The Rastafarian movement began in the 1920s during the time of the Great Depression and was inspired by the Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement in the United States and his call for ‘Africa for the Africans’. The fledgling movement was uplifted and energized by the occasion of the accession of Ras Tafari (Ras meaning Prince, and Tafari, Creator) to the imperial throne of Ethiopia in 1935. Haile Selassie was seen as the fulfilment of Psalm 68, which was interpreted to mean that God, Jah had singled out the black race, for special attention. Its thinking was greatly influenced by the tradition of resistance to foreign dominance found in such indigenous movements as Myalism, one of whose purposes was the counteracting of the ‘sorcery of the slave masters’, by the resistance to cultural imperialism offered by the African-Christian religions including the Native Baptist movement, by the panAfricanist philosophy of thinkers such as Edward Wilmot Blyden and by notions already long established in Caribbean society and in particular, by the notion of Ethiopianism—an idea that conflates Ethiopia meaning black with the entire continent of Africa and fills the imagination with dreams of freedom and liberation.
‘Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers’, was the title that Garvey gave to the anthem of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) whose mission was to inform the world about Africa’s great civilization and undermine such assumptions of cultural imperialism as the Hamitic hypothesis, an hypothesis used by among others the ruling minority to underpin and legitimize apartheid in South Africa. More generally, the hypothesis assumed that anything of excellence, refinement and of great beauty found in Africa was the creation of the white race. All the different elements of Biblical messianism and Ethiopianism were joined together by Garvey’s movement whose mission it was to rebuild Africa destroyed by slavery and colonialism, a mission foretold, it was believed, by the psalmist in the words ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God’ (Psalms, 68:31).
Using the Bible as a historical text that contained the true history of the Black Race as opposed to that disseminated by colonialists early Rastafarians identified themselves as one of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel and some came to have faith in Haile Selassie as the Messiah who would redeem them from white oppression (Babylon) and return them to their homeland, Africa (see Black Jewish Movements, Black Muslims). While some have returned to Ethiopia to live in the black paradise of Shashemane, this return is now widely interpreted in a psychological sense to refer to a journey of self discovery leading to an authentic understanding of oneself as an African entrusted with a mission to protect African culture and the African way of life, by ‘living naturally’ and by ensuring that Africans are fully aware of the threat from Babylon, white society, to their freedom.
Although it assumes responsibility for the African race as a whole Rastafarianism can be also aptly described as a ‘self religion’ (Heelas, 1991) (see Self-Religion, the Self, and Self). Everything about the movement from its rituals—taking the chalice, another expression for the ganja weed—its language—the use of I and I for We—to its songs and music and its theology in the broadest sense of the term is meant to facilitate the discovery of the God within, Jah, who constitutes one’s inner, divine self. This not only empowers the individual—in part of the Caribbean, for example in Dominica, Rastas are known as ‘Dreads’, meaning the power that lies within every individual—but will also enable Africans to purify their minds and their whole personality of the stains of inferiority and self doubt left by colonialism and slavery.
The music and fame of Bob Marley and the Wailers in particular brought the movement to the attention of the world in the 1970s. Rasta communities emerged in Bahia, Brazil, and in other parts of Latin America, North America, Australia, and New Zealand where it influenced the Maoris in particular. White people were also attracted to the movement, which made for if not a change then a modification of its philosophy. Initially, fearing exclusion some whites would claim to have been African in a previous existence, but as their numbers increased the ‘check on the colour of the skin’ was dropped leaving only the ‘check on the spirit’, implying that what was required in a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ was the African spirit. Not only has there been a change in the social composition and ethnic background of the membership worldwide but there has also been an improvement in the socio-economic circumstances of a substantial number of followers in the Caribbean.
Two aspects in particular of Rastafarianism have come in for sustained and widespread criticism and those are its patriarchal structure and the related issue of gender inequality. Obiagele Lake (1998) has provided one of the more serious academic critiques of the position of women in the movement showing how they are marginalized and objectified, a position which would appear to be the very antithesis of what the movement aims to achieve for men. Lake believes that the Rastafarian movement cannot be considered to be in this respect at least a force for positive social change in the Caribbean or elsewhere since it simply lends legitimacy to the traditional patriarchal structures that ensure the subordination of women. On the same topic Austin-Broos (1987) compares and contrast the male-centred attitudes of the Rastafarian movement with those of the Pentecostal churches in Jamaica.
Other critics from among the growing intellectual wing of the movement range much wider taking as their unit of analysis the whole social and religious character and aims of Rastafarianism. While most would agree that Rastafarianism has been concerned with the restructuring of African-Caribbean and African diaspora identity from an African perspective, there are those who are concerned to see the movement function less as a religion preoccupied with legends and myths surrounding Marcus Garvey and one that regards the Bible as the source of infallible truth rather than simply an interesting book, and that believes in Haile Selassie as Creator and Messiah, rather than as a symbol of divine-human unity. What is being suggested is that Rastafarianism be developed as a social theory that provides an agenda for social, political and economic action that would lead to true self-understanding for all human beings and to solidarity among all peoples (Semaj, 1985). Others, following the greatly respected, even revered, historian Walter Rodney, also want to rid the movement of its quietist, pacifist, escapist image by emphasizing the role it has played in Jamaica, the Caribbean and beyond both as a resistance movement and as an instrument of social and cultural change. Although the movement will, doubtless, be taken in these directions by some, being a global concern with no central authority, it seems destined to acquire a multiplicity of identities.