Rastafarianism began in Jamaica in 1930 with the coronation of Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari) in Ethiopia. Many black Jamaicans saw this event as the fulfillment of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy that one day a black king would be crowned in Africa, and that this event would signal the resurgence of the African peoples. All of the earliest proponents of Rastafarianism were familiar with the Pan-Africanist movements in the United States and abroad, and preachers such as Leonard Howell were “concerned over the social conditions in Jamaica, were discussing the possibility of social reform in the island and of repatriation to Africa as an alternative for Black Jamaicans” (Bisnauth 185). The coronation of Haile Selassie provided just such an opportunity for social reform and repatriation.
In the beginning, the belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie led to the complex theology known as Rastafarianism. Basic principles that drove the creation of Rastafarianism were this belief in Haile Selassie’s divinity, the belief that the entire African race shared in his divinity, and that one day there will be a mystic return to the African homeland. This return to the African homeland is a form of cultural recovery that unites the black victims of Diaspora with their spiritual home. However, for all of its emphasis on Africa, Rastafarianism is ultimately a hybridized and radicalized form of Christianity that relies upon a rereading of the Old Testament wherein the displaced Africans are figured as the reincarnation of the Israelites and Ethiopia figures as Israel itself. Patrick Taylor, for example sees Rastafarianism as the ultimate hybrid, “rooted in radical Afro-Christian, Jamaican tradition, Rastas have forged a new religion and culture out of African, European, and even Indian roots” (75). Thus, the Rastafarians were making an attempt at neutralizing the canon of traditional authority through the lens of the Kebra Negast,1 which combines the mystical history and the allegory of the relationship between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and by dismissing traditional rules of Biblical interpretation and translation which have distorted the words of “Jah” (Yahweh) through the work of white men and black traitors, and asserting that Rastafarians, being the reincarnation of Israel, know truth instinctually because of their covenant with God.
Beliefs and Practices
Based upon the radical reinterpretation of the Old Testament, the ideas of Marcus Garvey, the Pan-Africanist movement, and the sociopolitical climate in Jamaica at the time of the coronation of Haile Selassie, the people were ripe for a new form of worship that gave them agency and privilege over the white and the wealthy. Leonard Howell, therefore, established the six basic tenets of Rastafarianism:
§ The rejection of the corrupting principles of the white race
§ The belief in the moral and religious superiority of the black race
§ Commitment to exacting revenge from whites for their wickedness and mistreatment of blacks throughout history
§ The rejection of the government and legal authorities of Jamaica as accomplices of white oppression
§ Preparations for a return to Africa
§ Acknowledgement of Haile Selassie’s position as supreme being and only true ruler of blacks in Africa and across the Diaspora.
These six tenets provide a foundation for the complex rituals and theology of the Rastafarian culture. Rastafarianism is a religion that emphasizes both community and the devotion of the individual. One of the most important communal ceremonies is the “grounation” where men and women participate in a grounding in the spirit” (Bisnauth 192). The men and women wear African robes, eat a meal, and smoke marijuana as a part of these elaborate rituals. The “grounation” emphasizes the importance of a sense of community, of relaxing, and of sharing ideas. At these grounations there are often (sermon-like) speeches and song, which operate on a sort of call-and-answer system similar to those found in black churches. George Simpson2, in his extensive, if outdated and problematic, study of the religions in the Caribbean, cites an example of a song that would often be used to open a meeting:
Man is an Angel and God is Our King
Babel is raging
Man is angel and God is our King.
Kingdoms are falling,
The Negus is leading
We are appealing to every nation
Who are oppressing
The true sons of God.
What God has spoken
The root of King David
Brings Empress Menen.
Be not a traitor,
Love one another
And honor your king. (Simpson 210)
From this example, it is possible to see the emphasis on the spiritual homeland of Africa, freedom from oppression, and the sense of community. After the persecution of Leonard Howell because of the Rastafarian faith, leadership and meetings became decentralized, and so these meetings usually occur at a Rasta House, which is presided over by various Assemblies of Elders.
In contrast to the ceremonial “grounation,” Rastafarians often meet for informal “reasonings,” where the brethren sit in a circle, pass a pipe of marijuana and share in a “lofty discussion.” It is often at these “reasonings” that new ways of reinterpreting scripture and thinking about the faith originate. Furthermore, Rastafarianism is associated with a specific type of communal speech known as “I-talk.” This speech is a unifying element amongst Rastafarians based on the notion that one only comes to know him or herself in relationship to others; “the ‘I-and-I’ stands for the plurality, for ‘we,’ represents the most elementary connection to the deity—Rastafar-I, Selassie-I, the unifying one…I-and-I stands or an understanding that God is in all men and that the bond of Rastafari is the bond of God and man” (Fernandez-Omos, Paravisini-Gerbert 165).
In order to supplement the communal aspects, Rastafarians also take on several personal devotions to God. The dreadlocks, for example, are symbolic of difference and of Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah. Because the religion is often associated with a connection to nature and the land, Rastafarians adhere to a strict dietary code known as ital that bears great similarity to the Old Testament Levitical laws. This diet shuns the ingestion of alcohol and tobacco, as well as the consumption of meat, shellfish, scaleless fish, snails, and predatory and scavenger species of marine lie, all of which are not ital (pure and clean). The emphasis on an ital diet is political and practical as well as devotional. Since medical care in Jamaica was virtually non-existent for lower class citizens, it was assumed that the emphasis on a clean diet would lead to fewer incidences of illness and less reliance on the Obeah man, as well as provide an agriculturally sustainable diet to lower class Jamaicans.
