A religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I,
as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Lion of Judah as Jahy.
A religious movement that emerged in Jamaica in the early 1930s,
arising from an interpretation of Biblical prophecy.
Rasta, or the Rastafari movement, is a religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia, as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Lion of Judah as Jah (the Rastafari name for God, from a shortened form of Jehovah found in Psalm 68:4 in the King James Version of the Bible), and part of the Holy Trinity. The name Rastafari comes from Ras Täfäri, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I. The movement emerged in Jamaica among working class and peasant black people in the early 1930s, arising from an interpretation of Biblical prophecy, black social and political aspirations, and the teachings of their prophet, Jamaican black publicist and organizer Marcus Garvey, whose political and cultural vision helped inspire a new world view. The movement is sometimes called ” “; however, this is considered improper and offensive by Rastas.
The Rastafari movement has spread throughout much of the world, largely through immigration and interest generated by Nyahbinghi and reggae music—most notably, that of Bob Marley, who was baptized Berhane Selassie (Light of the Trinity) by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church before his death, a step also taken later by his widow Rita. By 2000, there were more than one million Rastafari worldwide. About five to ten percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafari. Most Rastafarians are vegetarian or only eat limited types of meat, and in the US you can find numerous West Indian vegetarian restaurants.
Rastafari developed amongst very poor people, who felt society had nothing to offer them except more suffering. Rastas see themselves as conforming to a vision of how Africans should live, reclaiming what they see as a culture stolen from them when they were brought on slave ships to Jamaica, birthplace of the movement.
The doctrines of Rastafari depart radically from the norms of the modern western mind, something encouraged deliberately by the Rastas themselves. Unlike many modern religious and Christian groups that tend to stress conformity towards the “powers-that-be”, Rastafari instead stresses loyalty to their concept of “Zion”, and rejection of modern society (“Babylon”). “Babylon” in this case is considered
to be rebelling against “Earth’s Rightful Ruler” (JAH) ever since the days of Nimrod.
This “way of life” is not merely to be given intellectual assent, or “belief” as the term is often used; it is about knowing or finding one’s true identity. To follow and worship JAH Rastafari is to find, spread and “trod” the path with which one was rightfully born.
The religion is difficult to categorize, because Rastafari is not a centralized organization. Individual Rastafari work out the truth for themselves, resulting in a wide variety of beliefs entering beneath the general umbrella of Rastafari.
Socially, Rastafari is a response to racist negation of black people as it was experienced in Jamaica, where in the 1930s, black people were at the bottom of the social order, while white people and their (predominantly Christian) religion were at the top. Marcus Garvey’s encouragement of black people to take pride in themselves and their heritage inspired the Rastas to embrace all things African.
They teach that they were brainwashed while in captivity to negate all things black and African. They turned the racists’ image of them as primitive and straight out of the jungle into a defiant embrace of these concepts as a part of the African culture they see as having been stolen from them when they were taken from Africa on the slave ships. To be close to nature and to the African savannah and its lions, in spirit if not in the flesh, is central to their idea of African culture.
Living close to and as a part of nature is seen as African. This African approach to “naturality” is seen in the dreadlocks, ganja (marijuana), ital food, and in all aspects of Rasta life. They disdain the modern approach (or, as they see it, nonapproach) to life for being unnatural and excessively objective and rejecting subjectivity. Rastas say that scientists try to discover how the world is by looking from the outside in, whereas the Rasta approach is to see life from the inside, looking out. The individual is given tremendous importance in Rastafari, and every Rasta has to figure out the truth for himself or herself.
Another important Afrocentric identification is with the colors red, gold, and green, from the Ethiopian flag. They are a symbol of the Rastafari movement, and of the loyalty Rastas feel towards Haile Selassie, Ethiopia, and Africa rather than for any other modern state where they happen to live. These colors are frequently seen on clothing and other decorations. Red stands for the blood of martyrs, green stands for the vegetation of Africa, while gold stands for the wealth and prosperity Africa has to offer. (On the other hand, some Ethiopian scholars state that the colors originate from an old saying that the Virgin Mary’s belt is the rainbow, and that the Red, Gold, and Green are a symbol of this.)
