Dan Rather Introduces Rastafarianism to the U.S. in a 60 Minutes Segment Featuring Bob Marley (1979)

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.

via Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Young Bob Mar­ley and The Wail­ers Per­form Live in Eng­land (1973): For His 70th Birth­day Today

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Mar­ley, Pub­lic Ene­my, Bil­ly Bragg & More

John­ny Cash & Joe Strum­mer Sing Bob Marley’s “Redemp­tion Song” (2002)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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