Politics of the Movement
Since Rastafarianism began as a sociopolitical movement as well as a religious one that relied on a return to the African homeland and the divinity of Haile Selassie, it most certainly faced a crisis upon his death in 1975. Rastafarians, however, have overcome this obstacle by imbuing him with a sense of immortality that overcomes physical death and by moving the emigration to Africa to spiritual level with an emphasis on community and cultural recovery. In the beginning, the radicalized form of Rastafarianism gained quite a lot of negative attention, but after an initial middle class backlash, its ideas have been incorporated into other political and nationalist movements because of Rastafarianism’s emphasis on black cultural recovery and community. This mainstream acceptance, however, is problematic for “true” Rastafarians because “as the not so underprivileged and the discontented sons of the privileged joined the movement, they exaggerated and idealized a poverty which they, in fact, did not share” (Bisnauth 190)3.
The appropriation of a movement that began as a resistance to the dominant culture by the dominant culture is of course very problematic for the practitioners of Rastafarianism. Bisnauth sums up this appropriation: “some factors that may bring about this incorporation are the overt sympathy shown to Rastafarians by church men, the acquisition of wealth by some of them made possible by their creative genius, a growing sense of their political power engendered by the fact that politicians recognize and seek to exploit their power of the vote, the leveling of social inequalities which the movement itself engendered and which makes the Rastafarian less unacceptable than he was a decade ago, and the acceptance with which the Rastafarian style of dress and language receives in the larger society” (Bisnauth 191). This appropriation was aided by the popularity of reggae4 artists such as Bob Marley, Junior Byles, Max Romeo and Peter Tosh in the 60s and 70s. As Patrick Taylor has asserted, “Rasta ingenuity helped to awaken first in Jamaicans and then in other peoples of African descent a new sense of themselves as Africans in a struggle for social and political change. At the same time, its universal appeal, popularized by reggae, thrust it into the global arena, attracting people of different races and creeds, including both Jews and Christians” (75). Reggae music spoke to the young people of many countries, including the United States, the new colonialist power, and the use of reggae and the Rastafarian culture has caused some practitioners to become even more radical in their rejection of mainstream society, but “it is often hard to ascertain to what extent these Houses are truly involved in the theology of the movement as opposed to its compelling lifestyle of sustainable approaches to the plot-structure of agriculture, vegetarianism, and relative isolation from the more intrusive aspects of modern media and technology” (Fernandez-Omos, Paravisini-Gerbert 169).
The Rasta House is an open structure that allows for a great deal of democracy because there are no hierarchies of race, age, ability, income, or function, as evidenced by the communal, conversational nature of the “reasonings,” but Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert assert that though Rasta women are referred to as “queens,” there is a hierarchy of gender, as women have little to no role in rituals and must keep their dreadlocks covered, a patriarchy that is based upon the oldest Jewish traditions. Many female scholars resist identification with Rastafarianism because of the postcolonial theory that surrounds the “double colonization” of women who are colonized both by the white oppressor and by the men of their own race, but other critics such as Loretta Collins argue that great advancements have been made by Rasta queens through artists such as Sister Carol, and that no critical study really seeks to understand the complex sexual and gender politics of the Rastafarian movement. She looks to artistic works, especially reggae, for evidence of shifts in Rastafarian attitudes towards women, and she points out that the problem with western feminist scholarship is that it hegemonizes the Rastafarian movement, and that female scholars must endeavor “to document the multiplicity of ways in which women in particular local secular and religious segments mediate material resources, conceptualize their experiences, and create alliances to exert control over the contingencies of everyday life and counteract objectionable local actions or national systemic/institutional policies,” arguing that though they are often victims of social and religions mores, they are also social catalysts (231). She ultimately argues that western viewpoint that looks at the Rastawoman neglects the positive social aspects of the movement for women, concluding that “Rastafarian women in Jamaica, North America, Britain, and Canada, and elsewhere, ‘make history,’ banning together to form sisterhoods for social change and self-help,” calling for a significant postcolonial/feminist revision of postcolonial scholarship on women in the Rastafarian movement. It is at the juncture of gender and Rastafarianism that critics must resist the urge to hegemonize the diverse, hybrid nature of the movement and instead explore its rich sociopolitical implications in the historical context of Jamaican and African diasporic history.
1 For a very informative discussion of the history, plot, and politics of the Kebra Negast, see Patrick Taylor’s “Sheba’s Song: The Bible, The Kebra Negast, and the Rastafari” in Nation Dance: Religion, Identity, and Cultural Difference in the Caribbean.
2 George Simpson’s study of Rastafarianism claims to transcribe the events of the meetings with almost word-for-word accuracy, but since he was not allowed to bring a recorder into any of the meetings, this may shed doubt on the reliability of his account. However, his book is useful in demonstrating the kinds of speeches and songs that transpire at meetings of Rastafarians.
4 Anderson, Rick. “Reggae Music: A History and Selective Discography (Sound Recording Reviews). Notes 61.1. September 2004: 206-215.
Bisnauth, D.A. History of Religions in the Caribbean. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc. 1996.
Collins, Loretta. “Daughters of Jah: The Impact of Rastafarian Womanhood in the Caribbean, the United States,
Britain, and Canada.” Religion, Culture, and Tradition in the Caribbean. Eds. Hemchand Gossi and Nathaniel
Samuel Murrell. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2000. 227-255.
Fernandez-Omos, Margarite and Lizbeth Paravisini-Gerbert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from
Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press. 2003.
Simpson, George E. Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti. Puerto Rico: Institute of Caribbean
Studies. 1970 (1965).
Taylor, Patrick. “Sheba’s Song: The Bible, the Kebra Negast, and the Rastafari.” Nation Dance: Religion, Identity, and
Cultural Difference in the Caribbean. Ed. Patrick Taylor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2001. 65-78.