Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Rastafarianism from Philip's Encyclopedia

West Indian religion focusing on veneration of Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie I). The movement was started in Jamaica in the 1920s by Marcus Garvey. He advocated a return to Africa in order to overcome black oppression. Followers of Rastafarianism follow a strict diet, and are forbidden various foods including pork, milk and coffee.

Summary Article: Rastafari Movement
from The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism
  • colonialism
  • Jamaica
  • movements
  • new religions
  • race and ethnicity

The Rastafari (or Rastafarian) movement is a religious and black nationalist community that originated in Jamaica, West Indies, during the early 1930s. The Rastafari movement significantly influenced identity, music, politics, and language in Jamaica, and worldwide. Rastafari cultural practices and symbols—Afro-centricity, dreadlocks, language, music, art, and deification of Emperor Selassie I—have spread throughout the world. Essential to explaining the Rastafari movement's development and impact are antecedent racial and religious complexes, watershed events, and government suppression. Antecedent influences include Ethiopianism; the Myal, Native Baptist, and Revival religions; and, the Alexander Bedward and Marcus Garvey movements. Watershed events include the visit of Emperor Selassie I to Jamaica, while government suppression is exemplified by crackdowns during the 1930s and 1960s.

The Rastafari (or Rastafarian) movement is a religious and black nationalist community that originated in Jamaica, West Indies, during the early 1930s. The Rastafari movement significantly influenced identity, music, politics, and language in Jamaica, and worldwide. Rastafari culture—Afrocentricity, dreadlocks, language, music, art, and deification of Emperor Selassie I—have diffused throughout the world.

Essential to explaining the Rastafarian movement's development and impact are antecedent cultural complexes, watershed events, and tension between the Rastafari and Jamaica's government and its citizenry.

The Rastafari movement emphasizes the “social movement” aspects of the Rastafari people. Typically, social movements concern themselves with particular grievances and a pursuit of the utopia believed to ensue by resolving the grievances (Price, Fox Tree, and Nonini 2008).

The Rastafari movement's major grievances include European's enslavement, exploitation, and debasement of Africans and their descendants, and European's ethnocentric distortion of history and biblical scripture. Consequently, the Rastafari movement has focused on countering deracination, miseducation, and the denigration of black history and culture.

Enslaved Africans brought their own religious convictions to Jamaica, which they intermingled with Ethiopianism and Christianity. Ethiopianism, a racial and religious ideology, valorized black history and culture, opposed the view of blacks as inferior and ahistoric. Ethiopianism spread to Jamaica from the United States with people like the formerly enslaved preacher George Liele, who was taken there by Tories fleeing the Revolutionary War.

Fundamental Ethiopianist tenets heralded a black Messiah and black redemption, highlighted black history, racialized biblical scripture, declared that whites would be punished for enslaving blacks, and encouraged blacks to revere Africa.

Myal, Native Baptist, and Revival, were three religions pertinent to the Rastafari movement. Myal, the earliest of black Jamaican religions, was concerned with community well-being and fighting evil. Native Baptist, emerging in the 1780s, began as a blend of Myal, Ethiopianism, and Christianity. Native Baptists, keen on justice and race consciousness, instigated two major uprisings: the “Baptist War” of 1832 and the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865. Revival, a mixture of Myal and Christianity, emerged during the early 1860s, and emphasized healing, ethical behavior, and the Christian trinity. Common to these religious complexes was concern with social welfare, combating evil, and contesting white supremacy. These themes are also embodied in the Rastafari movement.

The Alexander Bedward and the Marcus Garvey movements, and the Ethiopianists beyond Jamaica, provided cultural resources for the Rastafari movement between the 1890s and late 1920s. Bedward, a Native Baptist preacher, galvanized thousands of black Jamaicans with his anticolonial and Ethiopianist-oriented preaching. Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association became the largest social movement of the African diaspora. The Garvey movement was pan-Africanist, black nationalist, and Ethiopianist in outlook, and the early Rastafari movement included members of both the Bedward and Garvey movements. Ethiopianist preacher Robert Athlyi Rogers, an Anguillan based in the United States, published a pamphlet entitled The Holy Piby (1924), also known as the “Black Man's Bible.” The Holy Piby stirred Jamaican elites to reaction in 1926 because it valorized blackness; its message of black redemption and black solidarity influenced many Rastafari beliefs.

