Rastafarianism

 

Keywords: Rastafarianism, Rasta, Rastafari, Ethiopianism, Africanists, Jamaica, Selassie, dreadlocks

 

I.                   Abstract

In the early 1930’s religious and social movement called Rastafarianism evolved in Jamaica.  Rastas sought to provide a voice for the poor Blacks in Jamaica by encouraging resistance to oppressive societal structures.  At the core of their belief is the re-interpretation of the Hebrew Bible with a focus on Blacks as God’s chosen race, and the belief that the true Messiah comes to us as Emperor Haile Selassie I  (Ras Tafari) of Ethiopia.   Through extensive spoken discourse, the Rastafarians aim to clarify the Western misinterpretation of the Bible, so as to spread the true word and fight against the unjust hierarchy of Western culture (collectively called Babylon).  In the meantime, Rastafarians await a time of repatriation of Blacks and a return to Ethiopia, qua Africa, of its rightful ruling status.

 

 

II.                Scope and Purpose of the System

Rastafarianism is an afro-centric religious and social movement based in the Caribbean island of Jamaica.  Stemming from the roots of Rastafari in rising against the post-colonial oppression of poor blacks, Rastas typically come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Especially difficult economic hardships in Jamaica saw a distinctive rise in the movement’s following. At the time of Jamaica’s independence in the 1960’s, virtually all Rastafarians were members of the 79 percent of the population classified as lower class (Waters, 50).  In the past few decades, however, especially through the influence of Reggae music, the movement has gained a more international and cosmopolitan following.   

Although a largely unorganized group, the Rastafarians unite on a few central beliefs: a strong belief in the beauty of black people’s African heritage; the belief that Ras Tafari Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia, is the Biblical Messiah; belief in repatriation to Ethiopia, the true home and redemption of black people; and belief in the eventual fall of “Babylon”, the corrupt world of the white man, and a reversal in the slavery-based societal hierarchy (Murrell, 5).  The Rastas believe that the Bible is the history of the African race, taken by Europeans at the time of enslavement and deliberately mistranslated in an effort to deceive the slaves (Waters, 47).  The system encourages black people to free their minds from the shackles of the existing social hierarchy, and take their place as the true leaders that God (Jah) intended them to be. 

Many symbols of the Rastafarian arise from their interpretation of the Bible and the ideal of Ethiopia as “Zion”, the Promised Land.  The most noticeable are the long, uncombed locks by which they are readily identified (Waters, 48).  This tradition stems from: the laws of the Nazarites that forbid cutting hair[1]; the style of Ethiopian tribal warriors and priests; and as a symbol of the lion’s mane. These locks also serve as a mystical link or “psychic antenna”, connecting Rastas with God and his mystical power, or “earthforce“, which is immanent in the universe (Murrell, 32).   Other symbols are those of Ethiopia, including the national colors (red, green and gold) as well as the lion that appears on the country’s flag.  The ritual smoking of marijuana (ganja) also plays an important role in Rastafarian life.  This “holy herb” is highly valued for its physical, psychological and therapeutic powers (Murrell, 354).  Language also forms an important Rasta symbol.  Although Rastas often speak Jamaican dialect, called “patois”, they have developed a subdialect to take a further step away from Standard English (Chevannes,167).  Many of these patterns of speech carry moral or social implications related to the Rasta world-view.  For example, the Rasta uses “outernationtional” instead of “international” to emphasize their feelings that the rest of the world lies outside their realm. 

 

 

 

III.             Authority Structure

 

a.      Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge

The Bible serves as the official source of knowledge in the Rastafarian movement.  Rastas take Biblical study very seriously and spend much time citing and discussing scriptural passages (Murrell, 326).  They believe these scriptures tell the true story of the black man’s history, present and future, and feel that Christian ministers have misled people by providing incorrect interpretations of the Bible, especially in the use of the Bible to justify slavery (Chevannes, 116).  Rastas have moved beyond the identification of Blacks in biblical text, and go on transform themselves into the very Israelites in the Bible (Murrell, 353).

Further proof of this interpretation of the Bible came with the crowning of Haile Selassie as Emperor Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity) I, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings, of Ethiopia.  To the Rastafarians, this was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Murrell, 159).  The true Messiah was not Jesus of Nazareth, but Emperor Selassie, the descendant of King Solomon, and thus a living man of the house of David – exactly as the Old Testament foretold (Waters, 2).  On the other hand, many see Selassie as the second coming of the Messiah. Some have even claimed to see indentations in his hands as a sign of his crucifixion. 

