The Rastafarian Movement

Ras SabbathSeldom has such a relatively small cultural phenomenon as Rastafari attracted so much attention from young people, the media, and scholars in the fields of religion, anthropology, politics, and sociology. The signature long, natty dreads on the heads of Rastafarians, who fearlessly chant down Babylon (Western political and economic domination and cultural imperialism) with the help of reggae music, make Rastafari a highly visible movement and “one of the most powerful cultural forces among youths in Jamaica” and in countries around the world where one least expects to find elements of Afro-Caribbean culture. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, few people bothered to study the significance of the political and ideological concepts in Rastafarian culture. Even Jamaicans who may have understood the philosophy of the movement regarded Rastafari as another passing fad, which would die a natural death once the novelty wore off. Former Rastafarian and practicing psychologist Leahcim Tefani Semaj noted that during this phase of the movement, the dominant public opinion toward the Rastafarians was “The damn Rasta dem, wey de Rasta dem want, we just put dem in a damn boat and put dem out in the sea and sink the boat-say dem want go Africa!”

Prior to the 1970s, images of the unsanitary-looking, marijuana-smoking “Natty Dread” with unkempt dreadlocks, often controlling crime-infested streets of Kingston, New York City, or London were the most common perceptions of Rastafarian culture. These stereotypes still persist today among some people in the Caribbean, the United States, and Great Britain. Since the early 1970s, however, Rastafari (the movement’s self-styled name) has been recognized not only as one of the most popular Afro-Caribbean religions of the late twentieth century, gaining even more popularity than Voodoo, but also as one of the leading cultural trends in the world; as such, it demands attention from those who study the religions of people who live at the economic and political margins of Western society. A June 1997 estimate puts the number of practicing Rastafarians worldwide at one million with more than twice that number of sympathizers and many million more reggae fans. Given its humble beginnings and the unfriendly climate in which Rastafari was born, none of its founders could have dreamed of such international exposure and acceptance.

What is it about this movement-developing in the slums of West Kingston, Jamaica- that makes it so appealing to people of very different nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic standings, and academic interests? Rastafari has invited myriad questions in popular culture and the academy, especially as part of the recent surge of interest in this once “insignificant” twentieth-century phenomenon. Among the issues addressed herein are the basic doctrinal beliefs of Rastafarians and how they differ from Christian beliefs; why Rastafarians are so hostile to Christianity but so dependent on Christian traditions in developing their ideology, teachings, and cultic practices; whether a relationship exists between Rastafari and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and how African Rastafari is; what inspired Rastas in the first place to make Haile Selassie such a towering figure and deity in the movement, and whether his divinity and kingship are still central to Rastafarian thought; what the role of women is in this overtly patriarchal and “chauvinist” movement; whether the Rastafarians are a religious group or a political organization, dopers supporting (or running) drug cartels under the guise of religion or authentic religious devotees; whether Rastas are anti-white prophets, preaching a doctrine of reverse racism and hate in society, or social critics; and what it means for Rastas to “chant down Babylon,” and who or what Babylon is.

Who or What Is Rastafari?

Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie

In Chanting Down Babylon, we use the terms Rastafari, Rastafarians, and Rastas synonymously. The nomenclature Rastafari, with or without the definite article, describes the movement as a collective whole, and the combined expression “Jah Ras Tafari” refers specifically to Emperor Haile Selassie I, the deity. Rastas often replace the title Jah with Rastafari, a designation coined by the early founders of the movement (especially Leonard Howell), who recognized Emperor Haile Selassie I-Ras Tafari, an imperial title used by Ethiopian emperors- as divine. Rastas often argue that every true black person is “Rasta, ” a category that suggests unity and connectedness to Africa rather than cultic or religious affiliation. Seretha Rycenssa of Jamaica defined a “true Rasta” as one who “believes in the deity of the Ethiopian monarch . . . , sees black liberationist Marcus Mosiah Garvey as his prophet . . . , sticks to [his] path, does not shave, cut or straighten the hair, rejects the customs of ‘Babylon’ society,” and “looks on his blackness and sees that it is good and struggles to preserve it.” Not included among these, of course, are persons whom Rex Nettleford calls “designer dreads”-middle-class youths and yuppies who adopt the dreadlocks hairstyle, carry a “ragamuffin” appearance, and listen to reggae music but have no commitment to the teachings of Rastafari. Nor do the brethren (Rastafarians) regard as true Rastas persons they call “wolves in sheep’s clothing” or “rascals” and “impostors”-unsavory characters who hide behind “the locks” (dreadlocks) and “Rasta looks” (Rasta appearance) in order to commit crime and smoke marijuana. Rastas or Rastafarians are, therefore, followers of Ras Tafari or persons who believe in the Rastafari ideology.

