THE HISTORY OF RASTAFARIANISM
Rastafarianism began in Jamaica during the 1930s after the crowing of Ras Tafari as Negus of Ethiopia, “King of Kings”. After the coronation his title was changed to Emperor Haile Selassie I. Selassie also took the titles, “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and King of the Kings of Ethiopia.” This coronation was regarded as the fulfillment of a prophecy by black political leader, Marcus Garvey, that “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”, which is based on verse 31 of Psalm 68 of the Bible.
This prophecy became the foundation of the Rastafari movement.
The religion takes its name from Haile Selassie’s original name, Ras Tafari Makonnen.
Selassie is regarded by Rastafarians as the Black Messiah or Jah Rastafari. He is the central figure of salvation who will save blacks from white suppressors and reunite them with their homeland, Africa.
LEADERS OF RASTA
Leonard P. Howell is said to have had the greatest impact on the development of Rastafarian ideology in Jamaica in the 1930s.
Howell, who had served in the third Ashanti War between England and Ghana in the Gold Coast in 1901, preached the divinity of Haile Selassie and said that blacks would gain the superiority over their oppressors, who are referred to as ‘Babylon’.
THE ROYAL VISIT
In 1966, after persons who had heard of Haile Selassie’s visit to Trinidad requested that he make a stopover in Kingston. On April 21, 1966 thousands of onlookers, including hundreds of Rastafarians, gathered at the airport to witness his arrival. Rastas had believed that the day of deliverance back to Africa had come. When the plane landed, the enthusiastic onlookers stormed the tarmac. (In this photo from The Gleaner Archives, Prince Edwards of the Ethiopian-African National Congress is presented to Emperor Haile Selassie at King’s House.)
- Rastafarians believe in the Judeo-Christian God, whom they call Jah.
- The sacred text of Rastafarians is the Holy Piby, the “Black Man’s Bible”. The Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Negast and the Bible are also used as sacred texts.
- Rastafarians use marijuana during the two main Rastafari rituals: reasonings and nyabingi. Reasoning is an outdoor gathering where members offer prayers, smoke ganja and engage in discussion. Nyabinghi is a larger all-night celebration attended by Rastafarians from all over the world. Nyabinghi features dancing and drumming.
- Rastas follow a dietary law called Ital, in which food is consumed in its natural state. Canned foods, preservatives, pork, shellfish and cow’s milk are shunned as unnatural. Most Rastas are vegetarians or vegans, adhering to Old Testament rules about food.
One of the most distinctive marks of Rastafarians is dreadlocks. Dreadlocks have several purposes and layers of meaning for Rastafarians, including:
- the biblical command not to cut one’s hair (Leviticus 21:5)
- the appearance of the lion’s mane, representing strength, Africa, Ethiopia, and the Lion of Judah
- naturalness and simplicity, which are associated with Africa
- the Rasta’s roots in Africa
Another Rasta symbol is the colors of red, gold and green. Red stands for the blood of the martyrs in the black struggle for liberation, gold represents the wealth of their African homeland and green symbolizes Ethiopia’s beauty and lush vegetation. Black is often also included, representing the color of the Africans.
Another important symbol is the Lion of Judah, which represents Haile Selassie as the King of Kings, Africa, and strength.
Rastafarians also have a flag which blend the original colours of the Garveyite movement (red, green and gold) and the Ethiopian flag. The Lion represents Haile Selassie who had called himself the “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah”.
Nyahbinghi Order (a.k.a. Theocratic Priesthood and Livity Order of Nyabinghi) is named for Queen Nyahbinghi of Uganda, who fought against colonialists in the 19th century. This is the oldest of the orders and it focuses mainly on Haile Selassie, Ethiopia, and the eventual return to Africa. It is overseen by an Assembly of Elders.
Bobo Shanti was founded by Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards in Jamaica in the 1950s. “Bobo” means black and “Shanti” refers to the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, from which this sect believes Jamaican slaves are descended. They live separately from Jamaican society and other Rastafarians, growing their own produce and selling straw hats and brooms. They often carry brooms with them to symbolize their cleanliness.
Twelve Tribes of Israel sect was founded in 1968 by Dr. Vernon “Prophet Gad” Carrington. It is the most liberal of the Rastafarian orders and members are free to worship in a church of their choosing. Each member of this sect belongs to one of the 12 Tribes (or Houses), which is determined by birth month and is represented by a color.
Many Rastafari do not belong to any sect and the movement as a whole is loosely defined and organized.
RASTA’S INFLUENCE ON THE WORLD
One of Rastafarianism’s greatest contributions is through its influence on music. The genre, Reggae is said to have sprouted from the Rasta belief system as well as the religious practice of chanting.
Reggae music, especially in its purest form, is laced with political messages about black pride, the highlighting of social and economic injustice and the spread of Rastafari.
Bob Marley (photo: centre) is the Rastafarian who is credited with bringing reggae music to the world. However, some traditional Rastafarians were disturbed by the popularity of reggae, fearing that the faith would be commercialised or taken up as a cultural fad, rather than a religion.
Larry Clarty, the author of “Rasta: Jah to Jamaica and Back” says that there is no unified Rastafarian Church which makes it difficult to count the number of practicing Rastafarians.
- “Rastafarian history”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/rastafari/history/history.shtml
- “Rastafari”. http://www.religionfacts.com/a-z-religion-index/rastafarianism.htm
- Carty, Larry. “Rasta: Jah to Jamaica and Back” A Treatment for a Feature-Length Documentary