Sometimes, the way academic research is presented might suggest research is something complete, tidy, and resolved. In my experience, research is messy, incomplete, and always far from resolved.

Research can be circular, rhizomic and often full of dead ends, silences, and deafening echoes. I love the challenge of sorting out this mess and I always revel in working on research riddled with contradictions and anomalies. This can be exciting and challenging on a good day, however, on a not so good day, I question my sanity.

I presented my sane side, when I applied to do my PhD research which investigates the contemporary history of the re-emergence of cannabis as a medicine. My methodology adopts an interdisciplinary approach which explores the social, cultural, and political factors which have shaped this discourse. My ten-minute presentation, at the Research Reggae Network symposium, Rastafari, Nyabinghi and ‘the herb’ was drawn from the activist strand of enquiry which seeks to historicise the medical marijuana social movement between 1992- 2016. Although Rastafari have been criminalised and incarcerated for their religious use of marijuana, Rastafari have been absent from marijuana reform advocacy in Britain. My initial research question sought to understand this absence, however before I could do that, I needed to gain a better understanding about the cultural and religious meanings which Rastafari ascribe to the sacramental use of marijuana.

These meanings have their roots in Jamaica, where Rastafari emerged in the 1930’s. Marijuana, popularly known as ganja, was introduced to Jamaica by indentured labourers from East India in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Marijuana cultivation and consumption became embedded within Jamaican society and ganja consumption has historically encompassed the recreational, folklore medicine and the spiritual. Rastafari venerate the qualities of ganja and refer to it as ‘the herb’. The sacramental use of ‘the herb’ is acknowledged and understood within Rastafari as an aid to mystical experience.


The popular perception about the recreational use of marijuana has been constructed mainly through unproblematised stereotypes, media representations and moral panics. For example, the ubiquitous image of Bob Marley smoking marijuana does very little to elucidate the difference between the secular and religious use of marijuana. We are none the wiser about Rastafari religious and spiritual ideologies, which inform the significance of ‘the herb’ as a sacrament within Rastafari religious practise. The sacramental use of ‘the herb’, has come under the scholarly gaze and the topic is not entirely obscured from view. For example, cultural anthropologist Leonard Barrett Snr, conducted interviews with Jamaican Rastafari about the sacramental use of ‘the herb’ as far back as 1963.[1]

Contrary to popular belief, not all Rastafari consume ‘the herb’ as part of a spiritual practice and focusing on just this aspect imposed a prohibitionist lens on my research. What would happen if I (re)framed my focus and looked at other important aspects of Rastafari religious practice. Say, for instance, the collective practice of prayer, chanting, dancing and nyabinghi drumming. This insight added a different turn to my research and my research split into two pathways. The history pathway investigates the absence of Rastafari from the marijuana reform debate. Here, oral history interviews were conducted to explore the lived experiences of Rastafari with a view to reconstruct a narrative about Rastafari silence and invisibility in drug reform discourse.

A closer examination of nyabinghi drumming opened an ethnographic research pathway. My research included watching You Tube videos, which highlighted the international dimension of nyabinghi drumming. I found Rastafari scholar, Michael Barnett’s field research description of Rastafari religious services in America particularly useful to think about the importance of religious setting.[2]  Further insights shared by Ras gold during an interview about the healing power of music, expanded the framework to think about the holistic effect of music and dance within Rastafari spirituality, as he explained that:

‘you can sit and you can meditate and wait to have a connection with the universe or you can dance and you can drum, you can sing and you can chant and you can bring that connection to you, by just releasing them endorphins and all of the natural energies that we have inside us.’[3]

Notwithstanding this research, I was unprepared for my reaction to a nyabinghi drumming session performance at an exhibition opening in London in June 2016. Listen here. The concept of African retention is new to me and I intend to write an autoethnographic account which traces the links between nyabinghi, reggae and African traditional music. I am also rather intrigued to find out if there are other explanations for my acoustic experience.

I had only ten-minutes to convey the twists and turns intrinsic to my research and map out the future research pathways to develop my thinking. Irrespective of whatever anxieties I might have had on the day about communicating a coherent narrative, I found the symposium provided a safe space to feel my way through my material and be part of an academic community for a day. Getting away from the academy also enhances opportunities to introduce my research to a different audience with unexpected outcomes. This included being invited to Fairfield House, Bath, the former resident of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I.[4] This kind invitation offered by Dr Shawn Sobers creates an opportunity for me to expand my London-centric research. My discussion with another academic resulted in an offer to read my draft chapter on drug reform. I was pleasantly surprised to bump into Professor Paul Gilroy at the train station. We had a brief chat about my research and he recommended that I should read the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

I look forward to weaving a narrative about ‘the herb’, the invisibility of Rastafari and African retention with a sprinkling of the spectral for good measure. Research can be fun.

Yewande Okuleye

Twitter @cannabinoid2

Instagram @ yewandeslondon


[1]   Barrett Leonard Snr, The Rastafarian: Sounds of Cultural Dissonance, Revised. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 128-136.

[2] Michael Barnett, “The Globalization of Rastafari Movement from a Jamaican Diasporic Perspective,” in The Globalization of Rastafari, ed. Ian Boxhill (Kingston: Arawak Publications, 2008), 110–114.

[3] Interview with Ras gold, by Yewande Okuleye March 7th 2016.

[4] Rastafari believe in the divinity of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I. See Clinton Chisholm, “The Rasta-Selassie-Ethiopian Connections,” in Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, ed. Murrell Samuel Nathaniel, Spencer David Wiliam, and Mcfarlane Anthony Adrian (Philaldephia: Temple University Press, 1998), 166–177.


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