Notwithstanding these simple explanations, Rastafari defies traditional ways of conceiving, and knowing. As a result, many researchers and media persons have been unsuccessful in their attempts to pigeonhole the movement into preconceived, stereotypical categories, such as “religious cult”; “escapist movement”; “reactionary anachronistic, eccentric Judeo-Christian heresy”; “apocalyptic Christian movement”; “messianic millennial cult”; “African-Caribbean religious myth”; and “West Indian Mafia” in England-or, as Claudia Rogers recorded with approbation, “religious fanatics,” a “nuisance [and] an embarrassment to the Jamaican people, or [even] treacherous criminals who should be jailed or hung for their traitorous acts against Jamaican society. ” The hit movie Marked for Death, regarded in Jamaica and among Jamaican Americans as anti-Jamaican and anti-Rastafari, “identifies Rasta characters as a brutal segment of the Jamaican ‘posse’ and links Rastafarians with obeahism.” Hollywood has thus “further embedded the stereotype in the American psyche.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey

To make the task of defining the movement more challenging, a few Rastas have also spoken about Rastafari as though it is a reform movement within Christianity. Rastafarian sistren (the term is always used in the plural) Imani Nyah says, “We are African-centered Christians who proclaim that Ethiopia is Judah, and that Christ was manifested in the person of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie.” In a letter to the Jamaica Sunday Herald, another sistren and political activist, Barbara Blake-Hannah, noted quite correctly that “members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are Christians” and that “the Church proudly claims to be a strong and founding member of denominational Christianity.” But then she added, “Among them are many persons who have come to see Christ through Rastafari. Indeed, the words Ras (Tafari) mean head = Christ, and, therefore, any man who claims that he is a Ras, must identity himself with Christ,” for “Haile Selassie means: Power of the Trinity, which Trinity is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” Responding to an article by Alex Walker titled “The Other Side of Rasta History,” which appeared in the lead section of an earlier issue of the Sunday Herald, Blake-Hannah refuted Walker’s claim that Rastas are not Christians and that “the most they can hope for is to be able to function within the communion of Christianity. ” She rebutted, “That Is precisely what Rastafari do, who are members the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. . . . The dreadlocks of the Rastafarian who feels himself/herself drawing close to God through the Christ within [them], is a direct link through the unknown of time, to this Ethiopian Orthodox Church priestly habit.”

While the Rastafarian ideology contains elements of some of the above characterizations, they are all limiting stereotypes-and in many cases, uninformed misrepresentations- that do not grasp the movement’s definitive character and ethos. For example, Rastafarians, whose theology is rooted in Judeo-Christian scriptures, have a very strong millenialist orientation; they believe in the possibility of social, political, and religious reform. As Claudia Rogers says, the movement can be considered “millennial in the sense that brethren constantly refer to a hoped for period of peace, joy and justice.” That is, “typical of other groupings . . . which stress the dream of the millennium, Rastafarians stress positive change” in a variety of tenets. The belief in an imminent, this-worldly, total salvation wherein the white world and its oppressive political institutions will fall, after which Blacks will reign in the new millennium, is only one of those tenets. To limit the still-evolving Afro-Caribbean phenomenon only to Christian ideas of an apocalyptic end of the world is, therefore, nearsighted and misinformed.

