The Rastafarian Movement

Map of Jamaica


Rastafari (or Rastafarianism) is an indigenous African-based religion and a political protest which, in the beginning, was closely associated with Jamaica only. However, with time, it has gained supporters in other countries.

The original inhabitants of Jamaïca are believed to be the Arawaks who came from South America 2500 years ago. Much later, Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1492 and claimed it for Spain. But, the Spaniards were disappointed that there was no gold on the island and did little to develop it.

In 1655, a British expedition took Jamaïca, but only as a consolation prize because it failed to conquer Santo Domingo. Then, because England was continually at war with France or Spain, and because the Royal Navy could not patrol the entire Carribean, the Crown decided to authorize " buccaneers " to capture and plunder ennemy vessels. Actually, one of these former buccanees, Henry Morgan, became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaïca in 1674.

Jamaïca is now the largest English speaking island in the Carribbean.





During the eighteenth century, British landowners who needed many labourers, a large labour force for their sugar plantations - sugar had been brought to the New World by Columbus -, imported great numbers of African slaves. Over a million slaves were brought to Jamaica during the period of slavery ; two hundred thousand of them were re-exported.

Therefore, Jamaica was not only a plantation colony but it was also a distribution center for other British and Spanish colonies in the New World.

So, there were a continuous flow of new slaves to Jamaica which explains that African traditions were never lost. Indeed, there was always a large proportion of slaves who remembered Africa - and were highly respected for that -, especially those with a knowledge of African medicinal practices and religious rites, who transmitted orally what they knew and restored African beliefs to slaves who were becoming creolised, that is to say Jamaican born.

It became the basis of a culture of resistance : in every sphere of life, the slave sought to preserve his dignity as an African person ; they were deeply convinced that, even after death, the spirit would return to Africa.

Actually, Jamaica was the most prosperous of the British colonies and also the area of the most slave revolts in the New World, and, at the end of the slavery period, there were only three hundred and twenty three thousand slaves who survived.

And this struggle between Whites (Europeans) and Blacks (Africans) did not stop with the abolition of slavery in 1838, because the Blacks who were fortunate enough to go to school were taught that the heroes of the society were British : Columbus, Drake, Hawkins or the pirate Captain Morgan. Thus, the Blacks were forced to deny their African origin, to detest their colour, their culture, in order to be ashamed to admit that they were from Africa.

And the result, in fact, was exactly the opposite : to reply to this white domination, black Jamaican people developped original protests, some kinds of religious and magical cults.



Since the late 18th century, some Jamaican slaves have been noted for their practice of obeah (basically, black magic). Indeed, obeah men were believed to be capable of poisoning people and of dominating them by catching their shadows. From the middle of the 19th century, the British promulgated a series of acts outlawing obeah.

Equally well known in the first half of the 19th century was an initiatory society called MyalMyalist meetings involved singing, dancing in a circle under one leader's direction, and, most importantly, being filled with the Holy Spirit.

The leaders of Myalism seem to have played a major role in slave revolts.

Thus, the article " Myalism and the African Religious Tradition in Jamaica " by Monica Schuler, discussed the importance of Myalism in the life of the slaves in Jamaica. She writes that this religion enabled to form a strong national identity because it united all the different types of slaves, enabling for rebellions and revolts : " The Myal tradition formed the core of a strong and self confident counter-culture ".

In fact, the apparent opposition between myal practices, thought to be " white magic " and the obeah practices, considered to be " black magic ", was not altogether the case.

Indeed, the obeah man was a private practitioner, hired by his client for a specific purpose, while the myal man was the leader of a cult group devoted to religious activity. Like the obeah man, he tried to control the supernatural world of shadows, but protection from obeah

Be that as it may, these magical practices were so disturbing for the British government that a 1760 law prescribed death for any slave who should pretend to have any supernatural power. In fact, slavery in the West Indies was justified by the theory of racial inferiority - an idea which was incompatible with these practices.

In a certain way, Christianity taught that all men were the children of God and were equal before God, and therefore, this doctrine created conflict between the planters and the clergymen.

But, this conflict did not really become serious until the non-conformist religious men arrived : generally, European missionaries were determined to eradicate what they regarded as African superstitious and pagan beliefs and practices. For example, the Church of England denied membership to Afro-Jamaicans until 1834.

