I dreaded the drive to Long Island, but it was a trip I had to make. There would be no wedding. My name was still on the lease, but I had to get my stuff out of what was now her apartment. My heart was already broken, but my stomach knotted when I reached for the keys in my pocket to open the door. I knew she would not be on the other side, but I would be reminded of her when I saw the walls we painted and furniture we purchased.
I took what was mine, got back in my car and drove away. I rode around, passing places where our love blossomed listening to music; I was doing okay until Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “She’s Gone” started playing on the mix tape I made years earlier. Despite the uplifting melody and rhythm, the lyrics are a mournful lament about a failed relationship. When Marley wailed repeatedly “if you see me crying,” it felt like he was saying to me, “Jioni, acknowledge the sensations you are experiencing. Let what is inside come out.”
But I was scared to walk into the forest of my emotions.
Regardless of my state of mind, Reggae music has always been a soothing balm. From the first time I felt the Reggae downbeat drop, I was hooked like Pookie in New Jack City. Whether the call was to “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Africa Unite,” or “I am that I am,” I was down for the cause. My stepfather introduced me to this genre, which originated in Jamaica, but was the soundtrack of his youth growing up among the Igbo people in eastern Nigeria during the 1960s and 1970s. As it had for him, Reggae cultivated my Pan-African sensibilities while also nurturing my social, political, and economic philosophy; understanding of history; and spiritual formation. Even in the most triumphant and uplifting songs, Reggae singers acknowledge the presence—even if in the past—of pain, heartbreak, or setback. Following the murder of George Floyd, the rhythms of Reggae helped me sort through a range of reactions—anger, sadness, rage, hopelessness—it allowed me to complain and cry as Marley sings in “Johnny Was.” It also inspired me to organize a series of family-friendly protests, and Reggae beats thumped through my Bluetooth speaker as we marched.
Following the murder of George Floyd, the rhythms of Reggae helped me sort through a range of reactions—anger, sadness, rage, hopelessness
One of the first Reggae songs I remember hearing and understanding is Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” on the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come. The song follows the arc of the movie, which tells the story of a young man who leaves his rural home for life in the big city. He encounters many setbacks and obstacles, but as the song reminds the listener, “you must try, try and try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last.” It is a message of self-determination and hope.
I learned that, before I could get to the promise, I had to deal with reality. I needed to lament. Christians who engage in only praise and worship are worshipping false idols. God calls Christians to burn and loot temples of oppression and marginalization that rob us and anyone from embracing the call to be co-laborers with the Divine to bring about on earth that which is in heaven. God’s people have always come closest to the Divine after crying out in pain and agony at their sorry state and realizing that the deliverance they seek, and that God wants for them, requires them to act. Fleeing sexual servitude, Hagar saw God, who saw her in return. The Hebrew people emancipated themselves to worship God. The paralytic man at the pool of Bethesda. Frederick Douglass’ prayers for freedom unanswered until he prayed with his feet. Fannie Lou Hamer’s organizing fueled by being sick and tired of being sick and tired.
At their best many Reggae artists deploy lamentations that are both cries to the Divine and protests of earthly conditions. Reggae music and its American cousin, Hip Hop, are rooted in the experiences of those on the fringes of society who seldom are seen or heard by those in the center. These genres, like the Blues before them, are expressions of people living in the wilderness. While the pain may continue, the very act of giving voice to their suffering is comforting, healing, and strengthening.
Sometimes we are called to praise, and sometimes we are called to lament.
Reggae, as a genre, is characterized by a strong sense of optimism, redemption, and self-empowerment. Even as a child, I found Reggae music—regardless of the topic—profoundly spiritual. Whatever I’m doing while listening to Reggae—cooking for my family, reading, or writing this essay—assumes a sacramental quality when I begin swaying to the beat and become mindful of the lyrics. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood the rhythms to be the musical expression of Rastafarianism, a faith deeply rooted in the desire to make sense of earthly conditions, and by extension a call to worship.
This call can come at any time with no regard to your state of mind. Sometimes we are called to praise, and sometimes we are called to lament.
For me, I was called to stop driving on that day to face the ending of my relationship with my then-fiancée and walk into a bar.
Perched on a stool was a columnist for the newspaper I worked for at the time. We had bonded years earlier when I was distressed over inadvertently notifying a couple their daughter had been murdered (I was told they had already been informed by the police). This colleague had a similar experience early in his career and we had commiserated.
“I can see you’re not your usual chipper self,” was his greeting this day.
The Reggae music earlier in the car had loosened my feelings. Fearful of giving voice to the thicket of emotions, I tried to laugh it off, but he wouldn’t let go and pulled me into the woods with his own story of heartbreak.
Listening to him and sharing my own woeful lament released a wave of sensations that freed and empowered me to move forward. I learned that in love, life, and faith, it isn’t always best to rush past the low and painful moments. Reggae downbeats are key to the music, just as lament may become the source of strength, resilience, and healing.