There is no denying that Rastafari is a legitimate religion for legal purposes (with regard to religious freedom), as recognized in Jamaica, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries. Recently, three federal appellate judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco reversed a marijuana possession conviction of Rastafarian Cameron Best of Billings, Montana, “citing violations of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).” More specifically, the judges argued that “Best’s use of marijuana as a Rastafarian sacrament was largely and wrongly proscribed by the lower court as an element in his defense.” The ruling may imply that as soon as Rastas prove that their marijuana use is part of their religious sacrament, they may not be guilty of criminal activity. But it also establishes that the U.S. government is following an earlier action by the British government-after Rastafarian clashes with the British “Bulldogs” in 1977 in Handsworth, Birmingham, which led ultimately to the Brixton riot of 1981 in recognizing and protecting the religious liberty of Rastafarians.

Bob Marley
Bob Marley

In spite of Rastafari’s religious character and the attempt to make it a reform Christian movement, it is neither a Christian nor an African traditional religion; it is a tertium quid, a different kind or religious species among New World (if not New Age) or nontraditional religions, one that is distinctly Caribbean. Like its antecedents within the African diaspora-such as Voodoo (Vodoun) in Haiti and New Orleans; Santeria in Cuba; Yoruba, Kaballah, and Orisha in Trinidad and Tobago; Shango in Grenada; and Candomble in Brazil-Rastafari is a modern Afro-Caribbean cultural phenomenon that combines concepts from African culture and the “Caribbean experience” (social, historical, religious and economic realities) with Judeo-Christian thought into a new sociopolitical and religious worldview. So while Rastafarian beliefs and practices are influenced by such Africanisms in Jamaican culture as Myalism, convince cult, revivalism (Zion), Bedwardism, Pocomania, and Burru (all Afro-Jamaican religious and cultural traditions), Rastafari’s rise and ethos are driven by social, economic, and political forces in the region.

In this regard, Rastafari is more than a religion. It is a cultural movement, “a system of beliefs and a state of consciousness, that advances a view of economic survival and political organization and structure that challenges the dominant cultural political narrative (ideology) in the “politics of Babylon.” According to Carole Yawney, Rastafari is “a constellation of ambiguous symbols which today has the power to focalize and even mediate certain socio-cultural tensions that have developed on a global scale. Rastas regard themselves as members of a legitimate religious movement and a cultural revolution for world peace, racial harmony, and social, economic, and political reform. Two of the Rastas’ stated policies of the 1960s were: “TO promote educational progress of the African continent, its languages, culture and history,” and “To recognize the hurt suffered by the Continent of Africa through colonialism and to devote time and energy towards the development of Africa by all possible contributions.” As Semaj noted, the Rastafarians shared other concerns:

All the brethren wanted local recognition and freedom of movement and speech, which are essential human rights. All wanted an end of persecution by government and police. Some brethren wanted improved material, social and economic conditions until repatriation. Some brethren wanted educational provisions, including adult education and technical training, and employment. Some brethren suggested that a special fund be established. Others asked for a radio program to tell Jamaica about their doctrine, and some asked for press facilities.

Essentially, the Rastafarians are “Africanists” who are engaged in consciousness-raising with regard to African heritage, black religion, black pride, and being in the world. This African-centered ideology is a form of “conscientizing” that draws attention to the distortions of African history in the various forms of literature, which tend to obscure the continent’s contribution to the origin of Western civilization. Long before the term Afrocentricity came into popular use in the United States, Jamaican Rastafarians had embraced the concept as the most important recipe for naming their reality and re-claiming their black heritage in the African diaspora. Rastas reserve the right to think, know, name, reinterpret, and define their “essence and existence” in nontraditional categories. Their consciousness of who they are determines their “Being” relative to naming and being in the world. (That is, one defines and authenticates one’s existence as a matter of primary concern and then names oneself and one’s world in relation to that mode of consciousness.)

What Do Rastas Believe?

