By Dawit Giorgis
The Background to Rasta and Ethiopianism
(Details beginning page 431-449)
“Don’t Gain The World & Lose Your Soul; Wisdom is Better Than Silver Or Gold” ( Bob Marley)
In 1979 I headed a team of diplomats to explore first-hand the relationship between the Rastas and Ethiopia. We travelled to the Dominican Republic, Grenada, the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago and talked to the Rasta community extensively. Their beliefs were consistent for the most part, with some variation. People believed that Haile Selassie ( Jah) was not dead. According to their faith he is in Jerusalem praying for the Black liberation and will come back as the Messiah to free the Black people all over the world. He abandoned the throne willingly and he hopes and prays that the new leaders will follow his wishes. The history of the Rasta movement is about pride in being Black and the relationship of Black people all over the world with divinity. To be Black was to be divine. Black people were the direct descendants of Jesus and Haile Selassie is His reincarnation. Haile Selassie is Jah (God) that is inherent within each human individual. God is not alien. Rastas believe that they know God and that all Rastas have an inner divinity in themselves. As they say, “God is man and man is God.” Rastafarianism is «concerned above all with Black consciousness, with rediscovering the identity, personal and racial, of Black people.”
From the Caribbean to Africa, reggae music has popularized the Rasta movement wherever the struggle for freedom and justice reverberates in a mystic way. Its effect is magical as it tells the stories of sorrow, joy, freedom, and justice. The lyrics are rooted in the struggle of the African slaves in the Caribbean. They tell the stories of oppression of people in exile and a longing to go back home to the Promised Land, which is supposed to be Ethiopia.
Forget your troubles and dance
Forget your sorrows and dance
Forget your sickness and dance
Forget your weakness and dance
The Rastafarian Jamaican cult is the largest, most identifiable indigenous movement in the Caribbean which has become the rallying point for the masses in search of social change. It has spread to North America, Canada, Europe, Africa and South and Central America. Their hairstyle known as dreadlocks, supposedly adopted from their jungle existence, has become the distinguishing mark of Rasta. Rastas worship His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God whose name was Teferi Mekonnen and his title Ras when he was a crown prince, hence the Rasta name from Ras Teferi. For Rastas he is the Jehovah and the country he leads, Ethiopia, the Promised Land, that paradise where Black people will go in the quest for freedom from the bondage of slavery and exploitation in North America and the Caribbean.
The Rasta worship of Ethiopia actually begins in ancient Greece, with the historian Diodorus:
The Ethiopians call themselves the first of all men and cite proofs they consider evident. It is generally agreed that born in a country and not having come from elsewhere, they must be judged indigenous. … They claim that the gods have rewarded their piety by important blessings, such as never having been dominated by any foreign Prince. In fact thanks to the great unity that has always existed among them, they have always kept their freedom.
Although Egyptologists have tried to rewrite or distort this very obvious history by insisting Egyptian civilization was the greatest civilization in history, in Black tradition the word Ethiopia has come to designate all of Africa including Egypt. The African-Americans and those Black people in the Caribbean identified themselves as Africans long before their emancipation. Even in naming the churches they affirmed that they were Africans first. The Blacks in America and the Caribbean identified themselves differently from the rest of Americans and their colonizers. During those periods Africa was not playing a role in the world at all. For all practical purposes Blacks did not have a country and they were up for grabs by any who had the courage and the power to take them. So Blacks in America and the Caribbean envisioned their homeland as the biblical Ethiopia. Psalms 68:31 is a much-quoted passage: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” For Rastafarians, Ethiopia will one-day stretch out its hands for the salvation of Black people everywhere.
This brought hope to the Black people oppressed as slaves, dehumanized, denied of identity. For Blacks in the Caribbean and the USA, Ethiopia, the only free Black country, was like Zion or Jerusalem to the Jews. The Black churches flourished wherever Blacks lived.
Pan-Africanism is another part of the story. Reverend Edward W. Blyden, a free Black born on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, was sent as missionary to Liberia in 1850 by the American Colonization Society. There he created the PanAfrica concept—the solidarity of the Black race all over the world, whether in Africa or the diaspora—and structured it in a series of books. He put Black history in proper historical perspective and attempted to restore the image of Africa as the cradle of humanity and civilization. Blyden was instrumental in creating Black consciousness. His teachings challenged the myth that Blacks are inferior and the role of Christianity in echoing this myth. This new concept galvanized the Black community, bringing a new sense of pride, with churches all over the world playing the lead role. As a direct challenge to the version of Christianity taught by Europeans, the Ethiopian church movement was born.
