the economy. And now, now that Time and the Wall Street Journal and all those hysterical yentas from the weekly magazines have been down, the word's out about the tanks in the streets and the six o'clock curfew and the Gun Court and how you might be woken up at three in the morning with a flashlight in your eyes and a machete at your jugular and some jumpy cowboy full of white rum snarling, Bloodclooot! Sodomite!

Tourism's off as much as 50%. And now most of the tourists are low-rent small fry who come in on an Air Canada charter from Quebec or somewhere and eat all their meals free and spend about $30 in a week, maybe buy a straw hat. The big fry, the backgammon players playing for ten percent of their declared income per point, are in the Bahamas. Up in Ocho Rios, Bunny is feeling the pinch. He runs boat trips out of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, deep-sea fishing trips where as soon as you get out to where they're biting the client is sick from the swell and wants to go home. What Bunny's been thinking about is selling the island off by the square fool. You buy a square foot of beautiful Jamaica for, say, $5 and you get a joke certificate for the rumpus room wall, and all the money would go to buying land and, say, building a playground for the kids. Not all the money; you could put up a playground for around ten grand, and the way Bunny's got it worked out that's only your first 2000 investors.

What's killing Manley - and what may get him killed - is that he hasn't been able to deliver what he promised in the way of creating employment and decolonizing and socializing the economy. His best moves have backfired. His vision of himself at the head of a powerful Caribbean coalition is split down the middle. Trinidad and Barbados are sitting tight on their fattening GNP and buying British, while Guyana's so far gone into delirious doctrinaire Marxist hyperbole, they're all going round calling each other "comrade." Manley remains on the brink, head in hands. Guyana refueled the Cuban airlift to Angola. Barbados refused. Manley, just 90 miles to the south, was saved from playing his last card too fast.

The fact is, the island is just about bankrupt, and a lot of what's left is leaving. Thirty thousand Chinese fled last year. And a great deal of money is going out in stereo cabinets and teddy bears. Food prices are going up fast, unemployment is epidemic, there are sudden shortages. They even ran out of rum for a couple of days before Christmas, another day and it could have gotten really ugly. Macabre, somehow symptomatic ballups keep happening, like all the poison counter flour that went out this spring. About 20 people died, one father of six took his youngest to hospital, only to see the other five come in and die, one by one.

The reason it may get Manley killed, and killed by one of his own guns, it because it's all gone to his head. His best punches have fallen short. But he's not finished yet. He worked for years in the sugar unions, and he came to power with a vision, a grand missionary design to rescue Jamaica from its rudderless drifting and remake the nation in his own image - like Nyerere did, or Mao, or Castro. A whole nation in bush jackets! He can't stop now. That would betray his manifest destiny, to abdicate the vision to all those meatheads in the JLP. From where Manley sits, he has been charged by a higher authority than the fickle affections of the electorate, a kind of historical imperative, clear only to him, to save Jamaica or die trying. So he's digging in. If it means he has to devalue the dollar or suspend the elections, even if it means having to lean on Seaga and the JLP and stir up a bit of burning and looting - he won't stop now.

Down in West Kingston, rival party gangs run the streets. When they collide, and they collide all the time - they can't help it; they're all so wired up and trigger-happy and they're breathing down each other's necks - the whole street goes up. Manley blames it on the CIA. CIAga, the smart graffiti say. But not everybody believes him. They're more curious, not to say alarmed, about all the Cubans everywhere. Building schools, building hospitals, nobody seems to know how many of them there are, and the Gleaner correspondents and a lot of Michael's old friends who helped him get elected can't see why he's so stoked to have them when half the island's unemployed. There's news in Spanish on the radio. And nobody speaks Spanish in Jamaica.

There have been cabinet resignations. The minister of national resources quit recently, claiming Michael was smitten with Castro and the way he'd put the country to work and accused him of maneuvering to turn Jamaica into a totalitarian communist fiefdom. Michael said forgive the guy, he's cracking up (we've been keeping it a secret) - and whoever says they've seen a secret crack corps training in the hills is lying. And they'd better watch out, because he's come up with a new law, what's called the utterance law, which makes it a felony to make an utterance designed or construed to undermine the elected authority and disbars the felon from ever holding public office. Meantime, Castro is due in Kingston on Labor Day.

