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Society and Culture: The Rastafarian Movement in Jamaica

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‘People criticise what they don’t know or understand and develop preconceptions.’

                    -Zahra Redwood, Ms. Jamaica, first Rastafarian to compete in the

                      Ms.Universe Pageant in Mexico 2007

Dreadlocks, marijuana, and the upbeat, reggae music of Bob Marley… These seem to be the first things that come to mind with the mention of Jamaica and the Rastafari movement.

What most people fail to understand is that beneath the seemingly colorful red, yellow and greens of the Rastafarians is a history filled with the struggle against slavery, oppression and discrimination that has made Jamaicans strive in their own way to establish their identity. (Parker)

The Rastafari movement is a religion or way of life that began in Jamaica in the 1930’s.  Rastafarians regard Haile Selassie I, a former Emperor of Ethiopia as the reincarnation of God they call “Jah.”  The term rastafari comes from the words Ras which literally means head or the equivalent of the title of Duke in Ethiopia. While “Tafari” comes from Tafari Makonnen, the pre-coronation name of Haile Sellassie I.

Also central to the Rastafari ideology is that the ways of the white man, “the existing social order … the oppressive State, the formal social and political institutions of Anglo/American imperialism” which are “metaphorically expressed in Rastafarian/New Testament iconography as Babylon, the whore, the fallen woman of St. John’s Revelation” (Cooper 1993:121), are evil and must be rejected by the black man. All evils in the world are a result of the influences of Babylon, and the only path to redemption is repatriation to Africa, specifically Ethiopia (Knipe 1995:163; Lake 1998; Savishinsky 1994:20).(Dolin)

Haile Selassie I to the Rastafarians is equivalent to what Jesus is to Christians. He is the messiah that the Bible promised as well as a part of the Holy Trinity. Other titles given Selassie are the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Defender of the Faith and Light of the World.

The movement gained popularity among the peasantry and the Jamaican working class in 1930. It was founded on certain interpretations of the prophecies stated in the Bible and also the perception of Selassie’s being the only African king of an independent state.

It is said that Selassie’s kingship was foretold by the “prophet” Marcus Garvey, a black political leader in Jamaica who also headed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) when he told people to “”Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned. He shall be your Redeemer.”

At that time, Garvey and the UNIA were already known for encouraging displaced blacks to establish schools, communities and agencies for the Negro interest. Their main thrust however, was the repatriation of all Africans to Africa.   Despite this, Garvey was practical enough to realize that it wasn’t feasible for all people of African descent to return to physically return to Africa.

 He rationalized this with the statement:

“The thoughtful and industrious of our race want to go back to Africa, because we realize it will be our only hope of permanent existence. We do not want all the Negroes in Africa. Some are no good here and naturally will be no good there. The no-good Negro will naturally die in fifty years. The Negro who is wrangling about and fighting for social equality will naturally pass away in fifty years, and yield his place to the progressive Negro who wants a society and country of his own.” (Watson 64)

Garvey was never a Rastafarian. It was however the principles that he espoused that was taken to heart by the Rastafarian movement in determining their own tenets. In the journal article “Words, Sounds and Power in Jamaican Rastafari” by Kasey Qynn Dolin(2001), the following principles stated by Garvey and on which Rasta principles were patterned were:

  1. The black race constituted one nationality, whose native land was Africa.
  2. As the seat of many early civilizations, Africa played a role in the development of world culture.
  3. By its survival of European enslavement, where other races have been wiped out, the black race has revealed its inner endowment.
  4. The past achievements of the race and its survival are sources of pride and self-confidence. They are also a sign of its present and future possibilities.
  5. All races are equal. The present subjugation of blacks is transient; as transient, for example, as the past enslavement of the English by the Romans.
  6. Self-reliance is the only way forward to gain the respect of other nations. Garvey’s teachings were revolutionary, and in the early 1920s his UNIA had an international membership of eleven million. Due to his teachings, many Jamaicans began to pay attention to what was going on in Africa.

Garvey also pointed in a 1927 speech he made that as all people worship gods in their own image, so should the black African people.

            “All people worship their own god and that African-descended people should also worship a god in their own image –a Black God…the God Ethiopia.”

