Insightful essay on RasTafari, taken from http://www.discoversociety.org, July 2014, Focus Issue 10.
What does the British public know about RasTafari? Perhaps they might recognise the colours – red, gold and green – although they might mistake them for the Jamaican flag instead of the royal Ethiopian standard. The word “stoned” might come to mind, implying the use of a “drug” called Marijuana, which to members of the faith is a holy herb and used as part of a sacramental rite. No doubt they would be able to sing a line from Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, while probably being less familiar with the singer’s more political Pan-African oriented songs such as “Africa Unite”.
Older members of the public might also think of the iconic cover of The Clash’s Black Market Clash, where a lone “dread” (Don Letts) confronts a line of police. In this respect, they would be referencing a time before the current Muslim scare when young Black men with dreadlocks occupied the position of public enemy number one as muggers, drug dealers, fanatics and rioters.
It would not be unfair to say that in Britain RasTafari has largely been apprehended as either a colourful curiosity or a corrosive cult. Yet it is neither of these. At its root, RasTafari is a movement of Pan-African redemption, confronting the inequities forged in the days of slavery and colonialism that continue to reverberate across physical, mental and spiritual dimensions. RasTafari take their name from the title that the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I held as crown prince. Ras is a rank, meaning “head”; Tafari can be glossed from the Amharic as “a person who inspires awe”.
As a movement, RasTafari finds its compass and energy store in a faith (some would call it a “livity”) that centres upon the divine nature of Selassie I and his consort, Empress Menen – the Ethiopian Alpha and Omega. Many observers of the RasTafari movement are captivated by its aesthetics and music. Some will sympathise with the RasTafari ethos. Most, though, will be confused by the overwhelming love demonstrated for Selassie I, which they will interpret as evidence of fanaticism, cultism or the result of harmless recreational smoke.
In fact, RasTafari carefully utilise diverse and complex theological and cosmological traditions to “sight up” the nature of Selassie I’s divinity, expertly weaving together Biblical prophesies, doctrines of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and indigenous cosmologies that arrived with those Africans trafficked illegally across the oceans to work as chattel on plantations.
Hence, for RasTafari, the fundamental challenges posed to humanity in the twentieth century and beyond are manifested in the life, experiences and utterances of Selassie I with Empress Menen. But you do not have to rely on our testimony alone. For there was a time when even the British public loved RasTafari. Step back into this history with us, because we want you to know us better.
Rally around the Red, Gold and Green
It is July 1935 and Mussolini has amassed Italian troops on the frontiers of Ethiopia. After manufacturing a border “incident” the previous year, Mussolini wants to reverse the historic defeat suffered by Italy from the armies of Ethiopian emperor Menelik II at Adwa in 1896. Like all reputable European imperialists, he is determined to stake out his own place in the sun – the horn of Africa. And he has already taken Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.
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