“Babylon Come and Light It Up on Fire”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Siff’s post elaborates on the research she presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference held April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Enjoy!

Recently, like so many others, I found myself searching on YouTube for reggae songs about cannabis. It did not take long to stumble across the age-restricted content of Marlon Asher’s “Ganja Farmer.” I feel I was able to understand this song much better because I participated in the recent conference Cannabis: Global Histories.

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Sarah Brady Siff presents her work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

Asher was raised Southern Baptist in Trinidad but converted to Rastafari, whose million-odd adherents smoke cannabis as a spiritual ritual. Originating in colonial Jamaica and said to be inspired by black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey, Rastafari is native to the Caribbean. The tropical climate there is ideal for the outdoor cultivation of cannabis, which Rastas call ganja. Thus the lyrics to “Ganja Farmer”’s refrain*:

Yes I’m a ganja planter
Call me di ganja farmer
Deep down inna di earth where me put di ganja
Babylon come and light it up on fire

Babylon refers literally to the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom under which the Jews were said to have been taken captive and to have suffered. Rastas often use it as a metaphor for oppressive Western institutions. In the first verse of “Ganja Farmer,” a helicopter appears “spitting fire” from the sky, and the farmer points out that the eradicators have waited to strike until after his long labors watering and fertilizing the crop. He fantasizes about using a rocket launcher to “dispense the helicopter” in mid-air.

When Asher’s song grew popular in 2005, he told a newspaper reporter that he was no farmer himself, but had based the lyrics on his friends’ experiences struggling to earn a living by growing cannabis. Indeed, programs in the Caribbean to uproot and/or burn cannabis crops have long been carried out by police and soldiers in helicopters. In 1998, for example, the U.S. Marine Corps sent six helicopters and trained 120 local personnel to rappel into locations on St. Vincent, ignoring the protests of hundreds of members of a “Marijuana Farmers movement.” At the time, unemployment on the island was around 40 percent, according to one report:

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The second verse of “Ganja Farmer” reflects how the farmer sees himself and his produce:

Tru Jah Jah bless I with nuff a good vibes man
And true mi a di artist with di ganja inna di land
Make doctors get nuff meditation
And so dem coulda give it to dem sick patients
Make chemists get nuff medication
And so dem coulda brew new medication
Make singers get some inspiration
And so dem coulda spread Jah message pon di land

The song celebrates spiritual and medical uses of cannabis and the role of the farmer as an “artist” who supplies therapeutic and inspirational raw materials. The lyrics remind me of research presented during the conference, particularly a paper by Lucia Romero about organized groups of home cultivators as well as larger-scale growing for “chemists” who “brew new medication.”

In my own research on cannabis eradication, I wrote about the 1970 introduction of helicopters into crop suppression efforts by local police on another set of tropical islands, Hawaii. Residents there complained bitterly about the search-and-seizure missions named “Operation Destroy” and “Operation Green Harvest.” Ranch owners angrily recounted how low-flying choppers had scared and injured their livestock; how pilots had peered into windows and officers had touched down brandishing firearms. Some argued that cannabis was the island’s most profitable cash crop by several measures. Others sued the state for violation of Fourth Amendment rights.

Generally the process was to pull or cut plants and remove them for incineration; but in 1978, a reader of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin sarcastically suggested flamethrowers would be more entertaining:

1979_flamethrowers

By 1988, the United States’ federal cannabis eradication program was under way, and the daring helicopter raid on outdoor plots had become a stock image:

DEA1988

Of course, the United States soon exported its war on cannabis to Asher’s homeland, where the farmers’ pleas to President Bill Clinton went mostly ignored. The Hawaiians’ earlier arguments about the oppressive nature of the helicopter raids are also reflected in the fourth, final verse of “Ganja Farmer”:

Well it’s like ten thousand babylon in one blue van
Wan come trespass on dis man damn ganja land
Ten thousand babylon in one blue van
Wan come trespass on dis land

I imagine that Caribbean farmers would not have had recourse to U.S. court systems, even though subjected to U.S. enforcement. I’m looking forward to pursuing this aspect of my historical project, thanks to an inspiring conference, a good newspaper archive, and a totally catchy reggae song.

*all lyrics ©NW Royalty Consulting LLC; written by Carl Henderson, Geron A. Woodruffe, and Marlon S. Sobers (Marlon Asher)
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