Rasta the future: a conversation with Tigilau Ness of Unity Pacific

The patriarch of New Zealand reggae is a thoughtful man whose songs reflect a thirty-year struggle for equality, human rights, and his Rastafarian faith.

Tigilau Ness has long supported NORML ’s campaign for marijuana legalisation. His band Unity Pacific has performed at J Day and played all of the Auckland One Love celebrations for Bob Marley’s birthday. Tigi appeared with his son, hip hop star Che Fu, in Norml News way back in Winter 1995.

A founder of the Polynesian Panthers civil rights action group in the 1970’s, Tigi’s strategy has always been one of peaceful non-violent resistance. He was arrested at Bastion Point and was one
of the few to do time for his Springbok protests, serving nine months of a 12 month sentence. The incarceration was a temporary set back on his musical journey, but says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “If you believe in it, then gee, be prepared to die for it.”

It helped make him the Rasta man he is today. Central to Tigi’s faith is the sacramental use of ganja. “Herb is the healing of the nations. It’s written in the bible, right there in Genesis 1. God made the earth and everything in it, and herb – it expressly says that – herb for man’s use. Not abuse, but use.

“If we were to delve back historically, people have always used marijuana, the herb, the tree of knowledge, that’s always been there. Just that in our society, in our time, it’s been made out as evil. If it was evil the Bible would say so – and I go by what the Bible says!”

A key event in forming Tigi’s views and faith was the visit of Bob Marley to these shores in 1979. Tigi’s dreads were still freshly plaited as he raced out to the airport to meet the entourage. Later that day they watched the powhiri at Parnell’s White Heron Hotel. As the reggae superstar bent down to pick up the leaf, the overcast sky cleared and the warm sun beamed down upon them. Everyone looked at each other, says Tigi.

“Something special just happened. I got goose bumps and thought this is it. All in, or not at all.” Tigi’s life changed that day. He became a Rasta, formed a reggae band and embarked on a remarkable journey. His son Che was taken on stage by Bob Marley during his Western Springs concert. Almost thirty years later, Tigi will perform on the same stage as Bob’s son Ziggy at  Raggamuffin in Rotorua.

Tigi says being a Rastaman is not just about getting high. “It’s a spiritual thing. It’s that powerful that you acknowledge it and give thanks. If you don’t, it can do something to your spirit.” To avoid this cannabis users should “recognise and acknowledge where it came from.”

Tigi believes we need to make profound changes in society – and that change will only come when true leaders step up to make it happen. Ask Tigi why after 30 years the law still hasn’t changed and his reply is “When you look at who is benefiting from it, there’s your answer there.”

He says the key to ending cannabis prohibition is getting more New Zealand celebrities to publicly make a stand. “It has to be somebody high profile before the rest will make a move. Someone you really like or you believe in. Otherwise it will take too long. People of high profile should do things more. They should stand up for issues more.”

So what’s stopping them?

“The fear started with people like Larry Morris. One joint, and he was done for good. For life. Same thing happened with Peter Tosh, so nobody wants to go through that experience. It’s that fear. It’s not justified. Sure, lawyers, doctors, we know they all do it, but they’re afraid. We won’t get them standing up because of that fear factor.”

It doesn’t make sense. “Why are we so hard on something that is just like lettuce?”

Ask this rasta musician what the law should be, and you’ll get a simple answer: “For a start just  decriminalise it and don’t make criminals out of people who use it recreationally or medicinally. We’re not crims. Teachers, lawyers, you name it. Hard working people. Decriminalise it for a start, then more education. Research into it. All the good aspects, and the bad aspects. Alcohol is a good comparison – if you overdo it it’s no good for you.

Criminal law enforcement only makes it worse. “Looking over your shoulder, that has to have an effect on the whole country’s psycho. What’s good for you is illegal. That’s what we call confusion –
that’s Babylon!

Unity Pacific performs at Raggamuffin Festival in Rotorua on 7 February 2009, the day after Bob Marley’s birthday on Waitangi Day.

(NORML News Summer 2009)

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