4. The roots of Rasta – Todays News
The spiritual movement that is interwoven with reggae music has a fascinating history.
RASTAFARIANISM means many things to many people. It may seem as superficial as liking reggae music, smoking marijuana and getting your hair dreadlocked. However, Rastafarianism has a long and colourful history, merging many philosophical threads from black nationalism to alternative Biblical interpretations.
In fact, while Rastafarianism is a phenomenon that flourished largely in the Caribbean, Jamaica especially, its spiritual figurehead is an Ethiopian emperor named Haile Selassie I. He was born Lij Tafari Makonnen in 1892. Soon after his birth, the then Emperor Menelik II scored a historic military victory when he decisively defeated the Italian army at the Battle of Adwa to preserve Ethiopia’s independence.
This defeat rankled so much with the Italians that under the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, they were to attempt another invasion of Ethiopia 40 years later.
This time, Ethiopia was led by Tafari Makonnen, who adopted the title Ras Tafari upon becoming heir to the throne and Haile Selassie upon being crowned emperor in 1930.
In 1936, Selassie made an impassioned plea before the League Of Nations (the forerunner of today’s United Nations) that marked him as a statesman of some note. Curiously, it was at this point that his life story, coupled with his nation’s leading role in combating imperialism, led a small group of people to dub him a Messiah.
As with many religions, Rastafarianism has its roots in a political conflict and some of the proponents of the new religion were keen to introduce the concept of a black Messiah.
A number of important books helped form the nascent religion and build a mythology around Selassie, who was deemed to fulfil some of the prophesies of religious texts. The King James version of the Bible and the Kebra Nagast (a sort of Ethiopian Orthodox bible) formed the base texts, while a number of books written and published in the first half of the last century (The Holy Piby, The Royal Parchment Scroll Of Black Supremacy and The Promised Key) added to the new religion.
The thoughts of Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who founded the black power Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s, were also woven into Rastafarian theology.
In the post-World War II scenario, in which Ethiopia regained its independence under Selassie’s rule, the first wave of Rastafarians from the United States and Jamaica began moving to communes in Ethiopia.
In 1948, Selassie himself donated 202ha of his private land in Shashamane, central Ethiopia, to enable members of the emerging Rastafarian movement to settle in his country.
While he himself did not appear to believe that he was a reincarnation of a Messiah, records indicate that Selassie had a very warm relationship with his followers.
As time went by, a number of developments further defined the Rastafarian movement. It is believed that adherents of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya grew “dreaded locks” when hiding in the hills during their vicious guerilla war against the British colonial authorities. Soon, followers of Rastafarianism began adopting this look, citing various passages of the Bible and Kebra Nagast.
The consumption of marijuana to facilitate spiritual awareness also became tied up with the religion, although it could be argued that other religions use sensory deprivation and/or stimulation to heighten the spirituality of adherents. Many Rastafarians abstained from eating pork, and in some cases, meat altogether.
In 1966, the visit of Selassie to Jamaica became an extraordinary event. Feted by crowds of tens of thousands wherever he went, Selassie gained a whole new legion of followers. Crucially, these were to include many Jamaican musicians, notably Bob Marley.
These converts to Rastafarianism used the emerging reggae genre as a method of evangelising their new religion. Thanks to reggae’s remarkable success as a musical export, the Rastafarian religion and culture became known throughout the world.
Rastafarian Barbara Makeda Blake Hannnah authored the book Rastafari – The New Creation in 1981. In an updated commentary from 2002 entitled If Bob Marley Was Still Here, she lamented the commercialisation of what was once a militant and serious religion, and argues that the intended political impact of the movement has all but disappeared.
Interestingly enough, Nándor Tánczos, a Rastafarian from New Zealand, was an MP from 1999 to 2008, representing the Green Party. Tánczos, who maintains rasnandor.blogspot.com and nandor.net.nz, introduced a series of interesting proposals in the New Zealand parliament, including the Clean Slate Bill (to wipe minor convictions off a record if the offender hasn’t re-offended for seven years) and a failed attempt at marijuana law reform.
On his website, Tánczos says: “Being a Rasta is who I am, and it influences everything I do. It influences every moment of my life and my politics. Because politics is one expression of the philosophy that underpins, you know?”
Tánczos explains his reasons for venturing into formal politics: “I come from an anarchist background, politically. The idea of parliamentary politics was a total anathema to me for a long time.
“People ask me: ‘Isn’t parliament an elite power structure designed to maintain the status quo?’ Of course, that’s why we need to change it. I felt the Greens were able to articulate a different kind of vision of what politics was, and a different vision of the future of this country and what this world could be, and so I joined the Green Party.
“As a Rastafarian man, a constant fact of life is people trying to pigeonhole, stereotype, belittle and objectify me. This became especially true after stepping into Babylon (the Rastafarian term for an evil Empire!) and entering the New Zealand Parliament. But Rasta livity (way of life) is holistic and mindful of what is holy.
“It’s about not being ashamed to assert my own philosophy, while fully recognising and respecting everyone else’s as well.”
For its 35th anniversary the San Francisco Decorator Showcase returned to the Classic Revival mansion on 2020 Jackson Street, which had also been the home of the 1991 showcase. The honey-colored brick structure overlooking the Bay was designed in 1902 by German-born architect Julius E. Krafft (1855-1937), and is being offered for $17.5 million (as of June 2012.) Our Claudia Juestel, of Adeeni Design, gives us a tour…