Its origins can be traced to Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican Black Nationalist who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association during the early 1920’s in the Negro urban ghettos of North America. He inspired the urban poor of Jamaica to seek independence and a better selfimage and is considered a prophet by Rastafarians. Ethiopia, the last remaining sovereign state in Africa, was viewed as the spiritual centre of the black man’s world. Many adopted the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as their religion and viewed the Emperor of Ethiopia as the incarnate Christ. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is often used to support their belief structure. Rastafarianism first made its appearance in Britain in the 1950’s and was particularly visible amongst black youth in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
This is taken from the former crown prince of Ethiopia, Ras Tafari. He was crowned Emperor in 1930 with the title of Haile Salassie 1. His name means ‘power of the Holy Trinity’ and he believed that he could trace his lineage to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Garvey had, in 1929, prophesied that an African king would be crowned the black-messiah leader and so Salassie was considered by Rastafarians as the Black Christ Incarnate. He denied any such suggestion but when he returned home to Ethiopia from Britain after exile during the Second World War, this was hailed by members as some sort of biblical prophetic fulfilment. Salassie is now dead but many members still consider him to be alive and think he has merely ‘disappeared’, while others believe he will rise again.
i. The Hairstyle: this is very distinctive and is made up of coils of uncut hair that may be plaited or matted. The idea is that these locks of hair resemble the Masai or Galla Warriors of East Africa.They consider it a sin for a black woman to straighten her hair.
ii. The Head Covering: this is a colourfully knitted tam or skull cap. The colours are very significant. They consist of red (symbolizing the blood of Jamaican martyrs); black (the colour of Africans’ skin); green (the colour of vegetation) and gold for the Jamaican flag. Red, gold and green are also the colours of the Ethiopian national flag and are therefore the adopted colours of the faith. Clothing is often worn in the same colours.
iii. The Music: this is Reggae music and was popularized around the world by Bob Marley (1945- 1981). Reggae means ‘to the king’ and Marley is hailed by some as a prophet. This type of music has become so popular that a whole industry has sprung up in Britain around the production and promotion of commercial Reggae. The more devout have reacted against this and are calling for a getting back to origins in ‘Roots Reggae’.
iv. The Language: the members have their own vocabulary with meaning only to those who use it. This gives greater community solidarity. Such words include Jah (god), Dread, Shank, Dud, Babylon (evil oppressive social system), Nyabinghi and I-Tal (naturally grown food).
This can be summarized as ‘Back to Africa’. The view is that the Whites came to Africa and ever since Blacks have been in slavery. Initially this was actual slavery with many millions shipped abroad, but more recently the slavery continues due to the White man’s economic power. Redemption is to be found in returning to Africa if not physically then at least spiritually. To be a Rastafarian is actually only a matter of self-discovery. ‘We are all born Rastafarians, it is only a matter of waking up’ (i.e., becoming conscious).
With no centralized organisation or leadership it is difficult to know the actual number of adherents. ‘It has been estimated that the total membership would be in tens of thousands’ (Barker). Yet we must distinguish three groups:
i. The Religious: these are passionate believers who see the movement as a religious movement. These often live out their convictions by viewing material possessions as superfluous and not vital to life. They have strong family lives and the children are often very disciplined. They respect women, even though they hold subordinate positions within the family. Many of these followers are found in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Church Triumphant, Jah Ras Tafari and the Rainbow Healing Temple.
ii. The Secularists: these hold a more pragmatic view and are more taken up with means rather than ends. These are to be found working in such organisations as the Rastafarian Movement Association, Rastafarian Brethren Association and Ethiopian World Federation.
iii. The Sympathetic Followers: these support the aims of the others but are much more loosely attached to its institutions and activities. They adopt some of the styles of Rastafarianism and may also work for social and political change in society.
Rastafarians are generally pacifist in outlook but some have claimed that there has been violence by some of the more disaffected. The wild appearance of the dreadlocks and the fact that many smoke a drug, ‘ganga’ (marijuana), may have contributed to the view that there is violence lurking below the surface. Also there was some suspicion that they were partly responsible for the Brixton riots in London in 1981. However, Lord Scarman in his report into the riots appeared to defend them and has urged greater understanding and sympathy from British people.
Rastafarians are generally confused about the gospel and view Christianity as a white man’s religion and even view Jesus as a white man. They tend to feel that Christianity does not address the social injustices afflicting black people. Some believe that to smoke ‘ganga’ is a religious experience and is a way of reaching God. These people need to see genuine, caring Christian people who have a heart of love and are willing to make sacrifices to share the wonderful message of saving faith through Christ. So we need to prayerfully seek opportunities to show the love of Christ to these people who often are seriously searching for truth and fulfilment.