References to Ethiopia and Black people in the Bible gave strength to this dynamic movement and energized Blacks seeking freedom from slavery and identification with Ethiopia. The verse: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” ( Jeremiah 13:23) became a confirmation that being Black was something to be proud of. It was also generally accepted that Simon of Cyrene who helped Christ to bear his cross was an African and the Ethiopian eunuch of the Acts of the Apostles was a man of great authority (Acts 8:27).
This spirit of “Ethiopianism” blossomed through the lectures and writings of Marcus Garvey. Known as the prophet of African redemption, Garvey was born in 1887 in Jamaica and was unlike any other Black man of his times. He understood very clearly the worldwide oppression of Black people and that there was a need to struggle for their liberation. He took up the challenge and very quickly his charismatic personality created a messianic movement for Blacks in Jamaica, the US, and Africa. In 1914 he organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Kingston Jamaica, a movement that was meant to change the self-image of Blacks all over the world. He described it in these words:
The Universal Negro Improvement Association represents the woes and aspirations of the awakened Negro. Our desire is for a place in the world not to disturb the tranquility of other men but to lay down our burden and rest our weary backs and feet by the banks of the Niger and sing our songs and chant our hymns to the God of Ethiopia.
Garvey had problems from both the Black and White middle class in Jamaica so he moved to the US and operated from there. Though his own country rejected him at the time he later became a national hero in Jamaica. Speaking on the image of God Marcus Garvey says:
We as Negroes have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles. … We negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God—God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the one God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.
From this statement and his various speeches many churches started teaching about God as Black. The first were the Church of the Black Madonna in Detroit, the Black Muslims of America, and the Rastafarians. Marcus Garvey was well read and talked constantly about Africa, always with Ethiopia as has reference point.
In one of his strongest speeches he said:
But when we come to consider the history of man, was not the Negro a power, was he not great once! Yes, honest students of history can recall the day when Egypt. Ethiopia and Timbuctoo towered in their civilizations, towered above Europe, towered above Asia. When Europe was inhabited by a race of cannibals, a race of savages, naked men, heathens and pagans, Africa was peopled with a race of cultured black men, who were masters in art, science and literature; men who were cultured and refined; men who, it was said, were like the gods.
Garvey never visited Africa. His knowledge of it was based on the Bible and colonial literature. Nevertheless, Ethiopianism spread across the continent like wildfire and its followers worshiped the God of Ethiopia Who would liberate them all. A “universal Ethiopia anthem” was written and included in the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro People adopted in New York in 1920. The lyrics say it all
Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fore Fathers,
Thou land where the gods loved to be,
As the storm cloud at night suddenly gathers
Our armies come rushing to thee.
We must in the fight be victorious
When swords are thrust outward to gleam;
For us will the victory be glorious
When led by the Red, Black, and Green.(Green, Yello and Rd)
Advance, advance to victory,
Let Africa be free;
Advance to meet the foe
With the might Of the Red, the Black and the Green.
Ethiopia, the tyrant’s failing,
Who smote thee upon thy knees,
And thy children are lustily calling
From over the distant seas.
Jehovah, the great one has heard us,
Has noted our sighs and our tears,
With His spirit of Love he has stirred us
To be One Through the Coming Years.
The coronation of Haile Selassie as King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah in November 1930 is not taken as a secular occasion. For the followers of Marcus Garvey it was the fulfillment of Garvey’s statement on the eve of his departure to the USA : “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King. He shall be the redeemer.” For many it was also the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of “the coming of the prince” on which the movement is grounded.
In 1937 the Ethiopian World Federation was established (EWF) to lobby and solicit aid and good will for the Ethiopian struggle against Italian colonialism. It was organized by Haile Selassie and its aim was expressed in the preamble to their constitution:
We the Black People of the World, in order to effect Unity, Solidarity, Liberty, Freedom and self-determination, to secure Justice and maintain the Integrity of Ethiopia, which is our divine heritage, do hereby establish and ordain this constitution for The Ethiopian World Federation, Incorporated.