 He further told people to “”Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned. He shall be your Redeemer.” (Dolin)

When the crowning of Ras Tafari (born Lij Tefari) , a descendant of Menelik I, King Solomon and Queen Makeda Sheba as Emperor Haile Selassie I, in Ethiopia was announced almost immediately after Garvey’s preachings in 1930, the black people took this to be a sign of the fulfillment of the prophecy. The Rastafarian movement was born.

Rastafarian tenets are primarily Afro-centric in the sense that all its tenets were geared towards establishing an identity and social world-view that was rooted in African social orientation.

The early days of the Rastafarian movement ran alongside the days of slavery.  At that time, Europeans would go to Africa or “Ethiopia” as it was known to Rastafarians, and seize Africans for slavery.  The captured Africans were then divided into groups and sent into exile to work on white man plantations.  The places were the captives were sent were called “Babylon” by the Rastafarians.

The African slaves viewed their exile as the white man’s attempt to suppress and ultimately silence their culture.  For Rastafarians, this forced exile was only temporary for they strongly believed that the end of the white man’s conquest of the black culture was close at hand and that all Africans would, sooner or later, return to their proper place in Ethiopia.

They believed that the crowning of the “Jah Rastafari” Selassie or the Black Messiah marked the beginning of the end of slavery and oppression suffered by the blacks under their fair skinned tormentors. The “Jah” has come to finally reunite the exiled blacks with their homeland of Africa or in Rastafarian terms, “Zion.” Haile Selassie I himself took on titles with religious meanings and significance such as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” “Light of the World,” and “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” thereby supporting the people’s belief in his messianic role. (Dolin)

In all fairness, Selassie I proved to be a leader who truly had the welfare and benefit of his people at heart. It was not unreasonable or even impossible to respect and look up to him even in the non-spiritual sense. Prior to his coronation in the capacity of chief adviser for Ethiopia, he pushed for the elimination of trade and slavery in Ethiopia in 1924. He also supported projects such as the building of schools and hospitals for the people. As emperor, he sought to organize the country and create a semblance of order by drawing up a constitution first in 1931, followed by a revised version in 1955.

His wife, Empress Menen was also revered and honored by women both Rastafari and non-Rastafari for her good works and sincere devotion to the people.  She is often referred to by Rastafarians as “Queen Omega” or “Mother of Creation.” (Hepner 216)

Leonard P. Howell is credited with starting the first organized branch of the Rastafari in Jamaica in the year 1935 (Chevannes 121).  For him, it was the first step towards gaining back for the blacks superiority over the whites as destiny has always intended.  This would serve as a beacon for other believers to come together and spread the message of Rasta theology. All these groups carried with them the promise of imminent freedom and repatriation of all the exiled blacks.

Between the years of 1960-1970, the Rastafari movement continued to strengthen and gain voice not only locally but also internationally with the introduction of the upbeat reggae music that integrated with it the thoughts and philosophy of Rastafari.

Birth of Reggae

Long before the 70s, Jamaican music was characterized by the off beat emphasis on the second and fourth beats but the music remained largely unnamed.

            It wasn’t until 1968 that the music was identified when Jamaican born music superstar Toots Hibbert coined the phrase in his hit single “Do the Reggae.” Hibbert says that it was a purely invented term that was an off shoot of the Jamaican slang “Streggae” which referred to someone who didn’t dress properly. (“24seven: Music Reggae Goes Back to Toots; Debbie Johnson Talks to One of the Greats of the Jamaican Sound” 11)

Bob Marley and the Rise of Reggae

“Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta:
There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of America,
Stolen from Africa, brought to America,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.”

— 1st stanza of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” (1984)

Bob Marley, along with his group “the Wailers,” was the musical “high priest” of Rastafarians (Barrett 194). It was because of his reggae music that the Rastafari beliefs were brought in front of the international audience.  Some say that never has any other Jamaican personality achieved the same level of fame as Marcus Garvey until Bob Marley came along.  In the book “The Rastafarians,”(1997) author Leonard Barrett Sr. describes Marley’s brand of reggae music:

