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Rising from the proliferation of Ethiopianism and Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism took root in Jamaica following the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930. A spiritual movement based on the belief in Selassie’s divinity, its followers congregated around preachers like Leonard Howell, who founded the first prominent Rastafarian community in 1940. Additional branches surfaced by the 1950s, and within two decades the movement had earned global attention thanks to the music of devoted Rastafarian Bob Marley. Although the deaths of Selassie in 1975 and Marley in 1981 took away its most influential figures, Rastafarianism endures through followings in the United States, England, Africa and the Caribbean.

Background on Rastafarianism

The roots of Rastafarianism can be traced to the 18th century, when Ethiopianism and other movements that emphasized an idealized Africa began to take hold among black slaves in the Americas. For those who had been converted to Christianity, the Bible offered hope through such passages as Psalm 68:31, foretelling of how “Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”

The ethos was strengthened through the late 19th century rise of the modern Pan-African movement and particularly the teachings of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, who reportedly told his followers to “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.” Additionally, the 1920s brought such influential proto-Rastafarian texts as “The Holy Piby” and “The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy to Jamaica.”

Haile Selassie and the Rise of Rastafarianism

On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Believed to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Selassie assumed the titles of King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, to some fulfilling the Biblical prophecy of a black king that had been emphasized by Garvey.

Jamaican preachers began promoting the ruling authority of Selassie over King George V (Jamaica was then a colony of England) and by the mid-1930s the Ethiopian emperor was regarded by followers as the living embodiment of God. Although no formalized central church materialized, the budding factions of Rastafarianism found common ground through their belief in a lineage that dated to the ancient Israelites, black superiority and the repatriation of the diaspora from the oppressive land of “Babylon” to Africa. Their movement reflected a range of influences, including Old Testament instructions on avoiding certain foods and a local belief in the spiritual powers of marijuana.

Preachers such as Robert Hinds, Joseph Hibbert and Archibald Dunkley achieved prominence in the decade, but to many scholars the most important figure in early Rastafarianism was Leonard Howell. A former member of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Howell attracted a large following after returning from extensive travels to Jamaica in 1932, and outlined the nascent movement’s principles with the publication of “The Promise Key” circa 1935.

Considered a dangerous, subversive figure by the Jamaican government, Howell was arrested several times and his followers subjected to persecution. Nevertheless, he founded the Ethiopian Salvation Society (ESS) in 1939, and the following year he created a Rasta commune known as Pinnacle.

Set in the mountains of Saint Catherine, Pinnacle became an autonomous community for thousands that cultivated marijuana for its spiritual sessions and economic sustainment. However, its reliance on the illegal crop also provided an excuse for authorities to crack down on the community, and Pinnacle’s residents endured a series of raids. In May 1954, police arrested more than 100 residents and destroyed some 3 tons of marijuana, effectively wiping out the commune.

New Developments

In the late 1940s, a radical version of Rastafarianism, known as the Youth Black Faith, emerged from the slums of the Jamaican capital of Kingston. A precursor to the existing Nyahbinghi Mansion, or branch, the Youth Black Faith became known for an aggressive stance against authorities. Additionally, they introduced some of the features that became widely associated with Rastafarians, including the growing of hair into dreadlocks and the group’s unique dialect.

Although he reportedly rejected the Rastafarian depiction of him as a deity, Emperor Selassie in 1948 seemingly embraced their cause by donating 500 acres to the development of an Ethiopian community named Shashamane. The land grant confirmed in 1955, Shashamane offered the opportunity for Jamaicans and other blacks to fulfill their long desired hope of returning to the homeland.

Over the next two decades, additional branches of Rastafarianism gained devoted followers. In 1958, Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards created the Ethiopian International Congress, or Bobo Ashanti, which ascribes a separation from society and strict gender and dietary laws. In 1968, the Twelve Tribes of Israel was founded by Vernon Carrington, aka the Prophet Gad, who advocated the daily reading of the Bible and emphasized the group’s lineage.

Acceptance in Jamaica

Although a new chapter of Jamaican history commenced with its formal independence from England in 1962, lingering negative attitudes and governmental oppression of Rastafari remained. The most notorious incident occurred on what became known as “Bad Friday” in April 1963, when police arrested and beat an estimated 150 innocent Rastafarians in response to a militant flare-up at a gas station.

A visit by Emperor Selassie in April 1966 seemed to foster an improved perception among non-believers, though there were still ugly moments, such as the Rastafarian involvement in the 1968 riots over a ban of professor and activist Walter Rodney. By the early 1970s, it was clear the movement had become entrenched among the youth of Jamaica. This was underscored by the successful 1972 presidential campaign of People’s National Party leader Michael Manley, who carried a “rod of correction” gifted to him by Emperor Selassie and used Rasta dialect at rallies.

Music, Bob Marley and Globalization

While Rastafarian practices spread with the migration of Jamaicans to England, Canada and the United States from the 1950s into the 1970s, its worldwide growth was aided by the influence of adherents on popular music. An early contributor in this field was Count Ossie, who began drumming at Nyahbinghi spiritual sessions and helped develop the style that became known as ska.

Later, the movement found its most important ambassador in Bob Marley. A convert to Rastafari and founder of reggae music, the charismatic Marley unabashedly referenced his beliefs in his songs, achieving widespread acclaim in the 1970s through universally appealing themes of brotherhood, oppression and redemption. Marley toured widely, bringing his sound to Europe, Africa and the U.S., while becoming the poster boy for Rastafarian causes.

Meanwhile, the growing popularity of Rastafarianism among people of differing races and cultures led to changes in some of its stricter codes. The 1970s book “Dread: the Rastafarians of Jamaica,” by Roman Catholic priest and social worker Joseph Owens, highlighted some of the challenges facing the movement, with some sects electing to deemphasize the importance of black superiority in favor of a message of equality.

Modern Rastafarianism

A turning point for Rastafarianism came in 1975, when Emperor Selassie died and forced his followers to confront the contradiction of a living deity passing away. In 1981, the movement lost its second major figure with the death of Marley from cancer.

Always a decentralized faith and culture, Rastafari attempted to introduce a unifying element with a series of international conferences in the 1980s and ’90s. Smaller divisions, such as African Unity, Covenant Rastafari and the Selassian Church, emerged around the turn of the millennium, the same period which brought the passing of longtime leaders Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards (1994) and the Prophet Gad (2005).

As of 2012, it was estimated that there were approximately 1 million Rastafarians throughout the world. Its traditions continue in communities in the U.S., England, Africa, Asia and Jamaica, where the government has co-opted much of its symbolism through efforts to market tourism. Attempting to make amends for past transgressions, the Jamaican government decriminalized marijuana in 2015, and in 2017 Prime Minister Andrew Holness formally apologized to Rastafarians for the Coral Gardens debacle.

The Beliefs and Practices of Rastafari

Rastafari is an Abrahamic new religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor from 1930 to 1974 as God incarnate and the Messiah who will deliver believers to the Promised Land, identified by Rastas as Ethiopia. It has its roots in Black-empowerment and back-to-Africa movements. It originated in Jamaica, and its followers continue to be concentrated there, although smaller populations of Rastas can be found in many countries today.

