Wednesday, February 27, 2019

"Joseph: A Rasta Reggae Fable" by Barbara Blake Hannah (Book Review)

I didn't want the story of the legendary reggae artist Joseph to end, and even though I knew it was loosely based on the life of Bob Marley and that the inevitable outcome was not going to be favourable, I still turned each and every page with anticipation that his fate wouldn't be as disappointing..."gone too soon". From the opening of the novel, the funeral of the fictional Rastafarian reggae superstar Joseph, the reader is introduced to just how significant this moment in Jamaican history is. His death is a loss to the music industry, and to the Jamaican community. His presence was necessary...and unfortunately lost.

This is the introduction of the journey created by author and cultural communicator Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah. Through her character Joseph, his associates and peers, she takes us on a spiritual and musical expedition as spectators to the historical milestones in his life. From the first moments of the novel, we are taken back to 1970s Jamaica, the political and social climate, and the circumstances that inspired Joseph's music. Although the book itself was written in 1992 (re-published by MacMillan Caribbean in 2005), it vividly presents a time that many of us have heard about and seen in archives, but never had the pleasure of truly experiencing.

The author, Ms. Hannah, had the honour of living in Jamaica at the time her novel took place. She knew Bob Marley personally, and was an intelligent and groundbreaking communicator in her own right: someone who was closely connected to the pulse of the Jamaican people, their passions, and interests.

The story takes place during the height of Joseph's musical career, and introduces us to his love interests, his closest brethren, and the media and outside influences that are attempting to gain an understanding of his actions, his lifestyle, and the unique qualities that have brought him international attention and acclaim.

Travelling from Jamaica, being the victim of a targeted violent crime, and making his way around the world, Joseph must deal with matters of betrayal, spirituality, his own mortality, and maintaining his dignity and morality while reluctantly becoming a beloved public figure.

What I loved most about the book is that the spiritual journey was evident, and displayed in the character's actions and words. The dialect was personal, as well as informational, as Joseph and his peers explained and defended the foundations of their Rastafari beliefs through interviews, conversations, and their regular "reasonings" (I thought the Glossary at the end of the book was fabulous, containing words like "cutchie," "facety," and "livity" for those unfamiliar).

Descriptions of the group's visit to Ethiopia were most impactful, and experiencing the rise of Joseph's fame along with his own quest for peace became more intense and definitely realistic as the book continued.

For those who do not know much about the Rastafari faith or Mansions, the book is an excellent introduction to the practices of its believers. For those who are practicing or knowledgeable about Rasta culture, the book can serve as reaffirming the celebrated elements and an interesting observation as Joseph grows and transitions in his faith as his life changes.

It is beautifully written, and paints an intimate picture about life and love within the Rasta culture. Joseph's impact on those around him is clearly reminiscent of Bob Marley, yet the fictional element lets us imagine that it was a time when we could be with the inner circle and actually experience the power and influence of the music and words right along with him.

Without giving away the plot, I will say that the book felt like a journey...much like the characters themselves were taking a physical journey. I started reading it on a plane ride to Jamaica last month, and finally had the opportunity to finish reading it this week, back in Toronto, Canada in the midst of yet another snowstorm of the season. What I love about the text is that it is so intrinsically and naturally Jamaican, and yet it still felt like it transported me not only to another location, but also to another decade.

Taking in the perspectives and challenges of the 70s from this unique perspective was definitely fascinating, and the well-paced life moments of Joseph and his team made for an interesting and informative read. I was quite pleased to discover that Hannah and her team also made a movie based on the novel, and I look forward to viewing more than just the trailer I found today online.

As much as I enjoyed the book, a part of the joy experienced was also in discovering the work of Ms. Hannah herself. In addition to Joseph's tale, she has also written books about Rastafarian culture, as well as articles and films in support of Jamaican entertainment. Jamaican born, she resided in London, England from 1964 to 1972, Hannah was distinguished as the first Black journalist on British television. This was one of a few milestones from Hannah. She was also the first Rastafarian to compose a book about Rastafari culture "Rastafari: the New Creation."

Also composed, a book about homeschooling in Jamaica ("Home: the First School"), with online lessons and instruction. Her son, and only child Makonnen David Yohannes, followed in her creative and entrepreneurial footsteps and became the Youth Technology Consultant to the Jamaican Government at the age of 13--he used the foundation formed with his mother's teachings as she became a leader in the Jamaican homeschooling industry.

The fourth book by Hannah was released in 2010, a memoir about her years in England, racism, black consciousness, and her personal experiences entitled "Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride." Other notable achievements include Hannah as the first practicing Rastafarian to serve in Jamaican government when she was appointed an Independent Opposition Senator in 1984, lecturing at universities around the world, and establishing the Jamaica Reggae Film Festival.

As a result of encountering Ms. Hannah, her expertise, and her passion and dedication to Jamaican music and culture, I believe I am better off having read this book. I truly appreciate how the novel captured the essence of the 70s, and preserved an important moment in reggae history for people like me to read, decades later. A huge part of my Jamaican-Canadian cultural identity, understanding, and appreciation comes from researching leaders like Barbara Blake Hannah, being captivated by characters like Joseph and his folks, and being able to genuinely feel the pure energy of the music that continues to teach me and inspire me in a positive direction: reggae music. I have been inspired, and may have to read this book again in the near future: I highly recommend you also take a look!

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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