The spirit of unity behind the Black Mountain Asheville Rastafari Collective runs deep.
So deep, in fact, that the small local group was able to unite some of the biggest names in reggae — Bunny Wailer, Damian and Stephen Marley, and Ras Michael — to share the stage for the first time ever. The collective tapped the reggae titans to headline its Rastafari Ancient Living Arts & Kulture Festival, which also features a host of other performers and an Interfaith Reasoning forum that seeks to inspire cross-cultural understanding.
The goal is to celebrate "a spirit of love, but on another side, international diplomacy," says co-organizer Bobby Sullivan. "RALAK aims to bring people together with a good-time feeling, where we're sharing the heartbeat that we all share."
The local group organized the festival with the support of the international Rastafari Millennium Council — an umbrella governing body working to gain nationhood status for Rastas around the world. Made up of Wailer and a team of Rasta elders and leaders, the global council has a surprisingly strong local connection, with one of its trustees, Ras Sela, calling Black Mountain home.
Chasing those crazy "Ras Trents" out of town
Sela moved to the town a year and a half ago, drawn to the area by the beauty of the mountains and the hope that it would be a good place to raise his five children. But the Rasta leader says that he was also greeted by an alarming amount of local misconception about the culture.
"I noticed that there were a lot of individuals with locks, carrying red, gold and green, as a symbol of the so-called 'alternative lifestyle,'" he reports. "But this is not just a hippie-type way of life that you can just pick up by saying 'Rastafari!'"
One of the goals of the BMARC and the festival is to help clear up some of those misrepresentations, Sela reveals.
"Just because you're a vegetarian doesn't make you a Rasta," he says. "It's about who you are as an individual. … Rastafari is an ancient living culture from Africa. It comes with an indigenous tradition and a way of life that's been preserved from creation."
Likewise, Sullivan cites the "Ras Trent" character from an infamous Saturday Night Live video as the kind of stereotype the group is trying to face down. In the musical comedy sketch, the self-proclaimed "Rasta" college student extols smoking weed out of Sprite cans, drinking Red Stripe beers and watching DVDs of Cool Runnings as key tenets of the faith.
"Someone told me that he [actor Andy Samberg] came to Asheville to do his research on that character," Sullivan says with a chuckle. "I don't believe that person, but it's believable. The misrepresentation of Rastafari has been really rife in this town."
To help reclaim the symbols and imagery of the culture, the Millennium Council is working to protect and manage the intellectual property associated with it on clothing and other merchandise. Members of the BMARC have been a key part of the global effort, with Sela, Sullivan and Roshon "Aslan" Cray joining a Rasta delegation at the United Nations last December. The meeting came about after word of last year's initial RALAK festival made its way to UN Under-Secretary Dr. Deng, who then invited the group to make its case for earning royalties on products that exploit the culture's imagery.
"You can't just use Rastafari culture without giving something back," explains Sela. "If you're going to use our icons and our symbols, one must give back to the community, to the collective."
The BMARC also hopes to support the international council by donating a portion of the festival's proceeds to a Rastafari Trust Fund that helps facilitate social initiatives for the needy. Members of the local group also stay busy organizing educational trips to Africa and operating a prison ministry.
"A constitution of the Rasta community is that the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished and the aged be cared for," explains Sela's wife, Empress Iffiya. "So we have a lot of responsibility to do social work within the family of Rastafari."
That spirit of helping and healing is also the inspiration behind the Interfaith Reasoning aspect of the festival. The second day of the event will center around an assembly of representatives from different traditions speaking on how their faiths manifest the Golden Rule. The gathering will feature Rastafari, Muslim, Native American, Jewish, Buddist, Hindu and Christian leaders speaking on the subject and facilitating open dialogue with attendees. The day will also include demonstrations of traditional chants, songs and ceremonies.
"We're trying to focus on the commonalities that we share. The Golden Rule — treat others as you would like to be treated — is an example of a teaching that is common for all of them, so that's the theme of it," explains Sullivan.
"We're living at a time when man doesn't know where he's going; there's so many pockets of conflict," adds Sela. "We have to fix what's happening to us globally, and if we can plant the seed here in North Carolina, I think it would be a big step."
Organizers see the musicians playing the festival as the perfect partners to help plant those seeds of inspiration.
"The message that Bunny Wailer and the Marleys have put out to the world has given Rastafari recognition in terms of what we represent as a people," says Sela. "They have supported a lot of social initiatives; they've made significant contributions to world peace and healing the social ills of the world."
"Ultimately, this festival is really about just bringing people together for a good time, where we can really focus on our unity," adds Sullivan. "Like Bob Marley said, ‘One love, one heartbeat, one song.’"
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.
what: Rastafarian Ancient Living Arts & Kulture Festival, featuring Bunny Wailer, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, Stephen Marley, Ras Michael and more
where: Lake Eden event grounds, Black Mountain
when: Saturday, Sept. 11 and Sunday, Sept. 12 ($50/$70/$100/$125. Day passes and camping available. ralak.com)