Aside from the Bible, Rastafarians have published other “official documents”. These include works such as The Promised Key, The Living Testament of Rasta-for-I and The Holy Piby (Murrell, 391).  One must still realize that even though forms of their theological thought have surfaced in the literature, the Rastas’ theological ideas have not been formalized.  Scholars tend to agree that no central doctrine, formal or informal, exists.  This comes to us as no surprise, as the Rastafarian advocates liberation from the oppression of organized systems.  Instead, persons should engage in “appropriate reflection and interpretation of their experience, and arrive at personal conviction and conclusions of their belief” (Murrell, 391). 

b.      Methods of Inquiry

The Rasta views the Bible in search of materials that favor the hermeneutics of Blackness.  Most have no formal training in theology or knowledge of the original languages of the Bible.  In reality, some Rastas are barely literate. Yet, their creativity sheds new light upon the stories and personalities represented in the Bible. 

Key to understanding Rastafarian theology is their interpretation of “Babylon” and “Zion”.  In the Bible, the ancient city of Babylon represents the main oppressor of the people of God, whereas Zion is the Promised Land they will inhabit after their release from oppression.    Rastafarians have extended the idea of Babylon from a literal place to an entire system of oppression and domination.  They believe that the spirit of Babylon survives as an oppressive force in modern-day political and economic systems and institutions in the West generally, particularly in Jamaica (Murrell, 25).  Zion, on the other hand, represents freedom from the Babylonian System.  To the Rasta, Ethiopia is the Promised Land to which they will return someday.  When Babylon crumbles, the existing system will be reversed, and Ethiopia will take her rightful place as the ruling state.

 The primary methods of inquiry in Rastafarian thought are called “grounding” and “reasoning”.  Grounding refers to an event (a “grounation”) where Rastas come together to smoke marijuana and “reason”, that is, reflect on their faith, or on any current or historic event that impinges on their lives (Murrell, 355).  These sessions may be informal gatherings, or planned meetings at specific locations.  Somewhat more formal all-night gatherings sometimes take place, where in addition to ritual smoking and reasoning, drumming, chanting and feastings also mark the event (Murrell, 355). Grounding also takes place at the “Nyahbinghi”, a periodically held movement-wide assembly.  The activities of Nyahbinghi serve to unleash the “earthforce” against those who have historically oppressed African people (Murrell, 356)  

The modes of language evolved by the Rastafarians play an especially important part in the reasoning process.  The most important is the use of “I”, the personal pronoun, in Rasta language, which often defies logic and confuses the outsider.”  “I” is the same to the Rasta as the Roman numeral I (signifying the first), which appears in the name of His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M) Haile Selassie I.  They believe that each Rasta is a part of God (called “I”), and hence substitute “I” for “me” and “mine”, signifying that the Rasta is a part of God and hence another “I” (Chevannes, 167).  Everyone is an “I”, so they substitute “I and I” for “we”.  “I” also transforms other words such as “Iternal” (eternal), “Ireator” (creator) and “Issembly” (assembly).    The Rastas have also made many other colorful transformations which express their views of society. “Oppression” becomes “downpression” to signify the direction of the struggle.  On the other hand, one “overstands” instead of “understands” since one gains knowledge.  Language can also be used to express dislike for certain persons or institutions.  “Politics”, one of the main components of Babylon, is called “polytricks”, while political leader Edward Seaga, who they view as having lack of foresight, has earned the name “Blind’aga” instead.  Formal discourses of Rastafarian reasoning are rare, but can be found in a form of spoken word expression called “dub poetry” as well as in reggae music. 

 

 

 

c.       Institutions and Professional Structure

One of the key ideals of the Rastafarian system of though is the lack of a formalized structure or hierarchy.  As previously outlined, organized systems belong to Babylon, and therefore should be shunned.   No formal leadership hierarchy or orthodoxy structures exist in this non-homogenous movement.  Many researchers see this as a positive characteristic of the movement, allowing the individual Rasta groups to enjoy a kind of freedom not often encouraged in many organized religious and secular movements (Murrell, 349). 

Even though formal organization fails to exist among Rastas as a whole, there are still distinct social structures within the movement.  Firstly, we have the “own-built” Rastas who share the foundational beliefs and attitudes of the movement, but do not belong to any particular group or organization.  They focus on the individual “I” level of consciousness and seek unity with Jah’s “earthforce”.  This individual spirituality is the main emphasis of Rastafarian thought, as a personal relationship with God provides an understanding of the source of truth and life (Murrell, 352). 

