Scoping the Field: Weaving a Research Narrative in Ten Minutes by Yewande Okuleye

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.

Dub Plate Stories by Mandeep Samra

The presentation given by Mandeep Samra at the Reggae Research Network Symposium in Norwich focused on the Sound System Culture project which celebrates reggae sound system culture as an innovative artform. Developed by Let’s Go Yorkshire, the project started in 2013 in Huddersfield and captured the stories of the Caribbean community’s past and brought them to life through a collection of oral histories, exhibition, book, film, interactive sound installation and the production of specially commissioned dubplates that visitors could play on the installation, facilitating an immersive experience which forms an intrinsic part of the reggae sound system tradition.
The exhibition was immensely popular and the project was highly praised, encouraging the organisation to expand the project into a national tour in 2014-16 to document Bristol, Birmingham and London’s vibrant reggae sound system heritage. Venues supporting the tour included Colston Hall in Bristol, The Drum in Birmingham and The Tabernacle in London. These large, well established venues allowed us to engage diverse audiences with this important and largely undocumented social history.
The national project included 3 new culturally valuable exhibitions and the production of a children’s book, The Sonar System, introducing children to the world of sound system culture. The book was described by i-D magazine as “arguably the world’s best kid’s book” and supports the national #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign aimed at promoting greater cultural diversity amongst children’s literature.


Growing up under the influence: A sonic genealogy of grime by Dr Joy White

Presented by Dr Joy White at the Reggae Research Network Symposium: Scoping the Field in Norwich on the 25th January 2017.

Grime is a specifically English musical genre. What started out as a niche practice that articulated the lived experiences of young black men from a particular place, is now an endeavour that attracts a national and international audience. A diaspora cultural form, Grime has been nourished by its black Atlantic connections to the Caribbean, Africa and North America. In this presentation, I reflect on the influence of Reggae on Grime musical production.

I’ve been writing about Grime for almost a decade. A 21st century genre, it came of age in the YouTube era, but its primary ground was the pirate radio network. Along with Déjà Vu and Freeze, Rinse had a central role in showcasing Grime. At the age of sixteen, DJ Geeneus, with DJ Slimzee set up the station in Tower Hamlets. According to Geeneus, it was on Rinse in 2002, where UK Garage began to evolve into Grime. He said:

‘it was more like a darker side of Garage. We kind of converted the scene, into a darker sound…Grime started in east London…’

Grime sounds like where it is from; the street corners and council estates of inner city east London. It’s sonic origins flow through the musical practice of the black diaspora, namely Hip Hop, Reggae, UK Garage and Jungle. Jamaican and UK sound system culture and practice also had a significant influence.

Over a five-year period, between 2007 and 2012, I interviewed 40 people who were involved in some way in the urban music economy. Many of them were Grime MCs.

My starting point is a quote from one of those interviews. In 2009, I spoke to Kevin just as he was about to play his set on a beach in Ayia Napa in Cyprus. Kevin was a 30-year-old DJ, who had been a member of a north London crew for 15 years. He spoke about playing music of various styles over the years, Jungle, Garage and Grime. He said:

‘Of course, the roots of all this is Reggae’

So long before Chuck D called Rap the CNN for the ghetto, Reggae music articulated the struggles of the poor in a newly independent Jamaica. In Jamaica, Reggae could be heard via the sound systems – a portable endeavour comprised of equipment and crew, particularly the selector who assesses the vibe and chooses the records to suit, and the DJ who ‘toasts’ or chats over the selected tunes. The sonic genealogy of Grime can be traced back to these Jamaican sound systems and this heritage is manifest in three key ways; firstly the role of the crew and contemporary examples such as Roll Deep, Pay as U Go, Heartless Crew and N.A.S.T.Y crew, secondly, the ‘sound clash’ or adversarial performance battle, and finally Grime MCs ‘spitting’ lyrics over a beat.