Rastafari holds to many Jewish and Christian beliefs. Rastas accept the existence of a single triune god, called Jah, who has incarnated on earth several times, including in the form of Jesus. They accept much of the Bible, although they believe that its message has been corrupted over time by Babylon, which is commonly identified with Western, white culture. Specifically, they accept the prophecies in the Book of Revelations concerning the second coming of the Messiah, which they believe has already occurred in the form of Selassie. Before his coronation, Selassie was known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, from which the movement takes its name.

Rastafarianism - HISTORY

This religion traces its inception to Marcus Garvey (born in 1887), whose philosophical ideologies were the catalyst that would eventually grow into the Rastafarian movement in 1930. Rastafarianism is often associated with the black impoverished population of Jamaica. It is not just a religion to them but a way of life, a struggle for their rights and freedom.

In the early 1920's, Garvey an influential black spokesman was founder of the "back-to-Africa" movement. He spoke of the redemption of the black people through a future black African king .

"No race has the last word on culture and on civilization. You do not know what the black man is capable of you do not know what he is thinking and therefore you do not know what the oppressed and suppressed Negro, by virtue of his condition and circumstance, may give to the world as a surprise."( Speech, June 6, 1928, Royal Albert Hall, London. Quoted in Adolph Edwards, Marcus Garvey) While Garvey tried to give blacks their rightful place he reversed the roles of the races. Garvey called the white religion a rejection of black culture, insisting that blacks must leave "Babylon" (the Western world) and return to their homeland of Africa. The first Universal Negro Improvement Association international convention (UNIA) opened at Liberty Hall in New York’s Harlem under the leadership of Marcus Garvey . 25,000 delegates from 25 nations attended. Garvey began to exalt African beauty and promote a "back to Africa" campaign with a plan for resettlement in Liberia (Liberia was first African colony to gain independence) He promoted a steamship company that would provide transportation for blacks to return to Africa. In 1920 Liberia rejected Marcus Garvey’s plan for resettlement of U.S. blacks, fearing that his motive was to foment revolution. Garvey was convicted the next year of fraudulent dealings in the now-bankrupt Black Star Steamship Co. he had founded, President Coolidge commuted his 5-year sentence. Garvey was then deported back to Jamaica in 1927.(reference used: The People chronology.)

Rastas believe that all people of the world are equal, bound together by one god, Jah. They also believe their ancestors offended Jah in some way, which brought them into an exile of slavery in Jamaica. To them blacks are still suppressed through poverty and illiteracy and deceived by the white man's system, which is Babylon.

In 1927 Garvey proclaimed, "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King, he shall be the Redeemer" (The Rastafarians, p. 67). A few years later his prediction was considered fulfilled by Ethiopia's new king, Haile Selassie.

Hale Selassie seems to have been very educated and was not a Rastafarian, and some claim there is some evidence that he was a devout Christian (Coptic Christian).

There is no statement of what he thought of the whole Rastafarian movement.However he did say: "Today man sees all his hopes and aspirations crumble before him. He is perplexed and knows not whither he is drifting. But he must realize that the solution of his present difficulties and guidance for his future action is the Bible. Unless he accepts with clear conscience the Bible and its great message, he cannot hope for salvation. For myself, I glory in the Bible." (Selassie I)

On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned king of Ethiopia, king of kings at Addis Ababa. Upon his coronation, he claimed for himself the titles of "Emperor Haile Selassie I (Power of the holy Trinity), Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and King of the Kings of Ethiopia."(The Lion of Judah represents Haile Selassie, the Conqueror, the King of Kings as a lion, the king of all beasts some apply it to the dominant movement). Some Rastafarians believe the Bible teaches that God is a spirit which was manifested in and represented by the King, H.I.M. (Emperor Haile Selassie I). Many claim he is the messiah (the son) in psalm 2 it is he the nations of Babylon conspire against. To those awaiting deliverance, they saw the new Emperor as the fulfillment of Garvey's proclamation. ( specifically Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley, Leanord Howell and Robert Hind believed this).

He was reported to be the 225th descendant and restorer of the Solomon's Dynasty, deriving his lineage from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. His throne represented the throne of God on earth, established by the covenant between God and King David as recorded in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7). God had promised that through the seed of David, the tribe of Judah, He would set up His promised Kingdom on earth, which would be a light to the world. His people would be returned to their land and no more would they suffer.

Unfortunately these titles already belong to one who alone deserves them and has proved himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Isa.9:6 the child born is of a virgin Isa.7:14, Mic.5:2 and he is from eternity, God himself, the creator. It is this son, the only begotten Son of God, who would have a everlasting kingdom. He would die for the sins of the world and be resurrected (Acts.2:22-36) The scripture makes it clear it would be the messiah, Jesus Christ, who would sit on David's throne not a man but the God/ man.

As the Rastafarian movement grew it identified the Hebrews as black. God became identified with blacks, and the Christian faith was no longer the monopoly of white missionaries. Any reference to Ethiopia in the bible took on great significance for the movement. Rastas believe that Selassie was the true Jesus found in Christianity. That the white man tricked the world into believing that he was not a black man. Leonard Howell taught the Rastafarians hatred for the white race, and that the whites are inferior. This was an overreaction to oppression. Teaching included the idea that the devil is actually the god of the White man and that the black race was superior. Emperor Haile Selassie was to be recognized as the Supreme Being and only ruler of Black people. ( similarities to the Nation of Islam are striking in some areas.)

The Hebrews are not of the black race but Semitic. Abraham came from Mesopotamia: he was not black. And the bible points out that Moses married Zipporah, who was a Ethiopian woman. Acts 17:26 tells us God has made from one blood every nation of man. In Christ there is no black, white, brown, or red. Rev.5:9 tells us God has redeemed us by the blood of his son from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. The bible teaches that no race is superior to any other race( Gal. 3:28 Col. 3:11). To teach otherwise is to go against the scriptures and the teachings of Jesus Christ. He gathers all people to be one in himself, both Jews and gentiles, black, white, red, and yellow etc.

Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966. This became an important historical event in the Rastafarian movement. Selassie persuaded the Rastafarian brothers that they "should not seek to immigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica." (The Rastafarians, pp. 158, 160). Rastafarians continue to celebrate April 21 as a special holy day because of his visit . One of the key doctrines of Rastafarians had been their expectation that they would one day return to Africa, "the Zion which would be restored to them after centuries in the Diaspora." Many Rastas believe that Ethiopia is their promised land, a heaven on earth.

