- Rastafarians (colloquially ‘Rastas’) are followers of a cult which enjoyed popularity from about 1930 to 1960 in Jamaica and subsequently abroad, where its main influence became cultural. The movement has a male emphasis, aimed at least in part at repudiating the matrifocal ethos produced by nineteenth-century slavery’s dislocation of the family. It also has seen feminism as a manifestation of the moral decline of the West. The Rasta look is very distinctive. Men have long matted plaits of hair, dreadlocks, which replaced the pre-1970s ‘afro’ cut, and were first worn in a closed community in Jamaica (Pinnacle) in the early 1950s to indicate African warrior status. Rastafarians also wear distinctive clothing, including ‘tams’ (crocheted or fabric hats) and army-surplus camouflage wear. Women wear their hair in tightly braided arabesques. Clothes are often in the traditional Rasta colours, red, gold and green, taken from the national flag of Ethiopia. Rastafarianism has had considerable cultural significance in Britain, largely through its offering of an identity to alienated urban black youth, but also through its influence on disaffected white youth culture.Rastafarians’ philosophy of life was originally based on their adaptation of the Christianity they experienced in the colonial West Indies. A religion which countenanced slavery offered them no comfort. However, the Bible gave them hope because they found in it the promise of a return to Africa. They understood as a prophecy Revelation 19:16 And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, ‘KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS’. They identified as their ‘saviour’ (and hence deified) the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1892–1975). He was known variously as Lion of Judah, and Ras (Prince) Tafari (Selassie’s family name, meaning ‘Might of the Trinity’), and was believed to be the messiah who was going to lead black people, who were one of the lost tribes of Israel, back to Ethiopia. Rastafarians see themselves as Israelites displaced from their homeland, and Babylon is the collective name for all countries of exile outside Africa.The authorities in Jamaica, North America and Britain have been hostile or at least unsympathetic to Rastafarianism. Perhaps the person most responsible for offering leadership for Rastafarians was Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), a mercurial black Jamaican with maroon (fugitive slave) ancestors. Garvey was educated briefly at London’s Birkbeck College, and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association on his return to Jamaica in 1914. He advocated a return to Africa for black people, and his followers held firmly to this idea, despite their dispersal throughout such areas as America, Britain and France. Neither Garvey nor Haile Selassie claimed divinity for the latter: Garvey only made a link between a ‘black king’ and ‘the day of deliverance’; Selassie told Jamaicans on a visit in 1966 to liberate themselves before focusing on Africa. The movement started at a time of adverse social and employment conditions in twentieth-century Jamaica and expressed the aspirations of those who were disaffected and disillusioned with their prospects. From being initially a movement which offered an explanation of blacks’ economic plight under white exploitation and promised a heavenly reward to poor people, Rastafarianism moved on in Britain and America to become a focus for alienated, black, urban youth. One of the tenets of the religion is that adherents should make sacramental use of marijuana (ganja). This cultural dimension was misunderstood in Britain and the USA, and became the only widely known aspect of a whole way of life. This also led to the demonizing of Rastafarianism as a subculture and made Rastas even less likely to participate in a society which held travestied notions of their religious beliefs. Rastafarians have been influential in many cultural ways in Britain. Their hairstyle is shared by some new age travellers or crusties. They were probably influential in promoting a climate of tolerance towards soft drugs in the 1980s. For example, they staked out their territory in urban areas of cities like Liverpool with graffiti such as: ‘Toxteth Not Croxteth’, meaning that marijuana was welcome in Toxteth, but not the heroin which was available in another district of the city. They also marked their area of urban influence by painting the streets and pavements in red, green and gold. Though the religious group is small, millions appreciate the characteristic Rastafarian music reggae, with its development of a slow ‘African’ rhythm, often with lyrics that remind West Indians in Britain of their roots and recommending a coherent black cultural identity. Its principal exponents were Bob Marley and the Wailers. Marley’s music uses a vibrant and compulsive rhythm based on a loud electric bass guitar, accompanied by organ, piano and drums. Marley’s music has been enormously influential, for example with many British white punk rock bands (such as The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts), plus more mainstream pop groups like Culture Club and UB40. Among other black British groups displaying Rasta influence are Aswad, Misty in Roots, and Steel Pulse. Also, the Rastafarian poets Benjamin Zephaniah and Levi Tafari have published widely and speak for large numbers of people in expressing a spirit of both anomie and resistance. Today there is less emphasis on the repatriation aspect of the cult and more on its rules. Its ‘official’ wish to be repatriated to Africa was demoted to the status of an ‘ideal’ after an ‘immigration mission’, suggested by a 1959 University of the West Indies commission, visited Africa. Rastafarians practise vegetarianism and aim to consume ‘I-tal’ or ‘unprocessed’ food. Their reworkings of English include ‘I and I’ not ‘we’ (an assertion of individual identity against the dehumanization of slavery as well as an expression of the speaker’s relationship with Jah/God). They continue to reject ‘white’ Christianity which counsels forbearance and acceptance of one’s lot, but for many the movement is now much more about contemporary style than about its original religious meanings.See also: Afro-Caribbean communitiesFurther readingBarrett, L.E. (1977) Rastafarians: The Dreadlocks of Jamaica, London: Heinemann (a solid, accessible introduction).Cashmore, E. (1979) Rastaman: The Rastafarian Movement in England, London: Allen & Unwin (a dated but definitive and widely available review of British Rastafarianism).MIKE STORRY
Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . Peter Childs and Mike Storry). 2014.