“Wait here,” says Priest Radcliffe, a young Boboshanti Rastafarian and our guide into the camp. “Me call the lead Empress to come check you out, make sure you’re free.”
After a brisk hike up a rugged hill we have arrived outside a majestic red, gold and green wood fortress. This is Bobo Hill, the Jamaican HQ of the Boboshanti, an interpretation of Rastafari subscribed to by contemporary reggae-dancehall talents Sizzla, Capleton, Anthony B, Turbulence, Jah Mason and Fantan Mojah. Stern-faced men wearing flowing robes and tall turbans loiter near a hand-painted sign saying, ‘BLACK SOVEREIGN NATION: ETHIOPIA EMBASSY, (EGYPT) JAMAICA’, eyeing us suspiciously. As we wait to be ‘checked out’, the atmosphere is tense. Scare stories flash through my mind: “The Bobo camp cruel ya know, they lock woman in cage fi three weeks of de month… Take lots of money to Bobo Hill, it can be an expensive place to leave… They nah let me in, they say me nah dress modest.”
An elderly woman in robes and a flowing turban is ascending the hill clutching a cardboard calendar. This is the camp matriarch and the woman who holds the power between admittance and refusal. We can’t afford to be turned away (London to Bull Bay, Jamaica, is no small trip) so myself and Debbie, the photographer, have swapped our usual attire of tight jeans, Tees and loose hair for righteous ensembles of hair wraps, ankle-length skirts and tunics. I’m damn hot and I feel more Mormon than earth mama but if it gets us in, I don’t care. As she creaks towards us my heartbeat picks up. I’ve wanted to come here for years. No time for pleasantries as she launches straight into the fabled question, “What was the start date of your last menstrual cycle?”
“Fifth July,” we squeak in unison, our pre-prepared chant timed to coincide with the camp’s draconian law. She holds our gaze for what feels like an eternity then says, “You move together closely?”
“Yes, very close, always together.” After another penetrating stare, she turns to the calendar and, at a snail’s pace, strikes off twenty-one days from the fifth of July. The supposedly impervious yet totally fallible nature of this ritual is bemusing. “Hmm,” she says, the sound laden with doubt. “You are free.”
Women, or empresses as they’re called, who live inside the Boboshanti HQ are only ‘free’ to move around the camp twenty-one days after the start of their last period, meaning an average of one week’s ‘freedom’ a month. This is known as the purification process during which women must stay inside the ‘journeying house’, a collection of huts sectioned off by a zinc fence. Outside this area, red flags are placed by huts to denote a ‘polluted’ woman is inside. The rules of purification state un-free women only mix with other un-free women and never with the camp’s kings, meaning the men, spouses included.
New mothers face similar separation, a red flag for two months then a white flag for a third. When the white flag is hoisted, empresses can speak to any of the camp’s women, free or un-free, but cannot leave their hut or meet their partners until the end of the third month.
On a day-to-day basis, men and women live separately from the age of seven and, although much more lax, male camp members don’t escape rules. They pray three times a day, take part in work such as making brooms and cooking, and are forbidden from listening to music (reggae included) unless it’s traditional African drumming known as Nyabinghi.
Meals prepared by the camp kitchen are strictly ‘ital’, a Rastafarian term supposedly derived from the word vital, as in vital for life. A strict ital meal is devoid of all animal produce (meat, fish, dairy) and salt with a typical ital plateful containing rice and peas, plantain, homemade coleslaw (no mayo) with either veggie chunks, tofu or stew. Some rastas only eat with a spoon, the rationale for this being, “Only thing me see with fork is devil.”
The surfing fraternity has always had an affection for Rasta. Despite their average ranking at international comps, the Rasta-heavy Jamaican surf team are received as heroes and T-shirts baring Bob Marley are sartorial staples. Most riders like to feel they live outside ‘the system’ and many a heavy session in the water culminates with an equally heavy session passing spliffs or listening to reggae.
But much like surfing, times have changed since the movement’s purist founding years. With all the pseudo-dread hats, garish spliff paraphernalia and quasi followers who use it as an excuse to sit about talking shit and getting smashed, the potency Rastafari had when it was formed in the 1930s has been massively diluted. Mainstream perception is of ‘funky, cool, easy-going types’, a concept anathema to traditional followers and a huge motivation for the wave of Rastafarians turning to Boboshanti, the more orthodox order who wrap their dreadlocks in turbans and pay respect to a ‘Trinity’ of Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey and founder Prince Emmanuel.
