Rasta Movement in Jamacia

Howard Cubberly

 

The ever-growing Rastafarian movement heavily influences current Jamaican culture. Just as the Rastafarian religion developed, its influences helped Jamaican society develop into a more progressive country. Jamaica is not the paradise that it is made out to be on paper, but rather it is riddled with corruption, racial inequalities and issues of poverty. The Rastafarian movement gave way for African people to empower themselves through a religion that gave them a common goal. At first, the religion was a plan of radical movement and overtime has evolved in many respects. Heron and Hume describe the religion as a “liberation theology” and believed that the religion embraced change that could help people reach a more civil existence (28). The number of Rastafarian people in Jamaica grew rapidly after it was introduced in the 1930’s and as a result a shift in Jamaican culture began to take place. The Rastafarian movement created a social and political change in Jamaica by resisting social norms and empowering a group of people who prior to the movement were ostracized for the color of their skin. The religion came about as a way to strengthen the African community and the movement became popularized in the coming years through the will of famous Rastafarians like Leonard Howell, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

The religion originated as a combination of the Obeah and Myal religions. These religions were deeply rooted in spirituality but seen by outsiders as forms of witchcraft. There was to be connection with the Holy Spirit and in religious gatherings, this was achieved through Singing, dancing, the smoking of herbs, playing percussion instruments and healing rituals. The beliefs that stretch to Africa, particularly Ethiopia stem from the

Haile Selassie I
Haile Selassie I

returned Messiah, King Selassie I, previously known as Ras Tafari. He was the direct descendant of Solomon and Sheba, which gave reason to believe that God was not a white man. This discovery strengthened the Rastafarian belief of the superiority of the Black man. The beliefs of the Rastafarian religions are very similar views when compared to the Protestant ethic and that is in part why they compare their leaders to those in the bible. In reference to biblical figures, King Selassie I would be God and Marcus Garvey was likened to John the Baptist. This is the basis for the Rastafarian movement that emerged in Jamaica and offers an explanation for many of their beliefs.

 

The Rastafarian movement first began to rise in Jamaica as a response to slavery and European domination in Jamaica. There was a clear and ridged color cast system in Jamaica that created disparities for people with dark skin. Early in the Rastafarian movement, Leonard Howell emerged as a radical leader; some have dubbed him to be the first Rasta (Dunkley: 1). He preached revolution and explained the Rastafarian religion but he was eventually arrested for his advocating a revolution. Even though he preached for the Rastafarian movement, his direction was not widely accepted in the Jamaican culture. He tended to exclude the working class and only preach to the peasants, which caused him no gain negative publicity. His authoritarian sort of leadership and harsh beliefs such as hatred for the white race made him a hard person to follow. Although Dunkley describes Howell as a “Spiritual/prophetic/mystical leader and one who took up the task of providing political directorship and business management for his following” (11). Howell’s efforts were not seen to be as impactful as his fellow leader Marcus Garvey.

The first principle of the movement is that Africans are exiles in Babylon, Babylon meaning any place that is not the homeland of Africa. Babylon is a repressive state and according to the Rasta, needs to be escaped. Due to African people being misplaced, the main focus of the movement is for all Rastafarians to return to Zion which is Africa. In particular, the Rastafarian people wanted to go back to Ethiopia because it is thought to be the original birthplace of human and in the religion it is considered as heaven on earth. This is where the Garden of Eden is and also where the King Selassie I lived. The travel back to Zion was the main goal of the Rastafarian movement but the religion was also surrounded by many beliefs, which established the importance of the religion. Due to the history of Africans being enslaved to the White man, some of the central Rasta beliefs are about Black superiority. They believed that the African race is better and that the black man should get revenge on the white man. Additionally, they believed that the devil was the god of the white man. It was obvious that these harsh criticisms came from their past of being enslaved, but not all of the religion was so full of hatred.