Many Rastafari attempt to learn Amharic, which they consider to be the original language, because this is the language Haile Selassie I spoke, and in order to identify themselves as Ethiopian—though in practice, most Rastas continue to speak either English or their native languages. There are reggae songs written in Amharic.
One belief that unites many Rastafari is that Ras (an Amharic title of nobility corresponding to Duke; also having the meaning “Head“) Tafari Makonnen, who was crowned Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2nd, 1930, is the living God incarnate, called Jah, who is the black Messiah who will lead the world’s peoples of African origin into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice, although some mansions do not take this literally. This is partly because of his titles King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. These titles match those of the Messiah mentioned in Revelation.
However, according to Ethiopian tradition, these titles were accorded to all Solomonic emperors beginning in 980 BC — well before Revelation was written around 97 AD. Haile Selassie was, according to some traditions, the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian monarchs descended from the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Psalm 87:4-6 is also interpreted as predicting the coronation of Haile Selassie I.
In the 10th century BC, The Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia was founded by Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who had visited Solomon in Israel. 1 Kings 10:13 claims “And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.”
On the basis of the Kebra Negast, Rastas interpret this as meaning she conceived his child, and from this, they concluded that the black people are the true children of Israel, or Jews. Beta Israel black Jews have lived in Ethiopia for centuries, disconnected from the rest of Judaism; their existence gave some credence and impetus to early Rastafarians, validating their belief that Ethiopia was Zion.
Some Rastafari choose to classify their religion as Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Protestant Christianity, or Judaism. Of those, the ties to the Ethiopian Church are the most widespread, although this is controversial to many Ethiopian clergy. Rastafari believe that standard translations of the Bible incorporate changes created by the racist white power structure. Some also revere the Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Negast, but many of these Rastas would classify themselves as Ethiopian Orthodox in religion and Rastafarian in
ideology. Most Rastafarians pay little attention to the Kebra Negast and do not considered it anywhere near the sacrality of the bible.
For Rastafari, Selassie I remains their god and their king. They see Selassie as being worthy of worship, and as having stood with great pomp and dignity in front of the world’s press and in front of representatives of many of the world’s powerful nations. From the beginning the Rastas decided to treat themselves in effect as free citizens of Ethiopia, loyal to its leader and devoted to its flag.
Most Rastafari believe that Selassie is in some way a reincarnation of Jesus and that the Rastafari are the true Israelites.
Rastas call Selassie Jah, or Jah Rastafari, and believe there is great power in these names. They call themselves Rastafari (pronounced Rasta-FAR-I) to express the personal relationship each Rasta has with Selassie I. Rastas like to use the ordinal with the name Haile Selassie I, with the dynastic Roman numeral one signifying “the First” deliberately pronounced as the letter I – again as a means of expressing a personal relationship with God. They also like to call him H.I.M. (pronounced him), for His Imperial Majesty.
When Haile Selassie I died in 1975, his death was not accepted by Rastafari who could not accept that God could die. They said it was a lie. A few Rastas today consider this a partial fulfillment of prophecy found in the apocalyptic 2 Esdras 7:28.
Rastafari is a strongly syncretic Abrahamic religion that draws extensively from the Bible.
They particularly like the New Testament Book of Revelation, as this (5:5) is where they find the prophecies about the divinity of Haile Selassie.
Rastas believe that they, and the rest of the black race, are descendants of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, cast into captivity outside Africa as a result of the slave trade.
Some believe that only half of the Bible has been written, and that the other half, stolen from them along with their culture, is written in a man’s heart. This concept also embraced the idea that even the illiterate can be Rastas by reading God’s Word in their hearts. Rastas also see the lost half of the bible, and the whole of their lost culture to be found in the Ark of the Covenant, a repository of African wisdom.
