In the early 1930’s religious and social movement called Rastafarianism evolved in Jamaica. Rastas sought to provide a voice for the poor Blacks in Jamaica by encouraging resistance to oppressive societal structures. At the core of their belief is the re-interpretation of the Hebrew Bible with a focus on Blacks as God’s chosen race, and the belief that the true Messiah comes to us as Emperor Haile Selassie I (Ras Tafari) of Ethiopia. Through extensive spoken discourse, the Rastafarians aim to clarify the Western misinterpretation of the Bible, so as to spread the true word and fight against the unjust hierarchy of Western culture (collectively called Babylon). In the meantime, Rastafarians await a time of repatriation of Blacks and a return to Ethiopia, qua Africa, of its rightful ruling status.
Rastafarianism is an afro-centric religious and social movement based in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Stemming from the roots of Rastafari in rising against the post-colonial oppression of poor blacks, Rastas typically come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Especially difficult economic hardships in Jamaica saw a distinctive rise in the movement’s following. At the time of Jamaica’s independence in the 1960’s, virtually all Rastafarians were members of the 79 percent of the population classified as lower class (Waters, 50). In the past few decades, however, especially through the influence of Reggae music, the movement has gained a more international and cosmopolitan following.
Although a largely unorganized group, the Rastafarians unite on a few central beliefs: a strong belief in the beauty of black people’s African heritage; the belief that Ras Tafari Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia, is the Biblical Messiah; belief in repatriation to Ethiopia, the true home and redemption of black people; and belief in the eventual fall of “Babylon”, the corrupt world of the white man, and a reversal in the slavery-based societal hierarchy (Murrell, 5). The Rastas believe that the Bible is the history of the African race, taken by Europeans at the time of enslavement and deliberately mistranslated in an effort to deceive the slaves (Waters, 47). The system encourages black people to free their minds from the shackles of the existing social hierarchy, and take their place as the true leaders that God (Jah) intended them to be.
Other symbols are those of Ethiopia, including the national colors (red, green and gold) as well as the lion that appears on the country’s flag. The ritual smoking of marijuana (ganja) also plays an important role in Rastafarian life. This “holy herb” is highly valued for its physical, psychological and therapeutic powers (Murrell, 354). Language also forms an important Rasta symbol. Although Rastas often speak Jamaican dialect, called “patois”, they have developed a subdialect to take a further step away from Standard English (Chevannes,167). Many of these patterns of speech carry moral or social implications related to the Rasta world-view. For example, the Rasta uses “outernationtional” instead of “international” to emphasize their feelings that the rest of the world lies outside their realm.