The frightening thing about Jamaica is not the cowboys with the machetes. It's that you can be stopped at a roadblock and your car searched, and if they find so much as a single bullet, bam! you're gone to the Gun Court, and you're in jail for the rest of your life. And a bullet's not very big. The Privy Council in London ruled that indefinite detention was unconstitutional, but Manley got around that. He made it a mandatory life sentence for possession of a firearm, no appeal.

The man in the drugstore in Liguanea Plaza has to laugh. He's feeling a certain pressure. He owns the novelty shop opposite, and he just had a customer in there and they were talking about the political vendetta and last night's massacre down in Jones Town where an eyewitness in an upcoming murder trial was shot in his bed, and his son too - he just happened to be there - and the customer says, "You shouldn't be talkin' about all them things. You could get shot." And the shop owner says, "I might as well get shot for something. They're gonna shoot me anyway." And he laughs, a girlish soprano giggle that catches in his throat, his tonsils rebel, his eyes bulge and for a moment he nearly chokes.

The other day, the pressure got some poor fiend at the zoo and he jumped in the lion's pit. They pulled him out with minor cuts and bruises. The next day he broke out of hospital, went straight back to the zoo, and this time the lion was quicker. This man's death gives rise to a lot of keen speculation - irresistibly recalling to the Rastas the image of Daniel in the Lion's Den. You will remember that it was Nebuchadnezzar who put him there, and Nebuchadnezzar, you will be continually reminded in Jamaica, was the last king of Babylon. So you can imagine when you get a bunch of Rastas on song sitting round working on a good draw and contemplating the imminent apocalypse, the image of this guy in the lion's pit is sheer poetry - a manifestation of the prophecy. Daniel was the one who figured out the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. And Nebuchadnezzar's dream is a key passage for the thinking Rasta, being a bravura blockbuster, foretelling the utter destruction of Babylon. Such as is happening now.

Babylon is on a thin wire," Locksley says. This guy has the best locks in St. Ann's. He takes off his tam and his locks are so plentiful they're all piled up and coiled on top of his head like pope in peat and he can polish off a bottle of Red Stripe in the time it takes for them to stir and start to slip and finally unravel to a point below the small of his back - "These are the last days," he says. Jamaica is amok, but he's not just talking about Jamaica, he means look at Guatemala, Angola, Rhodesia, Lebanon, England rotting, the paralysis of the OAS since the death of Selassie. A lot of Rastas see the death of Selassie as the final act - the Beginning of the End; the signal that Babylon is coming down and the redemption of the tribes of the Lion of Judah is at hand. Some of them think it's time to wage war. The whole Rasta posture as a disenfranchised passive pariah minority lost in homesick lamentation is starting to wear thin. There is not, never was and never will be any consensus---there are Rastas who don't accept the apparent fact of Selassie's ascension but await his reappearance; Bob Marley says Jah Lives, and what he means is in the beginning was the word and the word was Jah. Others don't have any time for Selassie at all. There is no Rasta dogma. There is only each man's angle on the revelation, and they can always penetrate the subtext and discover for themselves chapter and verse enough to persuade them, for instance, that there is a time for peace and a time for war, so there are a few peace-loving brethren who have got it into their heads it's time to cut a few pertinent throats. There's talk of marauding Rasta gangs out at Bull Bay.

Others, your nouveau noire Rasta intellectuals who have only lately seen the light in the East, are measuring Rasta strength in numbers. And the numbers are growing to the point where in any election Manley might permit, whoever won would be whoever the Rastas trusted, and one thing most of them agree on is they don't trust him. Not anymore. A lot of them fell for him in 1972 when he was going round with the rod Selassie gave him and quoting Marcus Garvey, but not anymore. Now, they call him the Beast.

Jamaica is in the throes of a Rasta crise. The whole island's gone totally I-tal. Not just all the kung fu kids getting it off the jukebox, either, but also a lot of the remaining middle class alarmed by Michael's megalomania. Prominent heiresses, people he went to school with, who still feel a strong attachment to the island, have begun to accept what they long suspected was true - the Rastas are right. The way to live on a small agricultural island famous for the most effortless narcotic in the world is to sit around all day smoking herb and talking in tongues and let it all fall down. Maybe water the yams, weed the dasheen, milk the goat. Better than going up and down in an elevator.