“Houses” and “yards” represent a more communal level of social organization among the Rastas.  These are small, informal groups of Rastas whose members sustain an ongoing relationship (Murrell, 350).  Houses often emerge where Rastas attach themselves to a  “leading brethren” and gather to engage in “grounding” and “reasoning”.  These leading brethren are often seen as elders, not in a formal sense, but more as an inspirational leader.  Rather than being attained through election, the position is conferred upon one who has an uncompromising commitment to and defense of the principles of Rastafari (willing to suffer persecution).  This individual often possesses an extraordinary ability to expound the philosophy of Rastafarianism, called “speechifying”. 

More formal groups, called “mansions” usually appear as communes led by charismatic leaders or voluntary organizations dedicated to the accomplishment of particular goals (Murrell, 351).  Whereas ten to fifteen Rastas may comprise a house, mansions often have hundreds of members.  These more formal groups fall into two categories “churchical” and “statical”.  Churchical groups focus on the development of Rastafarian culture and behavior, as well as the cultivation of African consciousness and lifestyle (Murrell, 351).  Statical groups focus their interests on a commitment to social and political goals.  Through these groups, the Rasta paved the way of social and political progress by giving a strong voice to the poor blacks in Jamaica.

 

 

IV.              History

The Rastafarian movement is indigenous to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Rastafarianism spawned from a combination of various forms of Africanist thought which prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Its roots are to be found in the cultural, economic and political struggles of the Jamaican people in the post-emancipation years after 1838 (Murrell, 148).   The inspiration leading to the genesis of the movement in the 1930’s can be described as Messianic or millenarian in nature (Bisnauth, 185).  This turning point was the crowning of Ras Tafari, the great-grandson of King Sahela Selassie of Shoa and son of Ras Makonnen, as Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethopia (then known as Abyssnia) on November 2, 1930 (Campbell, 70).  Selassie would be the first black African leader to join the international community of Kings and Princes.  This event would provide the catalyst for the formation of the Rastafarian movement, which had been brewing since the beginnings of African idealism in Jamaica.

The beginnings of the Rastafarian movement can be traced back to the teachings of Leonard P. Howell.  Howell had just returned to Jamaica after being deported from Panama for grand larceny in 1932. He came to prominence when he formed the Ethiopian Salvation Society, proclaiming the message that “black people could not have two kings and that the only true king was Emperor Haile Selassie” (Campbell, 71). His word quickly spread, as people embraced the strong anti-colonial message.  These developments worried colonial authorities, leading to the eventual imprisonment of Howell and his Deputy, Robert Hinds in 1939.  Other exponents of early Rastafarianism include Joseph Hibbert and Archibald Dunkley, both returning migrants.  These three have the common bond of exposure to the system of Afro-American thought which focused on a eventual rise Africa (through Ethiopia) as world leader. 

Essential in the discussion of Africanist movements is the powerful influence of Marcus Garvey and his “Back to Africa” movement during the early 1900’s.  Garvey, a committed Afrocentrist, underscored the need for Blacks to interpret their own history and control their destiny in Africa.  He embraced the idea that Ethiopia was the “cradle of the black race and that its contributions to the development of civilization were paramount to the realization of racial equality for the black diaspora” (Murrell, 42).  Garvey’s thoughts played a significant role in the evolution of the Rastafarian movement.  Rastafarians allege that Garvey predicted that “whenever a Black king in Africa, our redemption is near” (Murrell, 44). 

With the belief in Garvey’s “prophesies”, the teachings of those such as Howell, Hibbert and Dunkley, as well as social and political movements against colonialism, many were convinced that Selassie was truly the Messiah.  Additionally, evidence from the interpretation of Biblical passages, especially with reference to Ethiopia, provided the Rastafarians with a solid foundation to support their faith. Eventually, Rastafarians were not only linking themselves to Ethiopia, but also called themselves Nya men – linking themselves to the anti-colonial Ugandan movement, Nyabingi, which called for “Death to Black and White Oppressors” (Campbell, 72).      

 

 

 

V.                 Representative Examples of Argumentation

As previous stated, there are few recorded examples of the Rastafarian insight into the nature of the world.  Musical lyrics and spoken-word (dub poetry) provide us with the most common recordings of Rastafarian “reasoning”.  In an attempt to illustrate the way a Rasta views society, I will use a sample of the work of the greatest dub-poet of all time, Mutabaruka.  His work is written in a combination of Jamaican English dialect with the use of Rasta sub-dialect commonly found in “speakifying” (extended reasoning).  The following excerpt from piece entitled “Nursery Rhyme Lament” also shows the creativity associated Rastafarian thought (web, Mutabaruka Online).  I have provided a translation following each verse for clarity.

