Mainstory: Who is a true Rastafarian?

In the aftermath of musician Lucky Dube’s death, many people came out to mourn his demise at the hands of carjackers. Prominent were the dreadlock spotting Rastafarians who identified with him.
Natty Dread.
Natty Dread.

In the aftermath of musician Lucky Dube’s death, many people came out to mourn his demise at the hands of carjackers. Prominent were the dreadlock spotting Rastafarians who identified with him.

He was to many Rastafarians a brother. But who are they. Many people ask. Others see Rastafarians as hoodlums and people some times associate them with wrong motives.

To understand what Rastafarianism is all about Sunday times’ Frank Kagabo carried out an extensive research of the Rastafarianism phenomenon. He talked at length with a number of members of the Rastafarian movement who seemingly share similar religious beliefs and culture.

Origins of the Rastafarians

According to Natty Dread Mitali a Rastafarian and long time reggae musician, Rastafarianism is a religion and political movement which is derived from admiration of the late Emperor Haille Sellasie who reigned in Ethiopia.

Sellasie was born to Tafari Makonen in 1891 and rose to become a long time emperor of Ethiopia. It is from his name that the Rastafarians derive their name.

Rastafarianism in a combination of Ras which is a title given to a head, the equivalent of a duke and Tafari, Sellassie’s pre coronation name. To the global Rastafarian movement, Sellassie is God incarnate. He is also called Jah and Jah rasatafari.

He was the de jure Emperor of Ethiopia from 1936 to 1974 and earlier on had been the defacto Emperor of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1936.

Natty Dread Mitali attributes their admiration and worship of Emperor Sellasie to his unique abilities that saw Ethiopia remain free from colonial rule as other Africa countries were subjugated by European colonialism.

According to Mitali, Marcus Garvey, a black power leader in the Caribbean’s and the rest of the Americas had told the disadvantaged blacks who identified with Rastafarianism to look to the East, where an emperor would rise and bring about salvation for the black man who had been enslaved in the western world.

He referred to Emperor Sellasie. When Sellasie became the ruler of Ethiopia he gave rastas land in Shashamane in Ethiopia where they would return and settle.

Thus Rastafarianism was first championed by Marcus Garvey as a form of religious, social and political movement due to the poor social and economic conditions of the blacks in Jamaica.

Natty Dread puts it clearly to Sunday Times; “we are a cultural movement; we worship God and practice our culture and analyse politics especially if it has got something to do with the black people in the world”.

Natty adds that up to now, black people and Africa are still disadvantaged and this also reflects through the education system that Africans receive which is centered on European history and interests.

Western exploitation gave rise to the Rastafarian community as a form of protest movement. However Natty who worked closely with the Bob Marley (RIP) and Lucky Dube (RIP) says that the community accepts other people from whatever race without discrimination.

Rastafarianism and culture

Rastafarianism advocates for the return to the old pre colonial African culture. Natty says that before the colonialists came, there was more peace than there is now. He says that was the time Africans were practicing Nyabingi and believed in Bachwezi.

“There was peace and harmony then” says Natty. The culture and way of life of Rastafarians is often reflected in the way they dress and notable their dreadlocks. Natty Dread says the hairstyle of the Rastafarians is a religious symbol and it also makes one look like a lion.

The Rastafarians respect the lion. Indeed he quotes the seven lions in the book of Judah and acknowledges that Haille Sellasie, the God Incarnate of the community descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

However not every Rasta spots dread lock and not every one who spots dread locks is a Rastafarian. This unique hairstyle has at times served Rastafarians negatively as other people who are not necessarily members of the community spot the same style and behave indecently.

The dreadlocks were adopted by the Rastafarian community in the early days of the movement in the hill country of Jamaica where the characteristics and way of life of the group was developed.

Marijuana and Rastafarianism

Most Religions like Rastafarianism have been noted by theologians as reflecting the social and geographical environment.

The use of Marijuana as a sacrament and aid to meditation is logical in Jamaica where a marijuana plant known as Ganja grows freely. Rastas use Ganja for religious purposes.

Rastafarians believe and justify their use of Ganja with Bible quotation, Psalms 104:14, “He who causeth the grass for cattle and the herb for the service of man”.

To Natty, Ganja has never been a drug. He says categorically that Ganja is a herb. “Marijuana is a plant of wisdom that one can use in many ways” says Natty Dread.

He adds that it was labeled a drug by whites because they did not want the black people to benefit from its numerous advantages. He highlights the fact that drugs are factory-made and these include; opium, cocaine, heroine, ecstasy among others.

“The fact that marijuana is not factory made means that it is not a drug”. He also adds that not all Rastafarians smoke or use marijuana. He having maintained dreadlocks for nineteen years does not mean smoking marijuana.

He also gives the example of the fallen South African Musician Lucky Dube as one prominent Rasta who never used marijuana or any other drug.

Marijuana has traditionally been used by Africans as medicine for both humans and animals like goats. This is a practice that is up to now being carried by many. Rastafarians view use of ganja as a matter of personal choice.

Rastafarians’ colours and their meaning

Another important Afro centric identification is with the colors red, yellow, and green, of the Ethiopian flag as well as, with the addition of black, the color of the “Pan-African Unity” by Marcus Garvey.

These colours are a symbol of the Rastafari movement that reflects royalty towards Haile Selassie, Ethiopia and Africa rather than for any other modern state where they to live.

