The Impact of Rastafarianism
A W Sangster
Sunday, August 29, 2004
Title: RASTAFARI The New Creation 5th Edition
Author: Barbara Blake Hannah
Publisher: Jamaica Media Productions Ltd 2002
Reviewed by: AW Sangster
The publication authored by Barbara Blake Hannah is now in its 5th Edition, with each revision being updated with new information and insights into the Rastafarian movement. This latest version has a section on the phenomena of "White Rastas"
The author is herself an ardent member of the movement and has practical experience as journalist, author, broadcaster and filmmaker. She also served as an independent senator from 1984-1987.
There is no question that the Rastafarian movement has had a considerable impact first on Jamaican society and subsequently- mainly through the influence of Bob Marley and reggae music - worldwide.
The Impact of Rastafarianism. This has been seen in a number of areas of human experience.
Dress Codes. The Rastafarian ethos is that the body is a sacred vessel and the Rastafarian Empress dresses modestly in clothes which do not reveal the beauty of her body to the casual observer. The Rastafarian woman is seen as the other half of the creation and is described as the Wo(mb)man. Dreadlocks, made popular by Bob Marley and other reggae musicians, has in recent times become a fashion testament with many - particularly young people -adopting the style without necessarily being "Rasta." Dreadlocks, says the author, "is the covenant of a Nazarite, and one of the identifying marks of Rastafari, as much as the wearing of Red, Gold and Green."
Speech. This social aspect of communication has been impacted by the so-called "Rasta" talk. Terms like:
Irie, I-Man, I and I, Ital, One-Love, Babylon (the Police and the Establishment) Baldheads (non Rastas), and many more. It should be noted that the "I" represents a fundamental concept in the faith. The "I" represents the individual's personality. You do not say 'me' but rather "I". And "I and I" means "We."
Music. The music associated with Rastafarianism is essentially the music of protest, on the one hand and links with Africa on the other. Many Rastas were imprisoned for using marijuana (the Herb). The imprisonment and harassment led to the music of protest, the ghetto, police brutality, suffering, hunger, poverty and downpressing. Bob Marley developed his music of protest, and his album Exodus was later voted by Time Magazine and the BBC as the album of the Century.
Through the trials and struggle came the message of Rasta Love. Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari early proponents of the music with chanting and drumming helped to bring the music to wider popular understanding. The other dominating feature of the music is the African connection. The author argues that: "Rastafari is emphatic that the Black Man must return to Africa, both physically and spiritually to prepare for the day when God's holy works will be manifest on earth."
It is unfortunate that in the popularisation of the music, there have been aberrations in the author's view where the music has not been uplifting and slack lyrics have pervaded the musical domain. The author believes that there has been a turning point in this tendency and a restoration of the music's higher heights.
Rastafarian Beliefs. We must in analysing the impact of the Rastafarian movement move to the basic question as to what do Rastafarians believe? I spent time discussing the book with the author as I sought to gain a better understanding of the belief system of the Rastafarians. The author argues that Rastafari is a religion in evolution, and philosophical discourse is continually changing the religion as it grows in size and knowledge. Some of the issues being debated relate to Jesus of Nazareth's divinity, virgin birth and resurrection. There are many facets to their belief as expounded by Barbara Blake Hannah
The Bible. In a chapter entitled, The Bible- Holy Writ or Propaganda, the discussion centres on the role of the Bible in the religion. One of the contradictions is that while the movement directs close study of the scriptures, there is also the view that the Bible is not to be taken literally - if at all - because it is merely a version of the original truth. There are many quotations in the book referring to passages that are taken to refer to Haile Selassie and other events. Fundamentally Rastafarians see the Bible as an account of the Black race and African history, the true children of Israel of whom Isaiah prophesied. Reference is made in this chapter to the Black Madonna of Poland, which she states is described by Pope Paul as the holiest icon of Catholicism.