On November 2, 1930, King Ras Tafari of Ethiopia was crowned as emperor, adopting the name Haile Selassie I. The titles that the emperor assumed, such as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and his lineage that reputedly traced to King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, drew widespread attention. The coronation was interpreted by some as the fulfillment of Biblical scripture, and the emperor was deemed the Messiah returned. By 1933, several individuals were preaching some version of this concept. Prominent among them were Leonard Howell, Robert Hinds, Joseph Hibbert, and Archibald Dunkley. St. Thomas parish was the center of the Rastafari movement's activity during its first years.

Principal leitmotifs of the nascent Rastafari movement were worship of Emperor Selassie I, migration to Africa, and condemnation of European colonialism. The views of the Rastafari clashed with those of Jamaica's colonial elites, and government undertook operations to suppress them. By 1935, the government had forced the Rastafari underground by imprisoning Howell and Hinds (in 1934, for sedition) and by aggressively harassing and censoring them.

Howell returned to his Rastafari organizing upon release from prison in 1936 and moved his Rastafari base to St. Catherine's parish, developing there a commune called Pinnacle. The number of Rastafari people at Pinnacle grew, enterprises were developed, and communal living practiced. Major police raids on Pinnacle were carried out in 1941 and 1954. The 1954 raid led to the dismantlement of Pinnacle, causing hundreds of Rastafari to move to the surrounding areas.

During the 1940s, doctrinal differences and cultural innovations among the Rastafari manifested in various ways, one being the popularity of uncombed and untrimmed tresses called dreadlocks. The coiffure became synonymous with a new Rastafari identity and repertoire—the Dreadlocks—that included food codes, rejection of colonial society, and sacralization of cannabis.

The Rastafari movement entered a pronounced activist phase in the mid-1950s. They agitated for repatriation to Africa, for reparations for slavery, and for recognition as a valid religion. Tensions between the Rastafari and government were exacerbated in 1959 by Revered Claudius Henry's failed repatriation effort, and the cache of weapons and a letter to Fidel Castro found in his possession. Antagonism toward the Rastafari intensified when in 1960 Henry's son and black “revolutionaries” from the United States were implicated in the killing of two Royal soldiers.

The increased hostility toward the Rastafari led them to collaborate with University of West Indies scholars, who published “The Rastafari in Kingston, Jamaica” (1960), a report on Rastafari history and beliefs. An essential recommendation of the report urged the government to consider Jamaican migration to Africa, and in 1961 the government sent a delegation that included three Rastafari to visit Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia. During the visit to Ethiopia, the three Rastafari met the emperor (the Rastafari themselves undertook a second visit to Africa in 1965). The conciliation between the Rastafari movement and government was undone when in 1963, some Rastafari were implicated in grisly murders in Montego Bay. The event, known as the Coral Gardens Incident, initiated a brutal crackdown on the Rastafari.

The status of the Rastafari shifted from that of outcastes to that of exemplars of black culture and identity after Emperor Selassie I visited Jamaica in 1966. The Emperor did not reject the Rastafari. Instead, he showed interest in them and invited them to official state functions. The visibility of the Rastafarian movement increased when Jamaica's Black Power movement grew and became an important force in the country. The Black Power movement's focus on race pride, valorization of Africa, and criticism of white supremacy, affirmed the Rastafari movement's ideology and perspective.

The influence of Rastafarian beliefs and culture grew. The People's Nationalist Party used Rastafari language and symbols in their 1972 and 1976 campaigns, diffusing Rastafari culture within Jamaica. Rastafari-influenced Jamaican music—reggae—and Rastafari performers like Bob Marley and the Wailers, popularized Rastafari culture within Jamaica and across the world. The diversity of the Rastafari movement increased during the 1970s as middle- and working-class Jamaicans converted to Rastafari, and later as people outside Jamaica, including whites, converted. The reported death of Emperor Selassie I did not hinder the growth of the movement.

