by Jonathan Rubell
Mutabaruka is a dub poet/revolutionary/Rastafarian, although neither just one, nor the other. Although he is classified as a ‘dub poet’, Muta challenges this generalization with the meaning behind his words. Throughout this essay an examination of Mutabaruka’s history, religious views, and poetry will take place. Through these attributes, Muta’s character is exposed, as well as his cutting-edge ideas, which will never be erased.
Looking at Mutabaruka’s life from a historical aspect is integral to understanding his poetry. Muta was born in Rae Town, Kingston in December of 1952. After his elementary education, Muta attended Kingston Technical High School pursuing electronics. Marcus Garvey’s son, was among the faculty of Muta’s vocational school. Muta took a job at the Jamaica Telephone Company after his studies, and during this time began to find resonance with the Black Power movement in late 1960s. Rastafarianism was something that Mutabaruka discovered in the 1970s, as he was brought up as a Roman Catholic.
Muta’s drift toward Black Consciousness and Rastafarianism was not accidental. During school, he read quite a few “progressive” books, one being, The Autobiography of Malcom X, which was illegal in Jamaica at that time. Even though Mutabaruka has come to identify with Rastafarianism in a radical light, he did not always feel this way. His views of Rastafarianism turned from a passive to extremely cutting edge and radical interpretation. While he was still working for the telephone company, he declared himself Rastafarian. He received little empathy from his friends and co-workers at the telephone company when he began to grow locks and eat food based on Rastafarian doctrine. Muta left his job at the telephone company in 1974 and moved to the Potosi District, St. James to live and cultivate food. In the Potosi District, he changed his name from Allan Hope to ‘Mutabaruka’, which from Rwanda meaning, “one who is always victorious.”
Muta was hired by the Negril Beach Village to discuss Jamaican culture with the tourists. This enabled him to share some of his radical thoughts and beliefs with outsiders. Eventually, Muta began sharing his poetry as well. American college students responded with enthusiasm and interest to his poetry, and due to some negotiating and publicity from an agent, Muta began to book gigs regularly in the United States eventually reaching audiences all over the world.
To reiterate, Mutabaruka cannot be classified by: dub poet. His form of artistic expression often transcends that of poetry or dub music. This may result in him speaking about one of his poems or even about a single theme. Muta describes his art as, “[moving] away from as a poet speaking to a audience and become more a part of that whole communication thing.” For Mutabaruka poetry is one of many vehicles used to convey a message. Dub poetry is a means of artistic communication, by spoken word over a dub track, however it is something that fundamentally differs from rap. According to Mutabaruka,
“for the dub poet, the poems he writes are not necessarily focused on rhythms, but on contents. It’s not the music that’s pushing the poem, it’s what he’s saying. So the dub poet is more focused on what’s being said rather than on what the rhythm is doing, as opposed to the deejay, who is also a poet, but the deejay is concerned with rhyming. So he’s contented with moving to the beat. With the poet, the beat is moving to
his words. The first move of the poet is the word. The first move of the deejay is the riddim. So the poet tends to be more socially, politically aware of certain situations and the music frames it in a way that is not necessarily rhythamatic. I can be rhythamatic. We can go on rhythms and move to the rhythm and ride poems to the rhythm, but, as I said, most of the time, the poems are written before the rhythm.” 
For Mutabaruka, it’s all about the words, the message, the meaning. The dub track plays its role, as a frame, but as Muta describes the poems or the words as coming first.
In this light, dub poetry is only a form or a subcategory of poetry. It may communicate differently with an audience than poetry in spoken form, beat poetry, or written poetry incorporating rhythm, sounds, the audience, and movement. Underneath all of this, dub poetry is all about the meaning.
“I’m a poet. I’m a poet first. The words is why reggae music is big. It’s not the music itself. The music is good but it’s because of what it is said in the music. Over the years people recognize Bob Marley lyrics as a liberatin’ music, as a upliftin’ music. So it’s really what he was saying ,- what he is saying. That’s why I don’t try to sing. I can’t sing but I can speak. And when we speak the poetry we hope that people listen.”
Muta brings up an interesting point about listening. In dub poetry, the audience plays the most important role. Muta communicates in the language of the people, Patois, because his messages are meant (initially) for the people of Jamaica. Through art, his messages reach even further, encompassing themes and ideas that may be translated to another group of people or person. “So my intention is to really awaken the conscience and the consciousness of the people.” The audience contributes such a unique aspect to Muta’s work because they don’t have to agree or disagree with his words, just think.
Since Mutabaruka’s intention is to ‘awaken the conscience’, he welcomes a differing opinion. Muta’s willingness to discuss religion with Ian Boyne on the television show “Religious Hardtalk” is incredible, especially after the intro Boyne gives him. “Mutabaruka, the controversial one. The cutting-edge one. The one who has been a thorn in the side of Christians for many years…He has attacked Christianity mercilessly, he has rejected the bible, rejecting all the sacred tenements of Christianity…” Muta’s smirk gets picked up by the cameras after such an introduction. Despite the clear distinction in beliefs between Mutabaruka and Ian Boyne, they both let each other share varying opinions on religion.