Some Rastafarians argue that some earlier interpretations of the Bible were geared to justify slavery and to denigrate black people cursed as the children of Ham. Many of these interpretations have long since been discarded or recognised to be erroneous. One would also have to take issue with the author who makes the statement that "most Christians unquestioningly believe that the Biblical characters were white." This is not so as a large part of Biblical history is based in the lands of Mesopotamia where the people are of mixed race - neither white nor black.
Jesus. The author makes the point that the mainstream Christian church - mainly the Catholic branch - seems preoccupied with the worship and deification of Jesus of Nazareth, rather than demanding imitation of the life of Jesus as a direct personal objective for followers. Fundamentally however, Rastafarians do believe that God manifested himself as man in Christ. The interpretation of that belief is the critical element of the teaching, and the author argues that Christians have an obsession with the death of Christ. This may be partly true, but this has to be coupled with an equal obsession with the resurrection. Rastas have a strong sense of identification with the resurrection of Jesus and the concept of spiritual rebirth.
Readings in the Book of Revelation lead us to the next item.
Haile Selassie and Ethiopia. The crowning of a black king in Ethiopia was seen as a direct fulfilment of several prophecies.
. "He shall come through the lineage of Solomon, and sit on David's throne." (Acts 2.9)
. "He shall come as King of Kings and Lord of Lords." (Rev 19.16)
. "He shall come as the Lion of Judah." (Rev 5.5)
The movement saw this event as a manifestation of God as a black king. A crucial sentence states the position. For Rastafarians to regard HIM as God, places Emperor Haile Selassie 1 in the same category of other men who have been deified - Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammed and the Dalai Lama - to name a few avatars (manifestations) whose followers consider them true Gods walking among men.
Ethiopia features extensively in the book. Among these are:
. The Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon who allegedly "seduced her with a trick." Makeda the Queen of Ethiopia bore a son, Menelik, who became the first Emperor of the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty.
. A visit was paid by Menelik to Solomon his father in Jerusalem and he was very disappointed at the life of depravity that he witnessed at the royal court. It is stated that he stole the "Ark of the Covenant" which is supposed to be in an Ethiopian Orthodox St. Mary of Zion Church in Aksum - a holy city 623 km North of Addis Ababa. This is an interesting legend which does not relate to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians many years after Solomon's death recorded in the Old Testament. The implications of this possibility are the potential for historical research (already in train Note 1) or the makings of an international novel. It may even, as the author suggests, be the potential basis for World War 3. We must wait and see, says the author.
. The Ethiopian eunuch is recorded as being converted by Philip (Acts 8 27-39)
Mrs. Blake Hannah is heavily involved in the Repatriation Movement. The movement argues that the slavery of Africans brought to the Americas in the infamous Middle Passage, deserves compensation. She argues that in the same way that the Jewish people received compensation for the crime of Hitler's Germans - the Holocaust - against 6 million Jews, so the 60 million Africans who were the victims of forced migration, enslavement and colonial brutalities and racism should be entitled to establish a Homeland in the country from which their ancestors originated. We shall have to see how much traction the repatriation movement will generate. (See Note 2)
A concern that the author notes is the lack of unity of the Rastafarian Movement. There appear to be a number of contradictions or inconsistencies in some of the stated positions. There is no recognition of the Jamaican Rastafari movement by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Jamaica gained independence in 1962, not 1964. Finally the stated position of the Emperor Haile Selassie as a faithful believer in Christ and not accepting worship must be taken into account. Enlightened debate would be a useful direction to follow.
The book of just over 140 pages has many illustrations and seeks as mentioned above, to articulate the major philosophical beliefs of the Rastafarian faith. These valuable insights come from the pen of a well-known and respected practitioner. As such it will be useful to the curious onlooker as well as the serious researcher. The 13 chapters give a broad picture of the historical growth of the movement and even argue the benefits of Marihuana (The Holy Herb)
Note 1. Makeda, Ethiopia and the Lost Ark of the Covenant. The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock
Note 2. Rastafari Information service website at: www.geocities.com/maskek2001 and
The International Reparations Support Group at: www.geocities.com/I_makeda The meaning and marks of the Rastafarian movement.