The movement which grew from the slums of Jamaica in the 1930s made considerable impact as a political and social force.
A DISHEVELLED man sits in a street cafe occasionally brushing back his thick dreadlocks which are half hidden beneath a floppy red, gold and green coloured beanie. As he gently nods in time with the pulsating reggae music blaring from the cheap, throbbing speakers, a speck of ash falls from a marijuana joint onto a T-shirt which bears the image of the legendary Bob Marley.
The world of Rastafarianism can certainly be a confusing one … part lifestyle choice, part bona fide religion, with few formal boundaries between the two. Not too long ago, Rastafarians were viewed with suspicion and distrust by many societies, yet they are now widely tolerated and occasionally even embraced by the mainstream. In fact, the scene I have just described might occur anywhere from Senegal to Brazil, Thailand to Sweden.
But just who is a real Rastafarian? And what does the future hold for this colourful, yet numerically small group of devotees?
The roots of rasta
Thirty-five years ago on Aug 28, 1975, the Ethiopian Marxist military junta known (by its Amharic acronym) as the DERG announced the death of the aged Emperor Haile Selassie I. Selassie, 82 at the time of his death, had been living under house arrest in his palace ever since a military coup had deposed him a year earlier (on Sept 12, 1974).
Although he was old and infirm, his death was shrouded in mystery. However, that mystery pales in comparison to the effect that Selassie had on a group of his followers.
Hailing from a distinguished family (it is claimed that he was a direct descendent of the biblical King Solomon), he was born Tafari Makonnen in 1892. Soon after his birth, the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II scored a historic military victory when he decisively defeated the Italian army at the Battle of Adwa to preserve Ethiopia’s independence.
This defeat rankled so much with the Italians that under the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, they were to attempt another invasion of Ethiopia 40 years later. This time, Ethiopia was led by Tafari Makonnen who adopted the title Ras Tafari upon becoming heir to the throne and Haile Selassie upon being crowned Emperor in 1930.
Providence Brown, a Trinidadian musician and one-time Rastafarian who still maintains his dreadlocks, takes up the tale. “As far as I know, Rastafarianism grew out of Haile Selassie’s defence of Ethiopia against Mussolini’s war-mongering. At that time, almost all of black Africa was under colonial rule by the white man, except Ethiopia. Even though Selassie was not able to prevent the invasion, many believed he was a special man. He travelled around Europe and America and gained much respect and many followers.”
Indeed in 1936, Selassie made an impassioned plea before the League of Nations (the forerunner of today’s United Nations) that marked him as a statesman of some note. Curiously it was at this point that his life story, coupled with his nation’s leading role in combating imperialism, led a small group of people to dub him a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
While that may sound blasphemous to Christians, it should be remembered that Christ himself was viewed as a blasphemer by orthodox Jews who were waiting for their Messiah. As with many religions, Rastafarianism has its roots in a political conflict and some of the proponents of the new religion were keen to introduce the concept of a black Messiah.
A number of important books helped form the nascent religion and build a mythology around Selassie, who was seen to fulfil some of the vague prophesies of religious texts. The King James version of the Bible and the Kebra Negast (a sort of Ethiopian Orthodox bible) formed the base texts, while a number of books written and published in the first half of the last century (The Holy Piby, The Royal Parchment Scroll Of Black Supremacy and The Promised Key) added to the new religion.
The thoughts of Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who founded the black power Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s, were also woven into the Rastafarian theology.
In the post-World War II scenario, in which Ethiopia regained its independence under Selassie’s rule, the first wave of Rastafarians from the United States and Jamaica began moving to communes in Ethiopia.
In 1948, Selassie himself donated 202ha of his private land in Shashamane, central Ethiopia, to enable members of the emerging Rastafarian movement to settle in his country. While he himself did not appear to believe that he was a reincarnation of Christ, records indicate that Selassie had a very warm relationship with his followers.
As time went by, a number of developments further defined the Rastafarian movement. It is believed that adherents of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya grew “dreaded locks” when hiding in the hills during their vicious guerilla war against the British colonial authorities.
