Rastafari is a relatively recent and evolving religion, culture, and movement that has many descriptors. It is a religion and philosophy imbued with social, political, and cultural elements that emerged from the Afro-Caribbean religion and colonization of the Americas. A core idea within the Rastafari is concerned with rediscovering the personal and racial identity of black people. The movement is a nonviolent protest against white suppression and social injustices and inequalities that are pervasive today.
Building to Rastafarianism
The beginnings of Rastafarianism can be dated back to the 1800s. Christian Revivalism was expanding across the globe during the expansion of the West, but the increasing number of missionaries arriving in Jamaica drew in many Jamaicans to join churches. Within these communities, many former slaves came together and expressed a desire to maintain their African heritage.
Thousands of miles away, the Ethiopian movement took place, where Africans who were part of the Anglican and Methodist churches broke away to form their church. This was because many Africans were upset that the British colonizers were slowly erasing traditional African heritage and culture. The ideas exchanged and developed within the Ethiopian movement led to many political, cultural, and spiritual aspects that influenced Rastafarianism in the Caribbean and North America. As these ideas took root, they would impact Marcus Garvey, which influenced Rastafarian ideology and prophesied Haile Selassie’s rise to power.
Marcus Garvey was a native Jamaican who advocated for black self-empowerment and whose ideologies significantly influenced Rastafari. During the late 1800s, civil rights for African Americans and black people in U.S. colonies was a contentious argument. While civil rights activists like W.E.B. Du Bois supported racial integration, Marcus Garvey supported the idea of black pride and global racial separatism.
Garvey stressed Black pride and self-improvement like his contemporaries and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 11914. He aimed to give Black people strength and wanted to address socioeconomic inequalities that were happening in the Americas. Garvey believed white society would never accept Black people as equals and supported Blacks to separate their self-development within the U.S.. He argued that all Black people should return to their homeland in Africa as free people. While he was not a Rastafarian himself, he is attributed to predicting the 1930s coronation of Haile Selassie, with the prophecy of “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.”
Haile Selassie and Rastafarianism
Haile Selassie’s birth name was Ras Tafari, and he is believed to be the redeeming messiah described in the Book of Revelation: “King of Kings, Lord of lords.” Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, succeeding Empress Zauitu and fulfilling Marcus Garvey’s prophecy, starting Rastafarianism in Jamaica. The Rastafarians believed that Haile Selassie would lead them to be relocated from the impoverished Caribbean lives for a better life in Africa.
Post-World War II Rastafarianism (1950s-1960s)
World War II helped develop sympathy towards the Rastafarian cause. In 1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia, resulting in the exile of Haile Selassie. This invasion was condemned by several international groups and led to sympathy towards Ethiopia and their emperor. In 1941, the British drove the Italians out of Ethiopia, and Selassie returned to reclaim his throne.
In Jamaica, the lower class was now in conflict with Jamaican authorities. This tension is encompassed in the word Babylon, which describes the historically white-European colonialism and imperialism power structure that has oppressed Blacks and people of color. Relationships between the Rastas and police were strained, as Rastas were often being arrested for cannabis possession. During the 1950s to the 1960s, the Rastafarian movement proliferated across the Caribbean Islands, the US, and the UK.
1970s Rastafarianism and Beyond
While Rastafarianism was growing globally, in the 70s, it was a movement that engulfed Jamaica. Rastafarian spiritual practices include elements of music such as drumming, which made their way into popular culture with Reggae exploding in international popularity. One of the most successful reggae artists was Bob Markley, who introduced Rastafarian themes and concepts to a universal audience. His music spoke to many people, emphasizing themes of oppression, redemption, and love.
However, Rastafarianism began a slow decline from its height in the mid-1970s. The death of Haile Selassie in 1975 forced Rastafarian followers to deal with the contradiction that their living deity passed away. Further, Bob Marley passed from cancer in 1981, dampening the enthusiasm for Rastafarianism. Despite these losses, Rastafarianism culture, traditions, and practices continue to exist and still have a global community.
Rastafarians aim to live a balanced lifestyle, which includes several integrated practices with their roots in Christianity. One practice that stems from its religion is the ital, a diet that excludes salt, meats, fish, and processed foods. The Rasta believe that it is wrong to eat animals and shellfish, although some will eat fish.
Dreadlocks are another part of the Rastafarian lifestyle. Based on the interpretation of some biblical texts, some Rastas do not believe it is right to shave or comb their hair. The “dread” resembles the mane of a lion and carries religious meaning, symbolizing the life force of blood, herbs, royalty, and Africanness.
Reggae grew out of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica. Bob Marley took the music to the international stage and provided a medium to spread Rastafarian ideas towards the general population. Additionally, Reggae has been a way to spread political and social ideologies, spreading black pride and anti-slavery/anti-colonial sentiments.
Rastafarian religion is deeply rooted in Christianity, where the Bible is considered the holy book. However, when considering the unique religious aspects of Rastafarianism, it is less dogmatic: personal experience and intuition are used to determine the truth or validity of a belief or practice. Additionally, the Rastafarians see Haile Selassie as a divine figure and messiah, although questioned since his death in the mid-70s. Religious rituals include prayer services that call for smoking ganja. This practice aims to achieve better meditation and to seek a connection with Jah, the single God that partially resides in each individual.