Robert Moore is a thirty-four-year-old London-born, Jamaican-heritage graphic designer who’s been Rastafarian since his teens. Five years ago he moved to Boboshanti. After wrapping his hair for the first time he felt “amazing” and says that he looked like his “true self” for the first time in years. “I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what I’m about,” he explains. “I’m not no funky dread. When you wrap your hair and have an untrimmed beard you can’t be perceived as some easy-going guy with locks and loose morals. I’m a traditional African man and that’s the story I want to present. It’s a strong look. I can go anywhere in London and I won’t get bothered by kids, drunks, no one. People look at me and know what I’m about. They know they can’t mess. Just having dreads doesn’t get that reception anymore. It used to, but not now.”
Explaining the origins of Boboshanti (also spelled ‘Bobo Shanti’) in a few paragraphs is a bit like those patronising Shakespeare-in-ten-minutes productions, but here goes. Although slavery was abolished in 1833, 1930s Jamaica remained a colonial playground where the white minority ruled and prospered while the black majority suffered and were hideously repressed. Throughout the early twentieth century, Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey preached a hard-line doctrine of black empowerment and built a strong following of supporters known as Garveyites. When he left Jamaica for the US in 1916, his parting message was, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the redeemer.” In 1930 Ras Tafari, great grandson of King Sahela Selassie of Shoa, was crowned Negus of Ethiopia and took the name Haile Selassie. Many Jamaicans saw it as the fulfilment of both Garvey’s and biblical prophecy and Selassie as the Messiah of African redemption, hence the seemingly quirky Rasta view that a deceased King of Ethiopia is in fact God.
The founders of Rastafari are Jamaicans Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley and Robert Hinds. They claimed to have received the revelation Selassie was the Messiah of black people and set up ministries preaching this alongside ideas of repatriation to Africa and rejection of colonial rule.
The Boboshanti Order of Rastafari was formed by Emmanuel Charles Edwards in 1958. Legend has it his strict requirements of his followers came to pass in 1968 after a 3,000-strong repatriation march ended in violence. According to the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC) website, authorities beat and tear-gassed the crowd. Emmanuel Edwards proclaimed himself the leader and was beaten “to the point the authorities thought He (a capital H required to denote Godliness) was dead.” Emmanuel Edwards survived without a single broken bone, an incident that no doubt enhanced his status as a deity in the making.
From then on he separated himself from those who “refused to follow the principles of The Black Christ-in-Flesh”, because he “could not allow people with unruly behaviour to jeopardise His work.” In 1972 Bobo Hill was formed in Bull Bay, ten miles outside Kingston.
We’ve been sitting in the council room with the top dogs of Bobo Hill for forty minutes and I’ve yet to ask a question. We’ve prayed to the east (towards Ethiopia), chanted to The Trinity, “blessed” our visit, “given thanks” for the meeting and now Priest Bobby, an elder Bobo with supreme status, is in full oratory flight. A dutiful priest with a sombre expression holds my Dictaphone level with Bobby’s mouth. Although I’m grateful to be granted the meeting (and to the Dictaphone holder), I’m struggling to find a point to Bobby’s epic monologue other than to stress the divinity of Prince Emmanuel. I try to cut in – “Do you… Have you… What do you…” – but there’s no stopping him. Every mention of Prince Emmanuel prompts the assembled priests to rise to their feet, this constant standing-up and sitting-down carrying on for the entire meeting.
Prayer, ritual and tradition are the warp and weft of life at Bobo Hill. Prayers are said in the guards’ house when you enter or exit the camp with thrice-daily prayer services held in the tabernacle at morning, noon and sundown. Everyone has a title. When a man first joins the community he is called a prophet, then makes his way up the ranks of acting priest, leading priest, apostle, disciple, then elder. Women enter as a princess then become empresses. During its formative years, the cause célèbre of Bobo Hill was lobbying the Jamaican government, the UN and the British government for repatriation back to Africa. Today the elders still talk about this although the younger priests (forty-year-olds and below) focus on the need for the black diaspora to re-connect with their African roots. The members of the Nyabinghi drumming group take great pride in the work they do in primary schools. Priest Clive says, “Most kids don’t know the first thing about their heritage, about Africa. How can you feel proud of who you are if you don’t know anything about where you’ve come from?”