 

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fus time

jack an' jill

use fi run up de hill everyday

now dem get pipe

wata rate increase

 

[in the old days

Jack and Jill

Would run up the hill everyday

Now they have running water

But the water bill has gone up]

 

 

everday dem woulda reincarnate humpty dumpty

fi fall of de wall

likkle bway blue

who love to blow im horn to de sheep in the meddow

likkle bway blue grow up now

an de sheep dem get curried

ina likkle cold suppa shap dang de street

 

[everyday they would reincarnate humpty dumpty

to fall off the wall

Little Boy Blue

Loved to play his horn for the sheep in the meadow

Little Boy Blue had grow up

And they made a curry (stew) with the sheep

In the diner down the street]

Here, Mutabaruka plays with social conventions using nursery rhymes. His tone is sarcastic and harsh (best brought out as one would hear him speak). He wants to show that the nursery rhymes we teach our children have nothing to do with the realities of the system (Babylon), and that we need to face the truth. His writing style also leaves an open end for the listener’s personal introspection, possibly suggesting a starting point for “grounding” and “reasoning” session. 

 

 

VI.              Suggested Position in Comparative Scales

 

 

a.      Tradition (1) ---. experience (10): 8

 

Whereas tradition plays a major role in passing down of the central teaching of Rastafarianism, the focus on the personal experience of the individual is more important. Once the follower has the basic tools (ideas) to work with, the person must have establish personalized link with Jah as a means to see the truth in the world

 

           

b.      Centralized authority (1) ---  decentralized authority (10): 9

 

The lack of emphasis on a centralized authority is one of the distinguishing marks of the Rastafarian movement.  Centralized authority is viewed a part of the Babylon system, and therefore should be avoided.

 

c.       Emphasis on the invisible realm (1) ---. visible realities (10): 7

 

The system does talk about the invisible “earth-force” associated with God and the importance of connecting with this invisible force.  However, unlike the Christian tradition, the focus lies not in reaching a heavenly home, but returning to Zion (Ethiopia) the Promised Land.

 

 

d.      Spiritual/moral goal (1) --- pragmatic objectives (10): 5

 

Rastafarianism has its spiritual and moral goals intimately tied up in pragmatic objectives.  While aiming to reveal the eternal truths regarding how one should achieve healthy spiritual life, they also aim to bring about the advancement of black people through an appreciation of their African heritage.  While being seemingly separate goals, the Rastafarian lifestyle (called “livity”) intends to bring about both.

 

e.      Primarily divine power (1) --- individual power (10): 5

 

The Rastafarian believes in the ultimate power of Jah (“I”) in the universe.  Everything comes about through the hand of God.  However, one must still bear in mind that the concept of “I” ties each individual back to God.  God is “I”, and everyone is a part of God – therefore, everyone is “I” also.  

 

 

Annotated Bibliography

 

Primary Sources

 

“Mutabaruka Lyrics Page.” Dub Poetry. Mutabaruka Online. 28 Jan. 2003. http://www.mutabaruka.com/lyrics.htm

Mutabaruka is world renowned for his creativity in social commentary.  This site is useful for getting an inside look into Rastafarian.  One can also find more useful and interesting audio clips of his “extended reasonings” from the homepage to the above link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secondary Sources

 

Bisnauth, Dale.  History of Religions in the Caribbean.  Trenton: Africa World Press, 1996.

This text is useful for finding a concise explanation of the history of the Rastafarian movement.  It is also helpful for comparing the origins of Rasta to other religious movements in the Caribbean.

 

Campbell, Horace. Rasta and resistance : from Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1987

Here, one can find details on the more social aspects of Rasta culture.  This text focuses on the social reform aspect of the Rastafarian movement.

 

Chevannes Barry. Rastafari: roots and ideology. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

This text contains a basic overview of Rastafarian ideas and thought.  It is well written and easily understood.

 

Murrell, Samuel Nathaniel, William David Spencer, Adrian Anthony McFarlane and Clinton Chisholm, eds.  Chanting down Babylon: the Rastafari reader.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

This text provides the most comprehensive coverage of the Rastafarian movement.  It is a compilation of articles written by several different people concerning the major issues in the Rasta movement.  This text proved the most helpful to me.

 

Waters, Anita M. Race, class, and political symbols: Rastafari and reggae in Jamaican politics.  New Brunswick: Transaction Books, c1985.

This text covers the mostly the political impact of the Rasta movement in Jamaica.  It is especially useful for uncovering the afro-centric ideals of the Rastafari.



[1] “All the days of the vow of his separation there shall not come razor upon his head” Numbers 6:5 KJV