Rastafari: The search for black identity

Early Growth of the Movement

The status of Bob Marley as a pop superstar has brought to light for the first time to many people in England the religion of Rastafari. Previously the existence of black youths in tricoloured tea cosy hats and strange dress had been either overlooked or regarded as a sign of the ‘stupidity’ of the youth, especially black youth, which was easily identified as unemployed and dangerous.

The Rastafari way of life grew up among the most oppressed and the poorest members of Jamaican society in the 1930’s and it was a religion of outcasts, members of the worst slum areas of West Kingston, the Dungle (a patois word for dunghill) and Trenchtown. There was no individual founder, but several people about this time began to take seriously the words of the pan-African champion, Marcus Garvey, that the blacks should ‘Look to Africa when a black king is crowned, for the day of deliverance is near’. They witnessed the accession of Rastafari to the throne of Ethiopia, after which he became the Emperor Haile Selassie, and through a diligent study of the Bible, especially Genesis, the Psalms, and the Revelation of St John, they found further confirmation that they were the true Israel, departed from their ancient home, and that the time was near for repatriation. Jamaica came to be identified with the Babylon of Revelation and hence they were slaves who owed no allegiance to the government and who must do nothing to support the government as this would be denial of their true King and home. It also helped to explain why they were at the bottom of Jamaican society, often unemployed and apparently of no concern to the government. These early preachers gathered followers among the poor and, following another of Garvey’s tenets, emphasised the need for self-reliance and preparedness for the return to Africa. This served to isolate the Rastas from the rest of Jamaican society even more because they would not accept any government help as this was a trick of Babylon to trap black men, and the imminence of their return meant that planning for a long term stay in Jamaica was foolish. The whole basis of Rastafari thought went against the wishes of the government which was trying to unite people under the slogan ‘out of many one nation’ and inspire a nationalist pride in the Jamaican population

In the late 50’s and early 60’s this came to a head and culminated in a fierce shoot-out after a group who Jamaican society identified as Rastafarians had attacked a petrol station a few miles from the luxury resort of Montego Bay. The attendant was killed and the building set ablaze. The group then went to a nearby hotel and killed a guest before fleeing into the hills and attacking an overseer’s house. When the police arrived a gun battle broke out between the so-called Rastas and the police and some passers-by who chose to become involved, which in itself is a fair indication of the violent nature of Jamaican society. The battle ended in the death of eight people and three Rasta brethren were held on murder charges. However, the police backlash resulted in the arrest of 150 more brethren within the next 24 hours. These were charged with various offences from vagrancy to being in possession of dangerous drugs or weapons.

At the trial of the three brethren accused of murder much was made of the use of ganja (marjuana) by the Rastafarians. The defence argued that at the time of the attack all three were high after consuming vast amounts of ganja and therefore could not be held responsible for their actions. (Most Rastas credit ganja with deep religious significance and point to verses in Genesis 8, Psalm 18, and Revelation 22 to justify that belief. The amount of ganja that is smoked is often startling to Europeans — Bob Marley is said to consume a pound a week.) The prosecution, in its desire to get a conviction, brought forward medical evidence that ganja did not diminish the user’s responsibility and would not contribute to the occurrence of violence. The prosecution’s evidence was counter to the established view held by Jamaican society and the police.

After this trial many Rastas were worried about the view that Jamaican society had of them as wild and violent revolutionaries and they asked a group from the University College of the West Indies to produce a report on their life-style and beliefs. The report concluded that it was impossible to give a full account of Rastafarian beliefs because of the many different sects within the movement which emphasise different aspects of the doctrine. In addition, the Rastas maintain that it is essential for each man to discover the meaning of life for himself through the correct study of the Bible. Nevertheless, the writers of the report showed that there were four main points of doctrine common to all groups:

1. Ethiopia is the balck man's home;
2. Rastafari is the Living God;
3. Repatriation is the way of redemption for black men. It has been foretold and will occur shortly;
4. The ways of the white men are evil, especially for the blacks.

Although these beliefs are common to all groups they are often expressed in different ways and most Rastas also respect the Biblical injunctions which became popular with the hippy movement: ‘Peace and Love’.