Actually, Afro-Jamaicans often found other confessions more supportive of their interests. Methodists, for example, supported the cause of the slaves, leading many Myal-men later to become Methodists as well.

But, the predominant influence was that of the Native (originally Ethiopian) Baptist Church, which started in 1783 with George Lisle and Moses Baker, two American slaves from the United States. Baptism was characterized in 1873 as an unstable mix of Myalism and Christianity.

Indeed, the Jamaican Baptists fought arduously for the abolition of slavery and, even after emancipation, the planters viewed with hostility the attempts made by the Baptist missionaries to provide schooling for the blacks.

Ethiopian Baptist Church

All these religious and magical movements contributed to the birth of the Rastafarian Movement.



The creation of the Rastafarian Movement was greatly inspired by the teachings of Marcus Garvey. The latter was a Jamaïcan journalist exiled in the United States and founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) in 1914. This association was aiming at creating a worldwide confraternity of the Black race and at promoting the development of Africa into a continent of which all Blacks could be proud and eventually wished to return to.

It is said that Garvey, in 1916, told his people to " look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is near ". (white magic), devoted to protecting its members from obeah. was only incidental to his work.

Marcus Garvey

Haile Selassie I

The Rasta Flag

Indeed, shortly after Garvey's prophecy, in October 1930, the prince regent of Ethiopia, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor under the name of Haile Selassie I.

In Ethiopia, he was given the title of " Lion of the tribe of Juda ", which explains why there is a lion on the Rasta flag.

He was also given the title " King of Kings and Lord of Lords ".

In Jamaïca, he was considered a divine being, the Black Christ, an incarnation of God : his name is Jah, a contraction of Yavhé or Jehovah. As a matter of fact, he was considered to be the only ruler of the Black people.

In fact, in his ancient name, Rastafari :

  • " Ras " means " Prince "
  • " Tafari " means " Creator "

And Haile Selassie, his new name, means : " Power of the Trinity ".

Thus the Rastafarian movement really started, in 1933-1934, as a movement closely linked to the ancient history of the Ethiopian civilization and largely based on the identification which Blacks have made with Ethiopia by virtue of biblical symbolism. This is summarized in Psalm 38, often repeated by Rastafarians: " Princes shall come out of Egypt ; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God. "

While the appeal of Ethiopian consciousness developped, Leonard Howell, a Jamaican who had lived in the United States for many years and also an active member of the United Negro Improvement Association, returned to the island. He has been described as " the first man who came to Jamaica and introduced his Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie as Rastafari the creator of heaven and earth. " Then, the first Rastafarian communities began to be created by persons like Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert or Archibald Dunkley.

The earliest Rastafarian communities, which were established in West Kingston in the late 1930's and early 1940's and almost immediately thereafter persecuted by local authorities, retreated to the serenity of the Blue Mountains - which had always been a place of refuge - with their Bibles and farming equipment.

Leonard Howell led the Movement to take on a radical revolutionary stance and in 1933 he was arrested for having publicly called for revenge on Whites for their wickedness.

After his release from prison, Howell organized the " Ethiopian Salvation Society ". He recruited a large following and by 1940 he was the leader of a cult commune deep in the hills of St Catherine, in the Blue Mountains. The commune was called Pinnacle.

The police was soon tipped about the Rastafarians' existence and, in July 1941, policemen raided the commune and arrested seventy Rastas, charging them for acts of violence and for the cultivation of a dangerous drug, marijuana. The Pinnacle commune was an important phase in the early development of the Rastafarians. It established several facets of the Movement : it began the communal pattern of living which has continued among a large segment of Rastas ; the use of marijuana was also adopted as a ritual practice in the hills. The Pinnacle, however, was again raided and destroyed once and for all in the 1950's, ending an important era in the Rastafarian movement. Thus, Rastafari gained numerous supporters - mainly the dispossessed - who established several small camps in what became known as Shanty-Town.

Rastafarians grew more popular all over the island and so decided to assess their strength and unity, forming an organised whole. This led to the calling of a " universal convention " in March 1958 - the Rastafarians called it " Grounation " - which gave the Rastas both positive and negative publicity in the eyes of the government and the public. Moreover, Haile Selassie was at the origin of the OUA (Organization for the Unity of Africa) which contributed to emphasize the political role of Africa.





As we saw, there is a real link between the Rastafarian Movement and the Bible because this was the only source of reading for the Blacks who could read.

