From North America to mother Africa, a new sound can be heard from the
Caribbean haunting the places where Black people get together for music and dancing.
From the prestigious Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast to the secluded Meridian
Hotel built by Kwame Nkrumah in the seaside city of Tema in Ghana, wherever the reggae is
heard, its lighthearted mysterious sound always evokes an emotional reaction.
Beginning with a slow, undulating, hesitant, beat, the music of reggae assaults the
primitive brain stem where emotions originate. Before the brain can decipher the new
beat, the driving Trench Town music captures and transports the listener. The effect
of reggae is magic; it is Africa, Jamaica, soul, nature, sorrow, hate, and love all
mingled together. It sprang from the hearts of Africa's children in
"Babylon" - Jamaica. It is liminal music that sings of oppression in
exile, a longing for home, or for a place to feel a home.
Reggae, like its earlier counterpart calypso, quickly became a medium of social commentary as part of the African cultural tradition transported to the Caribbean by the slaves. It still serves as a social safety valve through which oppressed peoples express their discontent. Like the music of Africa, the reggae is for dancing, but the lyrics elicit a variety of responsive emotions - crying, rage, and rejoicing. As Bob Marley sings in "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)":
Forget your troubles and dance
Forget your sorrows and dance
Forget your sickness and dance
Forget your weakness and dance.1
Reggae is a cultic expression that is both entertaining, revolutionary,
and filled with Rastafarian symbolism. The symbols are readily understood in the
Jamaican society, but the real cultic dimension of reggae was unknown until the
Rastafarian song-prophet, Bob Marley, made his debut in New York. Marley stamped his
personality on reggae until the sound became identified with the Rastafarian
movement. Reggae music is now a multimillion-dollar industry, but its cultural
significance derives from that unique sect whose music is an inseparable and expressive
ingredient. This book is about this sect - the Rastafarians.
The Jamaican Rastafarian cult is the largest, most identifiable, indigenous movement in Jamaica. As such, it has a philosophy and structure capable of providing a rallying point for the masses in search of social change. In the last ten years, the movement has attracted much attention, not only in this West Indian island where it originated, but also in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Africa. Although the movement has been in existence since 1930, very little - and that mostly sensational - has been written about it. Consequently, the movement is generally misunderstood, not only in Jamaica, but also in America and Canada, where many members and affiliates have migrated Some of the reasons for the Rastafarian's bad publicity in the early days of the movement may be due to some provocative incidents associated with fringe groups of the movement. Two incidents worth mentioning are the "Henry Fiasco" of 1960 (which created an islandwide emergency after the shooting of two soldiers of the Royal Hampshire Regiment and three Rastafarians under the leadership of Ronald Henry), and the so-called "Holy Thursday Massacre" of April 1963 (in which several police and civilians were killed on the North Coast near Montego Bay).
Another reason contributing to the negative image of the Rastafarians is their strange hairstyle known as "dreadlocks," which some people feel is wild and unattractive. The Rastas adopted the dreadlocks during their "jungle existence" in the hill country where the movement developed its early characteristics. This dreadlock appearance is the distinguishing mark of the movement. Another trait contributing to the Rastafarian's negative image is their members' use of "ganja," (marijuana) in their sacred rituals.
Despite the early adverse publicity of the movement, the negative reaction to the members' hairstyle, and their constant use of the "weed," this Jamaican movement has evolved into a dynamic, creative instrument for social change. The Rastas are admired by the masses and highly respected by the political leader Michael Manley, who called them a "beautiful and remarkable people."
But while the Rastafarians have quieted down in Jamaica, a new wave of adverse publicity has surrounded some of their followers in New York City where the movement appeared after Jamaica's independence in 1962. Some Jamaicans who immigrated to the United States during this post-independence period were either Rastafarians or marginal followers of the movement. After reaching New York, they found themselves psychologically uprooted in a strange land and, for the most part, out of work and homesick. The dreadlocks' appearance in New York and in other North American cities where the cultists were relatively unknown compounded the isolation of the newcomers. As nostalgia set in, these new immigrants became convinced that only a Jamaican movement could offer them identity. Today, there is nothing more Jamaican than the Rastafarians. The assumption of Rasta garb and habits was natural.