Most of these songs are caustic social comments, they speak of “the hungry man who is an angry man”; they speak of the crying women, of sorrows, troubles, weakness, and sickness; they also speak of police brutality, jails, and freedom. Jamaican heroes such as Marcus Garvey, Sam Sharpe, and the old Maroon heroes are also honored in them, and last but not least, they sing praises to Ras Tafari and of ganja, the “holy herb.” The music of Rastafarians is not only an artistic creation in the Jamaican society, but an expression of deep-seated social rage (Barrett 197)

Reggae songs written by performers like the influential Rastafari believer Bob Marley and Peter Tosh gained vast popularity not only among Jamaicans but from audiences worldwide.  Some might almost say that reggae was the new “black hymn” in the Caribbean. According to some rock and musical critics, reggae forced the international community to sit up and pay attention.  From obscurity, people suddenly wanted to learn more and find out what all the singing, chanting and marijuana smoking was all about.

While some Rastafarians were exulted at the recognition reggae music brought to their faith, some traditional and more conservative Rastafarians however, were disturbed about the potential commercialization of their faith.  Pleased as they were for the elevation of Rastafarian beliefs in the public eye, they did not want their beliefs to be treated as a “fad” instead of something more spiritual and lasting such as a religion.

Given the influence Reggae has on people and its ubiquitous presence in Jamaican life, politicians were also quick to jump on the bandwagon and try to use the music to their advantage.  In Marley’s One Love Peace concert in 1978, Marley in an effort to promote peace had the incumbent socialist leader and his democratic rival hold hands in what could have been a lasting testament to Reggae music if not for the violence ridden period that led to the 1980 elections. (Oumano)

            As a result many reggae artists were disenchanted and started to distance themselves from what they called “politricks.” “In the 80s, many reggae songs explored other aspects of the ‘sufferahs’ reality–girls, guns and getting paid.” (Oumano)

Symbols of Rastafari


One of the more obvious symbols of Rastafarians are the dreadlocks (Chevannes 145). To “dread” is basically to leave the hair grow naturally without any combing, cutting or interfering with its growth in any way. A dread is viewed differently by Jamaican society.  To the elite it is synonymous with something or someone who is dirty and dangerous, while to the Rastafarians, dread is power freedom and rebellion. Dread means going against an established tradition. Rastas who do this treat their locks as an expression of loyalty, faith and submission to their religion.

Natty Dreadlock in a Babylon: (Natty Dread)
A dreadlock Congo Bongo I. (Natty Dread)
Eh! Children get your culture (Natty Dreadlock)
And don’t stay there and gesture, a-ah, (Natty Dreadlock)
Or the battle will be hotter (Natty Dreadlock)
And you won’t get no supper. (Natty Dreadlock)                                                                                                                           -“Natty Dread” (1974) by dreadlock Rasta Bob Marley

This was also a symbolic contrast between the thick burly hair of the Negroes as opposed to the straight and often thin hair of the white oppressors.  Some dreads believe that in addition for standing for “black beauty” dreads also represented the mane of a lion, the Lion of Judah. Others view it as a “crown” that allows them to identify with the crown of the “Jah” Selassie. Some advance the idea that they are simply following what is written in the Bible. In the Book Numbers 6:5, it is written:

All the days of the vow of his separation there shall be no razor come upon his head until the days be fulfilled in which he separateth himself unto the Lord. He shall be holy and shall the locks of the hair of his head grow.

There are also references to :

” Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shall thou mar the corners of thy beard.” (Leviticus 19:27)

“His head is as the most fine gold. His locks are bushy and black as a raven.” (Song of Solomon 5:11)

Rastafarians however stress that simply “dreading” is not enough to qualify one as a Rasta. Today there are people that may be seen sporting dreadlocks out in the street. A true Rasta however, values the symbolism of such dreads. Some male and female Rastas who choose to dread even go about with their heads covered, leaving it bare only in the company of family members.

The Colors Red, Gold and Green.

Festive though they may seem, the colors of red, yellow and green are symbolic of the more difficult times of struggle by the Negro race (King, Bays, and Foster 98).  Red stands for the blood shed by the Rasta martyrs.  Yellow is the wealth of Africa while the color green is used to symbolize the rich vegetation and lands of Africa.  The symbolism of these colors is further carried in another national symbol, the Ethiopian flag.