And Bob Marley is Top Ten in Babylon. Over on Hope Road., in the big pink mansion that used to house Island Records in Jamaica, the nattyheads have taken over. Marley owns it now.

He is, though, feeling a certain pressure. Top Ten in Babylon, Rolling Stone band of the year, out there defending the revelation in all those flaky gyms and cinemas all over America, set upon in motel rooms by all those peabrains from the weekly magazines asking him a lot of low consciousness questions like, "How often do you wash your locks?" and "Where were you born?" "Zion!" he says, with a delicious grin, and right away the poor woman's lost, she's got lockjaw, her eyes are smarting from the smoke - what does that mean, Zion?

Then they say he's enigmatic. Hardly, Birds flock to him. The Rasta kids tell you Bob just squats down on the beach and a gull fetches up at his feet and he and the gull converse there for a little while, and then Bob heads off down the beach and - disappears. Now you see him, now you don't. He vanishes. Do you believe that? You may smirk, they don't care - if you're not privy to the mystic revelation of Rastafari, and you can't get your miserable guilt-ridden flesh-eating consciousness above your belt, you haven't got a hope. That's your problem. If the only power you ever heard of was electric light and the internal combustion engine, then you know nothing about high science.

Take a simple thing like DeLaurence. DeLaurence, or somebody by that name or something similar, is a post office box in Delaware. Down in Jamaica, this DeLaurence is a serious thing, a lot of people know from their own dealings with the thing that there's high science at work and once you deal with DeLaurence you'd better pay the money or you'll suffer for it, like the woman pursued by house bricks. Wherever she went, they flew at her. If you are lovesick or bent on revenge, if you want to pass an exam, you send off to DeLaurence and you get some stupid comb, or a pen. That's all. But the people who deal with DeLaurence fear him worse than the devil, and they say he never fails. The house bricks killed the woman in the end.

Do you believe that? A lot of people in Jamaica do. They go to the obeah man for a cure. You never know. When a Rasta, like a man who wandered in one day called Izzizzi-I, tells you that he hears a voice and the voice is teaching him to speak in tongues and right here on this 45 demo he's made is the formula that will cause lightning to strike and thunder to roll - you hesitate before you put it on. What if he's right? He says the police tied electrodes to his testicles and drew out 12 children, but the 13th child escaped and lodged safe in his eye - "See it!" he challenges, "see it there!" - and such is the intoxicating eloquence of a Rastaman on song, such is the sheer lyric genius, you lean forward, you search his rheumy eyeball, following his finger. You forget that what you are doing is looking in a maniac's eye for a fetus, or something....

By then, so many weird hairy little things have been happening, say you'll throw a pair of dice and one will fall on the floor, and no matter where you look it simply isn't there, only to turn up half an hour later in the middle of the lawn - and worse things too dreadful to mention. So that by then you know what they meant when they used to talk about island fever, which is a kind of psychic frenzy, and you find yourself walking around muttering, "I'd better get out of here." It gets that intense, because everybody in Jamaica speaks poetry, and the Rastas speak algebra, and the pressure on everybody is getting so drastic it's comparable to being in a place where the entire population is pie-eyed and peaking on some lethal drug that bares the cortex and warps time, and what's more they're all armed. Which is pretty much how it is. Ganga remains the cash crop on the island.

Michael's lost stroke might be to legalize it. He never would, he couldn't, the international outrage would bury him. It'd get him the vote, though. He's thought of it - a few PNP faces have toyed with the idea in little speeches here and there. What's certain is that Michael is going to have to pull a stroke soon or it's going to be all over. It's slipping away from him. And he retreats further into brooding isolation, strengthening his defenses, lending his presence only rarely, in case he gets shot - meditating on his new design, what he now calls democratic socialism. Nobody knows what he means by that, but with Castro breathing so heavily to the north, they dread to think.

A woman on the North Coast is cleaning the pool. She's standing on the paving stones with a brandy and dry, the sun drenching the pink facade of the hacienda beyond, the marble interiors gleaming cool and spacious within, talking about the last time she saw Noel Coward and supervising the efforts of the yard boy with the pool vacuum. To the east and west, an unbroken panorama of virgin coastline dropping into the sea, which looks silver from here. "As long as they do it quickly," she says. "When they cut my throat, I hope they do it quickly like they do the goats."