As thanks for their help in fighting Italy, Haile Selassie granted the Ethiopian World Federation 500 acres of land in Shashameni, for Ethiopians in the diaspora who wanted to return. The Jamaican Rastafarians got there first, however—about 22 families in total. When the Dergue came to power, it took the land back and only a few Rastas remain today.
The most significant incident of this period was when a leading official from HIM was sent to Jamaica to energize the Rasta movement. A large crowd came to hear him speak and hopes began to build that some day soon there might be a fleet of ships to take them to Ethiopia.
Their beliefs set the Rastas up for disappointment in 1959 when a certain Reverend Henry, a well respected pastor called the Moses of the Blacks, promised to lead the Black people to the Promised Land. At one point he distributed a postcard bearing the following statements:
Pioneering Israel’s scattered children of African origin back home to Africa. This year 1959 deadline date—Oct 5th, this new Government is Gods Righteous Kingdom of Everlasting Peace on Earth. “Creation’s Second Birth.” Holder of this certificate is requested to visit the Headquarters at 18 Rosaline Avenue …August 1st. 1959, for our emancipation Jubilee, commencing 9 am sharp. Please reserve this certificate for removal. No passport will be necessary for those returning to Africa …‘
On October 5 hundreds of Rasta collected their bags and travelled to the address in droves to sail to Ethiopia. They had no passports or any documentation, only their belongings. People were left stranded at the docks and were later told that it was a misunderstanding. After some time the government arrested Reverend Henry.
In 1966 Haile Selassie himself came to Jamaica and that day, April 21, is still celebrated by the Rastas. An enormous crowd of 100,000 came to the airport to see him. The Emperor met with some of the religious leaders and as a result, Rastafarianism gained a certain respectability that helped its spread.
There are several well-known aspects of Rastafarianism. Marijuana is smoked as an important part of their religion. The herb popularly known as “ganja” is justified by several Bible verses:
“He causes the grass for the cattle, and herb for the service of man” (Psalms 104:14) “ . . . Thou shalt eat the herb of the field “ (Genesis 3:18) “ . . . Eat every herb of the land “ (Exodus 10:12) “Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith” (Proverbs 15:17)
The “holy herb’ has a spiritual significance. A believer would be transformed to a supernatural reality through its use. A leading Rastafarian explains it:
Man basically is God but this insight can come to man only with the use of the herb. When you use the herb, you experience yourself as God. With the use of the herb you can exist in this dismal state of reality that now exists in Jamaica. You cannot change man, but you can change yourself by the use of the herb. When you are God you deal or relate to people like a god. In this way you let your light shine, and when each of us lets his light shine we are relating a God-like culture and this is the cosmic unity that we try to achieve in the Ras Tafarian community.
The second feature is the hair. The dreadlocks on a Rasta’s head symbolize the Rasta’s roots, supported in the Bible: 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.” The way the hair grows comes to represent the mane of the Lion of Judah, a symbolic connection with Haile Selassie. Dreadlocks have also come to symbolize rebellion against the system and the “proper” way to wear hair.
Last but not least, it is essential to emphasize that Rastafarianism has spread across the world from the early 1970s onward owing to the influence of reggae music and Bob Marley. Its growth can be attributed to a lesser extent to Jamaican migration, but Marley with his reggae sound has been the main ambassador, carrying the message of the Rastas to every continent. Bob Marley was born in the same parish where Marcus Garvey was born. He toured the world and was adored by many, including White people. It is not well known that the music is an imitation of the Rastafarian religious drumming known as Nyabinghi music. Bob Marley was a reggae singer before he became a Rasta. But when he converted, his reggae hits were the vehicle that sent Rastafarianism around the world. Marley died in 1981 but by then his message reverberated across Africa, Europe and America. His songs were “songs of sorrows, pleading for redemption.“ Some of his songs were praises to Jah Haile Selassie, the God of the Black People.
Here’s are the quotes that Bob Marley included into the lyrics of his song and made familiar to millions of people:
“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned…Until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation…Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes…Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race…Until that day, the dream of lasting peace…will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.
*REFERENCES to be found in the book