Religion might be the wrong word to describe what Rastafarianism is to Mutabaruka. “To Muta now, Rastafarianism is part of a universal quest which may also be pursued by other routes, such as Hinduism or Buddhism.” His disapproval seems to reside in that of institutionalized religion.
The bible, according to Mutabaruka, is not the word of God, but as described to Ian Boyne, “man, and him quest for understand himself.” Mutabaruka looks at religion from an extremely unique perspective, because he views it similarly. Rastafarianism from his perspective, is a way of life that allows him to understand himself and make sense of the world.
Although Muta’s messages can be perceived as conflicted according to Christian doctrine, Muta exposes numerous conflicts within the Judeo-Christian framework. His religious philosophy is very complex, as it evokes certain aspects of Christianity while at the same time proves it to be incorrect. His views are compiled by many philosophies, and Muta believes he has come to his own understanding, chosen the proper path for himself. When Ian Boyne asked him why he didn’t follow Christ even though Haile Selassie believes in him, Muta’s response shed light on a philosophically complex idea.
“I find something in Hailie Selasie that I see, why is it important that I must believe in what Hailie Selasie believe in?—I believe in Hailie Selasie… If my mother is ideal, and she’s a soldier, and she’s a police, and she attributes certain things, and I come and take from my mother certain attributes that I can draw from that, why must I believe in what she believe in, to come to an understanding for myself? It is through she.”
Mutabaruka uses a great poetic device to describe his relationship to Haile Selassie. Muta’s mastery of language is evident in his speech, and even more so in his poetry. Most of all, the ‘attributes’ he draws through religion and observation are eminent throughout his poems.
He points out that for many religions, the answers to the questions lie outside of man, outside of human understanding. His understanding comes from the opposite direction, within. “You have to look within man to find the reality of life and what life really mean. So when man is him good, him say is God, and when man is him bad, him say is the devil, but is really man still. So all concepts of good and bad is coming from man is emanate from man.” Most of the controversy in Mutabaruka’s religious philosophies lies in his non-belief in Jesus.
Mutabaruka’s radio show “The Cutting Edge” on Irie-FM takes a lot of heat from many people in Jamaica for publically stating that they don’t believe in Jesus. Muta is sympathetic to their reaction because the idea of Jesus is, “embedded in the minds of the people inna Jamaica.” Once again, Muta uses the perfect word to describe the idea of Jesus. ‘Embedded’ implies that Jesus was not always part of the religious beliefs of the people of Jamaica/Africa. It also implies that this idea was put in place by someone, or something else. Along with this, he and his radio station challenge the idea of Rastafarianism, and set it in a new light. They drift closer to the interpretation than literal side of Rasta according to Muta’s response in the Doumerc interview. The African-centred perspective is critical to understanding Mutabaruka’s worldview, as he sees himself as African in Jamaica. By tying his religious beliefs in with this, Muta’s intention with “The Cutting Edge” is to educate the people of Jamaica to better understand their place, their heritage, their history, and what they can do about it.
For the most part, Mutabaruka is preaching religious freedom, meaning freedom to break the bonds of traditional religious interpretations. He asks the difficult questions and analyzes them to the best of his ability. His efforts to challenge himself as well as the accepted views of others are reflected in his poetry. Through language, Muta successfully communicates his matrix of beliefs, values, and ideas, a nearly unattainable task.
One of Mutabaruka’s most discussed poems is titled, “Dis Poem.” It is a poem containing an intimidating number of themes, ideas, and critiques. It will blow your mind every time it’s read. The poem is structure-less on paper, lacking stanzas and punctuation. Repetition is evident by glancing at the shape, without reading the words. The poem’s impression changes dramatically when spoken by Mutabaruka. The power with which Muta speaks can be felt even through a video recording.
He begins deliberately, yet there is a matter-of-factness to his voice, when he says, “dis poem.” Immediately, he evokes the slave trade using images of slave ships and families getting torn apart. The next portion of the poem utilizes a self-referential device, drawing attention to the poem through the line, “dis poem…” while also referencing the piece by its title. This happens on many accounts during this poem, emphasizing the piece’s ability to stand alone, exist without a creator. The words, become part of the listener, and still hold their value after Muta’s speaking has commenced.
The way he brings up themes in this poem is unusual, as Muta lists the things on his mind. He does not detract from his message or rather the poem’s message by complicating the language around each idea. The next lines reference the poem in a broad aspect. “time unlimited time undefined” invokes an idea beyond human understanding, the poem already has the listener thinking, asking questions.