I’m going to show clips from two videos to illustrate this, the first is from Jamaica – Sting 1993 – with Beenie Man and Bounty Killer and the second is from a Sidewinder event in Swindon – 2005, Wiley and Skepta are also on the bill but we’ll watch Trim and JME do their thing.

Grime has its origins in the hybridity genre of Reggae which itself grew out of a mix between American and Caribbean musical forms. As a black Atlantic creative expression its provenance is firmly rooted in urban east London, specifically the London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. Grime is traceable to a specific and particular location, namely urban east London, it comes out of an inner city environment where the offspring of Caribbean migrants intermingle with a white working class population and its linguistic canon reflects this. This genre has been created out of what Paul Gilroy calls the  ‘[…] displacement, relocation and dissemination of black creative expression’. The practitioners in this field are predominantly, but not exclusively, young, black males.  The consumers of it however, are from all over the UK, Europe and increasingly Africa and North America.

We have now had more than a decade of Grime. Dizzee Rascal, a Grime MC – won the Mercury Music Prize in 2003 (Boy in Da Corner) and Skepta (Junior Adenuga) won it last year for his album Konnichiwa.

Dizzee Rascal learned his craft via a sporadic apprenticeship with the Roll Deep crew, where he was championed by Wiley – the ‘Godfather of Grime’ until artistic differences led to a parting of the ways. Roll Deep was a Grime crew of approximately a dozen young men from Tower Hamlets, it included Scratchy, Riko Dan, Trim, Tinchy Stryder, Danny Weed and Target. In a recent interview Danny Weed and Target reflected on their early Grime days and discussed how they – along with Scratchy and Breeze another Roll Deep member – grew up together. All of them at one point worked in Wiley’s dad’s patty shop in east London, where, according to Danny Weed: ‘We got free patties and shit money’.

Slightly further east in the London Borough of Newham, Marcus Nasty, Jammer and other members of the N.A.S.T.Y crew were also formulating a new sound from the waning UK Garage genre. N.A.S.T.Y; an acronym for Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You was founded at the turn of the 21st century by Marcus Nasty, D Double E and Jammer until an acrimonious split left Marcus Nasty at the helm for a while. Like Roll Deep, this crew was also a fluid collection of approximately a dozen young male artists. Members included: DJ Mak 10, Stormin, Lil Nasty, Ghetts, Sharky Major and Kano. In the early days, Dizzee Rascal worked with DJ Mak 10 and Kano. After the split, D Double E, Jammer and Footsie transformed themselves into the Newham Generals and eventually signed to Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee Stank label. While N.A.S.T.Y. is no longer a prime force as a crew, their pirate radio sets, such as this one where they go back to back with Roll Deep, are the stuff of legend.

Former members have evolved into different roles and genres; Marcus Nasty is a DJ on Rinse FM, Ghetts is an independent recording artist, Stormin is a Drum and Bass MC and Jammer’s annual MC clash, Lord of the Mics is now in its tenth year.

The crew is a key component of sound systems and the subsequent UK Garage and Grime scene. In this context a crew is a group of like-minded individuals who are friends or have some kind of kinship connection and share a common interest, in this case – music. So, for example So Solid, Heartless Crew, Boy Better Know (BBK), Pay As You Go, Roll Deep and N.A.S.T.Y, contain members who attended the same schools, grew up on the same estates, are brothers or have some kind of familial relationship.

The Grime scene offered a liminal space for young men with limited resources to create music that spoke to and of their surroundings; the street corners and council estates of east London but with a reach back into their Caribbean heritage. Ina de Ghetto a track by Wretch 32, featuring Badness and Ghetts demonstrates this and also speaks to a collision/collapse of space, time and place. The words are spoken and sung by the three artists in a London and Jamaican dialect and some very lyrical wordplay is used to describe those that are focused on criminality as a way out of the hard life.  The lyrics and visuals make connections between east London and Kingston; Jamaica and illustrates how Grime emerged from east London, but draws on a distinctly Caribbean heritage to speak to a global audience.