Along with the purification process, one of Bobo Hill’s most out there beliefs is their refusal to acknowledge death. Priest Bobby says, “We deal with life, not death. Boboshanti and The Trinity nah die so we nah die.” A great thought in principle but one that’s proven somewhat tricky in practise, particularly in 1994 when Prince Emmanuel died, or “transcended” as is the term used at Bobo Hill, and failed to rise. Legend has it the camp’s Elders waited three days by Emmanuel’s body before giving up their vigil for the body to be “dealt with”, meaning removed by a undertaker. But what usually happens when someone dies inside the camp? “They are left in whatever state they passed until their family or undertaker come deal wid dem.” His eyes flash seriously: “The devil here at Bobo Hill the same way he is in the outside world. It just easier to live good here than out there.”
Two hours thirty minutes later, I’ve asked just four questions. The sun’s going down, fast, and Debbie looks like she’s about to have a seizure. She’s barely taken any pictures and we’ve been here all afternoon. I wrap the ‘interview’ up. We say the obligatory meeting-ending prayers and head outside. Priest Bobby follows and launches into a hard sell of a burnt DVD, no cover, of a Nyabinghi drumming performance. For fifteen minutes he pounds me about “my duty” to support the camp as I will “earn a big money from de writings.” The price is a whopping JA$6000 (£42). I gasp and tell him I left JA$4500 (£30) at the Guard House as a donation and spent my remaining JA$700 (£5) on a Bobo hand broom made by one of the camp members. He’s visibly pissed off. “Sorry Priest Bobby,” I say, voice dripping with earnestness. “I was so focused on preparing my body and soul to visit Bobo Hill, I didn’t think to prepare my purse as well.”
Debbie fires off two snaps then, ‘Boom, boom, boom!’ a slow drumbeat thunders out. The priests turn to the east and place their right hand on their heart. “Sundown prayers, camera down,” says Priest Radcliffe. Debbie’s face is pained. “Come back tomorrow,” he whispers. “I’ll show you around. No meetings, just pictures. And I’ll get you a DVD.”
The sound of the priests beating drums and chanting psalms in the tabernacle is carried across the hillside by the cool evening breeze. The dusk light casts a magical glow over the wooden huts, robed men and lush vegetation. For a few moments the twenty-first century seems to slide away and I start to become enamoured by the sanctity and devotion that dominates life at Bobo Hill.
“Be-be-be-be-beee, bee-bee-bee!” A cell phone ring-tone of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ pierces the pious air. One of the younger priests from the meeting whips out his phone, a Nokia with a mock snakeskin handset, jabs at the off button and sheepishly slips it under his robe into his jeans pocket. After prayers I ask him how a jeans-wearing, twenty-something Michael Jackson fan finds life inside the camp. “It’s all about balance,“ he says. “I love music so I listen to it quietly and watch music TV inside the privacy of my hut. The rules are about respect rather than restriction. People today have no respect, for themselves, each other, Jah, life, earth. They’re too busy committing sin or caught up in the rat race. Life at Bobo Hill may seem strict, but it make you feel more free.”
That night we hit Passa Passa, a weekly street dance in downtown Kingston, to check out the extreme polar opposite of the Bobo Hill community: the local dancehall scene. As the pounding beats ring out from towering speakers, women poured into minute pieces of Lycra display buxom bottoms, breasts and thighs for a bevy of DV cameramen jostling for the best shot. Young men trussed up in designer shades and customised blazers perform perfectly synchronised routines and fling women around like rag dolls as they work their way through Kama Sutra-inspired ‘dance’ moves. Old dreads walk through the crowd holding bouquets of small JA$300 bags of weed and the local shop does a roaring trade in Guinness, Red Stripe and Smirnoff Ice. A couple mount the bonnet of a passing truck and perform a hilarious flurry of thrusts and bangs.
At relatively new weekly party Dutty Friday, the dances are getting more and more debauched. A move called the ‘drop dead’ sees women imitate a fit, drop down into a coffin (an actual coffin) then get ‘pseudo-fucked’ in it by a male dancer. Another sees a double bed being wheeled out for all manner of gymnastics to go off on. A clip on YouTube of a recent Dutty Friday party shows a middle-aged woman being aggressively thrust from behind by a young male dancer.
