How Bob Marley jump-started The Bahamas’ love affair with marijuana

Dear Editor,

This month of December marks the 39th anniversary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s International Year of the Child Bob Marley Benefit Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Center.

Tuff Gong, as the Jamaican reggae artist, was nicknamed after Gong Guru Maragh, better known as Leonard Percival Howell, was invited by International Year of the Child Commission members the late Beryl Hanna, Rubie Nottage and Telzena Coakley. Amid concerns that Bob Marley and the Wailers would use their massive platform to proselytized Bahamians to their Rastafarian faith, Marley told The Nassau Guardian and The Tribune on December 14, 1979, that he would be “giving a regular concert tonight”, and that he had no intention of teaching concert-goers about the Rastafarian faith. Marley also unapologetically stated to the press that he “[smoked] marijuana because it is a herb like banana”. Agricultural students at the University of The Bahamas and BAMSI know, however, that while the marijuana plant is from the Cannabaceae family, banana is from the Musaceae family. For Marley and other adherents of Rastafari, the word “herb” was, in all likelihood, a broad, generic term in their religious lexicon.

Despite the noble goal of commission members, the Bob Marley concert encountered stiff opposition from then Bahamas Christian Council President Rev. Dr. Philip Rahming and prominent Baptist clergyman Simeon Hall, who, in an ironic twist of history, heads the Free National Movement (FNM) administration’s cannabis commission. Hall, I believe, is now a proponent of medical marijuana. His position regarding the recreational use of the drug is unknown to the writer. However who would’ve thought, 39 years ago, that a prominent member of the Christian community would one day be batting for marijuana? Hall has already demonstrated his willingness to buck the evangelical status quo by overtly championing the cause of web shop gaming. That alone is probably the reason the FNM asked him to join the commission. Be that as it may, Hall’s main bone of contention with Marley was his massive influence in potentially promoting the Rastafarian faith along with its dreadlock hairstyle to thousands of Bahamians. A reported 6,000 Bahamians attended the concert at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Center. While the concert would be the only time Marley would perform in The Bahamas, he lived in Nassau during the month of December in 1976 in a house owned by Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell. Blackwell played a massive role in giving the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and other Jamaican reggae artistes an international platform to promote their craft. For instance, Cliff starred in the reggae promotional film “The Harder They Come” in 1972. The film exposed Cliff to an audience he otherwise would not have had.

The Marley family had fled Jamaica in December 1976, after a gang of nefarious thugs, who were rumored to have been connected to the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), had attempted to assassinate Bob and Rita Marley at their Hope Road mansion in Kingston. The JLP was reportedly incensed that Marley had agreed to perform at the Smile Jamaica Concert. The opposition viewed this kind gesture by the Wailers as an endorsement of the People’s National Party administration of then Prime Minister Michael Manley. Despite the assurance by Marley, Hall had legitimate reasons to be concerned about the dreadlock hairstyle, despite those concerns being dismissed by Hanna and Co. The hairstyle, along with marijuana, was sacramentalized in the 1950s by second generation Rastafarian members of the Youth Black Faith. This particular group was formed in 1949 by a Jamaican gentleman who went by the nickname Wato. The dreadlock hairstyle was Wato’s way of instilling fear in the white colonial establishment in Jamaica. Youth Black Faith adherents may have either been emulating a man known as “Bag-o-Wire”, who was an associate of Marcus Garvey, or Hindu Sadhus. The Nazarite vow with its attendant locks in the Old Testament Book of Numbers was also referenced by Youth Black Faith leaders in support of this socially unacceptable practice in the British colony. In any event, despite sporting locks, Marley was a member of Vernon Carrington’s Twelve Tribes of Israel. Not all Rasta adherents accepted the practice of growing locks in the 1950s. In this regard, the sect was divided into two Houses, according to the late professor of anthropology at the University of the West Indies Barry Chevannes: the House of Combsomes and the House of Dreadlocks. By the mid to late 1960s, however, the Combsomes had all but vanished. Many Bahamian rastas might be surprised to learn that Howell never had dreadlocks.

Regarding the issue of marijuana, many Indian indentured laborers had migrated to Jamaica in the 19th century. They brought along their culture of ganja smoking from India. Marijuana is a plant used by Hindu adherents. In fact, Shiva, one of the three main idols of Hinduism, drinks a ganja beverage called “bhang”, according to Hindu adherents. Howell had many Indian friends who had a massive influence on his theology. As I have stated in the past, the Rastafarian founder dabbled in Hinduism and blended portions of it with Rastology. That is why he may have been call the Gong — a Hindu appellation. “The Promise Key”, an important Rastafarian textbook, was penned by G.G. Maragh, Howell’s Hindu alias. For whatever reason, Howell chose to write the text under a pseudonym. Perhaps he feared being targeted by the British for sedition.

Interestingly, marijuana is also called “kali weed” or “collie weed”. The former term would undoubtedly remind Hindu adherents of the Hindu goddess Kali.

Howell’s Rastafarian communist commune in the Parish of Saint Catherine was called Pinnacle. It would serve as the base for his lucrative marijuana enterprise which thrived economically in its latter years of existence. Pinnacle was raided twice by Jamaican law enforcement officials in 1941 and 1954. The JLP administration of Premier Alexander Bustamante was being pressured by the Winston Churchill administration in the early 1950s to shut down the marijuana industry. However, it was opposition leader Norman Manley who led the way in convincing ganja planters to give up the trade. Manley, according to Lee, was more socially in tune with the colonial authorities than Bustamante. In the 1954 raid of Pinnacle, close to 1 million plants were destroyed. According to Lee, Howell was the biggest marijuana planter in modern Jamaican history.

The issue of ganja is what many Bahamians in 1979 feared about the Marley event. The Bahamas in the 1970s was an immensely conservative country. Marley once said that “when you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself”. He also famously stated that ‘‘herb is the healing of a nation, alcohol is the destruction.’’ With the last quote, Marley obviously had Revelation 22:2 in mind, although one is hard-pressed to find an unequivocal reference to the cannabis plant in the text.

Marley, along with Peter Tosh and Bunny “Wailer” Livingston, had joined the Rasta sect in the early 1960s and had probably started smoking marijuana around the same time. I think it was Rasta historian Helene Lee who stated that the late Rastafarian elder Mortimer Planno had played a pivotal role in converting Marley to the religion. When the Wailers came to The Bahamas in 1979, the Rasta population was minimal at best. Today, Rastas still comprise a very small fraction of the population. That said, there are 10,000 adherents of the sect, according to an Ethiopian Africa Black International Congress representative in July 11 edition of The Tribune.

How many Bahamians embraced Rastafari due to Marley’s influence will never be known this side of eternity. However, to deny that individuals were influenced by him would be naïve, as the many Rasta and Marley paraphernalia worn by Bahamians throughout the 1980s have amply demonstrated.

In closing, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to state that thousands of Bahamians today smoke marijuana. Subsequent to Marley’s concert, many started using the plant, although Bahamian historians would tell you that the major issue that The Bahamas faced during the early 1980s was the cocaine drug trade, which nearly wiped out an entire generation and brought international shame and condemnation to this country. Bahamians were so preoccupied with the cocaine drug that they paid very little attention to marijuana. I believe Tuff Gong served as an impetus for The Bahamas’ love affair with the ganja plant. Marley’s role in this regard cannot be overstated.

— Kevin Evans

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