Belief and the Bible

The Rastafarians have always relied on Biblical validation of their beliefs, but they maintain that only those who have been empowered by God can understand the Biblical message which has been perverted by the white slavemasters. When they read of the destruction of Babylon in Revelation they transfer these poetic allusions to Western Europe. In the fullness of time the black God is going to come down and destroy the whites who oppress his people. Hence the ways of the white races are thought to be evil and need to be evaded by the blacks. This belief increased the Rastas’ desire to cut themselves off from Western society and has helped them to identify their true homeland as Ethiopia.

These conclusions have been reached by a method of seeking meaning in Scripture which involves the Rastas in a complete system which encompasses all their experience. The black race was seen to be the true Israel and Haile Selassie is thought of as the descendant of Solomon and Sheba who has come to bring salvation to the blacks with the promises of Revelation and the Bible came to be regarded as a book of symbols with contemporary significance to which the brethren have the key. Consequently if the black race are the true Israel then the only true government can be a theocracy of Haile Selassie.

The Rasta holds no allegiance to the Jamaican government and Western ideas and practices have to be avoided as they imply acceptance of a power other than that of Haile Selassie. Further Biblical injunctions could be found for this because the Rasta believes that the Western world is one of pride and vanity which Scripture says must be avoided. So the Rastafarians reject marriage in a church preferring to live with his Queen who he is to respect. Alcohol and gambling are forbidden and regarded as sinful, and obeah (Magic) and witchcraft are not to be practised. Further Biblical sanctions are found for the growing of the distinctive Rasta hairstyle — locks or dreadlocks — and beards following the Nazarite vows of Leviticus. Ganja is also sanctioned by the Bible and the Rastas can point to many instances where God is said to have given the herb to men.

Rastafarians in England

The spread of the Rastafarian faith to England was first noticed in 1973 when the wearing of locks, tightly plaited hair, and the acceptance of Rasta dress was reported in London, and by 1975 the cult had spread to other inner city areas with a high colored population. Prior to this it had been claimed that Rastafari was a purely Jamaican phenomenon which could not exist elsewhere because of the backgroud and history of the Jamaican blacks. Suddenly boys, and even girls, who are not usually associated with the cult, were seen on the street and in the schools wearing gold, green, red and black Rasta tams and braid which identified them with the movement. Even children of eleven knew the significance of the braid and what the colours were supposed to represent: gold for the promised future, green for Africa, red for the blood of slaves, and black for the black races. It would seem that black youth of England was trying to affirm an identity which had experienced a double shift of culture, first the enforced move from Africa to the islands, and then on to England which had not turned out to be the promised land, the Mother Country, their parents had been led to believe.

In the schools they felt further threatened by the imposition of English standards of dress and the content of the lessons which rarely mentioned their homeland, or if it did so it included disparaging or supercilious remarks about African civilisation. Also, being educated alongside white children, the black youth realised there was no marked difference in intelligence, but on leaving school, if not before, they often found themselves thrust into a world of discrimination where the white school leaver was offered a job before the black. These youths came from the most socially deprived areas of the inner cities and from schools that were still considered second rate because of their former secondary-modern status, and they came to view themselves much as the poor blacks had in Jamaica, twenty years previously. They felt rejected by a society which had nothing to offer them anyway and they began to look again at their African heritage which was being re-asserted by black consciousness groups in Jamaica and the United States.

Believing themselves to be living in an alien culture it became necessary to create a new identity, or, as they believed, to recreate the black man’s true African identity. Thus the Rastafarian cult offered them something to identify with and it has become a central part of the search by many young blacks for their true identity, although as in Jamaica there is still great diversity within the group.

In England, as in Jamaica, the Rastafarians have been associated by the police and society with violence. These charges are refuted by the Rastas themselves who say that the trouble is caused by young people who adopt the Rastafarian way of dress without discovering the truth of the religion. As one young Rasta has said to me, the believer must aim at a life of virtue not violence.

Many Rastafarians in England belong to no recognised religious community, and although some have joined the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, membership of a church is thought to be of limited importance as the believer is expected to discover the meaning of the belief for himself. A Rasta will tell you that if you want to understand the faith all you have to do is read the Bible. Often groups of believers will gather to discuss the meaning of Scripture and there are differences of belief which indicate a living faith capable of theological debate. An example of this can be witnessed in the debate over race which Rastas in England are engaged in at the present moment. For although white Rastas are now accepted in Jamaica, this is still an issue among the believers here with some still maintaining that religion is for black men while others now accept that it can be for anybody who discovers Rastafari in his heart.