This North American version of the Rastas - mostly youth - oriented and ganglike in character - soon adopted the prevailing patterns of the big-city youth culture. Several groups began opposing each other for separate ganja-turfs which resulted in a wave of shooting and killing. The behavior of these immigrant Rastafarians brought unwelcome publicity to their middle-class Jamaican counterparts living in North America who felt their prestige was threatened by the cultists' Jamaican identification. However, much of this negative behavior is changing and, in time, the creative dynamics of these Rastas will probably be turned toward creative channels like the "Old Settler" Jamaicans who are known for their industry and achievement.
Aims of the Book
This study will show the emergence and development of the Rastafarians
cult from its inception in 1930 to the present. Particular attention will be paid to
the socioeconomic conditions from which this cult emerged; its ideology; its function as a
socioreligious movement within the Jamaican community; and its impact on the Western
world. This book will also explore some of the myths surrounding the movement, as
well as discussing some of the more serious contributions the Rastafarians have made to
The book has four aims: First, to make an original contribution to Caribbean studies - an increasingly important topic - in which there is a scarcity of indigenous research. Many of the previous studies of the Rastafarians' beliefs and practices are limited and outdated. Among these earlier investigations are: a short paper by George Eaton Simpson, 1953; the small monograph by Smith, Augier, and Nettleford, 1960; and the author's monograph, 1968. "The Report on the Rastafari Movement" by Smith, Augier, and Nettleford, 1960, has become a classic, although only fifty pages long. Professor Rex Nettleford's recent book Race, Identity and Protest (1973), contains an excellent chapter on the movement. Also Soul-Force: African Heritage in Afro-American Religion, 1974, includes a chapter on the movement.2
Second, to show that the Rastafarian movement - although assimilating much of the native religious culture of Jamaica - has rejected most of what is considered typically Jamaican, even to the point of spurning Jamaican nationality. It is unlike the Revival and Pukumina cults which can be considered Christian-oriented cults. The Rastafarians reject Christianity and firmly believe in Haile Selassie as the returned Messiah and Ethiopia as the promised land of all Black people.
Third, to show the effects of cultural deprivation and what can result in a society when individual members are denied the opportunities to perform the cultural roles which are normally expected of them - hindered by adverse socioeconomic and political conditions - and the environment necessary for their fulfillment.
Fourth, to study the nature and dynamics of a millenarian-messianic movement and its function and impact on a typical Caribbean community. An investigation of this nature will reveal that the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica is only one of thousands of such movements which have emerged throughout the world.
A study of these movements has considerable significance in understanding the dynamics of the so-called Third World. Between local ethnic (or native traditional) religions and the missionary religious faiths, religious movements such as the Rastafarian cult are of great interest to scholars of phenomenology and the history of religion. They also contribute important biographies of prophets and martyrs. To the sociologists and anthropologists, they provide studies in the dynamics of culture contacts and social change; and to political scientists, they provide the studies of ideologies. Some of these movements may be seen as reactions against colonialism, interest groups, and the emergence of nationalism. To the psychologists, they may exemplify stress and adjustive phenomena. Linguists may find the emergence of new symbolic language formations - an evolving field - not to mention the potential for students of theology.
The present work is the product of over ten years of research. The original research covers the years 1963-1966, from which a monograph was published in 1968 - only a limited number of copies were distributed. Encouraged by the persistent demand for this initial study, the author has decided to update the original monograph. This book is the culmination of that undertaking.
My thanks to my many Rastafarians friends in Jamaica who helped me in my research over the years. To cite each name individually would be impossible, although many of their names appear in this book. As usual, my wife, Theodora, has been of great help typing and retyping the early drafts of this book and offering constructive criticisms which are incorporated into the work.
My thanks to Miss Nancy Krody of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Temple University, for reading and correcting the manuscript; and to Mrs. Grace Stuart for the final typing.
The Rastafarians, by Leonard E. Barrett, Sr. (Beacon Press 1997), p. v