Like many people, I learned the basic tenets of Rastafarianism from Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse, and later adopters Bad Brains. Marley’s worldwide fame not only spread the religion from Kingston to London to New York, but it also inspired no small number of non-Rastafarians to wear the Pan-African colors of red, green, and gold, grow dreadlocks, and sing about “Babylon” and “I and I.” The irony of suburban Americans in college dorms adopting the trappings of a postcolonial religion with an unabashedly anti-Western, Afrocentric core predates most recent controversies over “cultural appropriation,” but one rarely sees a better example of the phenomenon.
Consumers of Jamaican Rastafarian culture in the past few decades, however, have rarely had to go very far to find it, and to find it appealing. Since the 1960s, the struggling island nation has relied on “Brand Jamaica,” writes Lucy McKeon at The New York Review of Books, “a global brand often associated with protest music, laid-back, ‘One Love’ positivity, and a pot-smoking counterculture.” The themes most non-Rasta fans of Bob Marley derive from his music also drive a lucrative tourism industry. Both tourists and casual listeners tend to ignore the music’s esoteric theology. But reggae as party and protest music is only part of the story.
Those who dig deeper into the music’s belief system usually find it quite odd—by the standards of older religious cultures whose own oddness has long been naturalized. Rastafarians revere a recent historical figure, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari), as the messiah, based on a supposed prophecy made by influential Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey (who also inspired the founding of the Nation of Islam). Rastafarianism is also integral not only to reggae, but to what began in the 1930s as “a fight for justice by disenfranchised Jamaicans, peasant laborers and the urban underemployed alike, in what was then a British colony.”
You will gather a little bit of this history from the video above, “The Rastafarians,” a 15-minute 60 Minutes segment from 1979 with Dan Rather. But you get it through a condescendingly prejudicial network news filter, a sensibility appalled by the movement’s blackness and poverty. Rather describes Rastafarianism’s origins among the “black masses” in “the ghetto, the slums of Kingston.” In the “squalor of these slums,” he tells his audience, poor residents found solace in the words of Garvey, “a Jamaican slumdweller.” Rather represents a view deeply concerned with the movement’s “criminal element” among “true believers” and “ghetto hustlers” alike. This rather compulsively one-note presentation hardly captures the rich history of Rastafarianism, which began not in the “slums,” but in a mountain settlement called Pinnacle in the 1930s.
In 1940—a decade into the settlement’s founding and growth into a colony of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people—a reporter named John Carradine observed, “The Rastafarians are not essentially a religious sect.… They are rather an economic community.” Founder of the Pinnacle community Leonard Percival Howell promoted what he “reportedly called ‘a socialistic life’ based on principles of communalism and economic independence from the colonial system.” Under Garvey’s tutelage, Howell had absorbed Marxist and socialist doctrine, but the religion was his own peculiar invention. Garvey dismissed it as a “cult,” and amidst its nationalism, it harbors several anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic teachings.
Like all zealous nationalist-religious movements, Rastafarians have defined themselves as much by the perceived Babylon they stand against as by the promised land they hope to inherit. Rastafarianism may have been transformed into a nationalist product, both by its most successful musicians and the tourist industry, but its association with Garvey’s ideas also links it with a Pan-Africanism that called for people of the African diaspora in Europe, the U.S., and the Caribbean to secede from oppressive colonial systems and either emigrate or form alternative, self-sufficient economies. The first Rastafarians did just that by growing ganja, and their community thrived into the mid-fifties, when government crackdowns and pressure from Winston Churchill drove them from their land and into the capital city.
The spread of the religion in Kingston coincided with an anti-colonial movement that eventually won independence in 1962, and with the blending of rural and urban musical styles happening in the midst of social and political change. All of these threads are inseparable from the burgeoning reggae scene that eventually conquered every beach town and resort across the word. As for the theology, we might say that Ethiopia’s Emperor encouraged his elevation to the role of Jah on Earth with his own creative revisionism. At his lavish and widely-publicized coronation, Rather reports, the new monarch was “crowned King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” Quite a bid for god-on-earthhood. And for a struggling Jamaican underclass, quite an inspiration for visions of a glorious future in a renewed African kingdom.