The Rastafari Movement
Part Three of Seven
RTE: So, what is Rastafari, and how did it begin?
MICHAEL: In my understanding, Rastafari is an Ethiopian word – Ras means “head, chief, or king”; tafari means “Creator” or “the One to be feared.” Ras Tafari was His Majesty Haile Selassie’s name before he became the emperor of Ethiopia. The word “dread” means “God-fearer,” so people who were serious about the practice grew their hair into dreadlocks (letting long locks of hair just naturally grow together) as a sign of reverence for God. Later, it became more of a fashion, like a badge. The movement began in 1928, when the British were still in Jamaica.
Some people say it was sparked by Marcus Garvey, others say by Leonard Howell. Both were Jamaican preachers: Garvey preached a “Back to Africa” movement, and Howell was the first to proclaim His Majesty as the Messiah. They were revivalists, and encouraged people to reclaim their African roots.
In 1930, when Haile Selassie was crowned the
“Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,”
it was flashed around the world. Diplomats and leaders from many nations came to his coronation.
Finally, there was a great African king. So, you can imagine that for a simple Jamaican whose ancestors were slaves, seeing pictures of this
African man being crowned and the European powers going there to acknowledge him was a huge thing. Marcus Garvey had said that the day of redemption, the day when black people would begin to regain their humanity, would be at hand when you saw a black man crowned. So, the black Jamaicans were ready.
The coronation was on the front page of all the Jamaican papers. I’ve seen a copy of it, and this was when the movement really began. A lot of people took on “Ethiopianism,” – wearing the red, gold, and green of Ethiopia’s national colors. Interestingly, the dreadlocks really had nothing to do with His Majesty.
Dreadlocks were first introduced to Jamaica from a National Geographic photo of an Ethiopian Coptic monk with dreads who had come from his monastery down to the city to preach the Gospel. So, in 1930’s Jamaica, when people saw this picture of a monk with his Bible, his staff, and his dreadlocks, they began doing the same things that we came to as Rastas in the ‘70’s – growing their dreads, reading their Bibles. They could see there was something real in these pictures and they tried to reach it by copying what they saw, just as I did fifty years later.
Another thing about the coronation of His Majesty was that National Geographic covered it2, and these were the first color pictures that were ever used in the magazine. In Jamaica, almost every Rasta family I met had that issue of the National Geographic somewhere in their house.
These first Rastas became their own entity in the midst of a British colony, just as we American youth, years later, looked for something more in our own society. It was wild how that happened. Once my wife and I became Rasta, we went on like that for years, just trying to live a really simple life in America, me as a janitor and Teresa as a maid, agricultural worker, and later as a nurse’s aide.
RTE: And you did this out of choice.
MICHAEL: Yes, it was our choice. More money was the last thing we wanted. We were trying to get closer to God, so we dreaded our hair and took on the images we saw of Rastas, even though we’d hear things like,
“You’re white, you can’t be Rasta,” or “You’re Americans, you shouldn’t do this.”
The Jim Jones tragedy had already happened in Guyana, so the cult thing and the marijuana were always held over our head. We didn’t hide anything, even the smoking, because we felt so real about it. For Rastas, smoking was a kind of ceremony, and they sometimes even called it a “sacrament.” Serious Rastas didn’t just smoke for recreation; it was something more. They would say that when you smoked you all came to the same level, the social differences were broken down. And, of course, it represented the opposite of alcohol.
RTE: How was that? To most of us, the two seem to go together.
MICHAEL: The way we saw it, alcohol was Babylon, the world. Alcohol paid taxes to the government, the government ran the whole thing. But the marijuana, we ran. No taxes, it was our thing. “They” didn’t have anything to do with it, and in fact “they” said it was wrong, that you could go to jail for it, and that you’d have deformed babies. But there weren’t deformed babies from marijuana, so we saw them lying. Then, when we looked to the Bible, it said,
“Every herb-bearing seed is good for the use of man.”
So, we believed we had the Bible to back us up. It was against Babylon, it fit the whole life-style.
RTE: Were most of the people you knew in Jamaica Rastas?
MICHAEL: Not really. Perhaps only in the way that you would say that most people here are Christian. If you ask eight out of ten people here in Kansas City, they will probably say,
“Yes, I’m Christian.”
But do they practice being Christian, do they think about what it means to be Christian? In Jamaica, maybe somewhere around 80 percent would say that they are Rasta. It was a youth movement. Among the older Jamaicans, there was more of the Christianity that we knew growing up, the British style of dressing and attending established churches. If their son became Rasta their reaction was often like it was here, that it was a bad thing. They were afraid that he’d become a bum.