The Rastas interpret the Old Testament as the history of the black people. According to them, the Blacks are the true Jews, subjected to the evil White race in divine punishment for their sins. But they can be redeemed by repatriation to Africa, their true home and heaven on Earth.

Paradoxically, at the beginning, this idea of repatriation and Marcus Garvey himself was supported by the Ku Klux Klan because they were favorable to a removal of all the Blacks from America. But this attitude quickly changed because the Rastafarian Movement cannot be reduced to repatriation.

Moreover, this project of Repatriation never really came true - even if some black people have resettled in Ethiopia, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo - because Haile Selassie declared in 1966 that, before repatriation, Rastafarians had to fight against " Babylon ".

So, what is Babylon ?

Babylon is a city of ancient Mesopotamia which is used in the Bible as the image of sin and corruption. Rastafarians often allude to Babylon, when referring to non-believers, especially white men. In fact, in the Rastafari, there is a hatred for the white race based on the belief in the complete superiority of the Black race. For them, all this justifies a doctrine of revenge on Whites for their wickedness and a negation and persecution of the government and legal bodies of Jamaica. For publicly maintaining such ideas, Howell was arrested by the police in 1933.

Actually, Babylon represents all the White-European colonial and imperialist power structure which has oppressed and still oppresses Blacks and other people of color. They consider that for the Blacks, in the past, the shackles were those of slavery, and that nowadays, poverty, illiteracy, inequality and trickery by the white man are their new shackles. Thus, Michelle Cliff, a specialist of Jamaican history, writes : " All the forces which worked to keep these men slaves now worked to keep them poor. And poor most of them remained ".

Consequently, Rastas reject the police and all political institutions, as well as medical treatments, contraception or marriage.

The death of Haile Selassie in 1975 meant the break up of a certain idea of Rastafari, because the Emperor of Ethiopia was thought to be immortal.

Today, if the fight is less strong, the symbols and social ideas still exist.



The Rastafarian movement is an apolitical one : its members refuse to vote (vote is an institution of Babylon).

It is a "democratic" movement. Rastafarians are attached to the ideas of tolerance, justice and equal rights. Actually, Rastafari is not a passive theology, a theology of submissiveness : Rastafarians have a God but no chief ; consequently, there is individual respect, every Rasta is allowed to express his opinion.

It is a non-violent movement : indeed, war is totally useless because Jah/God has his own solutions to solve the problems.

Some elements appear to be very important for Rastafarians :

  • The use of Ganjah (marijuana), nicknamed " friend of the Poor " or " Grass of Wisdom " has two uses for the Rastas :
- it can be used as a sacrament, like the incense in Christian churches, that is to say, as a religious rite, an aid to meditation, to bring divine inspiration.

- or it can be used to cure diseases of the body or of the mind and to enhance one's strength.

  • Their diet is extremely rigid : Rasta men try to eat saltless - with few condiments - vegetarian food, " I-tal " food, as they call it ( " I-tal " comes from " vital "). Most of the time, they do not eat animal flesh at all and, above all, not pigs, because, for Rastas, as it is said in the Bible, pigs are scavengers of the earth. They can eat small fishes - not more than twelve inches long - but no crabs, lobsters nor shrimps, considered to be the scavengers of the sea.
So, they try to never eat any chemically prepared or unnatural meals and they drink only herbal drinks, like tea for example.

  • The flag of the Rastafarian movement contains three colors : red, the color of the church of Rastafarians and also the symbol of the blood that martyrs have shed in the history of the Rastas, yellow, representing the wealth of Rastas' homeland, and green, the symbol of the beautiful nature of the promised land of Ethiopia.
  • Rastas men have rules of behavior : they do not shave, they cannot be amputated of any part of their bodies.
Indeed, one of the most popular signs of a true Rastafarian is the way he wears his hair. It is believed that this wild appearance, dreadlocks, came from the mountain experience of the cult - a time when it was impossible to cut their hair. It is also believed that it was an imitation of Ethiopian tribal warriors. However, Rastafarians themselves claim that the symbol is religious, commemorating the Lion of Judah's mane as well as the strength of Samson. Thus, they quote the Bible: " They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh ". (Leviticus, 21, 5)



The Rastafarian speech has been labelled " soul language ", " ghetto language ", and " Dread talk ". Here are some kinds of expressions of the Rastas.