These colors are frequently seen on their clothing and other decorations. Red stands for the blood of martyrs, green stands for the vegetation.

Some Rastafarians learn and practice Amharic which they consider the original language. There are reggae songs written in Amharic.

Most Rastas either speak a form of English or a form of their own language that does not reflect any dialect. They modify their language to reflect an individual Rastas world view.

The bible and the Rastafarian interpretation

One enduring belief that unites the global community of Rastafarians is the concrete and incontrovertible belief that Ras Tafari Makonen, who was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930 is the living God incarnate called Jah.

He is the promised messiah that will lead the oppressed people of African origin into the promised land. This promised land is full emancipation and divine justice.

These titles match those of the messiah mentioned in the book of Revelations.  According to Ethiopian tradition, these titles were accorded to all Solomonic rulers beginning in 980 BC-well before Revelations was written.

Haille Sellasie was according to some traditions, the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian Monarchs descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Psalm 87:4-6 is also interpreted as predicting the coronation of Haile Sellasie I.

In the 10th Century BC, the Solomon dynasty of Ethiopia was founded by Menelik I according to anthropological research findings. He was the son of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba who had visited King Solomon in Israel.

1 Kings 10:13 states that “And King Solomon gave onto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, besides that which Solomon gave her of her royal bounty. So she turned and went on to her on country, she and her servants”.

On the basis of the Ethiopian national epic, the kebra negat, Rasta conclude that she conceived Solomons own child and henceforth, Africans are among the true descendants of Israel.
This serves to negate what Rastas consider a false interpretation of the Bible that portrays Africans as the cursed tribe.

Black Jews according to Rastafarians have lived in Ethiopia for centuries completely disconnected from Judaism; their existence has served to give credence and impetus to early Rastafari Validating their belief that Ethiopia was Zion.

The role of Music and culture in Rastafarianism

When most people hear about Rastafarians, they think about Bob Marley, the king of Reggae Music. Through his inspirational music, Bob Marley helped to popularize the Rastafarians and since then, they have always been associated with him.

No individual or group has been able to popularize Rastafarian culture as Bob Marley did. But the Rastas in their numerous publications maintain that Bob Marley and reggae do not represent cultural roots of Rastafarianism.

Reggae Music evolved and emerged as a black popular nationalist clarion call in the 1970s. For at least three decades prior to the emergence of Reggae music Rastafarians in Jamaica had been developing an African centered vision and culture with a view of repatriating  Africans in the Diaspora back to Africa. 

Many Rastafarians have done reggae music and Bob Marley always comes out prominently alongside Lucky Dube and Buju Banton among others.

From the 1930s Rastafarians have developed a culture based on an Afro centric reading of the Bible, communal lifestyle and a vegetarian diet known as ital , a distinctive dialect and a calendar that is unique and celebrates the various Ethiopian holidays.

Again the most familiar feature of Rastafarian is the dreadlocks and uncombed hair which is allowed to grow freely. Rastafarians regard locks as a sign of their African heritage and as a religious vow from their separation of the rest of society which is in their view is regarded as Babylon.

In Jamaica where the origins of Rastafari culture can be traced, it has drawn on Afro-Jamaican cultural practices like the development of the drumming tradition known as Nyabhingi (Rwandan warrior and Queen).

This term is also applied in the island- wide gatherings in which Rastafari brethren and sistren celebrate the important dates of their annual calendar.

Although Rastafarians are widely misunderstood outside Jamaica, they come across a group practicing peace and love and they follow peaceful religious principles.

Many of the Rastas from across the world travel to Jamaica for pilgrimages and to particpate in annual festivities that rotate around Nyabhingi practices.

The Rwandan Rastafarians

Rwanda has a sizeable community of Rastafarians and a number of them spot dread locks. They are highly connected to one another; by meeting one of the Rastas you can be able to access the rest.

This is what the reporter did when he met Rasta Natty Dread Mitali, famous for patriotic songs that were a morale boosting aid during the 1990-94 RPF Liberation war.

It is quite obvious most of the Rastas are willing to explain the philosophy behind their movement.  Though they realize that sections of society hold them in negative light and will quickly associate them with negative tendencies, however, they are proud of their identity and are ready to defend who they are and what they stand for.

“Not all people moving around with dreadlocks are Rastafarians. A number of street hoodlums are always mistaken for Rastas yet they know next to nothing about the culture of Rastafarianism,” Nattysays.

Rasta Lion I Ngabo who works with City Radio told Sunday Times that he was born a Rasta in 1981 and has known no other belief or culture apart from being a Rastafarian.

To him Rastafarianism is a way of life that is unique from every other belief and culture. He believes that being a Rastafarian by birth is the best gift he is been given.

The Rwandan Rastafarians are not organised into an association to represent their views. However plans are underway, and by December this year they will have organised themselves into a formidable registered organisation that will work to represent their interests in the country.

Terminologies and language usage

Rastafarian vocabulary or lyaric is part of an internationally created dialect of English. The adherents of the Rastafari teachings believe that their origin African languages were stolen from them, and that English is an imposed colonial language.

Their remedy for this has been the creation of a modified version of English and avoiding any words that may be backward in meaning.  Examples of words used in Rasafarian culture.

I replaces ‘me’ which is much more used in Jamaican English than in more conventional form and usage. ME is seen to turn the person into an object whereas I emphaises the subjectivity of an individual.

I and I is a complex term that refers to the oneness of JAH (God). Politricks means politics in Rasta language.

Additional information from internet



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