During the 1980s the Rastafari movement began directing its attention toward legalizing cannabis as a sacrament, organizing a Rastafari federation, connecting with Rastafari groups outside Jamaica, gaining United Nations recognition as a religion, and the establishment of the settlement at Shashemene, Ethiopia.

By the 1990s, indigenous Rastafari communities were established in New Zealand, Cuba, Brazil, Senegambia, Senegal, South Africa, Japan, and many other nations. The Rastafari formations outside Jamaica varied. For example, some African Rastafari were reluctant to deify Emperor Selassie I, while black culture was not a unifying principle in Japan. Such views run counter to what Jamaican Rastafari see as nonnegotiable: the divinity of Emperor Selassie I and exaltation of black culture and identity.

The Rastafari movement continues to evolve in significant ways. Young Rastafari are less opposed to participation in mainstream society than their dreadlocks forebears. Women, prominent during the early years of the movement, have regained standing, and new leadership is emerging as many key movement elders passed on between the 1990s and 2000s.

The long-standing scholarly explanations of the Rastafari movement portrayed them as a millenarian, messianic, or revitalization cult reacting to deprivation and dissonance. Analysts concluded that because the Rastafari imagined a new order in which whites were reproved and blacks redeemed, and where the African Emperor Selassie I was divine, they sought escape from severe inequities and hard living. The second wave of scholarship portrayed the Rastafari as a new religion, as resistance against capitalism and imperialism, as a philosophy, as an influence on popular culture, and as a historical phenomenon. Substantial turns in explanation were Robert Hill's (1983) pathbreaking historical study and Barry Chavannes's (1994) oral history research, each showing the Ethiopianist, Native Baptist, Revival, pan-African, and diaspora roots of the Rastafari. By the twenty-first century, the Rastafari were publishing their own accounts of their culture and history. Recently, there has emerged the view that Rastafari identity is a means of addressing racism, miseducation, and deracination.

It is important to note repeated inaccuracies about the Rastafari movement, some of which are based on the 1960 report on the Rastafari. Persistent errors include erroneously asserting that the Rastafari movement originated in the Kingston ghettos, and tracing the growing of dreadlocks to mimicry of Mau Mau warriors in Kenya, and finally, the belief that Marcus Garvey predicted the crowning of King Ras Tafari as Emperor of Ethiopia. The reality is that the early Rastafari movement's base developed in rural Jamaica; Rastafari were growing locks before the Mau Mau received coverage in the Jamaican press; and, there is only anecdotal evidence supporting Marcus Garvey's prediction.

The growth and persistence of the Rastafari movement must be understood within contexts of antecedent cultural complexes and an understanding of how exchanges between the Rastafari, government, and fellow citizens shaped the movement we know today. To speak of the Rastafari movement is to emphasize the activist and collective behavior of the Rastafari people.

SEE ALSO: Black Nationalism; Ethiopia; Garvey, Marcus (1887–1940); Marley, Bob (1945–81)


  • Chevannes, Barry. 1994. Rastafari: Roots and Ideology. Syracuse University Press Syracuse NY.
  • Hill, Robert. 1983. “Leonard P. Howell and Millenarian Visions in Early Rastafari.” Jamaica Journal 16(1): 24-39.
  • Price, Charles; Erich Fox Tree; Don Nonini. 2008. “Grounded Utopian Movements: Subjects of Neglect.” Anthropological Quarterly 81(1): 127-95.
  • Price, Charles. 2009. Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica. NYU Press New York.
  • Smith, Michael G.; Roy, Augier; Rex, Nettleford. 1960. The Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica. Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies Mona Jamaica.
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill USA
    Copyright © 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article RASTAFARIAN MOVEMENT
    Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

    The Rastafarian movement began in the 1920s during the time of the Great Depression and was inspired by the Jamaican Marcus Garvey's Back to...

    Full text Article Rastafarians
    Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice

    Rastafarians is a term that originated in Jamaica to describe members of an indigenous messianic religious movement with social, political, and...

    Full text Article Rastafarian
    Collins Dictionary of Sociology

    a BLACK movement, dating from the 1930s in Jamaica, but influential worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s, involving the ‘deliverance’ of black...

    See more from Credo