The first person to successfully advocate for the exodus to Africa was Marcus Garvey. Garvey’s efforts to gain redemption were noble and contributed to the cause of Rasta beliefs. He fought to get previous slave countries to pay for their former slaves to go back to Africa. Garvey led the most prolific attempt of pan Africanism to date, he even set up a shipping company called black star that’s sole purpose was to bring people back to Africa. Maulana Karenga describes Garvey as “African centered knowledge on the moral worth of African humanity, self-determination, and self-realization” (Christian: 164). His efforts were able to help countless African people and create a sense of unity for the people who were in Jamaica and unable to make the trip to Zion. He fought for the rights of the African people as long as he could and he went against the government which tried to shut him down countless times.

“He places a great emphasis on the agency of all Africans and their obligation to free themselves, recover and reclaim their divine identity and ancient heritage, realize their inherent potential as world makers, and vindicate and liberate Africa among the nations of the world” (Karenga: 170).

Although Garvey was the original leader of the movement, issues with the government compromised his availability to the cause. However, this did not mean that the movement came to a halt. In all actuality, the movement continued to expand through the outlet of reggae music. Musicians like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh believed strongly in Rastafarianism and through their music were able to spread the beliefs. What these artists were able to do is promote some of the most important Rastafarian beliefs that were not always understood before them. The most prime examples of this would be Love, dreading and not cutting hair, smoking ganja and wearing the Rasta colors which are green, red and yellow. The music reached people on an international level and quickly helped the Rastafarian movement expanded in popularity. Although the music spread the lesser known Rastafarian beliefs, it also promoted the core beliefs like the exodus back to Ethiopia and the concept of I and I which meant that God is in everybody and everybody has openness to each other.

YouTube / PELIYOT – via Iframely

This song So Much Things to Say touches on many important factors inherent in the Rasta movement. It brings mention to biblical pasts, origins of the religion, the concept of I and I and it talks about standing up for your rights in a peaceful manor with the use of spirituality.


Bob Marley’s music even grew to be popular in Ethiopia. “Bob Marley’s music, and by extension Rastafarian culture, has been circulated, distributed, consumed, and reproduced by Ethiopian musicians and artists, creating additional cultural products” (Macleod: 168). This shows how through forms of entertainment the religion can reach people who it would never have reached before. This music reaffirms the connection between the Rastafarian movement and the importance of African culture. The music in Jamaica is primarily reggae and is clearly influenced by the drumming found in African cultures. This type of drumming is also critical to religious Rasta rituals. Macleod explains that although these African instruments and musical styles are the primary genre of music used in Rastafarianism, the religion does not actually identify with any specific type of music. (171). Though this is true, reggae music is very important for the livelihood of the Rasta movement and is actually a combination of traditional African and Jamaican drumming styles.

These musicians borrowed from these past musical ways and used them to not only promote the Rasta movement but also to prove wrong negative stereotypes about the religion. From an outsider’s perspective, often times people believed that the Rastafarians were dirty, smoking criminals. When there began to be celebrities who were Rastas, it started to become easier to change the minds of people who were against the religion. People thought that the Rastafarians were criminals purely because of racist practices. People figured that because they were mostly poor African people in Jamaica, they must be criminals. The fact that smoking ganja is an important part of the religion did not help combat people ‘s negative views of them. There are reasons for smoking the herb and that is what people had difficulties trying to understand. As the story goes, King Solomon was the most wise man and the father of Haile Selassie. It is said that when Solomon died, a marijuana plant grew out of his grave and thus it became known as the herb of knowledge. Ganja is very popular in Rastafarian religion and in reggae music. Despite being illegal in Jamaica, it is extremely popular. Peter Tosh’s famous song Legalize It was a fight against the policies that discriminated against an herb that was so prominent in Jamaica. This trend of supporting the herb was easier to spread through the likes of protest music than it was straight from the average person. Eventually People began to understand that these people were not dirty because of their dreadlocks or their smoking habits. The Rastas wore dreadlocks for religious purposes and they were extremely important for the peScreen Shot 2016-04-18 at 2.11.01 PMople. The dreadlocks are to embody the power of Sampson from the bible. The dreadlocks symbolize resistance against babylon.

