Bob Marley in Ethiopia

At the end of 1978, an unexpected visitor arrived in Ethiopia. Bob Marley, the international reggae star and Pan-African popular icon came to the East African country, considered the holy land by the Rastafari movement, of which he was a member.

Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945 in Nine Miles, in the Jamaican countryside. A mixed-race child, he grew up poor and later lived in Trench Town, a popular neighborhood of Kingston, the Jamaican capital city, where petty criminals, or ‘rude boys’, were often the lawmakers. He sang gospel music and became immersed in ska, the music of Jamaican independence, obtained in 1962 from the British. He started recording his songs at Studio One with Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh, and they formed ‘The Wailers’. However, they struggled to find fame  and Bob left for work in the United States, missing the unforgettable state visit of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia to Jamaica on the 21st April 1966. As the only African country to have maintained its independence from Europe, Ethiopia was both a symbolic representation, as well as an active supporter, of decolonization and unity, not only for Africa but for all people of African origin. Thus, when he arrived, the King of Kings was welcomed by both the thousands of enthusiastic Rastafari, as well as ordinary Jamaicans.

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For the Rastafari movement, Haile Selassie I, descendent of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, was God on earth. The Rastafari reject the idea of being descendants of slaves, instead proudly claiming their African identity. This has lead to them developing a unique culture: playing sacred drums, growing dreadlocks (making them resemble lions),smoking the holy herb and eating ital food, a natural diet without flesh, salt or alcohol. The Rastafari movement has a radical message: the people have to free themselves, Pan-African unity is possible, God is an Ethiopian, and the descendents of the Africans taken to the Americas have to go home to Africa.

Reggae music conveys the message of Rastafari and the increasing international popularity of reggae in the 1970s signified the beginning of a cultural revolution, with Bob Marley at its forefront. His days of doing menial jobs were over; producers trusted him and his solo albums were coming out in quick succession: Natty Dread (1973), Rastaman Vibration (1976), Exodus (1977), Survival (1979), Uprising (1980), etc. These releases were followed by extensive tours that contributed to the worldwide success of reggae music.

He came to Ethiopia four years after the Marxist military regime (Derg) took control. Civil war was raging and the borders were closed but Bob was eventually granted a visa, and stayed at the Ghion Hotel. From there, despite the curfew and restrictions on movement, he left for Shashemene with his driver Kassaye Araya.

Shashemene is a market town located 250 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. Since the 1950s, black people from America and the Caribbean have settled there, on land granted by Emperor Haile Selassie I. The 200 hectares (5 gasha) of land was granted as a token of appreciation for the moral and financial support offered by black people to the cause of Ethiopia during the second war with the Italians (1935-1941). This Pan-African gesture is at the origin of today’s Rastafari settlement. However, in 1978 there were not many settlers as many had left following the 1974 revolution and returned to Jamaica or the United States. A few young tenacious people had arrived, members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the Rastafari organization to which Bob Marley belonged. Far from everything, they fulfill the dream sung by Bob Marley, they fulfill the biblical prophecy of the return: there is a place in Africa for the descendents of the African slaves. Bob Marley spent precious moments with the Rastafari settlers; discussing and reasoning, they visited the hot springs of Wondo Genet and finished the song Zimbabwe that Bob was preparing to celebrate the independence of the country, planned for 1980. Bob wanted to stay longer and build a studio in Shashemene but he had to leave. Maybe he thought of Shashemene when he wrote, “I know a place where we can carry on…”

Thirty five years after Bob Marley’s visit, the Shashemene community has grown. Hundreds of Rastafari of over 15 citizenships have learnt to live with the Ethiopians, despite many difficulties. They keep claiming the right to return and live in Africa and believe in Pan-African unity. In February 2005, a great festival dubbed “Africa Unite” was organized in Addis Ababa to celebrate the 60th birthday of Bob Marley, who had passed on May 11, 1981; a brilliant life cut short by sickness. The Marley family was received with full honors by the Ethiopian government. Whilst Emperor Haile Selassie I is not there anymore, the Rastafari are. They represent a certain idea of Africa, open to the world, rich with its returned children; a united Africa, greater and stronger. As Bob Marley said in Africa Unite, in 1979:

Africa unite!

‘Cause we’re moving right out of Babylon

And we’re going to our Father’s land

How good and how pleasant it would be

Before God and man

To see the unification of all Africans

As it’s been said already, let it be done!

We are the children of the Rastaman

We are the children of the Iyaman

So Africa unite!

‘Cause the children wanna come home

Dr. Giulia Bonacci (IRD / CFEE)

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