A Cult Reggae Classic Deemed “Too Controversial” Finally Gets US Release

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Babylon (1980) portrays Jamaican musical collectives, called sound systems, as movements of decolonization and resistance.

Jah! Rastafari! This chant, repeated like a mantra, is a cry of faith and defiance. In the film Babylon’s closing scene, the dreadlocked antihero Blue sings this prayer over heavy beats, calling for a return to the promised land as the dense crowd bounces up and down in trance. Babylon (a word used by Rastas to mean police and anything related to corrupt Western colonial societies) is knocking down the walls of the Brixton warehouse this crew of Jamaicans has taken over for tonight’s celebration. It has chased, battered, accused, and arrested every one of them. Racist Babylon has sprayed fascist slogans all over their walls, called them heinous names, and ordered them to go back home. Capitalist Babylon has stripped them off their land, enslaved them and exploited them. And now, two hundred years after being taken away from Africa, this reunion is their only hope and joy.

Released in 1980, two decades after Jamaica’s independence from Britain and three decades after Windrush brought thousands of workers from the West Indies to help rebuild postwar England, the movie captured the tragedy of an artistically prolific society at grips with deep poverty and strife. Rastafari, an evolution of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African prophecies which condemned the corrupt legacy of Western imperialism and urged a strengthened connection between people of the African diaspora, developed elaborate rituals where rhythmic drums and chants, combined with psychoactive ganja, helped followers rise above their pains. While Bob Marley became the global prophet for this spiritual (or “roots,”) evolution of reggae, the rebellious “Dreads”(slang for people of the Rasta faith) were routinely persecuted in Jamaica and abroad. Music, and the massive sound systems (collectives of like-minded DJs, engineers, and MCs) born on Kingston’s streets amid gang violence and the booming local sound industry, became central to their identity, a space for activism and resistance.

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