William Matthews wrote this poem after Marley passed away from skin cancer in 1981. This poem exemplifies the importance of dreads to the Rasta people, and additionally it brings to terms the impact Marley had.

Peter Tosh is lesser known and gets less attention than Bob Marley but he also played an important role in promoting the Rastafarian movement and impacting Jamaican Culture. He realized that through the transformation of religions, there was going to be growing problems in Jamaica before things were going to start to get better. He was deeply religious and set out to clear the path for social and religious change in Jamaica. It seems that he never gained the type of popularity as Bob did because he was more radicle in his beliefs and actions (Heron & Hume: 37). “He was often criticised for forever inviting a fight, or for not evading conflict, or was charged with ‘giving people a hard time'”(38). Heron and Hume explain how this was not true, and his passion was misunderstood as hostility. They explain these misunderstandings are due to the constant violence that Tosh faced throughout his life and these traumas determined him to create change in the violent Jamaican society. He sought out to create this changes by rallying people together through Rastafarian beliefs.

As the Rastafarian movement grew in popularity, it certainly created social change in Jamaica. On top of being a religious formation, the Rasta movement was also a political one. There are formations of collective action which call for the equality of for the African people in Jamaica. Part of the Rastafarian movement was to gain power over Babylon and that is why it took groups of people with a common goal to start that progression. Despite their efforts to prove the truth of their religion the Rastafarians have not been very successful on the political front. This can mainly be attributed to the lack of clarity in the religious beliefs of the movement. They refuse to make their beliefs set in stone, they are more or less just known to be within the spirit of the people. Specific variations of the bible are not clear and they have no actual intellect that is rooted in their beliefs. When they are trying to establish political power, these things effect the credibility of the Rasta movement.

Political change may be unlikely and difficult to obtain through the Rastafarian movement, but there have been social changes that came out of the Rastafarian movement. The Rasta style has been commodified which on one hand grew the popularity of the movement but also made it less credible in the professional and political realm. The problem with this is that people are appropriating the Rastafarian culture by doing things like growing dreadlocks not for the significance of strength or rebellion but rather as a fashion statement. The same can be said for people wearing the Rasta colors with no relation to the Ethiopian flag or Haile Selassie. These kinds of things have become a way for people to profit off of the Rasta culture and is mainly associate with marijuana smoking outside of the main Jamaican hubs of spirituality. Karenga explains that it is not completely the fault of the Rastafarians that they have struggled to express themselves politically. The movement faces discrimination from the Jamaican government and propaganda against the Rastas can make it difficult for forward progression. For that reason, Karenga understands why even from the beginning, Garvey was focused not only freeing Africans in a political sense but also in a mental sense (179,180). In that sense it seems that Garvey succeeded insofar as helping African people gain mental strength to help them overcome the oppression that they have been facing in Jamaica.

 

Refrences

Christian, Mark. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association: New Perspectives on Philosophy, Religion, Micro-studies, Unity, and Practice”. Journal of Black Studies 39.2 (2008): 163–165. Web…

DUNKLEY, DAIVE A.. “Leonard P. Howell’s Leadership of the Rastafari Movement and His “missing Years””. Caribbean Quarterly 58.4 (2012): 1–24. Web…

Heron, Taitu and Yanique, Hume. “Stepping Out: Peter Tosh and the Dynamics of Afro-Caribbean Existence” caribbean Quarterly 58.4 (2012): 25-49. Web…

Karenga, Maulana. “The Moral Anthropology of Marcus Garvey: In the Fullness of Ourselves” Journal of Black Studies 39.2 (2008): 166-193. Web…

Macleod, Erin. “Representations of Rastafari”. “Representations of Rastafari”. Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land. NYU Press, 2014. 167–190. Web…

Matthews, William. “Bob Marley’s Hair”. Ploughshares 19.4 (1993): 139–139. Web…

Price, Charles. Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica. NYU Press, 2009. Web…

Salter, Richard C.. “Sources and Chronology in Rastafari Origins”. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9.1 (2005): 5–31. Web…