The Rastafari movement is a cultural, religious, and political movement that began in the early 1930s among the descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean nation of Jamaica. Its central tenets are liberation from white oppression, black supremacy, and the doctrine of repatriation to Africa for the Diaspora, as well as the divinity of Haile Selassie, the former Ethiopian emperor. While the Rastafari tradition is not a form of Christianity, and is in some cases hostile to that faith, it incorporates some Christian elements—for instance, the world outside Africa is viewed as “Babylon,” Africa is “Zion,” and God is “Jah” (from “Jehovah”).
The movement grew out of longstanding traditions in Jamaica—particularly black resistance to oppression, which gave rise to numerous revolts against colonialists, and “Ethiopianism,” which traced black Africans’ lineage to the rulers of the ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian dynasties and viewed Africa as the promised land of the Bible.
Ethiopianism found its greatest spokesman in Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican union leader and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey was a proponent of Pan-Africanism, the goal of which was to unite people of color against imperialism, and he launched the Back to Africa movement in the 1920s. He quoted Psalm 68 (“Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall stretch forth its hands unto God”) to emphasize the noble destiny of Africans and their descendants. He is also believed to have said “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the Redeemer.”
The crowning of Haile Selassie I as the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 was seen as the fulfillment of Garvey’s prophecy, though Garvey himself was critical of him. The early Rastafari preachers declared Selassie to be the messiah, the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Further evidence of the African king’s divinity was his biblically inspired title, which put him in the line of descent from King Solomon: “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” Rastafari is derived from the emperor’s precoronation name, Tafari Makonnen, and the Ethiopian (Amharic) word for duke—ras.
Leonard Howell was the most prominent of a handful of preachers who began preaching the new religion. After traveling in Africa and America, he returned to Jamaica to spread his message of repatriation and resistance in “street meetings” in the slums of Kingston. The area was home to many urban poor, mostly peasants who had migrated from Jamaica’s rural areas over the decades since emancipation (in 1834). He and other ministers quickly gained followings—as well as attention from the government for their revolutionary views. Howell was convicted for sedition in 1933 for abusing the government and sentenced to jail, along with the three other major Rastafari leaders of the time.
Following his release, Howell retreated to the hills above Kingston, where he oversaw Pinnacle—a community of believers numbering about 1,000, by some estimates—from 1940 until 1954. Various principles of the Rastafari movement crystallized here, including the use of ganja, or cannabis, as a religious sacrament. Ganja was said to have grown on the grave of King Solomon and was a major cash crop for Howell’s group. He also preached resistance to the established order, and Pinnacle became the target of raids and arrests until it was destroyed by the government in 1954 and its followers dispersed in the Shanty-Town or Back-O-Wall area of Kingston. Howell was later committed to Kingston Mental Hospital.
Other fundamental principles of the tradition to emerge in its early years were a vegetarian diet known as “i-tal” (which means the “essence” or “nature of things”); the prohibition of alcohol; the use of the red, gold, and green colors (from the Ethiopian flag); and the long, matted dreadlock hairstyle, a custom that is dictated by the biblical verse Leviticus 21:5 (“they shall not make baldness upon their head”) and which also connotes a rejection of social norms. Other traditions include “reasonings,” or philosophical discussion sessions, and celebrations known as “nyabingi” that involve dance, drumming, and ganja. A distinctive vocabulary known as “i-talk” is another hallmark of the movement. The words “me” and “you” are never used, for instance; instead, “I and I” expresses the concept of oneness. “Irie” is another special term that denotes positivity.
After the destruction of Pinnacle, a new phase of Rastafari movement began. Its adherents advocated militant resistance to the establishment and the destruction of “Babylon.” A series of violent clashes with the government ensued in which Rastas were sometimes killed, and often arrested and forced to submit to having their locks cut off. In 1958, hundreds of Rastas tried to capture the city of Kingston in the name of Haile Selassie. In 1959, an armed encampment was raided and its leader, the Rev. Claudius Henry, arrested. In 1966, with the Rastafari widely seen as a revolutionary threat, the government bulldozed Back-O-Wall, an area it had targeted for development—resulting in the destruction of several Rasta camps.
At the same time, while the Rastafari displayed a general distrust of organized politics, there were efforts made by some members to bring about reforms. In 1960, a government report was issued urging that Rasta concerns be taken seriously, and in 1961, an unofficial delegation was dispatched to Africa to explore repatriation. Ras Sam Brown, the first Rastafari to foray into politics with an unsuccessful run in 1961 at a Parliament seat, wrote up a manifesto containing twenty-one points. In it, he proposed that the movement take power with the goal of “uplift[ing]... the poor and oppressed,” and that a government be set up under the “Repatriation and Power” banner.
This focus on empowerment at home was reinforced by the historic visit to Jamaica in 1966 by Emperor Haile Selassie I—his first and only trip to the island nation. Selassie himself was a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and strongly discouraged ideas of his divinity. He also earned a reputation as a despot, especially after the Ethiopian famine of the 1970s, when he made sure to keep his pet lions fed while people were starving. He was deposed by the army in 1974. Still, he continued to be seen as divine by the Rastafari, even more so after his death in 1975. On the 1966 visit, the anniversary of which is still celebrated by Rastafari, he brought a message to the enthusiastic crowds that came to greet him—that the Rastafari should not seek to be repatriated before they had succeeded in liberating the people of Jamaica.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, various waves of migration brought the Rastafari movement (if not its substance, then its style) to Central America, Cuba, England, Canada, and the United States. The movement entered pop culture in the 1970s with the emergence of Bob Marley and the spread of reggae, which touches on Rastafari themes and is inspired by the Nyabinghi music. The Rastafari movement’s adherents are now believed to number about 1 million worldwide.
Currently, the movement includes three major groups, which are known as “houses” or “mansions”: the House of Nyabinghi; the Twelve Tribes of Israel; and the Bobo Ashanti. The House of Nyahbinghi is an ascetic sect whose motto is “Death to black and white downpressors.” The Twelve Tribes of Israel, which took hold among middle-class Jamaicans in the 1970s, revere their late founder, Vernon Carrington, as a prophet. (He was known as Prophet Gad.) The group is the most doctrinaire of the three and places a strong emphasis on the Bible. It also has a stated policy of including all races. The fundamentalist Bobo (pronounced Bob-bo) Ashanti sect members wear turbans and robes, and live in a utopian community called Bobo Hill in Jamaica, where they raise money by selling handmade brooms. Charles Edwards, also known as Prince Edward Emmanuel Charles VII, founded the group in the 1950s and is seen as part of a Holy Trinity that includes Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey.
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