Rastafari are criticized, particularly by Christian groups, for taking biblical quotes out of context, for picking and choosing what they want from the Bible, and for bringing elements into Rastafari that do not appear in the Bible. They are also criticized for using the English language (and particularly the King James version) of the Bible, as many have no interest in Hebrew or Greek scholarship.
However, in recent years a greater interest in the Amharic Orthodox version, authorized by Haile Selassie I in the 1950s, has arisen among Rastas.
The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy
The Rasta dream is that Haile Selassie will call the day of judgment, when the righteous shall return home to Mount Zion, identified with Africa, to live forever in peace, love, and harmony. In the meantime the Rastas call to be repatriated to Africa. Repatriation, the desire to return to Africa after 400 years of slavery, is central to Rastafari doctrine. The first Rastas, stuck on a tiny Caribbean island, dreamed of the possibilities of Africa.
Many early Rastas for a time believed in black supremacy. Widespread advocacy of this doctrine was shortlived, however; at least partly because of Selassie’s explicit condemnation of racism in a speech before the United Nations. Most Rastas now espouse a belief that racial animosities must be set aside, with world peace and harmony being common themes. One of the three major modern sects, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, has specifically condemned all types of racism, and declared that the teachings of the Bible are the route to spiritual liberation for people of any racial or ethnic background.
Some early elements of Rastafari were closely related to indigenous religions of the Caribbean and Africa, and to the Maroons, though these syncretic elements were largely purged by the Nyahbinghi warriors – dreadlocked Rastas who fought the corrupting power of some leaders who sought to add them to the Rastafari doctrines.
Middle-class people, white people, Asians, and Native Americans also comprise minorities within the movement.
To further confuse the issue of classifying Rasta practices, one type of religious gathering (grounation) is similar in many ways to Jewish services, and may have descended from African-American slaves who converted to Judaism — some Jews in the southern USA owned slaves — and escaped to Jamaica. Rastas believe that their own body is the true church or temple of God, and so see no need to make temples or churches out of physical buildings.
Rastas believe that Haile Selassie is both God the Father and God the Son of the holy Trinity, while it is themselves, and potentially all human beings, who embody the Holy Spirit. Thus, the human being is a church that contains the Holy Ghost. Rastas see Haile Selassie as the head, and themselves as the body, as another way of expressing this doctrine. Some see Melchizedek in addition to Jesus as having been former incarnations of Haile Selassie. The reason Rastas have the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is because Haile Selassie is Power of the Trinity in Ethiopic.
Rastas are physical immortalists who believe the chosen few will continue to live forever in their current bodies. This idea of everliving (rather than everlasting) life is very strong and important.
A good expression of this doctrine is in Lincoln Thompson’s song Thanksgiving.
After asking “What’s destroying life?” he says, “Tell I if you know.” Paraphrasing the Bible, he continues, “There are too many dead bodies lying around me…in a true reality, down in the grave there is no life. In silence there you’ll be, with no one to hear nor see, and no matter what you saw, when you are dead you cannot praise Jah.” In Walk in Jah Light Thompson sings about “Living under the 6 feet of sorrow” and asks, “Who’s going to live to glorify the gift of Jah eternally?”
Perhaps the most well known example of this is Bob Marley’s refusal to write a will despite suffering from the final stages of an advanced metastasized cancer (and the resulting controversy surrounding the distribution of his estate after his death) on the grounds that writing a will would mean he was giving in to death and forgoing his chance at everliving life.
Homosexuality is seen as sinful and decadent, though this attitude among Rastas varies; some Rastas are indifferent to homosexuality and/or accept it. Some claim that extra attention may be paid to homophobia in Rastafari, because persecution of homosexuals is common in Jamaica among Rastas and non-Rastas alike.
