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The Spirit of Sankofa: Etana’s Song “Roots”


Reggae female artist Etana’s song “Roots” is an anthem for the survival as well as the ascendancy of African culture through the commitment of and to the youth. The song is from her 2008 “The Strong One” album.

 The title of the song as well as the symbols and cultural references seen in the video, display an understanding of the historical significance of the “Roots” concept throughout African history. 

The song was inspired by her embrace of the Rastafari philosophy and her going to Africa, “where her very first solo performance was in the West African nation of Ghana ” and “she was showered with overwhelming adulation”.

Ghana is home to the Akan people, whose philosophy and way of life gave birth to the idea of Sankofa. Sankofa  means “return to the source and fetch it”, “look back and walk forward”and “the wisdom of learning from the past to build for the future”. 

 “It is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” Inherent in the understanding of Sankofa is the belief:

  • “It is not taboo to return and fetch it when you forget. 
  • “You can always undo your mistakes.”

The idea of Sankofa is literally embedded in the culture of the Akan, for it is found within their Adinkra writing system. The Adinkra is a series of symbols used to communicate the Akan’s organizing logic or spirituality of their culture.

The website states that the literal translation of Sankofa is:

“The symbol is based on a mythical bird that flies forwards with its head turned backwards. This reflects the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future, or the wisdom in learning from the past in building the future.

The Akan believe that there must be movement with times but as the forward march proceeds, the gems must be picked from behind and carried forward on the march.

In the Akan military system, this symbol signified the rearguard, the section on which the survival of the society and the defense of its heritage depended.”

Two depictions of Sankofa that are most common are depicted below: 


 The title “Roots” is interwoven with the concept Sankofa articulated by the Akan. To “return to the source” is in effect to return to the “Roots”. Roots as seen with trees and plants pull from the “deep below” to nourish and sustain themselves. You cut off the “Root” and you interfere with the ability to live.  “Roots” as expressed by Etana is an acknowledgement of the need to connect to ones’ heritage which serves as a defense against the negativity of society and provides the youth with the tools necessary to truly  succeed.

 Throughout the video for the song “Roots” the idea of Sankofa is extolled. The spirit of Sankofa permeates the entire video from beginning to end, leaving the viewer with an appreciation of the resiliency and potential of African culture.

The video begins with Etana in an area that resembles a slave dungeon, seated and singing, followed by images of first two and then several more African children. The scene then shifts to a home, where a young lady is in her bedroom.

 This is reminiscent  of the movie “Sankofa” by Haile Gerima, where the main character in the film, Mona is transported from the contemporary time to the days of her previous life commonly referred to as “the ancestors” when she was enslaved. Etana in the previously described part of the video does this in reverse and returns to the “slave dungeon” image to signal victory.

The title of the song “Roots” within the African conscious movement is rich in meaning and symbolism. The title is also a reference to past actions and events on the part of people of African ancestry to have a vibrant relationship with Africa. In Jamaican society “Roots” refers to the natural way of living harmoniously with nature as well as the use of nature to achieve one’s goals.

Thus they are people classified as “Roots Man”, “Herbal Woman” and “Natural Healers”. They can use their knowledge this to heal “physical” ailments or render effects on the “spiritual realm”.

We observe this relationship with nature, when the young woman in the video is seated at the table with her family and she only partakes of the “ital” portions of her meal, eating only the salad and vegetables to the consternation of her parents.  Later in the video, the female main character dons a nurse’s outfit, indicating the through the Black Woman healing is provided.

The two moments in the video with the young woman eating only the “natural” part of the family meal and with her in a nurse’s uniform were in line with the aspect of  “Roots” which speaks to positive relationship with nature, its healing power as well as the maternal role of the Black Woman. 

In another sense those two images relay that African people will be healed once they return to their natural ways. On a more mundane level, the video is also encouraging the youth and letting them know that just because you are African-centered it doesn’t mean you can’t function or progress in society.

“Roots” also refers to a sub genre of Reggae music, known  as “Roots Music”. This branch of Reggae is typified by what is termed “conscious lyrics”, where artists “build up” their listeners with thoughts and images of a liberated Africa. Roots Reggae strives to discuss important topics of substance which will free their listeners and the world from the bondage of “Babylon”. “Roots Reggae” encourages the poor and the oppressed to “trod on” as “Jah-Jah Soldiers” and one way to hasten the down fall of the structures which oppress them is to keep their hearts and minds pure, free from “bad minded-ness” and have the love of the culture of Africa as in Marcus Garvey, Ethiopia and Haile Selassie.

Implicit in her anthem, Etana is not only speaking to general society about the inner fortitude of the youth to continue to be “African” but it is also a critique of Reggae artists who fail to live up to a higher standard in their music. The part of the song where Etana proclaims Yuh can’t water down and dilute. Teach the truth to the youthspeak to the need for Reggae artists to go back to their “Roots” and create music that “uplifts the nation.”

“Roots” is also the title of the famous book by African- American Alex Hayley, where he traced his lineage back to Africa. “Roots” in this sense, speaks to the journey that we must take in order to “tell our story”.

In mathematics, the “[square] root of a number” is that number simplified to its most basic unit.

It is interesting to observe in the video, that when the female main character is first introduced in the video the Empress of Ethiopia is shown by herself but when the male main character appears both Emperor Selassie and Empress Menen are shown together.

They male main character, the young woman’s in the video brother is studying to be a pilot. Towards the end of the video we see him in a pilot’s uniform. Indicating that when you are in tune with your culture, you are able to literally soar.

Both the female and male characters in the video find solace when they are in their separate bedrooms. The location of the individual bedrooms in relationship to the family eating area which is below or downstairs, signifies the notion of “higher consciousness“.  The separate individual bedrooms are in a sense sanctuaries for the two main characters for that is where they can live out their African identity without opposition as well as the place to develop the strength to ward off the influences which are anti-African.

When they descend or venture downstairs they are met with intense opposition via their parents in the video, who among other things uphold the image of the white Jesus and indulge in eating unhealthy foods or “the meat of Babylon”.

The two main characters in the video exemplify an aspect of Sankofa, which says :”You can always undo your mistakes.” The two are able to overcome the mistakes by their parents in the video, who can’t understand their children’s desire to be African and push white images as the norm as well as bad eating habits.

The young woman in the video”overcomes her mistake” of straightening her hair and now proudly wears her natural crown restoring her proper self -image. The young woman in this instance exhibits another dimension of “Roots” which applies to her hair. This is seen with the phrase “Hair Roots”. The young man in the video also has his Sankofa hair style and thus he also has maintained his “Hair Roots”.

The song “Roots” is an affirmation of the enduring quality of African culture, which despite the many ploys by society to eliminate it, expresses itself with vitality through the youth.

The title “Roots” conveys the historical significance of the efforts on the part of African people to remain connected to their culture. As such it is an expression of the Sankofa concept as articulated by the Akan people of Ghana. Central to the understanding of Sankofa is the belief that one cannot move forward successfully without connecting to their past.

©VisionThought 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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