The Rastafarian concept of Babylon is one we all understand in its broad outline. Babylon is the white man's world, the oppressor's world, the world of the slave-taker and slave-trader, the world in which precious spiritual things are reduced to mere commodities. It's a world characterized by greed and dishonesty, a corrupt and decadent world, a world with no respect for nature and no respect for humanity. One should have as little to do with it as possible -- one shouldn't deal with Babylon. For, because of its endemic vices and iniquities, Babylon shall fade and Babylon shall fall, just like the reggae songs tell us.
Babylon in reggae and in Rastafarianism is a catch-all phrase, a metaphor. The real, historical Babylon, Wikipedia tells us, "was a city-state of ancient Mesopotamia, the remains of which can be found in present-day Al Hillah, Babil Province, Iraq, about 85 kilometers (55 mi) south of Baghdad." Interestingly, the current-day location of Babylon is occupied by the Americans, who are without a doubt the current-day metaphorical Babylonians too. Ominously, though, "all that remains today of the ancient famed city of Babylon is a mound, or tell, of broken mud-brick buildings and debris in the fertile Mesopotamian plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in Iraq." Babylon was a holy city by 2300 BC and the seat of an empire by 612 BC. It boasted a globalization-friendly skyscraper in the form of the Tower of Babel and a world-standard tourist attraction in the form of the Hanging Gardens. And yet, by 141BC, Babylon was to be found "in complete desolation and obscurity". Babylon a fall.
We could call Babylon, the Rastafarian concept, a "cautionary metaphor". By tunnelling far back into the past, the Rastafarians point to the fall of one empire, map it to the current empire, and preview, by extension and with relish, its fall too.
As David Bardfield explains in The Roots of Babylon (The Dread Library), the concept as it appears in Rastafarianism comes from Marcus Garvey's teachings, which map the exile of African slaves in the Caribbean to the exile of Jews into Babylon, as described in The Bible. It's a word which is shorthand for a whole political program: "Instead of saying "Injustice must fall", "Poverty must be alleviated", or "Jamaican legislation must represent its people", a Rasta need only say "Babylon must fall".
Babylon represents a range of corrupt and unjust institutions: politics, police, laws, even cities are "Babylon".
What's really remarkable is that the speeches from both sides of the current US presidential debates could very easily be reframed (I'm sure there's a text engine out there that could do it with cut and paste) in Rastafarian terms. When McCain and Obama agree that "Washington is broken, and Wall Street is broken", or when they talk about greed and corruption being endemic, they're basically recognizing that they live in Babylon. Even Bush, admitting that the $700 billion bailout may not solve the financial crisis, is warning us that Babylon may not be easily fixable. It may, indeed, fall. In fact, in a long enough perspective, it's absolutely sure to.
Babylon has been a theme in my own music -- I even put an image of Haile Selassie on the inside of my 2006 album Ocky Milk. Here's a clip from a track on my forthcoming Joemus album which pits "the Babylon King" against his nemesis, a "Jahwise Hammer":
Jahwise Hammer of the Babylon King (excerpt) stereo mp3 file, 1.4 MB, 1 min 45 secs
Maybe one day this song will bring it all back: exactly where you were when Babylon began a fall.