Over the sound system, the host encourages the guy to, “Rip off her panty,” which he does, by yanking them up and to the side (ouch!) to expose her entire ass to the delighted crowd.
This increasingly popular X-rated behaviour is being passed down to the younger generation. In 2005 local newspapers reported students were fornicating on packed school buses and girls were having ‘no panty’ days. The incident prompted dancehall DJ Vybz Kartel to release ‘School Bus’, a track that urged youngsters not to, “Fuck inna de school bus.”
It’s 8am and the Passa Passa crowd has thinned to a few hundred nutters determined to go till the last tune plays. Poe-faced women march through the remaining crowd clutching kids in school uniform. As they pass, they tut at their ghetto counterparts shimmying and shaking while their own dazed, pre-school age progeny hang on to their legs. Public busses run down the street packed with expressionless passengers on their way to work – no doubt they’ve seen this scene a hundred times before. I’m handed a flyer baring the cocked-up, G-string clad rumps of two faceless women. It’s promoting a dance with a ‘Best Bleaching Contest’, bleaching being a crude skin-lightening practise popular amongst the hardcore dancehall crowd, the prize JA$1,000 (£7). I’ve had a great night but I find this flyer depressing. Time to go back to Bobo Hill.
The next day Priest Radcliffe and two other priests are listening enraptured to our description of Passa Passa. They’ve heard about it but never been. Radcliffe shrugs, “We don’t do anything after dark but sit in our hut, hold a meditation or watch cable. We live by the sun; once it’s dark, there’s not much to do.” I tell them there were at least thirty Bobos dotted throughout the crowd last night and that dancehall tunes by Boboshanti artists Sizzla, Capleton, Anthony B and Fantan Mojah were very popular. “It’s easy to wrap your hair,” says Priest Dennie. “Much harder to hold a discipline.”
Inside the Bobo camp the official line on reggae and dancehall is that it is heathen music and its artists – including the growing crop of Boboshanti artists that have popularised the movement and the great Bob Marley himself – are ‘heathens’ along with it. A passing apostle hears our conversation and launches into a ‘fire and brimstone’ tirade about supposed Bobo artists like Sizzla that sing about being “under gal” yet wear the turban. Radcliffe and his friends agree with the apostle, although when he leaves confess to liking a lot of Sizzla’s early, more political songs and the work of Bobo artists like Jah Mason and Ras Shiloh. “It’s not part of camp life but if it gives a positive message to society and help calm down the youth, I’m all for it,” says Radcliffe.
Two twenty-something empresses walk past, one of them is a Caucasian woman from St Croix, US Virgin Islands, who travelled to Jamaica specifically to live at Bobo Hill. Radcliffe bows graciously, “Greetings Empresses. Blessed love to you on your journey today.” Sure beats ‘alright darling,’ I think to myself.
“It’s not for everyone but I find a great sense of peace and divinity living this way,” explains Empress Shyro, the St Croix émigré who left a house and job as a secretary to live in a hut and fully devote herself to Boboshanti. “It can be hard but how can you be outside the system if you’re living in it? We live like the ancient people. I spend my days tending crops, cooking, making handcrafts, raising children, reading the bible. It’s a simple life but it feels right. Empress Mazi is fifty-three, has nine children and has been happily married for thirty years. How often do you come across that in the outside world these days?” And what’s her take on all the rumours about women being treated cruelly at Bobo Hill? “People are scared of what they don’t understand. We live here by choice. If there were cages and maltreatment, we wouldn’t. The kings at Bobo Hill respect me in a way I never felt in the outside world. Living here isn’t for all. Empress Rose, for example, is a lawyer in Kingston so she visits with her king once a week and that works for her. Like any religion or belief, it’s different for everyone.”
Whether they’re drawn to the purification process or simply don’t want to be perceived as a ‘funky dread’, Rastas are turning to Boboshanti as a way of re-claiming the integrity of Rastafari. Says Priest Radcliffe, “Bob Marley say ‘one love’, and everyone think Rasta about one love when it’s not. It’s about discipline, tradition, righteousness and empowerment.”
Things you’d struggle to buy in a gift shop or put on a T-shirt.