The Spirituality and Way of Life Founded in Jamaica: Rastafarianism

Rastafarianism, a spiritual movement that emerged from Jamaica in the early 20th century, is rooted in the proliferation of Ethiopianism and Pan-Africanism. Its rise can be traced to the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930, which was seen by its adherents as the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Marcus Garvey, a key figure in the Pan-African movement. This movement, marked by the belief in Selassie’s divinity, found its early foundation through the efforts of preachers like Leonard Howell, who established the first prominent Rastafarian community in 1940. As the movement grew, it gained global attention through the music of devoted Rastafarian Bob Marley. Despite the deaths of Selassie in 1975 and Marley in 1981, Rastafarianism endures, maintaining a presence in the United States, England, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The Roots of Rastafarianism

The origins of Rastafarianism are deeply intertwined with the historical and cultural landscape of Jamaica, a nation profoundly affected by the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. The 18th century saw the rise of Ethiopianism among black slaves in the Americas, a movement that idealized Africa and offered hope through Biblical passages such as Psalm 68:31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” This ethos was further strengthened by the Pan-African movement of the late 19th century and the teachings of Marcus Garvey. Garvey, a Jamaican-born activist, famously proclaimed, “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer,” a statement that became a cornerstone of Rastafarian belief.

The 1920s also brought influential proto-Rastafarian texts such as “The Holy Piby” and “The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy” to Jamaica, further shaping the spiritual and ideological foundations of the movement.

Haile Selassie

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. For many Jamaicans, this event fulfilled Garvey’s prophecy. Preachers in Jamaica began to promote Selassie’s ruling authority 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.

Early Rastafarian preachers, such as Robert Hinds, Joseph Hibbert, and Archibald Dunkley, gained prominence during this period. However, Leonard Howell, a former member of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, emerged as a pivotal figure. Howell returned to Jamaica in 1932 after extensive travels and outlined the nascent movement’s principles in his publication “The Promise Key” circa 1935. Despite facing persecution and multiple arrests by the Jamaican government, Howell founded the Ethiopian Salvation Society (ESS) in 1939 and established a Rasta commune known as Pinnacle in 1940. Pinnacle became an autonomous community for thousands, cultivating marijuana for both spiritual and economic purposes. However, this reliance on the illegal crop led to repeated raids by authorities, culminating in a significant crackdown in May 1954 that effectively dismantled the commune.

New Developments and Global Spread

The late 1940s saw the emergence of a more radical version of Rastafarianism known as the Youth Black Faith in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. This group, a precursor to the Nyahbinghi Mansion, adopted an aggressive stance against authorities and introduced practices that became widely associated with Rastafarians, including the wearing of dreadlocks and the development of a unique dialect.

Despite reportedly rejecting the Rastafarian depiction of him as a deity, Emperor Selassie embraced their cause by donating 500 acres for the development of the Ethiopian community of Shashamane in 1948. This land grant, confirmed in 1955, offered Jamaicans and other blacks the opportunity to fulfill their hope of returning to Africa.

Additional branches of Rastafarianism gained followers over the next two decades. In 1958, Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards created the Ethiopian International Congress (Bobo Ashanti), which emphasized separation from society and strict gender and dietary laws. In 1968, Vernon Carrington, also known as the Prophet Gad, founded the Twelve Tribes of Israel, advocating for daily Bible reading and emphasizing the group’s lineage.

Acceptance in Jamaica

Jamaica’s formal independence from England in 1962 marked a new chapter in its history, but negative attitudes and governmental oppression of Rastafari persisted. The most notorious incident occurred in April 1963, known as “Bad Friday,” 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 to Jamaica in April 1966 helped improve perceptions among non-believers, although incidents such as the Rastafarian involvement in the 1968 riots over a ban on professor and activist Walter Rodney highlighted ongoing tensions. By the early 1970s, the movement had become entrenched among Jamaican youth, underscored by the successful 1972 presidential campaign of People’s National Party leader Michael Manley, who used Rastafarian symbolism and language in his rallies.

