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a religious-cultural movement that began (1930s) in Jamaica. Rastafarians believe that Haile SelassieHaile Selassie
, [Amharic,=power of the Trinity], 1892–1975, emperor of Ethiopia (1930–74). He was born Tafari Makonnen, the son of a noted general and the grandnephew of Emperor Menelik II.
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, also named Ras Tafari, the last emperor of Ethiopia (d. 1975), is the Messiah. They tend to reject European culture and ideas and are particularly noted for their use of marijuana. Reggaereggae,
Jamaican popular music that developed in the 1960s among Kingston's poor blacks, drawing on American "soul" music and traditional African and Jamaican folk music and ska (a Jamaican and British dance-hall music).
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 music is heavily influenced by Rastafarianism. There are some 180,000 Rastafarians worldwide.
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A practitioner of Rastafarianism smokes a marijuana joint at the southern town of Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia, during the celebration of what Rastafarians call Ethiopian Christmas. AP/Wide World Photos.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Early James Bond movies made Sean Connery famous. The movies were set in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War. They painted a highly romanticized picture of Kingston, Jamaica. But what is obvious upon close inspection is that Kingston was romantic only if you were a white European with plenty of money. Thirty years earlier, it was even worse. In 1920 most people of African descent lived in abject poverty in what can best be described as slum conditions. Many justly blamed white imperialism for the destruction of their culture and the absence of hope.

Into this culture stepped Marcus Garvey, with a new philosophy he called "Back to Africa." It was a black self-empowerment movement that pictured a return to the idealized home of the ancestors: Africa. More to the point, Ethiopia. "Look to Africa," Garvey was fond of saying, "where a black man shall be crowned king, for the day of our deliverance is at hand!"

Ten years later his prophetic vision seemed to come to pass. A black African named Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned emperor of Ethiopia. He took the title and name Emperor Haile Selassie the First. In Jamaica the news sparked rejoicing in the streets. They called Haile Selassie the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah." He claimed direct descent from King David himself, through David's son Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (thought to be an Ethiopian). When she visited Jerusalem and was swept away by Solomon's might and power (1 Kings 10), according to Haile Selassie, she came away with more than just gifts of gold and silver.

(Interestingly, Ethiopia is also thought by some to be the resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant; see Ark of the Covenant.)

The people of Jamaica began to call themselves Rastafarians, after Ras Tafari Makonnen. They saw themselves as legitimate members of the tribe of Judah, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They began to recognize Haile Selassie as a representative, perhaps even a manifestation of, Jah (God) on Earth. According to their belief, there is no afterlife, so earthly life becomes very important. The "here and now" was what they were concerned about. They wanted an improvement in their social condition, and they didn't want to wait. Rastafarians looked to the Hebrew scriptures to guide them in their beliefs, and in the book of Daniel they found the prophecy they needed to explain the events happening in Ethiopia. Daniel claimed to have had a vision. He saw a great statue. The statue, he said, had "hair like wool." Most theologians take this to mean the hair was white. Rastafarians thought it better described the hair of those with African ancestry. The statue had "feet like unto burning brass." This is generally thought to mean gold-colored, but Rastafarians saw it as meaning he had black skin. It was a time of great patriotic, messianic excitement. The early Rastafarians despised white people. The culture of white imperialism was labeled "Babylon," after the "whore of Babylon" described in the book of Revelation. In this enigmatic passage, "the whore of Babylon" is said to be a city built on seven hills, the personification of all that is impure, evil, wealthy, and greedy.

(This was early Rastafarianism. A prophet calling himself Gad, leader of the Twelve Tribes of Israel movement, later opened the doors to whites. White people can never be Rastafarian leaders, however, because the scriptures point out that "the scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from beneath his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs, and the obedience of the nations is his" [Genesis 49:10].)

From 1930 until 1974 Rastafarians waited, certain the Messiah would arise and life on Earth would change. But Haile Selassie died, and the Rasta world was shaken to the core. How could Jah die? Many of the elderly simply refused to believe the reports. They viewed the whole thing as a white media conspiracy. Others left the faith. Some taught that Jah went to sit on the highest point of Mount Zion with his empress, Menen.

Bob Marley became a prominent spokesman for the religion in the 1960s. He was a musician who came to be known as the "voice of Jamaica." His music, first called ska and later reggae, took the world by storm and exposed many of the injustices black Jamaicans have been forced to endure.

Today Rastafarianism has undergone a transition. Natural foods are very important. Most Rastas are vegetarians, though some do eat fish. Pork and alcohol are strictly forbidden. Coffee and salt are discouraged.

By far the most controversial aspect of Rastafarianism today, however, concerns an interpretation of a verse from the book of Psalms. Psalm 104:14 says, "He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate." Rastas translate it this way: "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man."

What is the "herb for the service of man"? Ganja, otherwise known as marijuana. Whenever the Bible says "plant," most Rastafarians read "herb." They use it not only for relaxation but also for religious ritual and medicinal purposes. The herb they smoke is a strain of Indian hemp, not the Mexican variety so familiar to many people in the United States. Ganja is much stronger, often producing religious visions. Those who smoke it say that under its influence they experience Jah, the same claim made by members of the Native American Church about peyote (see Native American Church). It has been declared an illegal substance in many countries. But that hasn't stopped its use.

Another distinction common to Rasta culture is the familiar hairstyle known as "dreadlocks." Dreadlocks symbolize the culture of African ancestry and, to Rastafarians, are deliberately meant to contrast with the straight, fine hair of most Caucasians. Rastas believe this hairstyle is commanded in the Bible. Leviticus 21:5 says, "Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards." This verse is also applied by many ultra-Orthodox Jews who wear a distinctive beard and hairstyle. For a head covering, the ultra-Orthodox wear tall black hats, while Rastas wear colorful crocheted caps.

Colors took on added importance after Marley became a superstar and public figure. He dressed in red to symbolize the "church triumphant"—Rastafarianism. Yellow stood for the wealth of the homeland. Green illustrated the beauty of Ethiopian vegetation. Black, of course, represented African ancestry.

Even the language changed for many Rastas. The beautiful, lilting language of the island is a joy to hear. But often a Rasta will say "I and I" instead of "you and me," because he truly believes all people are one.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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