Cultural appropriation: The commodification of Rastafari culture
May 24, 2016
Reggae music, dreadlocks, red, gold and green – these are all things associated with Rasta culture and rightly so but ever increasingly aspects of Rastafari are becoming popularised and, in the process, corrupted and diluted.
As is characteristic of any cultural appropriation, the absorption of Rastafari culture into the mainstream results in a filtering out of the meaning and symbolism behind what the appropriators generally embrace on a purely superficial and aesthetic level.
What is most distasteful about this apparent ‘trend’ is that the beliefs and spirituality of Rastafari are not only being disregarded and ignored but disrespected. Part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that Rastafari culture is often (con)fused with Jamaican culture and distinctions between the two (crucially that the former is a spiritual belief system) is lost in the process.
Take for example UK ‘Jamaican’ restaurant chains Boom Burger and Turtle Bay, each of which have taken aspects of Rasta culture to use in their branding and marketing and on the one hand paying homage to it but also – ironically, and most likely unintentionally – exploiting and mocking it. Boom Burger has the Rasta red, gold and green splashed across its signage, website and marketing materials yet the food it serves is far removed from the I-tal diet which many Rastas choose to adopt – not dissimilar to veganism and based around eating natural, vegetarian foods. On the menu is the ‘Pork Boom,’ pork being regarded as unclean and not eaten by Rastas.
Turtle Bay came under fire in the press when it ran a campaign called #Rastafyme which insulted many, allowing customers to submit their photo online and have dreadlocks digitally edited on and their skin tone darkened – supposedly turning them into a Rasta. In response to the campaign one Twitter user criticised the restaurant for being “a company which makes its money on the gross caricature of Caribbean culture.”
Similarly the incorporation of the Ethiopian red, gold and green into barely-there women’s clothing which is modelled and advertised in a seductive way on popular fashion websites does not stand in accordance with the modesty of a Empresses, who traditionally embrace natural beauty and do not wear clothes that are too revealing. Missguided are currently selling a ‘rasta crochet bralet’ which they describe as a ‘reggae-inspired piece’ and is modelled on a woman wearing a tight leather skirt with most of her legs, arms and midriff showing – the epitome of cultural appropriation if you like. But the parody of genuine Rasta culture does not stop there; the popular fashion site also stocks ‘rasta mon socks’, trainer socks that are faintly coloured red, yellow and green and covered in cannabis leaves. Head over to Pretty Little Thing and you will find a ‘Rihanna’ string dress of the same colours with fashion tips, the name of which – presumably chosen because the dress is an imitation of that worn by Rihanna in the video of her dancehall/pop hit single ‘Work’ – raises an interesting thought: are Caribbean and other black people also capable of appropriating Rasta culture and is it the same as when white people do so?
Justin Bieber suffered some criticism recently when he revealed his hair in dreadlocks – accused of cultural appropriation. But is this fair? After all, not all Rastas have dreads or see it as a necessary part of following the movement and can a hair style really belong to anyone?
Rastafari teaches peace, love and unity and it is unsurprising that so many people are drawn to, and want to be associated with such a positive and uplifting movement and culture but in order to really appreciate something you must fully understand it. Picking and choosing aspects of Rastafari to adopt and commodify does not honour the movement or show a love for it but rather plays into the concept of Babylon and the very things which Rastafari rejects, particularly materialism.
A model walks on the Tommy Hilfiger runway in one of the outfits from
a 'Bob Marley-inspired collection'
By no means is the intention here to suggest that Rasta culture should be exclusively for those who are fully fledged followers and adherents, that would be both unrealistic and petty-minded. Rather to propose that those who admire and enjoy the culture treat it with the respect that you give to something you love.