Prior to the mid-I970s, Rasta believers supported the following major themes and doctrinal tenets: belief in the beauty of black people’s African heritage; belief that Ras Tafari Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia, is the living God and black Messiah; belief in repatriation to Ethiopia, qua Africa, the true home and redemption of black people, as “having been foretold and . . . soon to occur”; the view that “the ways of the white men are evil, especially for the black” race; belief in “the apocalyptic fall of Jamaica as Babylon, the corrupt world of the white man, ” and that “once the white man’s world crumbles, the current master/slave pattern [of existence] will be reversed. Jah Ras Tafari will overthrow or destroy the present order, and Rastafarians and other Blacks will be the benefactors of that destruction; they will reign with Jah in the new kingdom. In 1973, Joseph Owens published a concise, ten-point summary of Rastafarian theology, which the Guyanese clergyman Michael N. Jagessar rehashed in 1991. These theological themes are: “the humanity of God and, correspondingly, the divinity of man”-that God’s divinity is revealed through the humanity of the God-man Haile Selassie I, “God is man and man is God”; “God is to be found in every man,” but “there must be one man in whom he exists most eminently and completely, and that is the supreme man, Rastafari, Selassie I”; the “historicality of the experience of God’s workings”-that historical facts must be seen in the light of the judgment and workings of God; the “terrestriality of salvation” -that salvation is earthly; the “supremacy of life ” -that human beings are called to celebrate and protect life; the “efficacy of the word”-that the spoken word as a manifestation of the divine presence and power can create and bring destruction; “the corporate dimension of evil”-that sin is both personal and corporate, so that “corporations and economic powers like the International Monetary Fund” must be held responsible for Jamaica’s fiscal problems; the “imminence of judgment”; the “sacramentality of nature”-that human beings are called to protect the environment by conserving energy, reducing pollution, and eating natural foods; and “the priesthood of Rastas”-that the brethren are the chosen people of Jah to manifest God’s power and promote peace in the world.

Rastafarians, by their very nature, are not a homogeneous group, true believers subscribe to the most important Rasta doctrine, that Haile Selassie I is the living God. Many Rastas still regard Haile Selassie as Christ, the black Messiah whose promised return or “second coming” the emperor fulfills; Selassie is seen as a living descendent of King Solomon and the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Elect of God. But since the “disappearance” (according to Rastas) of Selassie and the popular acceptance of Rastafarian culture in Jamaica in the mid-1970s, Rastafari has shown modest change in some of its theological and ideological concepts. For example, brethren have reinterpreted the doctrine of repatriation as voluntary migration to Africa, returning to Africa culturally and symbolically, or rejecting Western values and preserving African roots and black pride. The idea that “the white man is evil” has also become less prominent in later Rastafarian thought, and the concept of Babylon has broadened to include all oppressive and corrupt systems of the world.

Under the influence of some articulate sistren, since the early 1980s many brethren and Rasta camps have had to reevaluate their patriarchal view of sexuality. Rastafari sistren are becoming more vocal and active in the movement, especially in the Twelve Tribes of Israel (one of the recent influential groups in Rastafari), than they were before 1980. Rastas have also shown a greater social and political involvement in Jamaican society than they did before the Michael Manley (former prime minister of Jamaica) era of the 1970s. Some developments no doubt were influenced by change in the public perception of and attitude toward Rastafari, the “disappearance” of Selassie, the international acceptance of Rastafari via Bob Marley and reggae, and the improved social and economic status of some of the believers.

Why the International Surge of Rastafari?

Several incidents occurred in the first twenty years of the movement that gave Rastafari national publicity. In 1930 the would-be founders of Rastafari capitalized on the publicity surrounding the coronation of Ras Tafari as emperor of Ethiopia, broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and national and international television networks. By building its fundamental doctrines around Ethiopianism and the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen (Haile Selassie I), Rastafari attracted the attention of many critics throughout Jamaica and Ethiopia. At first the Jamaican public brushed aside as a Christian heresy the theological claims Rastas made about Selassie and saw the idea of repatriation as wishful thinking among the uneducated. But when Leonard Howell and his followers began having encounters with law-enforcement officials in 1933 -especially when Howell sold five thousand postcards of Selassie as passports to Ethiopia-the Daily Gleaner, the Sunday Guardian, Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), and other media frequently covered Rastafari in the daily news. When the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1936, Blacks in Jamaica, the United States, Britain, and Africa protested against Benito Mussolini’s imperialism and raised funds to support the underground resistance fighters. The Jamaican Rastafarians even appealed to the British government to rescind a law that prevented Jamaicans from joining the Ethiopian army to repel the invaders from the “promised land.” So strong was the pro-Selassie sentiment among Blacks in the West that it resulted in the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) organizing chapters in Harlem, New York, in 1937 and in Detroit, Michigan, and Kingston, Jamaica, in 1938. The Rastafarians who were closely associated with the EWF became known for their uncompromising chant against the Italian Babylon in the Ethiopian political struggle. When Selassie successfully drove the Italians out of Ethiopia in 1941, the media publicized the Rastafarians’ celebration of the event. That same year Rastas got added attention when the police raided Howell’s commune at Pinnacle Hill and arrested many of his followers on charges of marijuana growing and violence. Again, the negative publicity from the media gave the Rastafarians added exposure as they gained strength among Jamaica’s dispossessed.

