“The Gideon Force was the regiment that kicked the fascists out of Ethiopia,” explains Oakland-based MC Ras Ceylon. The force, he says, resisted the Italian incursion against the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie, the emperor sacred to Rastafarians. It inspired the title of the latest mixtape from the reggae and hip hop MC, Gideon.Force Volume 1, with its array of “conscious” guests including stic.man from the militant duo dead prez.
Resistance, liberation, and Rasta are integral to the music of this overtly political MC. And so is Sri Lanka, his family homeland. From Sri Lanka to Jamaica via the Bay Area, the connections are not as far-fetched as one might imagine — at least not as Ras Ceylon, who’s been making music on the underground scene for over a decade, sees it.
MTV Desi’s Siddhartha Mitter caught up with Ras Ceylon for a session on consciousness, politics, and how the Emcee realized he was part of a Desi music movement.
You wear your politics on your sleeve. Tell me the key stages in the political education of Ras Ceylon.
Give thanks and greetings in the name of liberation! It has definitely been a process of growth and development coming into political consciousness. Certain members of my family were involved in revolutionary politics since I was a kid.
One of the first songs I ever recorded was “October 22nd,” which is the national day of protest against police brutality. I wrote the lyrics based off a flier I had received from one of my aunties.
Certain books changed my life in terms of sharpening my outlook on the world, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, A People’s History of the United States, and any of Huey P. Newton’s writings. I have worked with some powerful OGs that have laid their life on the line for us to be able to speak how we speak now.
Here in Oakland is where the Black Panther Party was started, and if you really check for what the party was about and did in the community, you will see that this was one of the greatest organizations ever created.
I organized a lot in college, working with everyone from Students for Hip Hop to General Union of Palestinian Students to the Native American and Muslim Student Association, really I worked with anyone genuinely interested in creating progressive change. I have focused a lot of energy on working with youth in under-served communities here in the Bay.
It’s been a pleasure building lasting relationships with youth here because the same lessons I was given as a youngster I am now able to pass on to the next generation.
Did you move to the Bay Area with the desire to be part of the conscious hip hop scene, or the area’s strong tradition of activist politics? Or did you come up for other reasons and get pulled in?
I have always had family up here, including my older sister. It was visiting her in the mid-’90s that I was around the golden era of Bay Area independent hip hop, when cats like Living Legends and Hieroglyphics were doing their thing locally and it was all the grassroots, pre-Internet scene. I was inspired to even record and produce my own tape and hustle it in front of the record stores like them when I was in high school.
But, really, I came to the Bay from Southern California in order to get my education. By my senior year of high school, music was everything in my life. I knew if I stayed around Southern California I would not be able to make it through college because the lifestyle of myself and my crew at the time was just a full time music grind.
So, I applied to San Francisco State. I got in and I took my tape with me and struck out on my own, by this time fully identifying myself as a Rastaman.
How did Rasta come into your life?
Rastafari is something that has been inside of me from creation and probably before this incarnation of flesh. Although I was baptized as a Catholic in Sri Lanka when I was a baby, my parents were not religious. I was basically an atheist by the time I was twelve. It wasn’t until I started building with Rastas in the hip hop scene in Santa Ana, California, that my mind and soul was opened to the possibility of the Most High existing.
Once I gained knowledge of Jah, it’s like I gained knowledge of my true self. I began listening to a lot of roots reggae and started re-reading the Bible and all kinds of books, learning more about Sri Lankan and African ancient history. So from about age sixteen I have been on this path, even going as far as to re-baptizing myself in the Nile River in Egypt in 2001.
I have been honored to interact with every mansion and aspect of the faith of Rastafari from Nyabinghi to Bobo Shanti, Twelve Tribes of Israel to Ethiopian Orthodox. I embrace it all because Rastafari is a global spiritual movement, not a religion.
You mentioned that you’ve felt the call to move your music toward a more overt reggae sensibility, in the Gideon Force series. Why was that?
It was a natural progression. I have been rapping about Rasta for years in the hip hop context and that content fits naturally and firstly in reggae. Also, the hip hop industry is not very supportive of any artists that are uplifting people in music. It was the reggae promoters and sound systems that showed me the most interest.
Spending time in Kingston, Jamaica this year building with Sizzla Kalonji and Judgment Yard was instrumental in pushing my ragga vibe even further. It is to the point now where I am doing dubplates for reggae selectors and voicing exclusive versions on riddims coming out of Jamaica.