Rastafarians believe, "God revealed himself in the person of Moses, who was the first avatar or savior. The second avatar was Elijah. The third avatar was Jesus Christ. Now the advent of Ras Tafari is the climax of God's revelation." (The Rastafarians, p. 112) Some Rastas believe Haile Selasie is Almighty god, (a god who died not for sin but because of sin!) They worship him as the living God. Some believe he is the second coming of Christ prophesied in the Bible.(no kingdom is set up, nor will he be the one to vanquish evil and judge the nations.) Some believe he is Christ-like, tracing his lineage to Christ . They even teach that Jesus predicted the coming of Haile Selassie (The Rastafarians, p. 106). Rastafarians point to the scriptures, saying it prophesied of him as the one "the hair of whose head was like wool (this is the matted hair of I black man) whose feet were like unto burning brass ( black skin),"(Rev. 1:14-15). His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire, His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters." Is a reference to the ancient of days in Daniel. Dan. 7:9: "I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated his garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire."This is a vision of God the creator in heaven, Selassie hardly qualifies since it says this person is the ancient of days, an idiom for saying he is the eternal one.

In 1974 Selassie was deposed by an army coup, and ( according to the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia) on August 27, 1975, Haile Selassie died under mysterious circumstances. When Selassie died, many Rastas could not accept it at first. His death prompted rationalization from Rastafarians. some believed it was a media trick some looked at his death as a fabrication. Some Rastas believe that true Rastas are immortal, and Selassie's divinity did not die with him. To explain his death some said that his atoms were spread through out the world and became part of newborn babies, so his life was never ending. Current belief is that Ras Tafari lives on through individual Rastafarians. Groups which claim allegiance to Ras Tafari are the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church and the Ethiopian World Federation (not in the Ethiopian Coptic church).

Within this movement they have their own vocabulary. I and I refers to God in all or the brotherhood of mankind. Since all people are totally equal and are bound together by the one god, Jah, we should not use you and I. There seems to be a conflict between their music message of oneness of mankind, and others that hold to the original message of Garvey and the black people. Essentially the movement stands for equal rights and justice.

There are reportedly 250,000 Rastafarians in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Their current membership is over 700,000 (as of 1988), although many more experiment with its lifestyle and are influenced by it more than those who actually join. T-shirts, and bumper stickers continue to promote a movement that has its Reggae music carry its message to the world.

Rastafari use marijuana as part of their religion. During “Reasoning Sessions” they smoke together and discuss issues in the community. Every meeting also has a huge feast afterwards.

The official Rastafari religious music is Nyabingi. This musical style is a combination of 19th century gospel music with traditional African drums. It’s also reminiscent of Burru music, which is what Jamaican slaves sang to each other to keep their spirits up. The music is usually played while people smoke and talk during the Reasoning Sessions.

Origin of Rastafarian culture and religion


The Rastafarian movement started way back in Jamaica among working-class black people in the 1930s. It began in part as a social stand against whites and the middle-classes, whom the Rastafarians saw as oppressors.

Among their grievances, the Rastafarians believed that by being taken to the Caribbean by slave traders they had been robbed of their African heritage, which they sought to recapture and celebrate.

The Rastafarian movement takes the Bible as its sacred text, but interprets it in an Afro-centric way in order to reverse what Rastas see as changes made to the text by white powers.

The movement took as its spiritual head Haile Selassie I, former Emperor of Ethiopia, who was lauded for being a black leader in the heart of Africa. To them he became Jah, who would one day lead the people of African origin to the Promised Land.

Like any spirituality, Rastas have their own beliefs, symbols and traditions but there is no formal Rastafarian creed and there are slight differences in the views of different groups.

They believe that Haile Selassie is the Living God the Black person is the reincarnation of ancient Israel, who, at the hand of the White person, has been in exile in Jamaica.

Rastafarians consider “Jamaica as hell Ethiopia is heaven, the Invincible Emperor of Ethiopia is now arranging for expatriated persons of African origin to return to Ethiopia and in the near future Blacks shall rule the world.”

They believe that God is found within every man by emphasizing that he reveals himself to his followers through his humanity.

According to Tuff Gong Isimbi, (28) one of the Rastafarians in Kigali, salvation for Rastafarians is an earthly idea, rather than heavenly.

“Human nature is very important to us and we do whatever it takes to preserve and protect it,” Isimbi said.

He mentioned that Rastafarians are the chosen people of God and are on earth to promote his power and peacefulness.

Isimbi noted that the previous belief that white people are evil has diminished and is no longer central to the Rastafarian belief systems.

They have several meanings. First, they are a part of the biblical Nazarene vow, which prohibits shaving and combing the hair.

But it is not the dreadlocks that make someone a rastaman, and some Rastas’ don’t wear dreadlocks.

The locks, because of their appearance, symbolize the roots of the man, and his spirituality, the link with Jah.

It signifies the healing of the nations, also known as hemp, cannabis, or marijuana and, is used as a holy sacrament by Rastas in many ways.

Rastas smoke herb to meditate, symbolizing the burning bush, and for its curative properties i.e. asthma. Herb can be eaten or infused.

Rasta flag
The Flag is composed of three colors, red, yellow and green. The red symbolizes the blood of black people, the yellow the stolen gold and the green the lost lands of Africa.

The Rasta flag can also be seen during coptic celebration in Ethiopia. These colors are also on the Senegalese flag, from where thousand of slaves were deported, transiting by the Goree Island.

Star of David
This symbolizes the linkage between Haile Selassie and David the King of Israel and also the Rasta consider themselves like the Israelites in exile in Babylon. The Star of David is the symbol of Israel.

Conquering Lion and the Lamb
They both symbolize Haile Selassie according to the Revelations and the opening of the seven seals. They are two faces of a same reality, the Alpha and Omega.

Haile Selassie’s death in 1975 was described by his followers as his ‘disappearance’, since they refused to believe he passed away.

Although some Rastafarians still regard him as the black messiah, many modern adherents do not see this as central to their faith.

Currently, it is believed there are more than one million Rastafarians around the world. Some live in communes, which double as temples, where the Bible is studied and prayers are offered.

Modern Rastafarian beliefs

Modern Rastafarian beliefs

From the 1930s until the mid 1970s most Rastafarians accepted the traditional Rastafari beliefs.

But in 1973 Joseph Owens published a more modern approach to Rastafari beliefs. In 1991 Michael N. Jagessar revised Owens's ideas, devising his own systematic approach to Rastafari theology and providing an insight into the changes in the group's beliefs.

The key ideas in contemporary Rastafari are:

  • The humanity of God and the divinity of man
    • This refers to the importance of Haile Selassie who is perceived by Rastafarians as a living God. Likewise it emphasises the concept of God revealing himself to his followers through his humanity.
    • Rastafarians believe that God makes himself known through humanity. According to Jagessar "there must be one man in whom he exists most eminently and completely, and that is the supreme man, Rastafari, Selassie I."
    • It is very important to see all historical facts in the context of God's judgement and workings.
    • Salvation for Rastafarians is an earthly idea, rather than heavenly.
    • Human nature is very important to Rastafarians and they should preserve and protect it.
    • This idea refers to the importance and respect Rastafarians have for animals and the environment, as mirrored in their food laws.
    • Speech is very important to Rastafarians, as it enables the presence and power of God to be felt.
    • Sin is both personal and corporate. This means organisations such as the International Monetary Fund are responsible for Jamaica's fiscal situation, and that oppression is in part influenced by them.
    • This corresponds to the nearness of judgement for Rastafarians when they will be given greater recognition.
    • Rastafarians are the chosen people of God and are on earth to promote his power and peacefulness.

