Often I have heard, “Myers dat name soun familiar… A yuh related tuh—?” and, “Yuh nuh wa fi guh dung tuh dat part of Jamaica. Di Myers name a luk fah dung deh..”
As part of the black diaspora, one encounters rumours, myths, and what I can only describe as visions of a homeland I’ve never been to, but feel as if I have experienced its divine presence. Though I have never been to Jamaica, I feel its familiarity flow through me, embodied by the connections I have with the people I come from and are a part of.
In the calling and recalling of a name back to its roots, what kinds of people does one meet along the way, and what kinds of stories, or ways of relating, being, and belonging, come from these encounters? What familiarity can emerge from afar, from an unknown small town in the middle of the Jamaican countryside, to the most northern parts of Turtle Island? Through this lens, Silvestre Jacobi’s Roots Time (2006), as Jamaica’s first road trip movie, traces the history of Jamaica from the first enslaved Africans arriving, to the creolization of their heritage after centuries of displacement, to the adoption (or cooptation) of Rastafarianism as part of Jamaica’s national identity, all from a colourful buggy bustling out somewhere on the island.
Roots Time follows two rastamen, Jah Bull and Baboo, as they travel around the Jamaican countryside to small towns and make their humble living from LP sales—their regular route where they get nothing done and seem to lose more than they gain. As both Jah Bull and Baboo are Rastafarians, they spread positive vibes, peace, and love to the people around by broadcasting Farmer Roots’ radio station, “Out of Babylon,” to the people on the road.
The radio station, rooted in the culture and religion of Rastafarianism, spreads the good word of Jah. Not just a contemporary (re)interpretation of the Bible, Rastafarianism, “represents an attempt of the African soul to free itself from the alienating fetters of colonial domination and exploitation and to recreate itself in the image of Africa” (Edmonds 77). In tracing the horrors of the Middle Passage and the enduring legacies of modern plantation capitalism and slavery, Rastafarianism is a call back to the roots that aims towards, not only creating an African future that rivals that of the Messianic Era, but that also prophesizes the fall of Babylon—otherwise known as the global West. Jamaica, as a former Spanish and then British colony, ideologically, is positioned as part of Babylon. And like the expelled Isrealites, they must make their way to the promised land or Zion, which Rastas recognize as Ethiopia, and celebrate the birthplace and coronation of “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God.” Believed to be God, or Jah in the flesh by Rastafarians, Haile Selassie I, who is celebrated on July 23rd (otherwise known as Haile Selassie Day), is a day where all Rastaman join in thanks, community, and resistance with one another. And it is from this point that the film begins, on a national holy day (holiday).
In the opening scenes of the film, Farmer Roots, who is only known by voice thus far, imparts the teachings and histories of Rastafarianism to the people, tuning in from wherever they can in the Jamaican countryside. As a slice of life film, the camera captures the day to day lives of Jamaicans—fishing, farming, and playing music—while the Rootsman car busies various small town streets. Jah Bull and Baboo broadcast Farmer Roots’ radio station to the people with a speaker system attached atop their colourfully decorated buggy, which they use as a vehicle for circulating the Rastafarian faith selling LP’s from village to village. Along their regular selling route making stops and deliveries, they bicker and preach, broadcasting their every passing thought, whim, and story that comes to mind. From the unenthused looks of passersby and disappointed customers, this appears to unfortunately be routine for everyone. From one fruitless encounter to the other, Jah Bull and Baboo carry on unbothered, sending out irie vibes straight “Out of Babylon,” where Farmer Roots announces the special guest artists invited on the radio to perform live jam sessions for Haile Selassie Day. Entirely broadcasting reggae on the air, the program acts as a conduit for Rastafarian rituals and creeds, similar to what gospel or worship music is to Christianity, but emphasizes the necessity of political critique and protest in its content.
Comprised of Rastafarian philosophy, political protest, and Jamaican popular music of the time, Edmonds maps out across various research, that reggae:
As an anti-Babylon musical weapon, […] reggae has a threefold significance. First, reggae is the medium through which the people are restored to self-awareness. This is accomplished by telling the truth about their African roots and African identity, so that they do not have to chase after European trappings and lifestyle in order to achieve a sense of dignity. Second, reggae is the medium through which the people learnt the truth about the system under which they live. The reggae lyricists constantly portray the oppressive, deceptive, and divisive nature of Babylon. Third, reggae is the medium through which the poor express their frustrations with and grievances against the political and cultural guardians of Jamaican society and through which they express their demand for change and the need for a new reordering of society. Rastas and other reggae musicians are the self-appointed voice of the people, the ones who make known their causes to the Babylonian powers. […] As such, reggae has a particular attraction for blacks, who experience economic exploitation, political marginalization, and racial discrimination in their various societies (94-95).
Here, Edmonds breaks down three factors in which reggae is used as a rallying cry against the injustices of colonialism, and as an outcry (or wail) to go back home. In calling and recalling, I envision prophets calling to the people to heed their words of wisdom and the recalling of the message that the prophet brings to the people, who collectively come together to recollect the past and survive it. The simplicity and repetition of Biblical symbolism in reggae parallels the histories of extreme poverty that much of the country experiences on a daily basis. However, reggae with its’ Rastafarian roots, transforms helplessness into hope by calling out for decolonization, liberation, repatriation, and freedom. Reggae as the medium through which these calls for education, revolution, and resistance are instrumentalized, is believed to contribute to the fall, or otherwise known as, “beating down Babylon.” In this way, both Jah Bull and Baboo mobilize the Message to the people—whether imparting folk wisdom or creating their own reggae beats—on the road where their faith and values are constantly being put to the test.
