“We must stop confusing religion and spirituality. Religion is a set of rules, regulations and rituals created by humans, which were supposed to help people grow spiritually. Due to human imperfection religion has become corrupt, political, divisive and a tool for power struggle. Spirituality is not theology or ideology. It is simply a way of life, pure and original as was given by the most high. Spirituality is a network linking us to the most high, the universe and each other.’”
Rocker T is running late, but not so late that he doesn’t have time to pass on these words of wisdom by His Majesty Haile Selassie I. The Brooklyn-born-and-bred dancehall reggae artist professes to be a “scholar and son” of the late Ethiopian emperor, and rankles—mellowly, mind you—at the mention of histories that paint a rather less charitable picture of Rastafarianism’s spiritual beacon. He says he keeps a copy of Selassie’s speech close at hand to deflect allegations of misdeeds by His Majesty as they arise—which, to hear Rocker T tell it, is fairly often.
“The amount of lies spread about Haile Selassie is incredible,” he insists. “He’s no joke, man. First of all, do you remember ever hearing about him in high school when you were studying the Italian-Ethiopian War? They didn’t even mention his name! That man came and represented for Jah and the people in the face of the tyrannical, hypocritical Western governments. He predicted World War II and showed them that’s what they were gonna get if they allied themselves with Germany and Italy in post-World War I Europe. Which is what they did, and then Germany and Italy turned around and blew the shit out of them.”
Though he claims to eschew doctrine (“I don’t check for any ism or schism”), Rocker T does cop to a spiritual awakening when he discovered reggae in his teens. He and his friends used to record mix tapes from the radio as a soundtrack for their “tagging and bombing” graffiti activities, and when he started listening to a lot of dancehall music—musicians like Supercat, Yellowman, Fathead and the Lone Ranger—new doors started to open.
“It led to [a spiritual change],” he recalls, “because reggae music changes your life. It’s a unique music with a different rhythmic pattern of dancing and rocking to the rhythm. It changes your whole structure if you drop right into that flow. You see people who just start to dance as soon as they hear reggae, even if they don’t know nothing about it. Little children everywhere—you play reggae, kids go off.
“Your eyes start looking at things differently and your heart starts feeling things differently,” he continues, “because all of a sudden you encounter people who hate reggae and hate people with dreadlocks and hate the herb. And it starts to reveal a certain vibe in people who just love everyone, also.”
Rocker T most definitely doesn’t hate the herb. His songs are thick with cannabis references and entreaties for decriminalization, delivered in a sing-song rhyming style called “sing-jay.” Sing-jay, as he explains it, requires the toaster to maintain patterns of melody as well as rhyme and rhythm. So how does an artist with such a vociferous pro-pot stance as Rocker T, albeit it one masked by a thick patois and couched in a genre where reefer references are practically de rigueur, avoid becoming a magnet for overly literal-minded law enforcement officials?
“You have to not be so attached to that thing that you aren’t always having it, on your person or just in general,” he ventures carefully. “That’s just the world we live in. There’s a lot of people on a different kind of program than the nice-to-each-other program. You just gotta be careful, that’s all.”
Raised in New York, Rocker T says he noticed a distinct change in cannabis culture and fortunes when former Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office. “Things got a little different,” he recalls, “when the mayor took a whole different turn one day, when rules from 1930 that nobody even understood anymore were suddenly being enforced.”
At the same time, Rocker T says he was brought up to venerate another former mayor: Fiorello LaGuardia, whose name famously graces a 1944 report authored by a committee whose research suggested that perhaps cannabis-smokers weren’t the shiftless, homicidal sex-fiends they’d been made out to be in the previous decade.
“We grew up knowing him as a real hero for the people,” Rocker T says, “and he was. He didn’t want to have a situation where people were getting arrested doing things they’d done for their whole lives back in another country. New York was a wonderful place at the time, and he recognized that. He basically saw that this type of lifestyle was not detrimental to people having a good family life or working hard—and relaxing, also. He really was the people’s mayor, and you don’t have many of those anymore.”
Sixty years later, Rocker T says he’s hoping that prevailing winds will waft the scent of decriminalization into even loftier offices than LaGuardia’s. You can count on a pro-cannabis reggae artist to cling to hopes like these, however faint they sometimes seem, but it’s not every day you find one so articulate about it:
“This government can keep its brain up its butt all it wants, but it will have to come to the same conclusion that most other governments have come to: that this is something people have entrenched in their culture, and if you criminalize them, you’re basically criminalizing a whole portion of your society, just like that. When Mrs. Smith’s son is down at the sheriff’s office, that’s when she realizes that this shouldn’t be illegal: ‘You’re going to lock my son up with those crazy men over there just for this? No. No.’”
Rocker T performs at The Other Side on Friday, April 23.