    (Joseph Owens The Rastafarians of Jamaica, 1973 pp. 167-70 and Jagessar, JPIC and Rastafarians, 1991 pp. 15-17.)

    To modern Rastafari the most important doctrine is belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie I. Although some Rastafarians still regard Haile Selassie as the black messiah, many modern adherents do not see this as central to their faith.

    Haile Selassie's death in 1975 was described by his followers as his 'disappearance', since they refused to believe he has passed away. Following his death and the increased acceptance of Jamaican culture in society many Rastafarian beliefs have been modified.

    According to Nathaniel Samuel Murrell:

    . 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.

    Nathaniel Samuel Murrell in 'Chanting Down Babylon', 1998, page 6.

    The previous belief that white people are evil has diminished and is no longer central to Rastafarian belief systems.

    The idea of Babylon has also developed to represent all oppressive organisations and countries in the world.



    Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born Black nationalist leader whose Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the most prominent Black Power organization of the 1920s. Although himself a Roman Catholic, Garvey encouraged his followers to imagine Jesus as Black and to organize their own church. To emphasize that the new church was neither Catholic nor Protestant, the name "Orthodox" was adopted and the filioque (a phrase added to the Latin version of the Nicene creed in the early Middle Ages but rejected by the Orthodox) was dropped.

    The African Orthodox Church entered into negotiations with the Russian Metropolia (now the OCA) for formal recognition as an Orthodox jurisdiction. Unfortunately, these negotiations broke down: the Metropolia demanded an unacceptable degree of administrative control, while the Garveyites wanted to promulgate whatever doctrines they chose. Eventually, the African Orthodox bishop was consecrated by the "American Catholics", a group which had rejected the authority of the Pope but was otherwise similar to the Roman Church.

    The Garveyite Church had thousands of members on three continents, and was a symbol of anti-colonialism in Kenya and Uganda. The African Orthodox in those countries quickly broke off relations with the New York church and instead became part of the Greek Patriarchate of Alexandria and fully Orthodox. The same process repeated in Ghana more recently, where Fr. Kwami Labe, a graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York, has been building a strong Orthodox community on the foundations laid by the Garveyites. (I am distressed, however, that many now-canonical African Orthodox often seem almost ashamed of their "heretical" origins, and try to distance themselves from the earlier movement.)

    Today the African Orthodox Church as such is largely defunct, although the parish of St. John Coltrane (!) in San Francisco remains quite active.


    Black slaves always felt an obvious affinity to the enslaved Hebrews a few took this sympathy to its logical extreme and claimed to be, in fact, Jews. This movement probably existed in the U.S. during slavery times, and there was at least one Black convert in the synagogue of antebellum Charleston. The spread of information about the Jewish "Falasha" minority in Ethiopia contributed to the growth of Black Judaism during the late 19th Century, and Jewish sects emerged in the northern ghettoes alongside Muslim ones. A number of these, and similar groups of more recent origin, remain very active today. These groups (a few of them very anti-Semitic in their claim of being "real Jews") are in some cases "Christian", although with an Old Testament emphasis. Frequently they claim that whites have distorted the text of the Bible, and there are attempts to "restore" the text.

    One of these, of importance in this story, is the "Holy Piby", an occult bible allegedly translated from "Amharic" and emphasizing the destruction of white "Babylonia" and the return of the Israelites to Africa, the true Zion. The Piby was adopted by Rastafarians as the source of their liturgical texts.

    The Marcus Garvey of history books is a mainly political leader interested in making the black race economically equal with the white. In oral tradition, however, he appears as a divinely annointed prophet, the Forerunner of Haile Selassie. In addition to many miracles and prophecies, he is credited with having predicted that a "mighty king" would arise in Africa and bring justice to the oppressed. When the Prince (Ras) Tafari of Ethiopia was crowned emperor to world-wide fanfare, many Jamaicans claimed the prophecy of Garvey had obviously just been fulfilled: the Ras Tafari Movement was born.

    Garvey himself was still alive, although his movement had largely collapsed and he himself had been jailed on (subsequently disproved) allegations of business fraud. Garvey was no admirer of Haile Selassie, observing that slavery still existed in Ethiopia, and he attacked the Rastafarians as crazy fanatics. They, however continued to revere Garvey nonetheless, remarking that even John the Baptist had had doubts about Christ!

    From 1930 until the mid '60s, Rastafari was a local Jamaican religious movement with few outside influences. Several Garveyite leaders had independently declared that Haile Selassie fulfilled Garvey's prophecy, and the movement remained dominated by independent "Elders" with widely varying views. Not only did no Jamaica-wide "Rastafarian Church" develop, but there was not even agreement on basic doctrine or a canon of Scripture--both the Holy Piby and the King James Bible were used by various Elders, but were freely emended and "corrected".

    This "anarchy" was considered a virtue by classical Rastas. Rastafari was not a religion, a human organization, or a philosophy, but an active attempt to discern the will of JAH (God) and keep it. Classical Rastas were mainly uneducated Third World peasants, but they approached Rastafari in an almost Talmudic spirit, holding "reasonings" --part theological debate, part prayer meeting-- at which they attempted to find the Truth.

    Their attitude differed, however, from that of Protestants interpreting the Bible. They were certain that they would arrive, by divine guidance, at an "overstanding" (rather than understanding) of the Truth. The Truth cannot be known by human effort alone, but "Jah-Jah come over I&I", one can participate in the One who is Truth.

    Early Rasta mystical experience emphasized the immediate presence of JAH within the "dread" (God-fearer). The doctrine of theosis was expressed with great subtlety (although not all Elders correctly distinguished essence from energy). Through union with JAH, the dread becomes who he truly is but never was, a process of self-discovery possible only through repentance. (For this reason, Rastas did not proselytize, but relied on compunction sent by JAH.) The mystical union was expressed by the use of the pronoun "I&I" (which can mean I, we, or even you, with JAH present) or simply "I" in contrast to the undeclined Jamaican dialect "me".

    Many Rastas lived (and live today) in the bush in camps ruled by an Elder. Some of these camps are segregated by sex and resemble monasteries (down to the gong at the gate) more often, they are reconstituted West African villages. The dreads observe the rules of "ital", a dietary code based on the Pentateuch with various additions, and otherwise observe a spiritual rule. Males are usually bearded (uncommon in Jamaica during the classical period, and a cause of social and religious discrimination, so that Rastas who held jobs often were "baldfaces" who kept their affiliation secret.)

    The famous "dreadlocks" were worn during the classical period only by a minority of dreads, mostly those who had taken the oath of Nazirite. Very recent historical research suggests that the dreadlocks were popularized by a monastic movement which opposed the unrestrained and potentially corrupting power of the Elders. These celibate and almost puritanical "nyabinghi warriors" objected particularly to "pagan holdovers" in Rastafari, the continued use by dreads of ritual practices associated with the voudoun-like folk religion of the Jamaican peasantry.

