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Relationship between ganja and reggae

During the just-ended Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), I met one dreadlocked Rastafarian musician who was freely smoking cannabis (marijuana) in public. I greeted him and then asked him if he knew that what he was doing was against the law.

By Fred Zindi

He replied: “What law? Where have you been? Don’t you know that smoking marijuana is now legal in Zimbabwe? Di government recently passed a law to legalise marijuana right here in Babylon. When I first saw di new president wearing that scarf with Rastaman colours, red, gold and green, I became suspicious. I knew it was a matter of time before he gave respect to di Rastaman and to all di Reggae musicians. Six months down di line, him agree to set I and I and di rest of di Rastaman free, seen! Big up Mnangagwa and the rest of his government posse!”

I spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince him that indeed the government has approved the growing of ganja, but for medicinal and research purposes only and that the relaxing of ganja laws was not as straightforward as the Rastaman thought. It is aimed at those wishing to farm cannabis (mbanje). Recreational marijuana is not yet legal.
While I was explaining this to him, a uniformed policeman passed by and the Rastaman called him: “Hey officer, Yeh man, Mr Officer, is it really a crime to smoke herb on the streets?”

The officer politely replied, “Yes, it is a crime unless you have permission to use it for medicinal purposes, in which case you have to produce a doctor’s prescription to that effect.”

“Ah, come on officer! I and I is a Rastaman and a reggae musician and Rasta is a religion which allows us to smoke ganja so that we get high and wiser and get closer to Jah, seen! Are you suggesting that I and I haffe go against my religion? Besides, I and I am wearing dreadlocks and I and I even have a massive collection of Bob Marley’s CDs. Isn’t that reason enough to smoke weed and feel irie? If di raatid law don’t allow dat, I and I is going against it!” he retorted.

The officer asked him to put out the spliff (which was oozing out bellows of smoke into our faces), or face arrest. He grudgingly obliged.

I went further to explain to him that indeed a few weeks ago, Health and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa announced that the production of mbanje would be legalised for medicinal and research purposes only and that it costs a hefty $50 000 to acquire the licence to farm mbanje.

The prison sentences of those violating the regulations have been slashed with offenders convicted facing up to a year in prison.

I have a feeling that when the Rastaman heard that prison sentences had been slashed, he probably interpreted it to mean that there would be no more prison for those caught smoking mbanje.

The Rastaman then asked me: “Is where dem think I can find the $50 000 when dem promise us a million jobs but never give it to I and I? Dem are too raatid mad and dem too tief man! Even if it were $50 for de licence, I man haffe dig deep. What raatid nonsense! Raasclot, man! I and I going to plant de ganja without the licence, seen! Because de ganja business is good business. If dem with de money grow it, it’s easy fe I to go and tief it, because ganja will be found everywhere, seen! If I can’t find a minister to bribe, then let Babylon come and get me if dem want! But Babylon no foolish. Dem give in step-by-step. Very soon it will be legal to smoke ganja in public because dem minister smoke it too. This is why dem wear red, gold and green scarfs, a Rastaman symbol . It is a matter of time. But meanwhile, I shall be singing Marlon Asher’s song:”

Yes I’m a ganja planter

Call me di ganja farmer

Deep down inna di earth

Where me put di ganja

Babylon come and light it up on fire

Just in case you are not sure what I am referring to when I write about ganja or spliff, let me introduce you to other words which are used interchangeably with the word ganja. These are herb, dope, marijuana, weed, gage, mbanje, chamba, dagga, spliff, sensimillia, joint, grass, cola, skunk, reefer, tea, locoweed, callyweed, narcotics and gonamombe. The list is inexhaustible. Take your pick. There are so many names given to ganja so that the authorities don’t get to know what you are talking about. By the time they catch up with you, there is a new word circulating.

Most Zimbabweans think that the word ganja came with reggae music from Jamaica, but they are wrong. The word ganja actually comes from the word Ganges, referring to the Ganges River, which is a river in India where Cannabis Indica grew naturally. The Indians started using this cannabis medicinally and it eventually spread to other parts of the world where it was used as a recreational drug by those who wanted to get high.

The symbiotic relationship between ganja and reggae music helped clear psychological space for the flourishing of Jamaica’s brand of cultural nationalism, but in all likelihood, its significance to Jamaican culture transcended both this and its function as a religious sacrament for Rastas. As Rasta-influenced reggae musicians extolled the virtues of ganja to the international audience, Zimbabwe included, Jamaica, roots reggae, and ganja essentially became interchangeable advertisements for each other, with the latter becoming a rival of Jamaica’s legal exports such as bauxite, sugar cane and bananas. Despite the religious rhetoric, then, a deeper reason for the sacralisation of ganja in Jamaica might be the huge economic benefit it brings to the island. The economic advantages are what our own government in Zimbabwe has probably seen in giving $50 000 licences to farmers who wish to grow ganja for medicinal or research purposes. However, as the Rastaman put it, let those farmers grow it and he will go and steal it at night, because it will be available everywhere, just like the maize crop.

Romanticised by reggae music and a sacrament in Jamaica’s Rastafarian religious sect, the use of ganja is widespread though illegal in that country. A Jamaican narcotics squad patrols warehouses, sabotages clandestine airstrips, and intimidates growers, and the Jamaican government has sponsored helicopter flights over parts of the island to burn ganja fields. Yet these campaigns from a Jamaican government pressured by US politicians are not appreciated by the majority of Jamaicans as evidenced by John Holt‘s protest song:

Police in helicopters

Searching for marijuana

But if you continue to burn up me herb

Me gonna burn up your canefields.

A recent poll indicated that 62% of all Jamaicans opposed the curtailment of marijuana exportation to the United States, in part because so many benefits from it. Many Jamaicans have become rich through the export of ganja to the United Sates.

As a result of the situation, some have suggested that the connection between reggae music and ganja may represent the most complex “drug-music nexus” in the sphere of global popular music. But what has been less documented is the role of ganja in the sonic transformation of Jamaican music in the 1970s when ganja was an important catalyst in the sound of dub music. For example, some musicians claim a correlation between the sound of the music produced in different recording studios, and various producers’ willingness or reluctance to let musicians smoke ganja in their studios. They argue that those producers who allowed musicians to smoke ganja freely in their studios had better dub sounds than those who did not allow it, thus bringing the symbiotic relationship between ganja and reggae music.

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