  • The Rastafarians often use the letter " I ", with reference to the Roman numeral " I " in the name of Haile Selassie I. Thus, they employ expressions like " I-man ", meaning " I " or " myself ", or " I-dren ", meaning " children " or " brethren ". It is used to denote a close contact with the divine. To express the plural, instead of " we " or " they ", they use the expression " I and I ".
  • Likewise, they often say " Man " or " this/that man ", referring to the Bible where these terms are often used. To the contrary, the word " Men " is usually never used and above all refers to the police, hostile to the Rastas.
  • Like for the word " Man ", the word " beloved ", is often used in the Bible and by the Rastas.
  • Rastas usually shout " Rastafari ! " when they see a flash of lightning in the sky, a rainbow, a rainfall, and even if there is a flood or an earthquake, because these natural phenomena are considered expressions of God himself and cannot be bad.
  • Finally, we can note the famous Rasta greeting " Peace and Love ", increasingly replaced by the expression " Respect due ".



Reggae is a Jamaican form of music that developed at the end of the 1960's in Kingston, originally among poor and working-class people. In the beginning, as a popular music - whose roots are in black American sounds (rhyth'm blues, ska, rock steady...) and in African traditional music -, whose lyrics were mainly focused on Rastafari.

On 21 April 1966, an event of extraordinary significance for all the followers of Rastafari occurred. Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, arrived at Kingston airport.

And, in 1967, Bob Marley joined the Rastafarian Movement, contributing, with other singers like Peter Tosh, Burning Spear or Jimmy Cliff, to broadcast the Rastafarian message.

But, it was above all to be in the 1970's and after 1975, with the success of Bob Marley, that Reggae and Rastafarianism became really well known all over the world. With his group, the Wailers, and even when Bob Marley sang about the " rude boys " of the Jamaican slums or composed love ballads, the basic message of his work was political: an end to racial oppression, and a turning toward a black-centered Christianity that would make all blacks free. More widely, it is a conscious music aiming at uniting all ages, ethnic groups and backgrounds. That is why reggae concerts are always peaceful, because the music is always peaceful, representing love and unity.

Bob Marley

At the beginning of the year 1976, the reggae-mania boomed in the States and Rolling Stone Magazine named Bob Marley & The Wailers " Band of the Year ".

Peter Tosh

Burning Spear

Jimmy Cliff

But, on 3 December 1976 a tragedy happened : six armed men shot at Bob Marley, his wife and the Wailers managers Don Taylor and Don Kinsey.

It is interesting to know actually that, in 1976, Jamaica, because of the intensity of political violence, was under martial law. Political warfare was taking place in the streets of the island's major cities. The population was divided between the working class, poor and dispossessed, supporting the socialists and in favour of the third world Prime Minister Michael Manley's People's National Party (PNP) and the elite backing the opposition Edward Seaga's Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), a deeply anti-communist party. Both camps made use of armed street gangs recruited from the ghettos of Kingston. Additionally, offshore influences deepened the conflict; the leftist PNP in solidarity with regional socialists and the JLP, backed by the wealthy Western powers.

In an attempt to quell the political violence, the PNP planned a peace concert to be entitled the " Smile Jamaica Concert ". This concert was not political, it was just intended to cool the country down, and make it stop thinking so intensely about politics and think more about itself and the fact that people in the outside world were coming to like and admire it.

But, since Manley's People's National Party was in power and it was their cultural ministry that prevailed upon Marley to give the concert, it was seen as a political act. And enemies of Bob Marley in the rival Jamaican Labor Party, as well as ghetto associates all pointed to Bob Marley as the cause of their problems. As a result, a number of people conspired to assassinate Marley in the days before the concert.

In reality, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley is known today to have been organized by the CIA - according to the testimony of an ex-agent, Philip Agee - because someone like Bob Marley, who was supporting the struggle for freedom, among the poor, and all over the world, in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and behind the Iron Curtain, was a very threatening figure for them. It had become imperative for the CIA that this radical social force had to be taken out, because, accompanying the high number of Jamaican immigrants, the reggae had rapidly produced a distinct cultural explosion within the cities where these immigrants had largely settled, among them Miami, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, London and Toronto. Reggae music combined with the use of marijuana, produced a significant cultural influence on America's middle and upper classes, who reflected not only the artistic and fashion styles of the Rastas, but increasingly adopted a militant posture influenced by the lyrics of artists such as U-Roy, Big Youth, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Burning Spear, Steele Pulse, Third World. But, of all these groups, it was the Wailers, led by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, which became the most celebrated proponent of revolutionary Rasta music ; it was similar to the hippie movement, but more politically evolved.