    Another source of "pagan" thought in Rastafari was the religion practiced by the thousands of East Indian labourers imported to Jamaica after the abolition of slavery. Classical Hinduism is a major religious force throughout the West Indies, especially on Trinidad, but its influence on Rastafari has been little remarked. The dreadlocked, ganja-smoking saddhu or wandering ascetic is a well-known figure in India, and bands of saddhus often live in Rasta-style camps and smoke marijuana from a formally-blessed communal chalice-pipe. The Hindu doctrine of reincarnation is also advocated by many dreads, although often with a subtle twist: to say that (for example) today's Jamaicans are reincarnated Israelites, and even "I myself have felt the slave-master's whip", means to some dreads not that they personally have lived before, but that their solidarity with their ancestors is so great that there is a "oneness through time".

    Among the few things all Elders agreed on were that Haile Selassie was "divine" (although what that meant was much debated) and that he intended to restore New World Blacks to Africa. Although a mystical interpretation of "repatriation" was advanced, there is no doubt that all early Elders (and most modern ones) expected outward literal return as well. This gave Rastafari an overt political dimension: the Rastafarians all, without exception, wanted to immediately emigrate to Ethiopia. This was a situation with no analogue except Zionism, and was beyond the ability of the Jamaican authorities to deal with. Revolutionaries are one thing, but the Rasta slogan was not "power to the people", but "let my people go". As time passed, Rastafarian frustration at this unmet demand became explosive. The situation grew especially tense after 1954, when the government overran a Rastafarian mini-state called the Pinnacle, ruled by Elder Leonard Howell in exactly the style of a traditional West African chief. Howell's followers migrated to the slums of Kingston, and the movement went from a rural peasant separatist movement to one associated with the ghettoes of the capital. In the late '50s and early '60s, a few Rastas in desparation rejected the non-violent teaching of all authentic Elders and mounted a series of increasingly violent uprisings, culminating in several deadly shoot-outs between Rastas and British troops. With this violence, the existence of Rastafari came to (negative) worldwide notice more positive publicity was brought by the popularity of Rasta-performed reggae dance music a few years later. The classical period of isolation was at an end.

    I will now treat the issue of direct contact between Rastafari and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


    As an African country mentioned in the Bible and the only African nation to successfully resist colonialism, Ethiopia was always prominent in New World Black consci- ousness, but actual contact was minimal until the Second World War. In 1937, Haile Selassie's government in exile founded EWF to raise money and political support from Black nationalist groups in the West. After the war, the EWF continued to exist in various forms, some completely under local control but all providing at least some contact with Abyssinia.

    In the 1940s, a Garveyite bishop named Edwin Collins set up what he said was a legitimate Coptic church under the Patriarch of Alexandria. However the Garveyite Coptics were tied more closely to the African Orthodox Church than to Egypt, and their canonicity was widely doubted. In 1952 the Garveyite Coptic diocese of Trinidad and Tobago broke away and placed itself under Addis Ababa. Clergy were imported from Africa and a fully canonical church was organised in the islands. Trinidad is an Ethiopian Orthodox success story: native- born clergy (including old-time Garveyite leaders) were rapidly ordained and parishes were founded all over the country and in Guyana.

    In 1959 the central Garveyite Coptic organisation in New York tried to improve its canonical status. The archbishop went to Ethiopia, where he was supposedly ordained chorepiscopos, and returned with a group of young Ethiopian priests and deacons who were to study in American universities. These clergy almost immediately broke with the Garveyites, however, and set up parishes more oriented to the needs of Ethiopian immigrants the Garveyite Coptic church which had sponsored them went into an evidently irreversible decline. One of the young priests who came over at this time soon became Ethiopian Orthodoxy's main representative abroad. He is Laike M. Mandefro, now Archbishop Yesehaq, exarch of the Western Hemisphere and many would add Apostle to the Caribbean.

    All of the above developments took place independently of the Ras Tafari Movement, which was still confined to Jamaica. An EWF chapter had opened there in 1938 and been almost immediately taken over by Rastafarians, in particular by the prominent Elders Joseph Hibbert and Archibald Dunkley. Both men were noted mystics and initiates of an all-Black "Coptic" Masonic lodge in Costa Rica some might therefore find it ironic that they more than anyone else would prove responsible for the arrival of Orthodoxy in Jamaica!

    Presumably because of the spread of the Ethiopian Church in Trinidad, Haile Selassie was invited to visit that country in 1966. Jamaica was then in the throws of an ongoing national social crisis in which Rastas were perceived by the establishment as a revo- lutionary threat which had to defused a team of social scientists had advised the government that one way to do this was to foster close ties with the real Ethiopia. Accordingly, the Emperor was invited to make a stop in Jamaica.

    On April 21 -- "Grounation Day" to Rastas ever since -- Haile Selassie arrived in Kingston. Contrary to the widely repeated claim that the Emperor was "amazed" or "bemused" upon "discovering" the existence of the Rastafarians (the greater number of whom by 1966 believed him to be God in essence), there is much evidence that Haile Selassie's whole purpose in visiting Jamaica was to meet the Rasta leadership. Greeted at the airport by thousands of dreads in white robes chanting "Hosanna to the Son of David", Haile Selassie granted an audience to a delegation of famous Elders, including Mortimo Planno and probably Joseph Hibbert. The precise details of this historic meeting cannot be reconstructed, and there exist countless variants in Jamaican oral tradition. Almost certainly, he urged them to become Orthodox and held out the possibility that Jamaican settlers could receive land-grants in South Ethiopia. Most traditional versions of the meeting specify that he also gave the Elders a secret message, very much in keeping with the Emperor's known policies on Third World development: "Build Jamaica first."

    In 1970, at Hibbert's invitation, Abba Laike Mandefro began to evangelize the Rastafarians in person. In the course of a year he baptized some 1200 dreads and laid the foundation for the church's subsequent growth. He also encountered fierce opposition from those Elders who taught that Haile Selassie was Jah in essence and demanded "baptism in Ras Tafari's name". In Montego Bay, only one dread accepted Orthodox baptism Laike Mandefro baptized him Ahadu -- "One Man".

    A major crisis struck the young church in 1971, when a public service marking the ninth anniversary of Jamaican independence was held in Kingston. Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox (Greek and Ethiopian) clergy all participated in the service. The Rastas were scandalized that Orthodox would pray with representatives of "false religions" hundreds of baptized members defected, and an entire parish was lost. Many of these persons no doubt joined the organized Rastafarian churches which were beginning to replace the traditional Elder system, and which soon incorporated widely varying degrees of Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical and theological influence.

    Besides the heretical syncretist groups, however, a legitimate Orthodox Rastafari Movement continued to flourish as the backbone of the Jamaican church. The EWF under the leadership of Dunkley and Hibbert had enormous prestige, being tied both to the roots of the movement in Garveyism and directly to Jamaica. The EWF retained the political and social aspects and the distinctive cultural features of classical Rastafari while advocating a rigorously correct and canonical Orthodoxy, venerating the Emperor as a holy living ikon of JAH but not worshiping him. The first steps toward Orthodox Jamaica were being taken -- albeit by people whose main secular goal was to leave the country as soon as possible!


