Rastafari  

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"The first reggae single that sang about Rastafari and reached Number 1 in the Jamaican charts was "Bongo Man" by Little Roy in 1969."--Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Rastafari, also known as the Rastafari movement or Rastafarianism, is a religion that developed in Jamaica during the 1930s. It is classified as both a new religious movement and a social movement by scholars of religion. There is no central authority in control of the movement and much diversity exists among practitioners, who are known as Rastafari, Rastafarians, or Rastas.

Rasta beliefs are based on a specific interpretation of the Bible. Central is a monotheistic belief in a single God, referred to as Jah, who is deemed to partially reside within each individual. Rastas accord key importance to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974; many regard him as the Second Coming of Jesus and Jah incarnate, while others see him as a human prophet who fully recognised Jah's presence in every individual. Rastafari is Afrocentric and focuses attention on the African diaspora, which it believes is oppressed within Western society, or "Babylon". Many Rastas call for this diaspora's resettlement in Africa, a continent they consider the Promised Land, or "Zion". Some practitioners extend these views into black supremacism. Rastas refer to their practices as "livity". Communal meetings are known as "groundations", and are typified by music, chanting, discussions, and the smoking of cannabis, the latter regarded as a sacrament with beneficial properties. Rastas emphasise what they regard as living "naturally", adhering to ital dietary requirements, wearing their hair in dreadlocks, and following patriarchal gender roles.

Rastafari originated among impoverished and socially disenfranchised Afro-Jamaican communities in 1930s Jamaica. Its Afrocentric ideology was largely a reaction against Jamaica's then-dominant British colonial culture. It was influenced by both Ethiopianism and the Back-to-Africa movement promoted by black nationalist figures such as Marcus Garvey. The religion developed after several Protestant Christian clergymen, most notably Leonard Howell, proclaimed that Haile Selassie's crowning as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 fulfilled a Biblical prophecy. By the 1950s, Rastafari's countercultural stance had brought the movement into conflict with wider Jamaican society, including violent clashes with law enforcement. In the 1960s and 1970s, it gained increased respectability within Jamaica and greater visibility abroad through the popularity of Rasta-inspired reggae musicians, most notably Bob Marley. Enthusiasm for Rastafari declined in the 1980s, following the deaths of Haile Selassie and Marley, but the movement survived and has a presence in many parts of the world.

The Rasta movement is decentralised and organised on a largely sectarian basis. There are several denominations, or "Mansions of Rastafari", the most prominent of which are the Nyahbinghi, Bobo Ashanti, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each offering a different interpretation of Rasta belief. There are an estimated 700,000 to 1,000,000 Rastas across the world. The largest population is in Jamaica, although small communities can be found in most of the world's major population centres. Most Rastas are of black African descent, and some groups accept only black members.

Contents

Reggae

Reggae was born amidst poor blacks in Trenchtown, the main ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica, who listened to radio stations from the United States. Jamaican musicians, many of them Rastas, soon blended traditional Jamaican folk music and drumming with American R&B, and jazz into ska, that later developed into reggae under the influence of soul.

Reggae began to enter international consciousness in the early 1970s, and Rastafari mushroomed in popularity internationally, largely due to the fame of Bob Marley, who actively and devoutly preached Rastafari, incorporating nyabinghi and Rastafarian chanting into his music, lyrics and album covers. Songs like "Rastaman Chant" led to the movement and reggae music being seen as closely intertwined in the consciousness of audiences across the world (especially among oppressed and poor groups of African Americans and Native Americans, First Nations Canadians, Australian Aborigines and New Zealand Māori, and throughout most of Africa). Other famous reggae musicians with strong Rastafarian elements in their music include Peter Tosh, Freddie McGregor, Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Ras Michael, Jah Cure, Turbulence, Prince Lincoln Thompson, Bunny Wailer, Prince Far I, Israel Vibration, The Congos, Mikey Dread and hundreds more.