Two days after the attempted assassination, Bob Marley performed the concert in Kingston, after which he flew to the United Kingdom. The Wailers followed Bob Marley and they recorded Exodus in 1977. With this album Bob Marley's international status as a superstar was established. In the U.K., Bob Marley received a very important ring, owned by the Ethiopian emperor, from his grandchild. In May of the same year, Bob Marley found out that he had cancer. A toe needed to be amputated, but he refused because that would have been against his beliefs as a Rastafarian.

In April 1978 Bob Marley returned to Jamaica to perform the One Love Peace Concert in front of the Prime Minister Michael Manley and of the Leader of the Opposition, Edward Seaga. He arranged a meeting on stage between the two rivals. And at the end of the same year, he visited Africa for the first time, going to Kenya, Zimbabwe - a country to which Bob Marley dedicated one of his finest songs -, and to Ethiopia, spiritual home of Rastafari. That year, he received the Peace Medal of the Third World from the United Nations.

The life of Bob Marley nearly ended in 1981, when cancer broke out in several of his major organs, including his brain. He forced himself to perform one final concert, on 23 September 1980 at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before canceling his tour.

Reggae music suffered from the early death of its only superstar and undisputed king, Bob Marley. Six years following his death, Peter Tosh was gunned down in an " apparent robbery ". on September 11 1987 in Kingston.

Immediately after the disappearance of the " Old School " reggae generation, mainstream record companies elevated a new class of " artists " whose lyrics reflected the opposite of the powerful revolutionary message that arose from the initial Rastas. Actually, " New School " reggae largely reflected an obsession with violence, drugs, sex, egoism and materialism.

As Rojah Stephans explained on a recent television program, even if the CIA was not directly responsible for the deaths of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, the shift in cultural focus of reggae music since these men's deaths has accomplished the very goal of Western intelligence establishments.

However, the voice of the sufferer and the revolutionary within reggae and Rasta music has never completely been silenced.

Bob Marley's legend continues to live on outside Jamaica, in Africa, where it inspires a generation of reggae-men following the footsteps of the two singers of the 1980's, the South African reggae star Lucky Dube - who reinterpreted the message of redemption contained in reggae in the context of the liberation struggle in South Africa - and Alpha Blondy from the Ivory Coast. Moreover, the emergence of several large and well-established Rastafarian communities has become a notable phenomenon in post-independence South Africa, as in Ethiopia or Ivory Coast. It has also been estimated that there are over 15 000 Rastafarians living in New York City and its suburbs and that one of the biggest Rastafarian communities is in Birmingham (U.K.).

One of these new figures of reggae is an Ivoirian protest singer, Tiken Jah Fakoly, who discovered his musical vocation in 1979 at the age of twelve, when listening to Marley's classic Africa Unite : " It was a totally liberating experience ", recalls Fakoly with pride, " it didn't make me a Rasta, but from that moment on, I stopped using a comb and let my hair knot into dreadlocks ". Fakoly has also chosen to carry on Bob Marley's spirit of protest, reminding fans that " Africa is still not united ! "



Reggae and Rastafarian culture have contributed to present to our generations a wonderful opportunity. Through this movement the humble musicians of Kingston's ghettoes demonstrated that they could have an impact on people from a variety of ethnic, class and nationalistic backgrounds throughout the globe. As a matter of fact, reggae music has evolved into a dynamic force which has inspired thousands throughout the world.

Nevertheless, as we saw, the Rastafarian movement has changed. Cedric Brooks, a famous musician of the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari group, thinks indeed that today, the Rastafarian movement lacks depth and a direction, and that reggae is created only with an economic purpose, (because it is "in") even if the motto is the same, that is to say to teach love, absolute peace and brotherhood among humans and peoples ; that is why the Rastafarian movement wants everybody to get to know African culture, which is still strangely unknown today. Thus, the Rastafarian culture has appeared to transcend economics, politics, gender and language. Nowadays, this movement has two million followers throughout the world and many more fans.