Early Rasta reggae musicians (besides Marley) whose music expresses Rastafari doctrine well are Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer (in Blackheart Man), Prince Far I, Lincoln Thompson, Ijahman Levi (especially the first 4 albums), Misty-in-Roots (Live), The Congos (Heart of the Congos), The Rastafarians, Culture, and Ras Michael And The Sons Of Negus. The Jamaican jazz percussionist Count Ossie, who had played on a number of ska and reggae recordings, recorded albums with themes relating to Rasta history, doctrine, and culture.
Rastafari doctrine as developed in the ’80s was further expressed musically by a number of other prominent artists, such as Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Third World, The Gladiators, Black Uhuru, Aswad, and Israel Vibration.
The Rastafari doctrine lives on through music into the 21st century. The main religious sentiment is spread through roots reggae, a subgroup of reggae music featuring artists such as Capleton, Sizzla, Turbulence, Jah Mason, Pressure, Natural Black, Daweh Congo, Luciano, Cocoa Tea, Richie Spice, Gentleman and others. Several of these acts have gained mainstream success and frequently appear on the popular music charts. Most recently artists such as Damian Marley have blended hip-hop with reggae to energize classic Rastafari issues for the youth, such as social injustice, revolution and the honor and responsibility of parenthood.
Rastafari culture does not encourage mainstream political involvement. In fact, in the early stages of the movement most Rastas did not vote, out of principle.
Ras Sam Brown formed the Suffering People’s Party for the elections of 1961.
Although he received fewer than 100 votes, simply standing for election was a powerful act.
In the election campaign of 1972, People’s National Party leader, Michael Manley used a prop, a walking stick given to him by Haile Selassie, which was called the “Rod of Correction”, in a direct appeal to Rastafarian values.
In the famous free One Love Peace Concert in 1978, first Peter Tosh lambasted the audience, including attending dignitaries, with political demands that included legalizing cannabis. He did this while smoking a spliff, a criminal act in Jamaica. Bob Marley asked both then-Prime Minister Michael Manley, and opposition leader Edward Seaga onto the stage; and a famous picture was taken with all three of them holding their hands together above their heads in a symbolic gesture of peace during what had been a very violent election campaign.
(See: Rastafarian Vocabulary)
Rastas believe that their original African languages were stolen from them when they were taken into captivity as part of the slave trade, and that English is an imposed colonial language. Their remedy for this situation has been the creation of a modified vocabulary and dialect, reflecting their desire to take forward language and to confront the society they call Babylon.
Rastafari claim to reject “-isms”. They see a wide range of “isms and schisms” in modern society and want no part in them. They especially reject the word Rastafarianism, because they see themselves as having transcended “isms and schisms”. This has created some conflict between Rastas and some members of the academic community studying the Rastafari phenomenon, who insist on calling this religious belief Rastafarianism, in spite of the disapproval this generates within the Rastafari movement. Nevertheless, the practice continues among some scholars, likely because it fits their academic standards of use.
However, much as academics now refer to “Eskimos” as “Inuit” and “Lapps” as “Saami”, study of Rasta using its own terms has occurred and may be gaining acceptance. Rasta thought on the matter is that academic analysis is unnecessary to “trod” the path.
There are two types of Rasta religious ceremonies. A reasoning is a simple event where the Rastas gather; smoke “ganja” (marijuana); and discuss ethical, social and religious issues. The person honored by being allowed to light the herb says a short prayer before doing so, and it is always passed in a clockwise fashion. A binghi or grounation is a holiday; the word binghi is believed to refer originally to an ancient, and now extinct, order of militant blacks in eastern Africa that vowed to end oppression. Binghis are marked by much dancing, singing, feasting and the smoking of ganja, and can last for several days.
Important dates where grounations may take place are:
- January 6 : Ethiopian Christmas
- February 6 : Bob Marley’s birthday
- April 21 : The anniversary of Emperor Haile Selassie I’s visit to Jamaica.
Also known as Grounation Day.
- July 23 : The birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie I
- August 17 : The birthday of Marcus Garvey
- November 2 : The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I
The wearing of dreadlocks is very closely associated with the movement, though not universal among (or exclusive to) its adherents. Rastas believe dreadlocks to be supported by Leviticus 21:5 (“They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.”) and the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6.5-6. Part of the reason the hairstyle was adopted was to contrast the kinky long hair of black men with the straighter hair of whites.