    Orthodox theology distinguishes several levels of divinity. Only the Uncreated is "God-in-essence" humans can become "divine by participation" ikons are visible channels through which divine energy enters the world. The question which divides the "canonical" brethren from non-Orthodox groups is which of these levels of divinity applies to Emperor Haile Selassie. The Orthodox say he is divine by participation and ikonicity, and thus merits "douleia" ("veneration") the Tribes say he is divine in essence and merits "latreia" or absolute worship.

    This was also the time when reggae music was at the height of its popularity, and when explicitly religious lyrics were the norm within reggae. Many popular bands were Orthodox, notably The Abyssinians, a group with priestly and monastic connections. The family of reggae's "superstar", Bob Marley, were mostly Orthodox, although Marley himself was for most of his career a member of the Twelve Tribes sect. In his last years, dying young of cancer, Marley underwent a remarkable spiritual transformation (evident in his music also) culminating in his baptism his Orthodox funeral in 1981 was attended by tens of thousands of mourners.

    Haile Selassie was reported dead in 1975 (to the disbelief of many Rastas even today). The Ethiopian church, like many Orthodox churches under communist rule, endured terrible persecution which it survived partly by compromise with the persecutors. The Marxist regime in Addis Ababa was very unenthused that an emperor-venerating and/or worshiping cult was flourishing in a part of the world otherwise ripe for revolution.

    In addition, I have the impression that some of the increasingly numerous and often middle-class Ethiopian emigres in the West looked down on Rastafarians. The pious suspected their Orthodoxy (no doubt often rightly that many "Orthodox" Rastas continued to secretly harbor heretical views is quite likely) the staid resented association with an impoverished and reputedly criminal Black underclass. The latter consideration was especially strong in Britain, where all forms of Rastafari spread rapidly among the West Indian minority in the '70s. (It is important to add, however, that England's Ethiopian community also provided legal and other support for Rastas subjected to racist and police harassment during this period, especially in the Handsworth section of Birmingham.)

    For whatever reason, in 1976 all Orthodox Rastas were required to cut their locks and to make an elaborate formal repudiation of heretical emperor worship (latreia). Whatever its long-term wisdom, this decree forced people who were "growing into an overstanding" by the slow traditional process to make a sudden decision the cutting of locks, a purely external issue, seemed to many a repudiation of the movement's history.

    In spite of these not-inconsiderable conflicts, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has spread through the Caribbean thanks to the Ras Tafari movement. While only a minority of Rastas have actually become Orthodox, nearly all have been influenced by Orthodoxy. The makwamya (the prayer stick used by Ethiopian clergy) is ubiquitous among dreads items of clerical garb are also frequently adopted. Rastafarian painters have been heavily influenced by ikonography. Syncretism is particularly evident in the organized sects which have partly supplanted the charismatic Elder system.

    THE TWELVE TRIBES OF ISRAEL (unrelated to the various Black Hebrew churches of the same name) are probably the largest and most famous of the sects. Founded in 1968 by Vernon Carrington (the Prophet Gad), the Tribes hold that Haile Selassie is Jesus Christ returned in majesty as King: the Second Coming has already happened. Their coherent theology and tight organization have won them many converts, including most of the famous reggae singers of the '70s. Something of the syncretistic feel of later Rastafari is conveyed by the cover art on the album "Zion Train" by Ras Michael (a brilliant hymnographer and one of the Ras Tafari Movement's more impressive living spokesmen). The painting shows two clerically-turbaned dreads before the open Royal Doors of an ikonostasis -- beyond which, however, is only a view of mountains against a red sky.

    "PRINCE" EDWARD EMMANUEL, founder of another prominent sect, was a famous Elder of the classical era, responsible for convening the first "Nyabinghi" or Rastafarian general synod in 1958. The Prince was already a controversial figure who claimed to be one of the Holy Trinity along with Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey presumably, he hoped the Nyabinghi would recognize this claim (which it did not). Thereafter the Prince began transforming his large band of worshipers into an organized church, complete with dogma, liturgy, hierarchy, and a kind of monasticism. The group's priests, some of whom have actually been to Ethiopia, wear Orthodox vestments.

    THE ZION COPTIC CHURCH, a semi-moribund Garveyite Orthodox denomination, was revitalized by white hippie converts in the '60s despite its partly foreign leadership, it enjoyed explosive growth among Black Jamaicans disillusioned with the canonical church's approach. Although the "Coptics", as they are called, insist that they are a legitimate Orthodox jurisdiction and even publish tracts on such theological issues as the _mia physis_ and the Council of Chalcedon, they also engage in some very questionable speculations verging on Gnosticism. To their credit, they have gone much further than the canonical church in incorporating the best of classical Rastafrian culture into church life, and their retention of dreadlocks, nyabinghi drumming, etc. has helped them gain many converts. This success is reflected in their great material wealth, for which they have been criticized (they are supposedly among the largest landholders in Jamaica). One aspect of their "reverse syncretism" has caused much controversy, as well as a landmark church-state case which landed the Coptics' leadership in prison: their gnosticizing theories are used to justify ritual consumption of marijuana.

    Contrary to popular belief, pious Rastas do not smoke marijuana recreationally, and some (the canonical Ethiopian Orthodox and also the followers of certain classical Elders) do not use it at all. Most Rastafarian teachers, however, have advocated the controlled ritual smoking of "wisdomweed" both privately as an aid to meditation and communally from "chalice" pipes as an "incense pleasing to the Lord". The argument is that ganja is the "green herb" of the King James Bible and that its use is a kind of shortcut version of traditional ascetical practice. The Ethiopian Church, of course, strongly discourages this: Orthodox monks have learned over centuries of experience that such shortcuts are at best dangerous and at worst soul-destroying. The issue, however, has been much sensationalized by the press, in keeping with the racist stereotyping of Rastas as stoned criminals.

    I believe that the Rastafarians have been greatly underestimated by the outside world, including, to some extent, many elements in the Orthodox community. The classical Rastas were sophisticated theological and philosophical thinkers, not cargo-cultists worshiping newspaper photos of an African despot. They had discovered many sophisticated theological concepts for themselves, and had retraced many of the Christological and other debates of the early Church. They brought a truly rich cultural and artistic legacy, including some of the twentieth century's most moving hymnography.

    While Abuna Yesehaq, at least, certainly seems to recognize this, in practise Rastas often seem to be told by the church that they must become Ethiopians in order to become Orthodox. Many are willing to do this, so great is their thirst for Truth and so acute their sense of having lost their true African culture. More, however, are not--and in a way rightly so. The Church is the poorer to the extent it does not incorporate what is good about the Rasta experience and instead tiresomely emphasizes the "heresy of emperor-worship" and "herbal sorcery". What is forgotten is that the existence of the Rastafari movement is a miracle: a forgotten people and a lost culture bringing itself by "reasonings" to the very edge of Orthodoxy. Surely this is a supernatural event, and so the Orthodox Rastas see it. An anonymous nyabingi chant goes:

    Michael going to bring them, bring them to the Orthodox Church.
    No matter what they do, no matter what they say.
    Gabriel going to bring them, bring them to the Orthodox Church.
    Raphael going to bring them, Uriel going to bring them,
    Sorial going to bring them, Raguel going to bring them,
    Fanuel going to bring them, bring them to the Orthodox Church.

