In this essay, curator and academic Aleema Gray considers D. Elmina Davis’s film in the context of the 1980s and the British Rastafari movement.
Against the backdrop of colonial trauma and African royalty, D. Elmina Davis’s 1988 documentary film, Omega Rising Women of Rastafari, unearths an important womanist contribution.
Davis, otherwise known as ‘Sister D’, had dreams of spreading the message of Rastafari throughout the world and using it as a tool to empower women in the African Diaspora. From the beginning of the film, we are greeted with the divine words of Sister Maqdes Wints, who reminds us that a ‘woman doesn’t just dread… If a woman puts on her dreads, it is in defiance to what has already been ordained as beautiful, clean and upright.’ Focusing on their intergenerational lived experiences, the film serves to demystify and document the interior histories of Rastafari women between Jamaica and Britain.
Working as part of the grassroots British Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, one of several black collectives set up in the 1980s with support from then-new broadcaster Channel 4 and the Greater London Council, Sister D pioneered the development of Black radicalism within a creative tradition. Her practice was self-taught, and rooted in a Black participatory and community-engaged approach. For Sister D, power rested in exploring the lives of ordinary people who were typically left out of the mainstream. For example, the collective’s first film, The People’s Account (1986) surveyed Black communities in Tottenham following the 1985 Broadwater Uprising in a way that responded directly to their experiences and frustrations, whilst also critiquing the wider British (post) colonial milieu.
However, it was Sister D’s independent film on the women of Rastafari that put forward enduring recommendations for what unity, resistance and resilience could look like in the midst of subordination. Omega Rising Women of Rastafari created the material and cultural reference points needed to challenge the erasure of the Rastafari embodied experience within our cultural imagination. Prior to the film, women were rarely recognised as an integral part of the Rastafari movement because scholars had interpreted its leadership, status, prophecy and healing traditions within a masculine realm. Quite often, such conclusions were based on Western perceptions of gender equality which silenced the perspectives of Rastafari women, replacing them with lazy clichés depicting the Rastafari man as the archetypal ‘Jamaican Rude-boy’.
Sister D’s film came at a critical moment in the history of Rastafari when women were becoming a visible part of the movement. The reference to the women as ‘rising’ reflects the processes of change that were weaving together Rastafari women across borders, and connecting them in their own form of womanism rooted in the concept of ‘Livity’. For Rastafari, Livity is not just about one’s lifestyle in the physical and material world, it also represents the metaphysical and natural essence of simply being; and in Omega Rising Women of Rastafari, Sister D documents all women in their own environment and on their own terms. Her effortlessly straightforward approach invites audiences into Rastafari women’s private and professional spaces, revealing radically vulnerable aspects of their lives.
The film’s blurring of the urban and rural spaces of Jamaica and England also forces the audience to consider the colonial afterlives of women who adopted Rastafari to strike a blow for their ancestors. In many ways, Britain became an important frontier for the Rastafari movement, not only because of the growing number of West Indian migrants who settled in the country following the Second World War; but also because of the legacies of the British Slave Trade, which had forcibly removed their ancestors from Africa and shipped them to the Caribbean to work on slave plantations.
Sister D is keen to reflect this colonial backdrop throughout the film. She doesn’t adopt an encyclopaedic or chronological take on the women’s journeys into Rastafari, but rather ensures every scene is well placed to keep the vibration of Rastafari womanhood alive through time and space. Her compilation of the women’s testimonies alongside the warm vocals of Judy Mowatt’s song, Black Women, reminds the audience that ‘we are forsaken once in the plantation, lashes to our skin, on auction blocks we were chained and sold.’ Such sonic expressions are assembled against the dreary grey bustle of London. We are left with the question: How can one reconcile a modern ancestral identity? Not only are Rastafari women grounded in the examples of Empress Mennen and the Ancient Kingdom of Ethiopia, they are also anchored by the memory of slavery and the everyday struggles to survive in Babylon.
In fact, both England and Jamaica in the 1980s should be seen as radicalising spaces in which Rastafari ideals could flourish. Following sensationalist news reports throughout the 1970s which dogged the Rastafari, dubbing them ‘Drug Mafia’, the ‘80s signalled an attempt to understand the Rastafari from within. By 1982, the Catholic Commission on Racial Justice had urged the public to legally recognise Rastafari as an authentic religion; and by the end of 1986, the Rastafari had united to organise the Rastafari in Focus conference, an international event held at the Commonwealth Institute in London.
For Rastafari women, the ‘80s represented a moment to reclaim their narrative. They launched a number of services to provide organisational support to the movement, ranging from School of Wadada, a supplementary school attached to an international magazine, to the Tree of Life community group, focusing on the wellbeing of Afro-Caribbean families. Throughout the film, we get a sense of their dualism as they move between different cultural borders, and rise against differing oppressive forces.
And yet, Sister D also understood the challenges in centring the female voice within a movement that had been subject to corrosive and false caricatures. As a Rastafari woman, she was privy to internal discussions concerning their role in the community. Such debates became increasingly controversial in the ’80s and often transformed into a type of Rasta patriarchy, concealing the policing of female dress codes and professions. We see several sisters in the film defending their right to work, or to not wear a head wrap. In fact, some women declined the offer to be featured in the film at all, fearing that it would be used as a disruptive force to divide the Rastafari community.
As such, the film places little emphasis on juxtaposing the experiences of the Rasta women against those of their male counterparts. Instead, Sister D provides us with an opportunity to listen to their voices – without judgement. In many ways, the film creates spaces for healing and reconciliation within the Rastafari community. Her employment of the Rastafari oral tradition of ‘reasoning’ positions all personalities on a horizontal platform, and situates their experiences in an embodied intellectual space that moves beyond western notions of being and knowing. We can’t help but feel that it is only a Rastafari woman who could capture the interior joys, the pain and the strength that Rastafari offers in this way. For many women at the time, Sister D was in the best position to document their experiences and concerns; not only because she was working ‘within’ the community, but also because she had lived out the internal frustrations and celebrations of what it meant to be a Black Rastafari woman. Following her passing in 1994, the community organised a Women’s Conference in her memory. However, the true legacy of Sister D, the filmmaker, the Rastafari, the woman, the mother and the activist, can be seen throughout Omega Rising Women of Rastafari as well as in the number of Rastafari women who have since mobilised in their own collective and personal forms of resistance.
NB: The historical record shows that there are two titles for the film: Omega Rising Women of Rastafari and Queen Omega. Within the Rastafari tradition, Queen usually precedes Omega as it represents the feminine realm.
Aleema Gray is Community History Curator at the Museum of London and PhD candidate at Warwick University. Her research is funded by the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies and uncovers a community-engaged history of the Rastafari movement in England. Aleema’s work focuses on documenting Black British history through the perspective of lived experiences. Her practice is driven by a concern for more historically contingent ways of understanding the present, especially in relation to notions of belonging, memory and contested heritage. She tweets @AleemaGray.