This is a version of an entry I wrote for the W.E.B. Dubois institute's Dictionary of Afro-Latin American Biography.
Dizzy, Ras (1932-2008), painter, poet and itinerant Rastafarian activist, was probably born in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica on 19 December 1932. His given name, according to his passport, was Albert Livingstone, but he also used Birth Livingstone, Clive Gillespie and Birch Lincoln amongst other monikers in his writings. The name Ras Dizzy, by which he was most widely known, combines the Rastafari honorific, Ras, which means ‘head’ or ‘prince’ in Amharic, with an admiring reference to jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie.
We know little about Ras Dizzy’s early life, though the rise of the Rasta movement must have impressed him strongly. Rastafari grew out of the experience of landless peasants and industrial workers living in the slums of Kingston who had been dispossessed during the economic depression of the 1930s. A synthesis of multiple spiritual influences, and always loosely organized, Rastafari combined anti-colonial sentiment and a demand for the repatriation of former slaves to Africa with a cosmopolitan philosophy of peaceful co-existence. By the 1960s, Ras Dizzy was an influential figure in Rasta circles. He gained notice too amongst the Jamaican intelligentsia at a time when Jamaica was gearing toward independence from Britain in 1962. During the later 1960s, students and academics at the University of the West Indies launched a newspaper, the weekly Abeng, as a locus for Black Power, Rastafarian and socialist viewpoints. Ras Dizzy’s works, on topics such as ‘Revolution or Repatriation?’, were featured in the Abeng. His writing was also published in the academic journal Caribbean Quarterly.
Like many Jamaicans in the Twentieth Century, Ras Dizzy left the island in search of opportunities elsewhere. These journeys took him to Panama, Haiti, Antigua, the Cayman Islands and perhaps further afield. Travel provided imaginative stimulus for his art and social philosophy. In Kingston, Dizzy likewise moved often, sometimes squatting in empty houses, or briefly renting accommodation in the shanty dwellings of the inner city. Here he joined others affiliated with Rastafari — musicians and street philosophers. A characteristic of Rastafarian philosophizing is the ‘reasoning’, a Socratic type of dialogue that draws on personal visions, dreams and other spiritual experiences to probe the meaning of contemporary events, assisted by use of the ‘holy herb’, ganja. Dizzy wrote down his views in brief discursive essays and long poems that he mimeographed and distributed. He would decorate the walls of the places he stayed with his personal mythopoetic imagery – figures of cowboys, jockeys and Haile Selassie (the latter being for many Rastafarians the supreme deity). For co-dwellers in this milieu, Ras Dizzy was a spiritual visionary, a ‘crazy genius’. At the same time, he was a prolific producer of small paintings on cardboard; these he would sell to visitors, or to academics and students at the University of the West Indies. In doing so, he built a close relationship with staff at the University and at the National Gallery of Jamaica, who in turn made various efforts to provide him with resources.
The ideal of a distinctively Jamaican art played an important role in the nationalist struggle against colonialism from the 1930s onwards. After independence, the National Gallery of Jamaica and other institutions were keen to promote the work of popular or folk artists to demonstrate the existence of a national art tradition. This grouping, which included Ras Dizzy, most of whom had little official schooling, came to be described as ‘intuitive’ artists to distinguish them from their academically trained counterparts. Over the years, Dizzy’s paintings would feature in numerous exhibitions of ‘intuitive’ art. In this way figures like Dizzy became mediators between the worldview of the mass of Jamaicans and of the elite. The alliance of interests involved was complex and ambivalent. Dizzy’s art and philosophy expressed, in a highly distinctive way, a popular Jamaican cosmology where the world is understood as an interplay of many spiritual agencies. Interviews with him frequently reference Dizzy listening to the voices of spirits and describing himself as an ‘avenging angel’. His status in the artworld seems to have had little effect on him personally. Despite various attempts at providing him with a more stable position, Ras Dizzy’s peripatetic and cosmopolite lifestyle continued to his death in 2008.
Dizzy, Ras 1967. ‘The Rastas Speak’ Caribbean Quarterly 13(4):41-42
Cooper, C., H. Van Asbroeck and A. Oberli. 2008. ‘Remembering Ras Dizzy’ Jamaica Journal 31(3): 58-63.
Wardle, H. 2000. An Ethnography of Cosmopolitanism in Kingston, Jamaica. New York: Edwin Mellen.