The Rastafari concept started in the 1920s when a Jamaican-American activist, Marcus Garvey, predicted the total emancipation of black race. His projection was expected to take place after the crowning of a black king.
Marcus Garvey’s famous quote, “Look towards Africa for the coming of a black king – he shall be the redeemer”, was revered among his followers who named him ‘John the Baptist’ of Rastafari.
Consequently, the Rastafarian movement was officially founded on 2nd November, 1930, the year Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned new Emperor of Ethiopia as Haile Selassie I.
Rastas believe that the crowning of His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M), as he was affectionately called, was a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy about the Messiah, since the movement holds many Jewish and Christian beliefs.
According to Garvey’s prophesy, the black king would be the Messiah predestined to deliver the world, and take Rastafarians to the ‘Promised Land’.
The movement took its identity from Haile Selassie’s local name, ‘Ras Tafari’, and its followers are widely known as Rastas, Rastafaris, or Rastafarians.
Beginning as a small group in the slums of Jamaica, the Rastafari sect can now boast thousands of members in Africa and other parts of the world.
To be identified as a Rastafarian, one must observe the doctrines, beliefs, and tradition of the movement. In order to prevent barrier in communication, Rastas introduced their own dialect widely known as ‘Patois’.
As a reggae lover, I was inspired by the ingenious songs of Robert Nesta Marley, popularly known as Bob Marley or The Legend. The Jamaican songwriter touched millions with his philosophical music.
Memories of my favourite tracks are still fresh on my mind, especially the all-time: “Three Little Birds”, “Buffalo Soldier”, “Africa Unite”, “Waiting in Vain” “Jamming”, and “No Woman No Cry”.
During Marley’s music career, he composed over 170 songs highlighting the elements of Rasta philosophy. Some of his religious tracks were, “Forever Loving Jah”, “Redemption Song”, and “Exodus”.
Bob Marley became the most famous advocate of Rastafari in the 60s. His outstanding gift for songwriting and vocal style gained the movement an overwhelming recognition worldwide.
Since his death, Bob Marley’s popular songs have, posthumously, won several awards and honours worldwide.
For instance in 1999, his ‘Exodus’ album was adjudged “Album of the Century” by Time Magazine, and his ‘One Love’ was named “Song of the Millennium” by the BBC.
One may wonder if Rastafarianism is a form of religion. Reading about the life of The Legend, I was enlightened by the fact that Bob Marley converted from Christianity to Rastafarianism in 1966.
The divine theories of the movement triggered the controversial title “Jah”, which means God manifested on earth. Emperor Selassie was fondly addressed by Rastas as: ‘King of kings, Lord of lords, conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah’.
In spite of the absence of formal structures or buildings of fellowship, Rastas worshipped Haile Selassie with their heart, whom they eulogise as “Jah Rastafari”.
Apart from his royalty, Emperor Selassie was an ordinary mortal who cannot be substituted for Jesus Christ or God in any way. It is, of course, blasphemous to confer godly titles on man.
On the other hand, His Imperial Majesty was a Christian, and he disproved his incarnation as God (Jah Rastafari). He cautioned Rastafarians saying, “Do not worship me, I am not God. I’m only a man. I worship Jesus Christ.”
When the Emperor found out that he was being worshipped in the Island, he sent an Orthodox Archbishop to Jamaica to introduce Rastafarians to Christ.
Subsequently, Bob Marley developed personal acquaintance with the Ethiopian Archbishop who spent several years in Jamaica.
Following the disappearance of Haile Selassie in 1975, the elements of myth-making and mystery about “Jah Rastafari” became phenomenal worldwide.
In the world of Rasta, the smoking of marijuana forms part of ritualistic and spiritual expression of life. Rastafarians believe that marijuana is a boost for spiritual sight, atonement, and wisdom.
The introduction of marijuana, also known as the herb, ganja or Indian hemp, dates back thousands of years in South Asia.
The herb was firstly exported from India to Jamaica in the 1800s, and that is the concept from which the name “Indian hemp” was derived.
In spite of the ban on marijuana usage, Rastas believe they have the religious right to smoke and exploit the herb for sacrament and medicinal purposes.
Among some key Rastafarians who demanded the legalisation of marijuana were Bob Marley, Joseph Hill (Culture), Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Buju Banton, and Burning Spear.
The teachings of Marcus Garvey and his prediction about the crowning of a black king, to say the least, was a coincidence that brought Haile Selassie to the religious limelight.
In other words, the divine theory about His Imperial Majesty started long before he was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, but he tactfully declined to be identified as a demigod.
Soon after establishing friendship with the Ethiopian Archbishop, Bob Marley reconsidered his Rastafari faith and converted to Christianity several months before his death in 1981.
He then accepted baptism after giving his heart to Christ. Bob Marley’s decision left many Rastafarians disappointed, including his closest friends who felt offended about his conversion.
The late Emperor Haile Selassie contributed immensely towards the peace, liberation, and unity of Africa. He was a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which was founded in 1963.
It is for this reason, among others, that the Headquarters of OAU was established in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.
Haile Selassie was the last Emperor of an African country never to have been colonised. He ruled Ethiopia for 45 years until his monarchy was toppled in a military coup in 1975.
Even though his popularity declined in the last few years of his reign, Emperor Selassie remains a key figure in Ethiopia as far as modern civilization is concerned.
Emperor Selassie, who was born on 23rd July, 1892, is believed to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He spent his early stage at the imperial court of Addis Ababa where he learnt much about wielding of power. He died at the age of 83.
However, the Emperor is still worshipped by some Rastafarians who hold a strong conviction that “Jah Rastafari” is alive, since his death was a hoax.
As the people of Ethiopia mark the 85th anniversary of Emperor Selassie’s coronation, it’s important to highlight the origin and concept of Rastafarian movement in order to demystify the myth about “Jah Rastafari”.
By : ASP James Annan
Gt. Accra Regional PRO
Senior Correctional Centre