I like reggae. A lot. Sometimes other people tell me they like reggae too, but what they really mean is they like Bob Marley’s Legend album, but they have never heard of Barrington Levy. Or Buju Banton, or Black Uhuru, or Everton Blender, Cocoa Tea, Sizzla, Anthony B, Warrior King, or you get the point. I like reggae.
But I am not a Rasta.
I point that out because being a Rasta is an actual thing and I am not one but I regularly hear that word bandied about like it is just an adjective synonymous with pot head. I’m not one of those either.
There is a book originally written in Coptic then translated into Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, around the year 1300. It claims to be a record of when Queen Makeda of Sheba united with King Solomon of Israel. Their son Menelik carried the Ark of the Covenants back to Ethiopia, was crowned king of Ethiopia and the inhabitants began following the Lord God of Israel.
In 1910 Tafari Makonnen (Amharic name) or Haile Selassie (Ge’ez name) was appointed governor of Harar and given the title Ras, which means head. Hence Ras Tafari. In 1930 Selassie inherited the crown and title of the kingdom of Ethiopia and as a descendant of Solomon was crowned “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Conquering Lion of Judah.”
Over in New York City there was this Jamaican guy named Marcus Garvey. He was making quite a stir by telling black people to stop trying to be American and look back to Africa. He even started buying ships so black Americans could move back to Africa. Garvey was famous for proclaiming that salvation for black people would never be found in the West, but rather black people should look to a black king in Africa for their Zion.
One of Garvey’s followers was another Jamaican named Leonard P. Howell. Garvey and Howell both got deported for being loud and black. Garvey went to Europe, Howell went back to Jamaica. Once back home Howell published a tract called the Promised Key, which pointed to Haile Selassie as the promised second coming of the messiah to whom black people should look to for salvation. Marcus Garvey was the new John the Baptist who helped the world turn their eyes to a new King of Kings and that the New Jerusalem or Zion, would be Mother Africa.
Howell is considered by many to be the first Rastafarian.
Now mind you this is 1933 Jamaica. England still owns and runs the place as a colony. New York, where Powell had just spent time, was coming out of the Harlem Renaissance, a time where black thought and expression were springing up out of the everyday misery of being squashed down by American style racism. Howell called for a complete rejection of oppression, of whiteness, of imperialism and the general uplift of all black people everywhere by rejecting Europe and looking to home. To themselves. To Africa. This message got him in a lot of trouble.
But people listened and followed.
When Bob Marley came along Rastafarians were not popular. Anywhere. You would have never seen a shirtless man with dreadlocks on any tourism commercials but more likely would have been told to avoid them because they might snatch your children. Bob did not grow up Rasta nor were the other guys in the group the Wailers. If you saw and heard their early recordings they are a tin sounding R&B act. But then, in 1966, Haile Selassie visited Jamaica and Bob and the crew converted.
Bob changed everything. He became world famous and used that platform to preach his beliefs. Interestingly enough, most of what “crossed over” to the mainstream in his preaching wasn’t really the foundations of Rasta but some of the trappings. Dreadlocks and weed. Howell never wore locks.
Drowned in the haze of the biblical “herb to heal the nations” was the message of Peter Tosh singing “ I don’t want no peace. I want equal rights and justice.” Or the warning to colonial powers that while they might be a big tree, that the Rastas represent a small ax sharpened to cut them down. This isn’t exactly three little birds- but people really like that song.
Howell understandably didn’t like white people very much. His writing reflects that. I also already have a religion that I am comfortable with, I’m not going anywhere. So I am absolutely not a Rastafarian.
But I can’t help but love when a great musician puts music to the words of the Ethiopian Emperor’s speech to the League of Nation’s crying out on their inaction as his country is invaded by Italy.