Soon followers of Rastafarianism began adopting this look, citing various passages of the Bible and Kebra Negast.
The consumption of marijuana to facilitate spiritual awareness also became tied up with the religion, although it could be argued that most mainstream religions use sensory deprivation and/or stimulation to heighten the spirituality of adherents. Many Rastafarians abstained from eating pork, and in some cases, meat altogether.
In 1966, the visit of Selassie to Jamaica became an extraordinary event. Feted by crowds of tens of thousands wherever he went, Selassie gained a whole new legion of followers. Crucially these were to include many Jamaican musicians, notably Bob Marley. These converts to Rastafarianism used the emerging reggae genre as a method of evangelising their new religion. Thanks to reggae’s remarkable success as a musical export, the Rastafarian religion and culture became known throughout the world.
Lifestyle or religion?
So widespread is reggae music and the dreadlock culture that one might be tempted to think the world is full of millions of hard-core Rastafarians.
However, just as every one who wears a Che Guevara T-shirt is not necessarily a card-carrying member of his local communist party, so the vast majority of dreadlocked reggae lovers are not formally Rastafarians.
Musician Brown describes his initial exposure to the religion in the 1970s: “I grew up in San Fernando in Trinidad. Rastafarians at the time could go to orthodox churches and there were also churches called the Twelve Tribes of Israel.”
As with many religions, Rastafarianism developed a number of sects, namely the Nyahbinghi Order, Bobo Ashanti and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
“I think Rastafarianism had various phases. There was a lot more than just Selassie and his history. In the 1960s and 70s, there was a lot of identification with black power too, and many people gravitated towards the belief. But it was never very formal; I went to an orthodox church but considered myself a Rastafarian.”
At that time, despite the popularity of Marley and other reggae musicians, the authorities weren’t always fond of the religion’s adherents. “When Rastafarianism first became popular in the Caribbean, the government and the police didn’t like it. When I was a teenager, we would be harassed by the police. My generation helped put a stop to that,” recalls Brown.
“There were no strict rules. Some were vegetarians, some didn’t eat pork, others didn’t drink alcohol. There used to be these awesome parties/festivals that would go on for days. There would be great vegetarian food, people playing drums and chanting African songs constantly. It was just great, man!”
Eventually, however, Brown drifted away from the core religion, even though he still carries a lot of it with him. “Now I look at life differently. When I was younger, I took a lot of reef (marijuana) but I gave that up. There are so many other things to do in this life. The world is much bigger than sitting around being stoned. I am more into the power of the mind. I became a free-thinker over the years. Rastafarianism is not about the hair but the heart. If you are someone who challenges injustice and defends the rights of humans, animals, plants and the Earth itself, then you are all right in my book.”
Rastafarian Barbara Makeda Blake Hannnah authored the bookRastafari – The New Creation in 1981. In an updated commentary from 2002 entitled If Bob Marley Was Still Here, she lamented the commercialisation of what was once a militant and serious religion, and argues that the intended political impact of the movement has all but disappeared.
Interestingly enough, Nándor Tánczos, a Rastafarian from New Zealand, was an MP from 1999 to 2008, representing the Green Party. Tánczos, who maintains rasnandor.blogspot.com and nandor.net.nz, introduced a series of interesting proposals in the New Zealand parliament, including the Clean Slate Bill (to wipe minor convictions off a record if the offender hasn’t reoffended for seven years), and a failed attempt at marijuana law reform.
On his website, Tánczos says: “Being a Rasta is who I am, and it influences everything I do. It influences every moment of my life and my politics. Because politics is one expression of the philosophy that underpins, you know?”
Tánczos explains his reasons for venturing into formal politics: “I come from an anarchist background, politically. The idea of parliamentary politics was a total anathema to me for a long time. People ask me: ‘Isn’t parliament an elite power structure designed to maintain the status quo?’ Of course, that’s why we need to change it. I felt the Greens were able to articulate a different kind of vision of what politics was, and a different vision of the future of this country and what this world could be, and so I joined the Green Party.