The poem’s next line puts on a structural façade, with “dis poem shall call names”, implying an action that will happen in the future. Immediately Muta calls the names, Lumuba (the first elected Prime Minister of Congo, who was assassinated in 1961), Kenyatta (the first Prime Minister of independent Kenya), Nkurma (lead Ghana after it gained independence in 1957), Hannibal (the African warrior that waged war against Rome in 218 B.C.E.), Ahkenaton (Egyptian pharaoh and the predecessor of Tutankamen—forced Egyptian priests out of power by challenging the accepted religious beliefs), Malcom (Malcom X advocated for African American rights), Garvey (Marcus Garvey, architect of the Pan African Philosophy and advocate of Black rights), and Haile Selassie (His Imperial Majesty of Ethiopia). These men have been written into the poem for a few reasons. They all represent, in philosophy or form, African identity, freedom from oppression, and human rights. Also, they are Muta’s inspiration for his words and beliefs. “Dis Poem” would not hold the same meaning without the mention of these leaders. Without explicitly mentioning these philosophies, Muta invokes them with by the simple act of naming names.
He begins discussing racism and fascism. The apartheid is brought up as well as the Klu Klux Klan. An interesting aspect of this section lies in the line beginning with, “dis poem is vexed…” Muta allows the poem to be almost personified, as if it can feel, become vexed. This theme, that the poem is human, is part of the audience, runs throughout. It also separates the poem from Mutabaruka’s opinion, as the poem itself has an opinion.
Jim Jones is brought up (Creator of the People’s Temple. Haphazardly organized a mass suicide in 1978 resulting in the demise of over 900 people including over 200 children.) His name is deliberately placed among the KKK and apartheid. For Muta, Jim Jones’ religious beliefs are preposterous, the antithesis of Mutabaruka’s message.
Once again the poem is personified, as it revolts against the categories of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world. Muta recognizes these as man-made categories created by people in power. The scattered nature of the poem (from Jim Jones to classifications) becomes very apparent around this part. This is another human trait added to the fabric of the words. Like we humans, the poem does not express itself in a methodical way.
The poem returns to a discussion of itself, and what it will not be. Ironically, the attributes it denies having, are exactly what the poem turns into. The ideas of being among “great literary works”, “recited by poetry enthusiasts”, and “quoted by politicians” or religious people, play with the listener’s wit, as well as underscore the importance of the poem as a whole. This acts as a diegetic device, implying that these actions will happen outside of the poem or narrative. Muta then represents the poem as a weapon, “dis poem s knives bombs guns blood fire” used to achieve freedom. African tribes, who fought their colonizers, are brought up. The poem chants “uhuru uhuru” meaning “freedom, freedom” (in Swahili) and adorns it for Nambia, Soweto (South Africa), and eventually Mother Africa.
The poem slips back into itself, denouncing itself, correcting itself. It sheds more light on the poems intention, “a rebirth of a people / arizin awaking understanding.” This is central to Mutabaruka’s view of institutionalized religion or rather what needs to happen to its congregants. Once again, this idea moves past its listeners and has the ability to exist outside of the poem, without regard for time and space. Muta / the poem continues describing what will happen to the poem over time. “dis poem shall continue even when poets have stopped writin / dis poem shall survive you me it shall linger in history.” The poem will exist without the poet and for infinity. An interesting line about the character of the poem is, “dis poem has no poet.” This reflects the poem’s stand-alone existence. The thoughts and ideas presented in this poem were already there before Mutabaruka wrote them down, therefore Muta is not the author, but the compiler. In this respect, the poem is reminiscent of a dub track.
The next important section begins by alluding to a relationship with the listener. “dis poem is now ringin talking irritatin / makin you want to stop it.” The poem has already achieved its goal, as the ideas unfolding in the listener’s mind will not stop. After discussing the length and age of the poem, Muta cites his sources so to speak, “dis poem was copied from the bible your prayer book / playboy magazine the n.y. times readers digest / the c.i.a. files the k.g.b files.” This resonates with the idea that the inspiration for the poem comes from all aspects of life, from playboy to the bible. The end is conclusive to the poem itself, but the ideas of the poem are still gushing out of the audiences’ minds. “So I write “Dis Poem”, trying to make a collage of different aspects of the struggle, and it was getting too long, and I thought “I can’t write in that way, the poem will continue inna mi mind”. So I ended it that way:” “Dis poem will continue in your mind”. It is me, it is actually me I’m talking to! I’m talking to meself.” The poem does act like a ‘collage’ of Muta’s ideas, a glimpse into the mind of an extremely insightful philosopher/poet/dub musician.
Mutabaruka’s words may not resonate with every listener, yet they are words that need to be stated, questions that need to be asked. Muta is changing Jamaica and the world with his radio station and his performances. He embraces an intellectual struggle, that most people ignore, not only for his satisfaction but in an attempt to make the world a better place. Muta’s words are incredibly thought provoking, his sounds incredibly moving, but most of all, his talent as an artist will keep his ideas alive for a long time. He has an ability to reach out or identify with the people, his audience, because he is one among them.
Thanks for a great experience Tuna.
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