According to Leonard Barrett, at least five significant events brought the Rastafarian movement into national and international prominence during the 1950s and early 1960s: the EWF’s increased activity in Jamaica in 1953; the Rastafarians’ 1958 convention; Rasta-leader national emergencies in 1959 and 1960; the University of the West Indies’ interest in the movement in 1960; and Jamaican delegations to African countries in 1961 and 1962. In 1955 the media brought the Rastafarians into the international spotlight when a delegation from the EWF in Harlem told some Jamaicans that Selassie was building ships that would sail to American and Jamaican ports in order to transport Rastas to Ethiopia, and that His Majesty had decided to set aside a large acreage of land for repatriated black people from the West. In spite of the quixotic nature of the rumor, the enormous cost of transport, and the many obstacles to migrating to Africa, the call “created an atmosphere of great excitement and expectancy” among many who wanted immediate repatriation. In 1956 hundreds of Jamaicans “were seen at the port in Kingston awaiting the arrival of a ship which would transport them to Ethiopia,” and “in 1959, thousands of black Jamaicans, following the Rastafarians, sold all they had to obtain a ticket for a passage to Ethiopia from Claudius Henry.” The press found these events highly amusing and gave the Rastafarians more publicity than they could have given themselves.

The Rastafarians gained new strength and exposed many aspects of the movement to the public when they attempted to organize their various factions into a united body in 1958. Emboldened by the publicity from the convention and their sense of solidarity and strength, three-hundred bearded Rastas gathered at Victoria Park in Kingston in March 1958 and announced a takeover of Jamaica. Three months later, several Rastas and their families daringly occupied Old King’s House, the governor’s house, in the name of Negus Negusta. The shedding of Rastafari’s benign persona in the sudden appearance of a military front exacerbated the tension and clashes between law enforcement and the Rastas. In 1959, when the police raided Claudius Henry’s headquarters and found “2,500 electrical detonators, 1,300 detonators, a shotgun, a caliber .32 revolver, a large quantity of machetes sharpened [on] both sides like swords and laced in sheaths, cartridges, several sticks of dynamite, and other articles,” Rastas were condemned nationally in the Jamaican media. After Henry was convicted of treason and given a six-year prison sentence, his son, Ronald, collaborated with some hard-core Rastas who had military training and mounted an attack against the government of Premier Norman Manley. The rebellion had to be repelled by more than one thousand men, including soldiers from the British regiment stationed in the region and Jamaican police, aircraft, and mortar and rocket crews. The BBC, the New York Times, national television, and other media reported these incidents, and Rastafari became internationally infamous.