Music, Bob Marley, and Globalization

The global spread of Rastafarianism was significantly aided by the influence of its adherents on popular music. Count Ossie, who began drumming at Nyahbinghi spiritual sessions, helped develop the ska music style. However, Bob Marley, a convert to Rastafari and founder of reggae music, became the movement’s most important ambassador. Marley’s music, infused with themes of brotherhood, oppression, and redemption, achieved widespread acclaim in the 1970s. His tours brought Rastafarianism to audiences in Europe, Africa, and the U.S., making him a global icon for the movement.

Modern Rastafarianism

The deaths of Emperor Selassie in 1975 and Bob Marley in 1981 marked significant turning points for Rastafarianism. The passing of Selassie, regarded as a living deity by many followers, forced the movement to confront theological contradictions. Marley’s death from cancer in 1981 deprived Rastafarianism of its most influential cultural ambassador.

Despite these losses, Rastafarianism continued to evolve. The 1980s and 1990s saw attempts to introduce unifying elements through international conferences. New divisions, such as African Unity, Covenant Rastafari, and the Selassian Church, emerged around the turn of the millennium. By 2012, it was estimated that there were approximately one million Rastafarians worldwide, with communities in the U.S., England, Africa, Asia, and Jamaica. The Jamaican government has made efforts to reconcile with Rastafarians, including the decriminalization of marijuana in 2015 and a formal apology in 2017 for past persecutions.

Beliefs and Practices

Rastafarians believe in the divinity of Haile Selassie, whom they refer to as Jah, a term derived from the biblical Yahweh or Jehovah. They believe that Jah is manifested in figures like Moses, Jesus, and Selassie and that God can be found within all people. This belief is encapsulated in the phrase “I and I,” signifying the unity of Jah and humanity.

Rastafarians view themselves as the reincarnation of the biblical Israelites, with Jamaica representing Babylon, a land of oppression. They believe in a future return to the promised land of Zion, which many identify as Ethiopia or Africa in general. Their spiritual practices include “reasoning” sessions, where followers gather to chant, sing, and pray, and the use of marijuana (ganja) in rituals, which they believe brings them closer to Jah.

The distinctive dreadlock hairstyle, rooted in ancient African traditions, is also significant to Rastafarians. They believe it is sanctified by the Bible, particularly in the story of Samson, a Nazarite with superhuman strength whose hair was never cut. The Ital diet, another important aspect of Rastafarianism, emphasizes natural, pure foods and often excludes meat and dairy.

Rastafarianism in Popular Culture

Rastafarianism has had a profound influence on global culture, particularly through music. Bob Marley’s songs, infused with Rasta philosophy, have resonated with people worldwide, promoting messages of black liberation, unity with Africa, and love. Other musicians, such as Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and more recently, African artists like Rocky Dawuni and Tiken Jah Fakoly, have continued to spread Rastafarian messages through their music.

In literature and media, figures like Benjamin Zephaniah have used their platforms to advocate for Rastafarian beliefs and address social issues. Zephaniah’s poetry and public statements reflect his commitment to Rastafarian principles, making him a prominent voice for the movement in the UK.

Prominent Days in the Rastafarian Calendar

Rastafarians observe several significant dates, including:

  • 7 January: Ethiopian Christmas, in line with the Orthodox Church celebration.
  • 21 April: Grounation Day, marking Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966.
  • 16 July: Ethiopian Constitution Day, commemorating Haile Selassie’s proclamation of Ethiopia’s first modern constitution.
  • 23 July: Haile Selassie’s birthday.
  • 17 August: Marcus Garvey’s birthday.
  • 11 September: Ethiopian New Year’s Day.
  • 2 November: The coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930.

Rastafarianism, originating in Jamaica, has grown into a significant spiritual and cultural movement. Its foundation on African heritage and resistance to oppression has resonated globally. With its distinctive practices and profound influence on music and culture, Rastafarianism continues to inspire and guide followers worldwide, promoting ideals of unity, love, and a return to African roots.

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