Grime is predominantly young, male and black. An arrhythmic, unconventional genre it samples an eclectic mix of sounds structured around 140 bpm. It can be hard on the ear, the beats can be disturbing and brutal and sometimes, in the rapid-fire delivery, the words are almost imperceptible.

Like Lovers Rock in the 1970s – a UK specific Reggae genre created by the offspring of Caribbean migrants to the UK, Grime draws on the cultural, political and economic history of having parents and grandparents from elsewhere. It stakes a claim to the lived experience of a specific and particular place, in this case urban east London. It is an opportunity for artists to bring forth a character with which to tell stories from a fictional personal perspective. Asserting black urban identities that are rooted in, for example, Plaistow or Bow rather than Africa or the Caribbean, these personas reflect the gritty nature of the environment.

The foundations of Grime music lie, and are grounded in, the sound systems, shebeens and blues dances of the previous decades. In Jamaica in the 1950s, sound systems had started out playing American RnB imports, but in time this gave way to Ska, followed by Rocksteady and ultimately Reggae. In the 1970s and 1980s each area of London and every big city with a black community of Caribbean heritage, had a sound system. Over time, UK based sound systems emerged and started to play other styles of music: Swingbeat, RnB, Soul and Garage. It is possible to recognise the sonic remnants of Dancehall DJs such as Bounty Killer, Cutty Ranks and Ninjaman in the early Grime clashes. It is this influence that can be heard in the early Grime canon and when Garage was evolving into Grime. Here is a video from a live performance at Alexandra Palace in 2002, where we can, among others,  see Maxwell D, Romeo (from So Solid Crew) and Wiley.

The adversarial or sound clash element of the outdoor sound system included versioning – where different lyrics were spoken or sung over the same rhythm tracks. In a ‘sound clash’ – an antagonistic lyrical competition – the act of rhyming over a beat is a crucial aspect with the emphasis on bringing something new or original to the battle. Grime MCs will often throw down a lyrical challenge and ‘send for’ another artist.

The performers themselves talk about the influence of reggae on their own work. When I interviewed, Ian a club and radio DJ, in 2009, he let me know that that his father was a UK Reggae singer, who had had some commercial success in the 1980s. Another informant, Oliver a pioneer in the UK Garage and Grime scene, now operating as an independent recording artist explained his father was a Reggae and Sound system DJ who started out on pirate radio and who also had a long stint on a national radio station. At different times over a two-year period, I interviewed four brothers; Victor, James, Edward and Andrew who were all heavily involved in the urban music economy (as MCs and DJs playing a variety of genres, including Grime). Each of them informed me that their father was a musician, a drummer in a Reggae band of many years standing. Edward said ‘I grew up around music, you could say that music is my backbone’.  David, an independent recording artist who was also a member of a north London crew described being part of a fabric of music, sounds and performance. He told me: ‘I’m not sure when I started, my brother was a DJ, my Dad was a DJ, music took hold of me…’

In an interview with an online magazine last week, Wiley talks about the major influences on him and his musical practice. After pointing out that his Dad was in a reggae band (playing piano, bass, keyboard and drums), Wiley has this to say:

“We gotta remember here that no matter what anyone is doing there’s a lot of influence that’s gonna have come from Jamaica and the West Indies, parts of Africa, America – and England where you watch Top of the Pops […]. What comes out will always be a fusion […]. Without there being dancehall and American music that we’ve all grown up on then none of this would be possible.

To conclude then, the opening decade of the 21st century saw Grime music emerge from the street corners and council estates of urban east London. This is where the offspring of Commonwealth migrants and the young white working class socialised and congregated, drawing on Jamaican sound system culture and practice and Dancehall rhythms to create a uniquely English sound. I want to end with this clip of General Levy performing his track Incredible live on Radio 1.  What is interesting is how veterans of the Grime scene, Dizzee Rascal, Lethal Bizzle, JME , Jammer and Footsie, take such obvious delight in a song that was released when they were probably still at school. General Levy acknowledges the importance of the Grime youth and we see the influence of reggae at work across the generations.