Reggae music expressing Rasta doctrine

The first reggae single that sang about Rastafari and reached Number 1 in the Jamaican charts was "Bongo Man" by Little Roy in 1969. Early Rasta reggae musicians (besides Marley) whose music expresses Rastafari doctrine well are Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer (in Blackheart Man), Prince Far I, Linval Thompson, Ijahman Levi (especially the first 4 albums), Misty-in-Roots (Live), The Congos (Heart of the Congos), The Rastafarians, The Abyssinians, Culture, Big Youth, and Ras Michael And The Sons Of Negus. The Jamaican jazz percussionist Count Ossie, who had played on a number of ska and reggae recordings, recorded albums with themes relating to Rasta history, doctrine, and culture.

Rastafari doctrine as developed in the '80s was further expressed musically by a number of other prominent artists, such as Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Third World, The Gladiators, Black Uhuru, Aswad, and Israel Vibration. Rastafari ideas have spread beyond the Jamaican community to other countries including Russia, where artists such as Jah Division write songs about Jah. Afro-American hardcore punk band Bad Brains are notable followers of the Rastafari movement and have written songs ("I Against I", etc.) that promote the doctrine.

In the 21st century, Rastafari sentiments are spread through roots reggae and dancehall, subgroups of reggae music, with many of their most important proponents promoting the Rastafari religion, such as Capleton, Sizzla, Anthony B, Barrington Levy, Turbulence, Jah Mason, Pressure, Midnite, Natural Black, Daweh Congo, Luciano, Cocoa Tea, or Richie Spice. Several of these acts have gained mainstream success and frequently appear on the popular music charts. Most recently artists such as Damian Marley (son of Bob Marley) have blended hip-hop with reggae to re-energize classic Rastafari issues such as social injustice, revolution and the honour and responsibility of parenthood using contemporary musical style.

Berlin-based dub techno label "Basic Channel" has subsidiary labels called "Rhythm & Sound" and "Burial Mix" whose lyrics strongly focus on many aspects of Rastafari culture and ideology, including the acceptance of Haile Selassie I. Notable tracks include "Jah Rule", "Mash Down Babylon", "We Be Troddin'", and "See Mi Yah".

Jamaican reggae artist Jah Cure also praises Jah and the Rastafari movement in many of his songs, as do two Sinéad O'Connor rastafari/reggae CDsTemplate:Ndash "Throw Down Your Arms" and "Theology".

There are several Jamaican films that are paramount to the history of Rastafari, such as Rockers, The Harder They Come, Land of Look Behind and Countryman.

Afrocentrism

Socially, Rastafari has been viewed as a response to racist oppression of black people as it was experienced both in the world as a whole (where Selassie was the only black monarch recognised in international circles) and in Jamaica. In 1930s Jamaica, black people were at the bottom of the social order, while white people were at the top. Marcus Garvey's encouragement of black people to take pride in themselves and their African heritage inspired the Rastas to embrace all things African. They taught that they were brainwashed while in captivity to negate all things black and African. They turned the white image of them—as primitive and straight out of the jungle—into a defiant embrace of the African culture they saw as having been stolen from them when they were taken from Africa on the slave ships. In Rastafarian teachings, Africa is associated with Zion, and Africa/Zion is the starting place of all human ancestry as well as the original state of mind that can be reached through meditation and the ganja herb.

Living close to and as a part of nature is seen as African. This African approach to "naturality" is seen in the dreadlocks, ganja, ital food, and all aspects of Rasta life. They disdain conventional ways of life as unnatural and excessively objective, and reject subjectivity. Rastas say that scientists try to discover how the world is by looking from the outside in, whereas the Rasta approach is to see life from the inside, looking out. The individual is given tremendous importance in Rastafari, and every Rasta has to figure out the truth for himself.

