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He called himself the “modern antique”; others revered him as a kind of New Age ancient. Sometimes breathy, sometimes firm, his undulating voice could soundeven when he was whisperingas if he were waging a personal war against some invisible force. Ras Pidow, the Rastafari poet and elder of the Nyabinghi Order who moved to the D.C. area from Jamaica more than 10 years ago, died on March 22, at age 70.
“His words could cut like swords,” remembers Ras Marcus, a fellow Rastafari poet who plays African drums and who was featured with Pidow on RAS Records’ 1990 Rastafari Elders album. “And yet his words repaired disastersand left his audience full of laughter.”
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Pidow’s story started in Kingston, Jamaica, on Feb. 9, 1931, when the Rastafari movement was still in its very early stageswhen Jamaica was a British colony and when practicing a religion that was not government-sanctioned was grounds for imprisonment. In his early 20s, Pidow, like many of his Rastafari brothers, was arrested. He was jailed for refusing to renounce his beliefs, but his months in prison left him only more devoted to his faith.
Through their reading and discussions about history and current events, Pidow and other Rastas came to believe that the European education they had received was meant to brainwash them and strip them of their culture. Pidow was among the first Rastas to create a new language; while chanting and singing in the Jamaican hills, they replaced syllables in English words with the “I” sound to represent their connection to God: “Praises” became “Ises,” “thanks” became “Iyanks.” This spiritual language had a profound impact and is still an integral part of the faith.
Over the years that followed, Pidow took his teachings to the street and to the marketplace, supporting himself and his wife through carpentry, painting, and construction work. In 1988, D.C.’s Rastafari community, local Jamaican community leaders, and the Smithsonian Institution sponsored him and a delegation of Rastafari elders so they might come to the United States to spread the message of Rastafari. He returned the following year to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and he soon settled on 16th Street in Columbia Heights. For about two years, he tried to make it as an artist and often mentored young people in his faith. He eventually moved to Baltimore, where he and his band, Ras Pidow and the Modern Antique, began a strict schedule of touring that took them to 37 states.
“Pidow was a light here,” says Jake Homiak, director of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian and part of the Smithsonian’s late-’80s effort to bring Pidow to the United States. “He made the cosmic transition to Zion, and now he’s shining there.”
Over the years, Pidow’s art blossomed, from the meditations on Rasta life he included on his first album, Modern Antique, released by RAS Records in 1992, to his last album, 1997’s Visions of the Ancient Future, which reflected his feeling that things had hardly changedthat the system still fostered hardship, punishment, and violence. But through his rhymes, he was able to offer his vision of freedom.
“Ras Pidow was a great African liberator,” says Ras Marcus. “He lived his life as an African agitator. He was indeed a great emancipator.” Ayesha Morris
A memorial service for Ras Pidow will take place from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at Umoja Nyumba Shule, 2230 Garrison Blvd., Baltimore. For more information, call Ras Negus at (410) 483-6912 or Ras Marcus at (410) 997-4983.