    I will conclude with a song by Berhane Selassie (Bob Marley), written around the time he was converting to Orthodoxy from the Twelve Tribes and summing up the whole Orthodox Rasta "seen":

    Old pirates, yes, they rob I
    Sold I to the merchant ships,
    Minutes after they took I
    From the bottomless pit.
    But my hand was made strong
    By the hand of the Almighty.
    We followed in this generation, triumphantly.
    Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom?
    Cause all I ever have: redemption songs,
    These songs of freedom.

    This was the last song on the last album Marley released before his death.

    Rastafarian Customs and Worship

    Rastafarians do not have a specific or designated building for worship. However, you will find that they meet weekly whether at the home of a believer or at a community centre.

    Some call these meetings “reasoning sessions”. These sessions include, chanting, prayers, singing and discussions.  Marijuana (often referred to as the holy herb or wisdom weed) is also smoked for an elevated spiritual experience.

    This is usually placed in a Cutchie (chillum pipe) and passed around in a left direction.  The music played at these meetings are called Nyabingi and whenever there is mostly music involved, the meetings are called Nyabingi meetings.

    • Most Rastafarians can often be recognized by the long dreadlocks hair style that they wear.  The view this as spiritual and justify it with the bible verse Leviticus 21:5 (They shall not make baldness upon their head).
    • Whenever there is a newborn into the Rastafarian culture, the child is blessed by elders during a Nyabingi session.
    • You might be accustomed to traditional marriages where there is a wedding ceremony and reception.  This is not the case in the Rastafarian Jamaican culture. A man just takes a woman and call her his “queen” or “empress”.  There is no formal structure and they are considered man and wife as long as they are living together.  In instances where a marriage may take place, it is not considered as religious occasion but more of a social event.
    • Whenever a Rastafarian dies, there is no traditional funeral service as you would normally see for regular persons.  They believe in re-incarnation after death and that life continues perpetually.

    New! Watch Video Of Rastas In The Hills Of Jamaica (below)

    The Rastafari Way Of Life

    Rastafari combine their religious use of cannabis with high moral values that do not conform to societal pressures such as sensual pleasures, oppression, and materialism (also referred to as Babylon). Rastafari acclaims Zion which they believe to be Ethiopia which is the ancestral place where humanity was first born and also the Promised Land and Heaven on Earth.

    Some Rastafari do not ascribe to any denomination or religious sect thus advocating for one to find faith and motivation to live a righteous life within themselves. Other Rastafari such as the Twelve Tribes of Israel, Nyahbhingi, and Bobo Shanti firmly believe in the Mansions of Rastafari while some accommodate some Pan-African and Afrocentric social and political ambitions.

    The African Diaspora, Ethiopianism, and Rastafari

    D iasporas invariably leave a trail of collective memory about other times and places. But while most displaced peoples frame these attachments with the aid of living memory and the continuity of cultural traditions, the memories of those in the African diaspora have been refracted through the prism of history to create new maps of desire and attachment. Historically, black peoples in the New World have traced memories of an African homeland through the trauma of slavery and through ideologies of struggle and resistance.

    Ethiopianism and the Ideology of Nationhood

    Arguably the most poignant of these discursive topographies is that of the Rastafari faith and culture. Like the Garvey Movement and other forms of pan-Africanism before it, the Rastafari fashion their vision of an ancestral homeland through a complex of ideas and symbols known as Ethiopianism, an ideology which has informed African-American concepts of nationhood, independence, and political uplift since the late 16th century. Derived from references in the Holy Bible to black people as 'Ethiopians', this discourse has been used to express the political, cultural, and spiritual aspirations of blacks in the Caribbean and North America for over three centuries. From the last quarter of the 18th century to the present, Ethiopianism has, at various times, provided the basis for a common sense of destiny and identification between African peoples in the North American colonies, the Caribbean, Europe, and the African continent.

    While the present-day Rastafari Movement is undoubtedly the most conspicuous source of contemporary Ethiopianist identifications, the culture of Jah People obscures the wider historical range and scope of Ethiopianist ideas and identifications among African peoples in the Diaspora and on the continent. Names like Phyllis Wheatley, Bishop Richard Allen, Prince Hall, Denmark Vesey, Martin Delany, Casley Hayford, Frederick Douglass, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Albert Thorne, and Marcus Garvey all drew upon the powerful identification of this discourse to spread a message of secular and spiritual liberation of black peoples on the African continent and abroad. More so than any of his predecessors or contemporaries, however, it was Marcus Garvey--a Jamaican of proud Maroon heritage--who championed the cry of "Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad" and encouraged his followers in the biblical view that "every nation must come to rest beneath their own vine and fig tree."

    From the period prior to the American Revolutionary War, slaves in North America equated Ethiopia with the ancient empires that flourished in the upper parts of the Nile Valley and--largely through biblical references and sermons--perceived this territory as central to the salvation of the black race. black converts to Christianity in colonial America cherished references to Ethiopia in the Bible for a number of reasons. These references depicted Blacks in a dignified and human light and held forth the promise of freedom. Such passages also suggested that African peoples had a proud and deep cultural heritage that pre-dated European civilization. The summation of these sentiments was most frequently identified with Psalm 68:31 where it is prophesied that "Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God." During the late 18th century, black churchmen in the North American colonies made extensive use of Ethiopianist discourse in their sermons. Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was among those who identified the cause of African freedom with this prophecy in Psalms. During the Revolutionary War, it is reputed that one black regiment proudly wore the appellation of "Allen's Ethiopians." Phyllis Wheatley, the black poet-laureate of colonial America, also made frequent use of this discourse as did Prince Hall, a black Revolutionary War veteran and founder of the African Masonic Lodge. Commenting upon the successful slave insurrection in Haiti (1792-1800), Hall observed: "Thus doth Ethiopia begin to stretch forth her hand, from the sink of slavery, to freedom and equality." There was, in nearly all expressions of Ethiopianism, a belief in the redemption of the race linked to the coming of a black messiah. Perhaps the first expressed articulation of this idea is seen in The Ethiopian Manifesto published by Robert Alexander Young, a slave preacher in North America in 1829.

    In large part because of the movement of peoples spurred in its aftermath, the American Revolutionary War provided a major impetus for the spread of Ethiopianism from Britain's North American to its Caribbean colonies. As British loyalists departed from North America for places like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados, the churched slaves and former slaves who traveled with them transplanted Ethiopianism to these plantation societies and inaugurated an independent black religious tradition. In Jamaica, George Liele, a former slave and churchman from Savannah, Georgia, founded the first Ethiopian Baptist church in 1783. Liele called his followers "Ethiopian Baptists." Thus began a deep rooted tradition of Ethiopian identification in Jamaica, the birthplace of both Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (founded in 1914) and the Rastafari movement (born in 1930).

