[21 March 2007]
When reggae went international in the 1970s, a rift between religious and political Rastafarians ensued; either the Rasta creed subsumed the genre’s earlier pretensions to activism in Jamaica or, conversely, the symbols of Rastafarianism were co-opted in the name of fashion. Joseph Israel’s debut album manages to combine the religious tenets of Rastafarianism with a decidedly political stance, to produce a sound that neither trivializes the religion nor separates it from the harsh realities that gave rise to reggae in the first place. Gone Are the Days, initially released by Israel independently in 2005 under the Lions of Israel label, proclaims that the need to live alternatively is brought home by the political systems that conspire to keep the people down.
The negative forces of government, police and politicians to which Israel refers throughout the album coalesce in the term “Babylon,” the biblical site of Hebrew bondage that was appropriated by Rastafarians to refer to Jamaica and its institutions of oppression. Re-routing the site once again to his situation in Arkansas, Israel croons on the disc’s first track that “Babylon could never be my home”; the second track likewise expresses the danger of lingering in the Babylon system, where comforting illusions discourage protest. For Israel, who is a practicing Rastafarian, social reform goes hand in hand with the worship of the Rastafarian messiah Jah, for whom the passive embrace of oppression seems to be synonymous with trusting in false religions. The latter invite individuals to live for themselves rather than a community. From the seminal specificities of Jamaica through Israel’s own experience living in the United States, to the injustices perpetrated in Mexico, Indonesia and Afghanistan, the album rejects the trivialities associated with capitalism for a system of principles that is not entirely incommensurate with it. What Israel’s work suggests is that the nuclear family might help to establish groups united against all forms of oppression—even, and perhaps especially, in the American context.
As if to confirm his own dedication to family and the community it might serve or be part of, Israel dedicates the ninth track to his wife Kristy and includes the voices of his young daughters, Rebekah and Chavah, on the fifth track entitled “Mankind”. Their plea for fighting to cease and loving to begin supplements the song’s assertion that society’s leaders have led children astray by teaching them lies. Though their Rastafarian outlook might appear incongruous with Israel and his family’s own roots in white, Christian America, the album as a whole significantly insists that both the religion of Rastafarianism and the political activism to which it might give rise can be harnessed by peoples of any colour, nationality or culture. The song’s very title, “Mankind”, asserts the power of values with which many can identify. Love may be personal, but in the hands of the Rastafarian activist, the feeling might conjoin with others to improve society as a whole.
Truth, judgment and freedom might constitute the album’s unifying themes, for Gone Are the Days shows that the people themselves have a responsibility to rise up and retaliate. In keeping with Israel’s insistence that the album is not religious, there is a refusal of mere worship in favor of old-school reggae tracks whose rhythms point to the power of music itself to blow the winds of change toward Jerusalem. The title track is significant in this respect, for it narrates the awakening of a political consciousness that can only express itself in song: “Lift up your voice / lift up your spirit.” Jah may be the only one capable of “busting our chains,” but in order for that to happen the people cannot passively await the magical reversal of master/slave relations. They must, in accordance with the album’s emphasis on universal values, replace slumber with action.
Testifying to the difficulty, perhaps, with which action might be empowered by music, the expert back-up vocals of Erica Newell and Rochelle Bradshaw often overwhelm Israel’s flailing voice. Neither are strangers to the reggae scene: Newell is back-up singer for Ziggy Marley, and she is currently working on her first solo album, while Bradshaw sings back-up for the well-respected reggae artist Luciano. Israel himself collaborates on this disc with Luciano and Mikey General; the thirteenth track, “Universal Love”, is co-written by and features General, Newell and Bradshaw. As Israel aptly notes on his website, the experience of recording the CD was a humbling one. Indeed, the artist is easily outranked by the very people whose contributions to the disc lend his work some degree of legitimacy in an industry frequently governed by outdated notions of racial authenticity. Then again, perhaps there is something to be said for Israel’s inability to entirely live up to the demands of a solo album. The dissonance introduced by the electric guitar in tracks six and twelve doubtlessly insinuate that the political action Israel advocates in his lyrics cannot be carried out by the individual alone. Sounds collaborate on this disc not only to marry the lofty tenets of Rastafarianism and protest, but also to convey the message that only a diversity of sounds and effects may contribute to the making of a better world.