Behind ‘Babylon’

The term is omnipresent in reggae and essential to the music’s cultural history. But what does it mean?

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Bob Marley in the 1970s. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Widespread outrage over the tragic killings of black Americans at the hands of police — Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, to name a few recent examples — has sparked marches and protests worldwide, and urgent discussions from the streets to social media. The winds of change are blowing and the vibes of the time have inspired a flurry of new songs grappling with police brutality as well as the systemic racism that fuels it.

Since the rise of the Rastafarian movement in the early 1970s, long before the birth of Black Lives Matter, Jamaican musicians have come up with their own ways of addressing these and other interrelated topics, using a concept born out of Rasta philosophy. Reggae music has a long tradition of songs calling out the corrupt system known as “Babylon.” This catchall phrase applies to the police force, all forms of governmental “politricks,” religious and financial institutions, and the entire (in)justice system. Dreadlock Rastas, singers, disc jockeys and all manner of rebellious youth use the term “Babylon” to critique the power dynamic between the authorities and marginalized communities.

The term has a complex history dating back thousands of years. Babylon is mentioned throughout the Bible, from the first book to the last. In Genesis you learn about the Tower of Babel, located in the ancient city of Babylon. (Babylonia was a real place in Mesopotamia, although some Biblical scholars believe Babylon symbolized the debauchery and excess of the Roman empire.) According to scripture, the Babylonians wanted the Tower of Babel to be so tall it would reach all the way to Heaven, but God did not look very kindly on this plan. Sowing confusion amongst them by creating different languages, God made it impossible for them to communicate and “scattered them abroad from the face of all the earth” before they could complete the tower. The Book of Revelation tells about the “Whore of Babylon,” a symbol of lust and corruption who foreshadows the coming apocalypse.

Last November, for an NYC screening of the 1980 British film Babylon, I was asked to interview Brinsley Forde, the lead singer of the U.K. reggae group Aswad, who has a starring role in the film. The film explores how Jamaican youths, living in Great Britain in a hostile environment where they face harassment by police and racist neighbors, form sound systems to help create a sense of community. After Brinsley’s character (Blue) is roughed up, a Rasta elder in the film tells him that “Jamaica is the first Babylon and England is the second Babylon,” while Africa represents “Zion,” the promised land. Now hailed as a masterpiece of independent cinema, the film was given a X rating in the U.K. and was banned in the U.S. for 40 years. 

I asked Brinsley what Babylon means to him. “Really it’s the system that keeps us down,” he replied. “Right now we’ve got the Brexit, and you hear people talking about this party or that party, but in reality it’s a group of people that finance both sides of the argument. They keep us arguing so we won’t realize the truth. So ‘Babylon’ for me is the system that keeps us confused and in perpetual ignorance.”

By its very nature Babylon is a tricky concept to pin down, perhaps leaning on that idea of confusion. It’s definitely not as simple as black or white. Whatever version or meaning of the term Babylon you may be familiar with, the common thread between them is greed and corruption. Exactly which side of the fence you may be on is another story; as Bob Marley famously said, “Who the cap fit let them wear it.” But one thing’s for sure, as Dennis Brown put it: “Love and hate can never be friends.” With that in mind, here is a selection of songs by a variety of reggae artists representing different eras to help pinpoint the essence of Babylon.

Junior Byles
“Beat Down Babylon” (1971)

“Say mi no like them kinda Babylon,” sings the young Rasta vocalist in one of the earliest songs to use the term. “Say mi no dig them kinda wicked men.” This hard-hitting Lee “Scratch” Perry production became a big success for Byles, suggesting that the singer’s feelings were shared by quite a few listeners in Jamaica and England as well. “Oh what a wicked situation/I and I starving/This might cause a revolution/And a dangerous pollution.” Scratch does not hold back on his sound effects, adding loud whipping noises to the track as the singer declares, “I an I gon beat down Babylon/I an I must whip them wicked men.” Nothing is greater than that feeling of self-satisfaction when you take control of your own destiny.

