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Bibles, Blond Locks: the New Rastafarians : Reggae's Religious Message From Jamaica Attracting Middle-Class White Youths

March 15, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

SOLANA BEACH, Calif. — Their Bibles are nearly as important as their surfboards, their rock music has been replaced by reggae and their spiritual home is no longer California but the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

They wear their hair in matted dreadlocks, pray to the black god Jah and pepper their speech with references to "Babylon," "righteousness" and "One Love." And, for some, the smoking of marijuana has become a sacred ritual.

In short, life just isn't the same for some San Diego beach boys and girls ever since they discovered Rastafari.

Young, Devoted Followers

"I'm really into it," says Sean Brandes, a 17-year-old reggae musician and high school soccer star whose dreadlocks are already past his chin. "And unless something happens to my personality where I turn evil and close myself off to reality, I don't think I'll ever stray away from it."

Across the country, cliques of white upper-middle-class youths are becoming devoted followers of this back-to-Africa, back-to-nature religious subculture that began in the shantytowns of Jamaica in the 1930s and then spread to blacks worldwide.

Until recently, Rastafari, which worships the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as the Messiah, never had much of a foothold among whites because of its black supremacist origins. That changed, however, when Rastafarian and reggae king Bob Marley brought the religion's message to the United States. After that, the religion was more broadly interpreted.

Today, many young white Americans, ranging in age from teens to early 20s, from well-off homes in the suburbs and the cities, are as familiar with Marley's lilting, rhythmic music as they are with the heavy-metal sound of Twisted Sister.

But in a few kids, reggae's Rasta message has also taken root.

On the East Coast, especially in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut suburbs, the "in" thing for some young whites is to head for Jamaica and hang out with Rastafarians. In San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and Mission neighborhoods, white youths with dreadlocks are almost a common sight. And even in the Midwest, converts are being made: One of the most well-received bands at the annual Sun Splash reggae festival in Jamaica in 1985 was Blue Riddim, a group of young white Rasta followers from Kansas.

It's even spread overseas; Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine recently describing his reactions to his teen-age son's sudden conversion to Rastafari while enrolled in an English boarding school.

Similar to Peace Movement

Probably because it's just beginning and still only involves a relative handful of young people in Southern California, the Rastafari trend has not sparked much alarm. Parents and school officials worried about the anti-God and pro-drugs lyrics of the darker elements of rock music seem to look upon reggae's Rasta overtones as almost benign by comparison--despite its recurring theme of revolution or the on-stage campaigning by some of its leading musicians to legalize marijuana.

Nor is there much attention paid to newspaper reports in which police in various U.S. cities link Jamaican Rastafarians to violent crimes and drug trafficking.

One reason for the lack of concern may be Rastafari's many outward similarities to the peace and love movement of the 1960s. Indeed, its emphasis on all things natural and organic, its religious overtones, its members' long unkempt hair, its special slang and its pot smoking have enough of a "nouveau hippie" flavor to give adults a sense of deja vu.

In the '60s, too, white youths were embracing parts of the black culture--like Afros, dashikis and clenched-fist salutes--to show their solidarity with the black liberation movement. White Rasta followers, in turn, rail against the racism and oppression, which they say is inherent in Western society, and preach respect for all people and cultures.

Just a 'Phase'

It's little wonder, then, that most parents dismiss their children's adoption of Rastafari as a "phase" to be gone through. Or that teachers see it as just another "expression of youth," said George Robinson, an administrator at Solana Beach's Torrey Pines High School, which has about a dozen Rastafarians among its students and graduates.

Robinson believes that in a school such as his, "where you have all kinds of kids ranging from athletic varsity men to heavy-metal punkers with flaming red hair," Rastafari may appeal to a teen-ager because "it sets him apart from his peers. So that out of 2,000 students, he's not just another face in the crowd. And that's important for adolescents."

Fits Local Life Style

Also, he said, "this Caribbean culture fits very nicely with San Diego's climate and life style. It's very difficult to be a punker on the beach in Del Mar and get a tan in the summertime with all that leather on. Hell, that's no fun."

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