Home Institution

University of Southern California

Publication Date

Spring 2010

Program Name

Ghana: Social Transformation and Cultural Expression


1. Title: Babylon by Tro-Tro: The Varieties of Rasta Identity and Practice in Ghana

2. Author: Jonathan Tanis (tanis@usc.edu; University of Southern California)

3. Objective: Intrigued by the lack of scholarship in Ghana on the highly visible and prominent Rasta culture, I sought to examine aspects of Rastafari identity and practice including the following:

a. How the Rasta identity is defined, constructed and maintained by both Rastafarians and non-Rastafarians of varied backgrounds.

b. How Rastafarians perform and express said identity through specific practices

c. The importance of iconography and symbolism in transmitting Rastafarian identity, and the negotiation of identity through this discourse

4. Methodology: I conducted fieldwork, primarily participant-observation and interviews, at various places in and around the city of Accra. Field-sites included the Arts Centre in downtown Accra, a Rasta enclave in Achimota, a Rasta school in Adenta, and a Bobo-Ashanti camp in Tafo, Eastern Region. I attempted to expose myself to the greatest possible spectrum of Rastafari practice without compromising the depth of understanding necessary to analyze specifics. Throughout the research process I conducted formal interviews with a number of Rastafarians and non-Rastafarians alike, recording them for the creation of a mini-documentary that I have compiled. However, most of my findings arise from informal discussions and observations with respect to the daily lives of my informants. Because of the lack of scholarly material on Rastafari, I was unable to rely much on review of prior literature, yet this afforded me more time to spend on ground level ethnography, which I feel is more important in this sort of research.

5. Findings: Throughout my fieldwork, the most striking findings were involved not with outlining the structure of Rastafari identity, ideology and practice, but with exposing the degree of heterogeneity which could be described as the defining characteristic of the movement in Ghana. Under the banner of Rastafari include such identities as celibate priests, cannabis smoking reggae musicians and political revolutionaries. I began to develop an understanding that Rastafari can be understood as a movement only on the plane of discourse, i.e. on the level of iconography, symbolism, language and fashion. Rastafari is an aesthetic, not a complete structure of belief and lifestyle. Nevertheless, this aesthetic links all Rastas in Ghana in an utterly unique manner.

6. Conclusion: I can only offer speculation as to the explanation for Rastafari’s peculiar relationship in respect both to itself and to mainstream culture. From a historico-materialist perspective, the Rasta discourse has been displaced from the socio-political and economic conditions of 1930s Jamaica that originally produced it. Thus, the discourse has remained constant but the intrinsic referents have been lost, altered or diminished. Today, the discourse is continually reproduced but no longer has the ability to develop novel content. It survives, however, because it fulfils the social need for an outlet of countercultural activity.


Social and Cultural Anthropology


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