Rising from the proliferation of Ethiopianism and Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism took root in Jamaica following the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930. A spiritual movement based on the belief in Selassie’s divinity, its followers congregated around preachers like Leonard Howell, who founded the first prominent Rastafarian community in 1940. Additional branches surfaced by the 1950s, and within two decades the movement had earned global attention thanks to the music of devoted Rastafarian Bob Marley. Although the deaths of Selassie in 1975 and Marley in 1981 took away its most influential figures, Rastafarianism endures through followings in the United States, England, Africa and the Caribbean.
Background on Rastafarianism
The roots of Rastafarianism can be traced to the 18th century, when Ethiopianism and other movements that emphasized an idealized Africa began to take hold among black slaves in the Americas. For those who had been converted to Christianity, the Bible offered hope through such passages as Psalm 68:31, foretelling of how “Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”
The ethos was strengthened through the late 19th century rise of the modern Pan-African movement and particularly the teachings of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, who reportedly told his followers to “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.” Additionally, the 1920s brought such influential proto-Rastafarian texts as “The Holy Piby” and “The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy to Jamaica.”
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, to some fulfilling the Biblical prophecy of a black king that had been emphasized by Garvey.
Jamaican preachers began promoting the ruling authority of Selassie 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. Although no formalized central church materialized, the budding factions of Rastafarianism found common ground through their belief in a lineage that dated to the ancient Israelites, black superiority and the repatriation of the diaspora from the oppressive land of “Babylon” to Africa. Their movement reflected a range of influences, including Old Testament instructions on avoiding certain foods and a local belief in the spiritual powers of marijuana.
Preachers such as Robert Hinds, Joseph Hibbert and Archibald Dunkley achieved prominence in the decade, but to many scholars the most important figure in early Rastafarianism was Leonard Howell. A former member of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Howell attracted a large following after returning from extensive travels to Jamaica in 1932, and outlined the nascent movement’s principles with the publication of “The Promise Key” circa 1935.
Considered a dangerous, subversive figure by the Jamaican government, Howell was arrested several times and his followers subjected to persecution. Nevertheless, he founded the Ethiopian Salvation Society (ESS) in 1939, and the following year he created a Rasta commune known as Pinnacle.
Set in the mountains of Saint Catherine, Pinnacle became an autonomous community for thousands that cultivated marijuana for its spiritual sessions and economic sustainment. However, its reliance on the illegal crop also provided an excuse for authorities to crack down on the community, and Pinnacle’s residents endured a series of raids. In May 1954, police arrested more than 100 residents and destroyed some 3 tons of marijuana, effectively wiping out the commune.
In the late 1940s, a radical version of Rastafarianism, known as the Youth Black Faith, emerged from the slums of the Jamaican capital of Kingston. A precursor to the existing Nyahbinghi Mansion, or branch, the Youth Black Faith became known for an aggressive stance against authorities. Additionally, they introduced some of the features that became widely associated with Rastafarians, including the growing of hair into dreadlocks and the group’s unique dialect.
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Although he reportedly rejected the Rastafarian depiction of him as a deity, Emperor Selassie in 1948 seemingly embraced their cause by donating 500 acres to the development of an Ethiopian community named Shashamane. The land grant confirmed in 1955, Shashamane offered the opportunity for Jamaicans and other blacks to fulfill their long desired hope of returning to the homeland.
Over the next two decades, additional branches of Rastafarianism gained devoted followers. In 1958, Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards created the Ethiopian International Congress, or Bobo Ashanti, which ascribes a separation from society and strict gender and dietary laws. In 1968, the Twelve Tribes of Israel was founded by Vernon Carrington, aka the Prophet Gad, who advocated the daily reading of the Bible and emphasized the group’s lineage.
Acceptance in Jamaica
Although a new chapter of Jamaican history commenced with its formal independence from England in 1962, lingering negative attitudes and governmental oppression of Rastafari remained. The most notorious incident occurred on what became known as “Bad Friday” in April 1963, 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 in April 1966 seemed to foster an improved perception among non-believers, though there were still ugly moments, such as the Rastafarian involvement in the 1968 riots over a ban of professor and activist Walter Rodney. By the early 1970s, it was clear the movement had become entrenched among the youth of Jamaica. This was underscored by the successful 1972 presidential campaign of People’s National Party leader Michael Manley, who carried a “rod of correction” gifted to him by Emperor Selassie and used Rasta dialect at rallies.
Music, Bob Marley and Globalization
While Rastafarian practices spread with the migration of Jamaicans to England, Canada and the United States from the 1950s into the 1970s, its worldwide growth was aided by the influence of adherents on popular music. An early contributor in this field was Count Ossie, who began drumming at Nyahbinghi spiritual sessions and helped develop the style that became known as ska.
Later, the movement found its most important ambassador in Bob Marley. A convert to Rastafari and founder of reggae music, the charismatic Marley unabashedly referenced his beliefs in his songs, achieving widespread acclaim in the 1970s through universally appealing themes of brotherhood, oppression and redemption. Marley toured widely, bringing his sound to Europe, Africa and the U.S., while becoming the poster boy for Rastafarian causes.
Meanwhile, the growing popularity of Rastafarianism among people of differing races and cultures led to changes in some of its stricter codes. The 1970s book “Dread: the Rastafarians of Jamaica,” by Roman Catholic priest and social worker Joseph Owens, highlighted some of the challenges facing the movement, with some sects electing to deemphasize the importance of black superiority in favor of a message of equality.
A turning point for Rastafarianism came in 1975, when Emperor Selassie died and forced his followers to confront the contradiction of a living deity passing away. In 1981, the movement lost its second major figure with the death of Marley from cancer.
Always a decentralized faith and culture, Rastafari attempted to introduce a unifying element with a series of international conferences in the 1980s and ’90s. Smaller divisions, such as African Unity, Covenant Rastafari and the Selassian Church, emerged around the turn of the millennium, the same period which brought the passing of longtime leaders Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards (1994) and the Prophet Gad (2005).
As of 2012, it was estimated that there were approximately 1 million Rastafarians throughout the world. Its traditions continue in communities in the U.S., England, Africa, Asia and Jamaica, where the government has co-opted much of its symbolism through efforts to market tourism. Attempting to make amends for past transgressions, the Jamaican government decriminalized marijuana in 2015, and in 2017 Prime Minister Andrew Holness formally apologized to Rastafarians for the Coral Gardens debacle.