Another important Rastafarian identification is with the colours red, gold, and green, of the Ethiopian flag as well as (with the addition of black) the colours of "Pan-African Unity" for Marcus Garvey. They are a symbol of the Rastafari movement, and of the loyalty Rastas feel toward Haile Selassie, Ethiopia, and Africa. These colours are frequently seen on clothing and other decorations. Red stands for the blood shed during slavery, green stands for the vegetation of Africa, while gold stands for the prosperity Africa had to offer before most of the gold and diamonds were extracted during slavery. It also represents the sun, which gives everything life.

Some Rastafari learn Amharic, which some consider to be the original language, because this was the language of Haile Selassie I and in order to further their identity as Ethiopian. There are reggae songs written in Amharic. Most Rastas speak either a form of English or forms of their native languages that embrace non-standard dialects and have been modified to accord with and display an individual Rasta's world view (e.g. "I-and-I" rather than "I" or "me", acknowledging the presence in the person of both the individual and the divine.).

Symbols

Dreadlocks

The wearing of dreadlocks is very closely associated with the movement, though not universal among, or exclusive to, its adherents. Rastas believe dreadlocks to be supported by Leviticus 21:5 ("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.") and the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6:5 ("All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.").

It has often been suggested (eg. Campbell 1985) that the first Rasta dreadlocks were copied from Kenya in 1953, when images of the independence struggle of the feared maumau insurgents, who grew their "dreaded locks" while hiding in the mountains, appeared in newsreels and other publications that reached Jamaica. However, a more recent study by Barry Chevannes has traced the first dreadlocked Rastas to a subgroup first appearing in 1949, known as Youth Black Faith.

There have been ascetic groups within a variety of world faiths that have at times worn similarly matted hair. In addition to the Nazirites of Judaism and the Sadhus of Hinduism, it is worn among some sects of Sufi Islam, notably the Baye Fall sect of Mourides, and by some Ethiopian Orthodox monks in Christianity, among others. Some of the very earliest Christians may also have worn this hairstyle; particularly noteworthy are descriptions of James the Just, "brother of Jesus" and first Bishop of Jerusalem, whom Hegesippus (according to Eusebius and Jerome) described as a Nazirite who never once cut his hair. The length of a Rasta's dreads is a measure of wisdom, maturity, and knowledge in that it can indicate not only the Rasta's age, but also his/her time as a Rasta.

Also, according to the Bible, Samson was a Nazarite who had "seven locks". Rastas argue that these "seven locks" could only have been dreadlocks, as it is unlikely to refer to seven strands of hair.

Dreadlocks have also come to symbolize the Lion of Judah (its mane) and rebellion against Babylon. In the United States, several public schools and workplaces have lost lawsuits as the result of banning dreadlocks. Safeway is an early example, and the victory of eight children in a suit against their Lafayette, Louisiana school was a landmark decision in favor of Rastafari rights.

Rastafari associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey that one takes in the process of locking their hair (growing dreadlocks). It is taught that patience is the key to growing dreadlocks, a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality. Its spiritual pattern is aligned with the Rastafari movement. The way to form natural dreadlocks is to allow hair to grow in its natural pattern, without cutting, combing or brushing, but simply to wash it with pure water.

For the Rastas the razor, the scissors and the comb are the three Babylonian or Roman inventions. So close is the association between dreadlocks and Rastafari, that the two are sometimes used synonymously. In reggae music, a follower of Rastafari may be referred to simply as a dreadlocks or Natty (natural) Dread, whilst those non-believers who cut their hair are referred to as baldheads.

As important and connected with the movement as the wearing of dreadlocks is, though, it is not deemed necessary for, or equivalent to, true faith. Popular slogans, often incorporated within Reggae lyrics, include: "Not every dread is a Rasta and not every Rasta is a dread..."; "It's not the dread upon your head, but the love inna your heart, that mek ya Rastaman" (Sugar Minott); and as Morgan Heritage sings: "You don't haffi dread to be Rasta...," and "Children of Selassie I, don't lose your faith; whether you do or don't have your locks 'pon your head..."