    Ethiopianism and its associated ideology of racial uplift also spread to the African continent. By the 1880 and 1890s, "Ethiopianist" churches, an independent black church movement, spread throughout Southern and Central Africa. During the same period, African-American churchmen missionized actively on the continent and, through the efforts of figures like Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Ethiopianism served as an ideology which linked African-American brethren with their African brothers and sisters. During this same period, largely due to the sovereignty of Ethiopia amidst European colonialism on the continent, African Americans fixed greater attention on the ancient Empire of Ethiopia itself, thinking of Ethiopia as a black Zion . In 1896, the defeat of invading Italian forces by Menelik II in the Battle of Adwa served to bolster the mythic status and redemptive symbolism of Ethiopia in the eyes of Africans at home and abroad.

    Ethiopia and Modern Pan-Africanism

    By focusing attention on events on the continent, the Battle of Adwa served as a catalyst for a modern pan-African movement led by men like Casley Hayford of the Gold Coast, Albert Thorne of Barbados, and Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey. Garvey founded the largest mass black movement in history, starting in Jamaica and spreading his message to the rest of the Caribbean, Central and North America. Inspiring blacks through the African world with a vision of racial uplift, Garvey made conspicuous use of 18th century biblical Ethiopianism in his speeches and writings. For Garvey, it was "Every nation to their own vine and fig tree," a theme which continues to resonate in the contemporary Rastafari Movement. Garvey, like other pan-Africanists of his generation, saw the liberation of the African continent from colonialism as inseparable from the uplift of black peoples everywhere. In the 1920s, his movement reached from Harlem to New Orleans, from London to Cape Town, Lagos to Havana, and from Kingston to Panama. During this same decade, Garveyism and its associated rituals of black nationhood became a vibrant and essential element of the Harlem Renaissance.

    Many scholars argue that Ethiopianism peaked during the early 1930s prior to and during the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Certainly the single event in this century which resonated with the multiple cultural, political, and religious dimensions of Ethiopianism was the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen , the then Prince Regent of Ethiopia. In November of 1930, the biblical enthronement of Ras Tafari as His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, became an internationally publicized event which was unique in the African world. The news of a black regent claiming descent through the biblical lineage of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, stirred the imaginations of an entire generation of African Americans and refocused attention upon ancient Ethiopia. The second Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October of 1935 produced an enormous wave of pro-Ethiopianist sentiments among blacks across the African continent as well as in the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. Particularly to blacks in the diaspora the invasion was seen as an attack on the dominant symbol of African pride and cultural sovereignty. In Harlem, thousands of African Americans marched and signed petitions asking the U.S. government to allow them to fight on behalf of the Ethiopian cause. In Trinidad, this crisis in the black world coincided with the emergence of calypso and a fledgling Caribbean music industry. Calypsos which described the crisis from a black perspective were carried by West Indian seamen from port to port throughout the black world. Music--always an integral part of African and African American culture--served to crystallize shared sentiments of racial pride in support of the Ethiopian cause.

    The Rastafari Vision and Culture

    It is in the Rastafari movement, with its origins in Jamaica, that Ethiopianism has been most consistently elaborated for nearly seven decades. The biblical enthronement of Ras Tafari Makonnen in 1930 as His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of King, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was an event widely reported throughout the European and colonial world. It was the ensuing interpretation of the Solomonic symbols by which Ras Tafari took possession of a kingdom with an ancient biblical lineage which transformed Ethiopia into an African Zion for the nascent Rasta movement. The independence of Ethiopia as one of only two sovereign nations on the African continent ensured Selassie's placement at the symbolic center of the African world throughout the colonial and much of the post-colonial period. Indicative of this is the fact that the Organization of African Unity (founded in 1963), is headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To this day, it is the biblical imagery associated with the theocratic kingdom of Ethiopia which fuels a Rastafari vision of nationhood and underlies their deification of Emperor Haile Selassie.

    Today, it is probably fair to say that when most people hear the word "Rastafari" they think of Bob Marley, the "king of reggae." Through his inspirational music, Marley did more to popularize and spread the Rasta message worldwide than any other single individual. But neither Marley or reggae represents the roots of the Rastafari experience. Reggae, as a music of populist black protest and experience which has had a formative experience upon Jamaican nationalism, emerged in Jamaica only during the early 1970s. For at least three decades previous to this, Rastafari in Jamaica were evolving an African-oriented culture based on their spiritual vision of repatriation to the African homeland.

    The "Roots" or Elders of the movement have built upon earlier sources of African cultural pride, identification, and resistance such as those embodied by Jamaica's Maroons --runaway slaves who formed independent communities within the island's interior during the 17th century. Rastafari, in fact, must be seen as a religion and movement shaped by the African Diaspora and an explicit consciousness that black people are African 'exiles" outside their ancestral homeland. As one Rasta Elder stated, "Rastafari is a conception that was born at the moment that Europeans took the first black man out of Africa. They didn't know it then, but they were taking the first Rasta from his homeland."

    From the early 1930s, Rastafari in Jamaica have developed a culture based on an Afrocentric reading of the Bible, on communal values, a strict vegetarian dietary code known as Ital, a distinctive dialect, and a ritual calendar devoted to, among other dates, the celebration of various Ethiopian holy days. Perhaps the most familiar feature of Rastafari culture is the growing and wearing of dreadlocks , uncombed and uncut hair which is allowed to knot and mat into distinctive locks. Rastafari regard the locks as both a sign of their African identity and a religious vow of their separation from the wider society they regard as Babylon . In the island of its birth, Rasta culture has also drawn upon distinctive African-Jamaican folk traditions which includes the development of a drumming style known as Nyabinghi . This term is similarly applied to the island-wide gatherings in which Rastafari brethren and sistren celebrate the important dates on an annual calendar.

    With the advent of reggae, this deeper "roots culture" has spread throughout the Caribbean, to North American and European metropolis such as London, New York, Amsterdam, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., as well as to the African continent itself. This more recent growth and spread of the movement has resulted from a variety of factors. These include the migration of West Indians (e.g., Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Antiguans) to North America and Europe in search of employment, the travel of reggae musicians, and the more recent travel of traditional Rastafari Elders outside Jamaica. At the same time, many African American and West Indian individuals who have become Rastafari outside Jamaica now make "pilgrimages" to Jamaica to attend the island-wide religious ceremonies known as Nyabinghi and to seek out the deeper "roots culture" of the movement. Despite the fact that Rastafari continue to be widely misunderstood and stigmatized outside Jamaica, the movement embraces a non-violent ethic of "peace and love" and pursues a disciplined code of religious principles.

    Since 1992 and the 100th anniversary of Haile Selassie's birth, the Rastafari settlement in Shashamane, Ethiopia (part of a land grant given to the black peoples of the West by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1955) has come to serve as a growing focal point for the movement's identification with Africa.

    Watch the video: What Do Rastafarians Believe?


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