The Lion

With the three colors of the Ethiopian flag is a lion that Rastas often take to represent Haile Selassie I.  The lion in its strength and bravery is said to stand for the difficult struggle endured by the black people and Rastafaris at the hand of their oppressors.

Rasta Talk

            An offshoot of Jamaican Creole, the language of Rastafarians is a product of English colonialism.  This is because while Spain was the first to colonize Jamaica, the Spaniards had little influence on the language.

            When the Spaniards were ousted by the British, the Spaniards’ African slaves escaped into the mountains where they eluded British recapture and later became known as the maroons.  The British, after failing to capture the maroons decided to offer them a negotiated peace settlement instead. As the British brought in new slaves from Africa, the maroons who had retained much of their African culture and some of their African language, reinforced their Jamaican Creole with the African influences the new slaves had brought with them.

While the language of Rastafarians has come to be known as Rasta Talk or Dread Talk among non-Rastafarians, Rastafarians refer to their language as “Iyaric” coming from the words I and Amharic, a semitic language spoken in Ethiopia.

“Dread Talk is a comparatively recent adjustment of the lexicon of Jamaica Creole to reflect the religious, political and philosophical positions of the believers in Rastafari.  1  Its earliest expression was within this closed group; its use was highly selective.” (Pollard, 2000, p. 25)

Iyaric or Dread Talk is best described as a combination of 3 kinds of linguistic styles: 1. the redefinition or substitution of meaning for existing Jamaican Creole words, 2. the merging of existing words to entirely new words and 3. the substitution of “I” for the initial syllable of words.  It is this last linguistic style that gives Dread talk its very characteristic tone.

While use of Iyaric has been traditionally limited to Rastafarians, many words from Rasta talk have since become part of mainstream Jamaican Creole since the 1960s, due to the worldwide popularity of Reggae music and its links to Rastafarianism.


Contrary to popular outsider belief, the smoking of marijuana or ganja by the Rastafarians is not for recreational purposes.  The Rastas believe that smoking the two in ritual meditation allows them to reach a level of spiritual enlightenment.  According to Rasta legend, marijuana or the “Holy Herb” was found growing on the tomb of King Solomon, considered to be one of the wisest persons in the Bible. Reggae singers have even promoted its use in the lyrics of songs devoted to the peace and benefits brought by marijuana/ganja “Bush Doctor” (1978) by Peter Tosh, “Smoke 2 Joints” (1983) by The Toyes, and “African Herbsman” (1972) by Bob Marley.


Sociology says that people act or behave according to how they are influenced by their environment.  In the 1930s the African people were helpless slaves who endured oppression and forced exile away from their land, family and loved ones. Given that situation, it is understandable that they felt the need for something to believe in and keep them going.  Hence the timely entrance of Rastafarianism.

Non Rastafarians may not believe or even agree with the Rastafari faith or way of life.  Critics may even say that it is simply a pseudo religion created by desperation.  But, whatever the shortcomings this belief system/ religion may have, Rastafarianism has undoubtedly influenced the lives of its believers in a positive way as it seeks to promote peace, love, equality and simple living.

Works Cited

“24seven: Music Reggae Goes Back to Toots; Debbie Johnson Talks to One of the Greats of the Jamaican Sound.” Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England) : 11. Questia. 12 Nov. 2007 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5005948084>.

Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari Roots and Ideology. 1st ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Dolin, Kasey Qynn. “Words, Sounds and Power in Jamaican Rastafari.” MACLAS Latin American Essays (2001): 55+.

Dreadlocked Miss Jamaica puts Rastas in new light.” (Reuters)

May 21, 2007 Jamaica Gleaner News

Hepner, Randal L. “6 the House That Rasta Built: Church-Building and Fundamentalism Among New York Rastafarians.”  Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration. Ed. R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. 197-228.

King, Stephen A., Barry T. Bays, and P. Renée Foster. Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. Questia. 2 Oct. 2007

Oumano, Elena. “Reggae Says No to ‘Politricks.’.” The Nation 25 Aug. 1997: 24+. Questia. 12 Nov. 2007 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002241656>.

Parker, Jason. “From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology.” The Journal of African American History 91.4 (2006): 497+.

Pollard, Velma. Dread Talk: The Language of Rastafari. Revised ed. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.

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