The Claudius and Ronald Henry incidents startled many Jamaicans and the academy, which “called for an in-depth inquiry into the beliefs, aims, and aspirations of the movement. The 1960 University College of the West Indies (now UWI) study found that, since the 1940s, the Rastafarians had become popular among large numbers of the disenfranchised, poor, unemployed, hopeless, and belligerent youths of the Jamaican under-class- persons who felt they were left behind by the colonial government and its supposed progress toward Jamaican nationalism and independence. The strange image of unkempt clothes and dreadlocks (or natty dreads), “the phenomenon of rudeboy,” and the spirit of militant protest made Rastafari rather appealing to the dispossessed. Finally, in 1960, Premier Norman Manley’s government took a sympathetic posture toward the Rastafarian cause on the question of repatriation to African countries. Although in 1962, when the Jamaican government changed hands, the repatriation program was shelved, public curiosity and the new understanding that the 1960 UWI study engendered were contributing to the growing popularity of the Rastafarians among the youth. Even the mass arrests of Rastas in 1963 as a result of the Coral Gardens incident in Montego Bay, in which Rasta leader Claudius Henry was again charged with treason (see Chapter 2 by Clinton Hutton and Nathaniel Samuel Murrell and Chapter 3 by Barry Chevannes), did not dissuade inquirers from becoming Rastas or sympathizing with their cause.

The visit of Emperor Haile Selassie to Kingston in 1966 gave the Rastafarians unprecedented publicity and created a sustained national and international interest in the movement. Jamaicans greeted the royal personage with such enthusiasm that devotion to Ethiopia, qua Africa, and to Selassie rivaled, and appeared to threaten, the rising Jamaican nationalism and patriotism. According to Rex Nettleford, such strong feelings were engendered toward Africa that “one month after the Royal visit, a member of the Jamaican Senate gave notice of a Motion that the Jamaican Constitution be amended to make the Emperor of Ethiopia, H.I.M. Haile Selassie, the king of Jamaica in place of the Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. ” This catapulted the Rastafari movement into the spotlight and allowed its medals to shine in the light of international publicity. When Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) came to power in 1972, the Rastafari again received support and strong political endorsement from both the new prime minister of Jamaica (1972-1980) and his party. The flamboyant and charismatic British-educated mulatto spared no effort to portray himself as antiestablishment, pro-black, grassroots, or a “roots man” of the suffering Jamaican masses. During the election, Manley used the Rastafarian flag, colors, slogans, signs, and music and quoted the Dreads in his public speeches to win votes. (It is also believed that Rastas helped Manley win a resounding second-term victory at the polls in 1976.) Sometime after the 1972 election, Manley visited a “dunghill” (a Rasta commune) to solicit the help of Rasta leaders in the government’s attempt to deal with the problem of youth violence. Manley’s government gave such prestige to the Rastafarian movement that dreadlocks became the “in thing” in Jamaica in the 1970s. From the early 1970s, the Rasta persona ceased to be the exclusive domain of the underclass and became, instead, a fashion trend among the youths of the Caribbean middle class and Blacks in Britain, Canada, and the United States.

The Rastafarian movement gained such strength and popularity that the “disappearance” of Haile Selassie I in 1975 only strengthened the element of mythmaking and mystery in its religious cultus and contributed to its broader circulation in the Caribbean media. According to Leonard Barrett, “The large number of representatives from the Eastern Caribbean at the Rastafari Theocratic Assembly (held at the U.W.I., Mona, Jamaica, July 18-25, 1983) was solid evidence that the Rasta movement is now a force throughout the region. Barrett said then, “Rastas from the Eastern Caribbean are a new phenomenon, and they are having serious confrontations with their governments and police.” But we should not forget that “several of these movements were established after the death of Haile Selassie,” and that “most of those attending the assembly were young, articulate, and revolutionary. . . . There were representatives from Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia, Guyana, St. Kitts, St. Eustatius, the Grenadines, Barbados, [and] Trinidad and Tobago”.

As scholars in this book and elsewhere have demonstrated so accurately, reggae music has been the most powerful force behind the international spread and popularity of Rasta culture. This need not be discussed here-except to mention that in 1978, Nettleford said, “The music has gone beyond fulfilling the universal need for entertainment to attract acute interest in its deep significance for Jamaican and Caribbean cultural search for form and purpose. ” In many ways, to feel the reggae beat is to think Rasta, as well as to celebrate the life and work of Bob Marley, who made reggae music and Rastafari so internationally accessible. Youths from different parts of the world who understand very little, if any, of Rastafarian culture celebrate its reggae “ridims.”


Introduction to the Rastafari Phenomenon By Nathaniel Samuel Murrell

Author: Admin

Leave a Reply