Bob Marley & the Wailers
“Babylon System” (1979)

The King of Reggae addressed Babylon in much of his music. As early as 1973, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer sang, “Babylon your throne gone down” on the track “Rastaman Chant.” In 1978 Bob Marley and the Wailers released a double live album called Babylon by Bus, recorded during a European tour. But his most detailed description was on the song “Babylon System,” from the revolutionary album Survival, originally titled Black Survival. “The album was all about surviving the slave trade and Africa,” said Neville Garrick, Bob’s longtime friend and art director. “So all the independent countries of Africa put their flag on the cover.”

To represent the black people of the Caribbean diaspora, England and America, Garrick added an illustration of a slave ship’s deck layout showing the black bodies stacked like human cargo. On the album’s fourth track, Bob lays out a clear-eyed definition. “Babylon system is the vampire … Sucking the blood of the sufferers.” He goes on to describe how educational and religious institutions perpetuate the teachings of this system, “graduating thieves and murderers.” On the song’s chorus, Bob evokes an image from the Book of Isaiah. “We’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long,” he sings. “Rebel.” 

Freddie McGregor
“Bobby Bobylon” (1980) 

On the title track from his first full-length project for the legendary Studio One, the young artist lays his smooth vocals on Sir Coxsone Dodd’s timeless “high fashion” riddim. This is an uplifting and righteous song, on which Freddie takes Bob’s advice to rebel and runs with it. “Pray for Mr. Babylon,” he states as the track begins, sitting in judgment over the Babylon system as personified by a fictional character named Bobby Bobylon. “I know your evil plan, Mister Babylon,” Freddie sings, then reads off the charges like a prosecutor in a courtroom: 

“You brought us down here in captivity
Feed us with your brutality
Turn your back on humanity
You got no love and no Inity, man”

Soon enough Bobby is found guilty, sending a message of hope that justice will prevail: 

“You took away our fathers’ gold
Robbed them of their sevenfold
Now you’re locked behind the door
Not knowing one day we would know the score, man”

No wonder the song has become a classic, and remains a fixture of McGregor’s live set to this day. 

Aswad
“Three Babylon” (1981)

Brinsley Forde didn’t only do battle with Babylon on the silver screen; he also grappled with Babylonian forces as a member of Aswad, who specialized in songs about the realities faced daily by black youths growing up in the U.K.

This track, from their 1981 project Showcase, describes in poetic fashion an encounter with three police officers. Although most British police don’t carry guns, they have been known to use their batons to inflict bodily harm. “Three Babylon try to make I and I run,” Brinsley sings over a jazzy dub track. “They come to have fun with their long truncheon.” But things don’t work out as the officers planned. On this particular evening, the youths of West London are not so easily intimidated and decide to fight back, as the song subtly suggests. “When the first one come, tumble down,” Brinsley sings. The second one meets a similar fate. And what about the third? “Him run lef’ him truncheon.” The message of this song couldn’t be clearer: Get up and stand up for your rights.

Sizzla
“Dem a Try a Ting” (1998) 

One of the most important artists of this generation, Sizzla has a catalog filled with fiery, thought-provoking messages set to rhythms ranging from classic roots reggae to cutting-edge dancehall. As a member of the Boboshanti Order of Rastafari, Sizzla has devoted many songs to burning out Babylon. “Lock off Babylon heartbeat,” he declares on an early duet with Jah Cure. On “Babylon ah Listen,” he sings about their use of surveillance technology. But on this song he delves deep into the psychology of Babylon, seeking to understand what the oppressors are thinking. “Babylon a try a ting but we no scared,” Sizzla tells his listeners. “Them think them siddown ’pon throne when them ah kotch ’pon chair.”

Describing the “mighty” Babylon system as someone who’s borrowing a chair to sit on while believing they own a throne, Sizzla’s implication is clear: Babylon’s days are numbered. Knowing your enemy’s weakness is a key tactic of survival. Despite the brutality and scaremongering of “all the police and soldiers here and there,” Sizzla urges his listeners to look upon their guns and ammunition without fear. Keeping in line with Bob’s plea to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,” Sizzla vocalizes that he won’t be intimidated and he’s ready to burn Babylon — anytime, anywhere.

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