The film is loosely structured around these episodic roadside encounters, as well as featuring reggae music and musicians who play on Farmer Roots’ radio station. After a run-in with an angry trucker and a faulty wiring mishap with the speaker phone system, Farmer Roots is seen flagging down the Rootsman car in the middle of the road, imploring both Rastamen to help in his time of need. Spirituality guides the Rastaman to live by a set of values that includes helping others when “they are in difficulty,” even if there is nothing to be gained in doing so. And so, out of necessity, they travel forward seeking aid along the Rootsman LP route, out of concern for the ill dawta (woman, girlfriend, or sister), Farmer Roots beseeches on the behalf of.
Now, back on the road and invoking the fullness of the Rastafarian spirit, Jah Bull and Baboo, at first, recommend a local bush/herbal doctor named Bongo Hu, instead of going to the hospital, which is located far away in the city (or Babylon). Though he preaches about Rastafarianism, Farmer Roots politely declines and asks the Rastamen to get him as close to the hospital as they can on their route, but each side insists and resists until they are at each other’s throats, frequently getting turned around, lost, and flat out going in circles. Not to mention, having to rely on opportunistic strangers who just want a free ride, at times carrying livestock until they guh an mess up yuh cyar wid fi dem wild bangarang—eventually leaving them behind in the dust. We all know deep down patience, kindness, and good run out when it’s being abused.
Passing from one small village to the other, through interconnected networks of other Rastaman, or bedrin (brothers), recognizable by their greeting of one another—“I see I” or “I and I,” appreciating the divinity and the wholeness of oneself in body and spirit, equal to another. In this acknowledgement, I find the core of Rastafarianism; meeting and recognizing humanity in another, body to body, spirit to spirit, in togetherness and oneness. Not unlike what many Jamaicans are conditioned to believe, termed prosperity gospel (a Christian practice that not only preys on the poor, but teaches that they should be grateful for their suffering in the likeness of Christ and will consequently be blessed for it), Rastafarianism asks us to see one another as divine. That, in this case, we willingly recognize and come to the aid of those in need, recognizing them as ourselves. An old Jamaican proverb says: Same ting weh tick sheep, tick goat (The same thing that happened to someone could happened to you.) Ras Tafari live! Jah Bull and Baboo, in seeking out the help of Bongu Hu, chasing only a name across sprawling villages with the best of intentions, mus’ rely on one another (and Jah) to find a healing for their sistren (sister). Sometimes you just have to carry on and go with the flow, because that’s all you can really do—count your blessings, be present, and be open to the unknown with pure intentions and positive vibrations. Deh a sum ting yuh ongle kno di moment dem hap’m enuh.
As day turns to night, knowing that they are close to where Bong Hu is, Baboo with present company, notices lights in the distance—one appearing after the other. After some time, the lights approach from the far hillside to where the buggy now rests and, from this meeting, it is revealed that they have finally found the place where Bongo Hu resides. They walk single file in the near dark towards the sounds of singing and drums beating, where a small gathering of Rastaman burn the chalice and reason with one another in the camera’s peripherals, as they make their way to find Bongo Hu in the yard. Once the dawta is left in the hands of Bongo Hu (not without apprehension from Farmer Roots at first), the healing itself is represented through the raw energy of the lightning storm that has descended upon the night. And as the storm quiets with the ritual complete, a new day has already come.
The journey to Bongo Hu’s takes us back to the roots of what we think we know, and what we believe to be true. Though they haven’t physically left Jamaica, the film captures the Rastafarian spirit to go back to Africa, which leads to a wild goose chase that Jah Bull, Baboo, and company experience along the way, seeking an infamous, yet elusive figure. Seemingly neither here nor there, they travel to the roots/routes of the name. By going back to African traditions, the characters go back to the roots of their people and what that means within the context of a society and peoples that have been denied their cultural heritage, identity, and community for generations. And as the end of the film suggests: “Africa is inside the people who carry the value of its roots,” pointing to, not only the resilience and survival of an oppressed people, but recognizing and understanding your own history and where you come from.
Though I may be physically separated from the place I now feel the most connected to in spirit, because of the people who carry the roots of where I’m from, I’ve come to know this place by many different names. I see I. As Farmer Roots suggests at the beginning of the film: “All you Rastaman had better believe that you have to keep going forward to the roots—which is Africa.”
Christensen, Jeanne. Rastafari Reasoning and the Rasta Woman: Gender Constructions in the Shaping of Rastafari Livity, Kobo ed., Lexington Books, 2014.
Edmonds, Ennis Barrington. Rastafari: From Outcasts to Culture Bearers, Kobo ed,. Oxford \University Press, 2002.
Jacobi, Silvestre, Director. Roots Time. Mistika Films, 2006.
Roots Time Movie: Movie Theater, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/Roots-Time-Movie-170488556310064/photos/?ref=page_internal. Accessed 29 Aug 2021.