Although it is dangerous to predict what will happen with a cult, it seems likely that the faith will follow the pattern set in Jamaica. Often people find the Rastas unwilling to speak about their religion, but this is usually because they expect white people to be disparaging and when they discover a sympathetic interest they are frequently willing to discuss their beliefs.

Rastafari: An Identity Affirmed

The death of Bob Marley in 1981 might have taken the Rastafarian religion out of the international limelight but it has not taken away any of its spiritual quality for a significant number of black people. It still helps them to understand their position in society and the special gnosis it provides enables them to withstand the vicissitudes and disappointments of life. The accolades poured on Marley by the Jamaican government after his death and the mausoleum built for his remains in the village of his birth have not removed the poverty and oppression that many blacks encounter in Jamaica and elsewhere. Rastafari remains a potent ideology for interpreting this position, offering hope both now and in the future.

As an increasing number of middle class blacks, and some white people, acknowledge the importance and even accept the tenets of Rastafari, the religion is moving into anther stage of development. Although it is still despised in many areas of the Caribbean it is beginning to become less of a sub-culture of the oppressed and is taking on a more universal role. Even people who cannot accept it as a true religious movement are prepared to respect its move towards self-sufficiency and the reinterpretation of the black experience. This exposition of black history and the position of black people has had a particular appeal to people who feel set apart through their personal knowledge of the Divine Will. Whether this severance be the result of individual or class alienation, the establishment of an elite brethren or the remnant of a chosen people is of no consequence to Rasta reasoning. Any one or all of these factors may have a bearing on an individual’s choice of Rastafari but for that person, all the causes of separation from the established traditions of society will be irrelevant compared to the knowledge of the indwelling of Jah recognised through the acceptance of Rastafari.

Peace and Love - JAH


  • Barrett, Leonard E. Soul Force: African Heritage in Afro American Religion. New York 1974. The Sun and The Drum. Heinemann 1976. The Rastafarians. Heinemann 1977.
  • Cashmore, Ernest. Rastaman. George Allen & Unwin 1979. Still the most comprehensive study of the movement in England. The Rastafarians M.R.G. 1984.
  • Clarke, Sebastian. Jah Music. Heinemann 1980.
  • Davis, Stephen and Simon, Peter. Reggae Bloodline. Anchor Books 1977.
  • Fitz-Henley, Trevor. Boy in a Landscape. Arbasa-Judah Press, Jamaica 1980. Although there are many excellent novels and poems dealing with black experience as the introduction says ‘Fitz-Healey allows Rastafari to flow out of a discussion of “The Jamaican Idea” and ‘the question of identity is perhaps (his) main theme’.
  • Makeda Lee, Barbara. Rastafari: The New Creation. Jamaica Media Productions 1981 Kingston. Rastafari is frequently thought to regard women as second class; this book is a middle class woman’s account of why she accepted the faith. There was an English publication around 1983.
  • Nettleford, Rex. Mirror, Mirror. William Collins and Sangster (Jamaica) Ltd. 1970.
  • Nicholas, Tracy and Sparrow Bill. Rastafari. Anchor Books 1979. A good account of Rastafari lifestyle and some excellent photographs.
  • Owens, J. Dread. Sangster Books (Jamaica) 1976. Still probably the most sensitive account of Rastafari. Plummer, John. Movement of Jah People. Press Gang 1978.
  • The Rastafarian movement in Birmingham in the 1970s. This includes a though-provoking chapter on ‘Locks and the Law’.
  • Smith, M. G., Augier, R., Nettleford, R. The Rastafarian Movement in Kingston, Jamaica. Kings- ton, 1960.
  • Thomas, Michael and Boot, Adrian. Jah Revenge. Eel Pie Publishing 1982.
  • White, Timothy. Catch a Fire. Elm Tree Books 1983. A colourful account of the life of Bob Marley that sets him in his Jamaica background.
  • Williams, K. M. The Rastafarians. Ward Lock 1981. A short introduction to Rastafarianism in Jamaica and Britain.
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