Many non-Rastafari of black African descent have also adopted dreads as an expression of pride in their ethnic identity, or simply as a hairstyle, and take a less purist approach to developing and grooming them, adding various substances such as beeswax in an attempt to assist the locking process. The wearing of dreads also has spread among people of other ethnicities, including those whose hair is not naturally suited to the style, and who sometimes go to great lengths to form them. Dreads worn for stylish reasons are sometimes referred to as "bathroom locks," to distinguish them from the kind that are purely natural. Rasta purists also sometimes refer to such dreadlocked individuals as "wolves," as in "a wolf in sheep's clothing," especially when they are seen as trouble-makers who might potentially discredit or infiltrate Rastafari.

Ganja

For Rastas, smoking cannabis, usually known as healing of the nation, ganja,or herb , and never as a "weed", is a spiritual act, often accompanied by Bible study; they consider it a sacrament that cleans the body and mind, heals the soul, exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, brings pleasure, and brings them closer to Jah. The burning of the herb is often said to be essential "for it will sting in the hearts of those that promote and perform evil and wrongs." By the 8th century, cannabis had been introduced by Arab traders to Central and Southern Africa, where it is known as dagga, and many Rastas say it is a part of their African culture that they are reclaiming. It is sometimes also referred to as "the healing of the nation", a phraseology adapted from Revelation 22:2. While there is a clear belief in the beneficial qualities of cannabis, it is not compulsory to use it, and there are Rastas who do not.

According to many Rastas, the illegality of cannabis in many nations is evidence that persecution of Rastafari is a reality. They are not surprised that it is illegal, seeing it as a powerful substance that opens people's minds to the truth — something the Babylon system, they reason, clearly does not want. They contrast their herb to alcohol and other drugs, which they feel destroy the mind.

They believe that the smoking of cannabis enjoys Biblical sanction and is an aid to meditation and religious observance.
Among Biblical verses Rastas believe justify the use of cannabis:

  • Genesis 1:11 "And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so."
  • Genesis 3:18 "... thou shalt eat the herb of the field."
  • Proverbs 15:17 "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith."[1]
  • Psalms 104:14 "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man."

According to some Rastafarian and other scholars, the etymology of the word "cannabis" and similar terms in all the languages of the Near East may be traced to the Hebrew qaneh bosm קנה-בשם, which is one of the herbs God commanded Moses to include in his preparation of sacred anointing perfume in Exodus 30:23; the Hebrew term also appears in Isaiah 43:24; Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:19; and Song of Songs 4:14. Deuterocanonical and canonical references to the patriarchs Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses "burning incense before the Lord" are also applied, and many Rastas today refer to cannabis by the term ishence — a slightly changed form of the English word "incense". It is also said that cannabis was the first plant to grow on King Solomon's grave.

The migration of many thousands of Hindus from India to the Caribbean in the 20th century may have brought this culture to Jamaica. Many academics point to Indo-Caribbean origins for the ganja sacrament resulting from the importation of Indian migrant workers in a post-abolition Jamaican landscape. “Large scale use of ganja in Jamaica…dated from the importation of indentured Indians…”(Campbell 110). Dreadlocked mystics, often ascetic, known as the Sadhus, have smoked cannabis in India for centuries.

In 1998, then-Attorney General of the United States Janet Reno, though not a judge, opined that Rastafari do not have the religious right to smoke ganja in violation of the United States' drug laws. The position is the same in the United Kingdom, where, in the Court of Appeal case of R. v. Taylor [2002] 1 Cr. App. R. 37, it was held that the UK's prohibition on cannabis use did not contravene the right to freedom of religion conferred under the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

In July 2008, however, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that Rastafarians must be allowed to possess greater amounts of cannabis legally, owing to its use by them as a sacrament.

See also




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