It is believed that the first Rasta dreadlocks were copied from Kenya in the 1940s, when during the independence struggle the feared maumau freedom fighters grew their “dreaded locks” while hiding in the mountains. However, there are ascetic groups within nearly every major religion that have at times worn their hair in this fashion. In addition to the Nazirites of Judaism and the Sadhus of Hinduism, there are the Dervishes of Islam and the Coptic Monks of Christianity, among others. The very earliest Christians may also have worn this hairstyle; particularly noteworthy are descriptions of James the Just, “brother of Jesus” and first Bishop of Jerusalem, who wore them to his ankles.
Dreadlocks have also come to symbolize the Lion of Judah and rebellion against Babylon. In the United States, several public schools and workplaces have lost lawsuits as the result of banning dreadlocks. Safeway is an early example, and the victory of eight children in a suit against their Lafayette, Louisiana school was a landmark decision in favor of Rastafari rights.
Rastafari associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey that one takes in the process of locking their hair (growing dreadlocks). It is taught that patience is the key to growing dreadlocks, a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality. Its spiritual pattern is aligned with the Rastafarian religion. People who do not understand the process sometimes mock the dreadlock style and make comments about the cleanliness of the locked hair. The way to form natural dreadlocks is to allow hair to grow in its natural pattern, without cutting, combing or brushing, but simply to wash it with pure water.
Many non-Rastafari of black African descent have also adopted dreads as an expression of pride in their ethnic identity, or simply as a hairstyle, and take a less purist approach to developing and grooming them, adding various substances such as beeswax in an attempt to assist the locking process. The wearing of dreads also has spread among people of other ethnicities whose hair is not naturally suited to the style, and who sometimes go to great lengths to affect the look.
The word dread comes from Rasta terminology. For the Rastas the razor, the scissors and the comb are the three Babylonian or Roman inventions. So close is the association between dreadlocks and Rastafari, that the two are sometimes used synonymously. In reggae music, a follower of Rastafari may be referred to simply as a dreadlocks or Natty (natural) Dread, whilst those non-believers who cut their hair are referred to as baldheads.
For many Rastas, smoking marijuana (known as ganja, herb, collie, or lambs bread) is a spiritual act, often accompanied by Bible study; they consider it a sacrament that cleans the body and mind, exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, and brings them closer to Jah. The burning of the herb is often said to be essential “for it will sting in the hearts of those that promote and perform evil and wrongs”. Many believe that cannabis originated in Africa, and that it is a part of their African culture that they are reclaiming.
They are not surprised that it is illegal, seeing it as a powerful substance that opens people’s minds to the truth — something the Babylon system, they reason, clearly does not want. They contrast their herb to liquor, which they feel makes people stupid, and is not a part of African culture. While there is a clear belief in the beneficial qualities of cannabis, it is not compulsory to use it, and there are Rastafarians who do not do so. Dreadlocked mystics, often ascetic, known as the sadhus, have smoked cannabis in India for centuries. The migration of many thousands of Indian Hindus to the Caribbean in the 20th century brought this culture to Jamaica.
They believe that the smoking of cannabis enjoys Biblical sanction and is an aid to meditation and religious observance.
- Genesis 1:11 “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”
- Genesis 3:18 “… thou shalt eat the herb of the field.”
- Proverbs 15:17 “Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.“
- Psalms 104:14 “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.“
Also see Spiritual use of cannabis.
Then-Attorney General of the United States Janet Reno, however, ruled that Rastafari do not have the religious right to smoke ganja in violation of drug laws in the United States of America. The position is the same in the United Kingdom, where, in the Court of Appeal case of R. v. Taylor  1 Cr. App. R. 37, it was held that the UK’s prohibition on cannabis use did not contravene the right to freedom of religion conferred under the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.