I am open to all kinds of music though, and play a few instruments a bit, so I never feel pigeonholed as just a hip hop or reggae artist. As long as there is a beat I can bust on it.
Do you ever find that being a “political artist” brings constraints? Can you perform a love song and still be a political artist?
El Commandante Che Guevara said, “A true revolutionary is moved by great feelings of love.” So no, I don’t feel any constraint because I am expressing something burning deep inside of me, that I must get out.
As I delve more into reggae I feel myself coming up with some cooler vibrations musically, so you may hear some non-political and more love songs from Ras Ceylon soon. But everything is political in a sense and all my music is coming from a place of love; perhaps more about love for the people and not love in the romantic sense. But it’s all one love still.
Let’s talk about Sri Lanka. You addressed it in a song called “My Island,” quite a few years ago. Have you built on Sri Lanka in your music more recently?
Right on. The first song I did addressing Sri Lanka was a history of the island plus a mini-autobiography called “Decolonize” on my Collegraduate CD. Then I did “My Island” produced by Kush Arora after visiting there in the summer of 2005.
Since the war has “ended” I felt the need to make a song to address what I think about what’s really going on and what is important now that the LTTE has been militarily defeated. This song is called “Heal Lanka” and was highlighted by groundviews.org which is a good source for alternative news on Sri Lankan politics.
I have some plans to do serious work in Sri Lanka very soon. A number of Rastafarians in Sri Lanka have reached out to me online. I am very excited about building with them in person.
I heard that Sean Paul recently did a show in Colombo. I want to connect with persons on the island that are interested in exposing Sri Lanka to some of the different music and people I work with. Bringing myself and Sizzla to Lanka would be ideal.
Really though, I want to reach out to the youth and people of Sri Lanka and the diaspora, to really reconsider these ethnic divisions. While Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms have co-existed for thousands of years within our island, it is only after four hundred plus years of European occupation that we now see each other as arch-rivals and enemies. Divide and conquer can only tear us apart.
Is it too far fetched to say there is a kinship between Sri Lanka and Jamaica?
I don’t think it’s far fetched at all … at least not for me! When I first arrived in Jamaica last fall I kept saying over and over again how much it reminded me of Sri Lanka, in terms of landscape, roads, and housing but also the police/military presence and the abject poverty that the masses there deal with.
I know Sri Lanka and Jamaica face the same neo-colonial economic and political realities, where the World Bank and IMF have destroyed both islands’s ability to be self-sustainable and viable. This is a dire situation and it will take people doing for self and not depending on governments to really break free of the colonial legacy.
I have witnessed a few sovereign communities where folks share resources and live off of and with the land and that has been very inspiring.
Why use Ceylon in your name, as opposed to Lanka? Is it about remembering the colonial experience and its impact?
That’s precisely what it’s about! In 1997 I was rhyming by the name MC Matrix. One day I looked at a world map and the word Ceylon just stuck out to me. At first the tagger in me just liked how the letters looked. I thought, lemme use Ceylon to identify with my Sri Lankan background.
My sister reminded me of the fact that this was the colonial name and I shouldn’t use it. However, I was convinced that it fit. As my overstanding of Sri Lankan history evolved, I did identify that the way we are acting there is basically the way the colonizer would want us to. So, in many ways, we are still colonized mentally.
Later, I added the Ras (which means head or general in Amharic), which really makes the handle a mission statement. Basically saying that we must use our heads to decolonize ourselves. I have always stated that, when the war is truly over in Sri Lanka and the people on both sides have justice and unity, I will change my name. Until that happens, I will remain Ras Ceylon because the mission to transform my island still exists.
Over time, a Desi/South Asian hip hop and conscious music community has been taking shape, in the US, the UK, and across the South Asian diaspora. Do you feel part of a broader diaspora movement?
Until recently, I did not feel very much connected to the Desi music community at all. I spent so many years grinding it out within the hip hop and reggae communities, I never really got much attention from any specific ethnicity of listeners.
Working with people like my lil’ bro Mandeep Sethi has definitely opened me up to that Desi world and I am reinvigorated to speak to the South Asian massive and share thoughts and ideas about how we see things.
I have some new music in the works that I think the Desi community may feel even more as we incorporate concepts and vibes from the subcontinent. It is refreshing working with like-minded Desi folk because, coming up, I did not see or know any South Asian folks that were on the same tip. Some of the style and substance coming out of the diaspora is sick and I am looking forward to working with more warriors from that part of the globe.