“As a Rastafarian man, a constant fact of life is people trying to pigeonhole, stereotype, belittle and objectify me. This became especially true after stepping into Babylon (the Rastafarian term for an evil Empire!) and entering the New Zealand Parliament. But Rasta livity (way of life) is holistic and mindful of what is holy. It’s about not being ashamed to assert my own philosophy, while fully recognising and respecting everyone else’s as well.” Malaysian Rastas?
Reggae Joe is a local Malay lad who became so fascinated with reggae music that he grew his hair into dreads and formed the roots reggae band Pure Vibracion which released its debut album Peace And Lovelast year after many years of live gigging.
He explains: “My dreads symbolise the roots of the man and my spirituality. But when I first started to grow dreadlocks, I can say it was because of fashion, inspired by Max Cavalera singer from SoulFly, Jonathan Davis from Korn and Aru (of another local band Koffin Kanser).”
Growing dreads can be quite an undertaking, says Joe. “When I first started to dread my hair, I didn’t know much about it. The early period of about three to six months, you could go mental from the itchiness! It’s painful because your hair is tied up straight from your scalp. I had to sleep upside down or even on my front for almost three months! To make your new dreads stick together fast, it’s good to wash it with salt water cause it makes your hair sticky and it’s faster to tie the dreads together.”
“It’s not really cheap to maintain a good healthy dreadlock. Washing is easy, but keeping it dry is the hardest part. I only use two products for my dreads. One is tightening gel mixed with lime and aloe vera for making your dreads tighter, and I use a shampoo that is a mix of tea tree, rosemary and peppermint. They cost about RM80 each but there are a lot more products for dreads.”
Joe did feel a certain sense of alienation when he first decided to go dread. “I think you got to be strong mentally and patience is needed to carry a dreadlock upon your head. People look at you like an alien. They get scared of you, think that you are crazy cause they think you’ve not been washing your hair for many months or years. You feel left out.”
However, he says that this stigma has been lifted somewhat. “Now Malaysians are more understanding about dreads. After so many years of growing dreads, I can feel good positive vibes flowing inside me.”
Despite his interest in the culture, Joe is not particularly interested in the theology of Rastafarianism. “I see Rasta more as a way of life than a religion. Rastafarians believe in respect for all living creatures and hold self-respect in high regard. Spiritual freedom is also an important aspect. The movement is about belief in resistance of oppression, and pride in African heritage. (Well, I’m proud of the Malaysian heritage and culture.)
“They come from an environment of great poverty, depression, racism and class discrimination. They send a message of their people’s pride, freedom from oppression, a united world, peace, love, strong humanity spirit and positive vibes.”
Despite having been a member of Malaysian rasta cliques for a decade, Joe does not actually know any Malaysians who follow the Rastafarian religion strictly.
“The ones I know are not here in Malaysia. So I’m getting more knowledge about reggae, Rastafarians and dreadlock from these guys. I know many friends that only take Rastafarian as their way of life, just sending good words and vibes to each other.
As for the various pubs and stalls around KL that use the reggae/Rasta moniker, Joe has this to say: “Our band has played in some reggae bars in KL; the place looks reggae, but they play hip/hop and rock ‘n’ roll songs so that takes away from the ‘reggaeness’ of the place. There are also places like Babylon Bar in Langkawi which is run by fellow dreadlockers and they have lots of real reggae influences. It helps that it’s next to the beach and on the island! You can tell reggae is definitely growing here in Malaysia; some of them can feel the vibes.”
A future for Rasta?
Despite some claims that Rastafarians number around a million worldwide, there really does not seem to be that many. Even in Jamaica, the cradle of Rastafarianism, only around 20,000 people identified it as their religion in the last census (2001), while the number of Rastafarians in Ethiopia is believed to number only 200 or so (Selassie was deposed in 1974 when the new government confiscated all but 11ha of their commune).
There are small pockets and communities spread throughout the Caribbean as well as in Britain and the United States, but it is possible that the heydey of the Rastafarian religion has come and gone. What is certain, however, is that the music, cultural icons and simple messages of peace and love have made a permanent mark on our collective consciousness.
By Martin Vengadesan, The Star