Ways of Expressing Meaning

 

Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.

 

Stories of Faith

Many of the Rastafari stories or mythology surround Haile Selassie. One of the founding myths is that Haile Selassie was descended from the child of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, who in turn was descended from the biblical King David. Haile Selassie himself claimed this legendary heritage. It is used to back up the claim that the Rastafari are the Israelites (the people of King David) reborn, and therefore God’s chosen people. The first marijuana was grown on the grave of King Solomon, according to another mythological story, connecting this biblical heritage to the plant that Rastafari use as a sacrament. There are stories that, when he visited in 1966, Haile Selassie left a constitution that was kept hidden by the government of Jamaica, guarded from the people, who can be charged under the authority of this document. The constitution sets out the rights of Rastafaris, which is why the government chose to hide it, since it undermined their own (in Rastafari eyes, illegitimate) authority. A story that expressed their millenarian hopes is that of the seven-mile flotilla of ships coming to take them to Africa for repatriation.

Symbols of Faith

A central symbol for the Rastafari is the lion. One of Haile Selassie’s titles was the ‘Conquering Lion of Judah’. Representations of lions can be seen on Rastafari houses, flags, tabernacles, and artworks. The lion represents the ‘King of Kings’ and the dominant maleness of the movement. The lion is a symbol of strength and vigour. Rastafaris try to embody the spirit of the lion: proud, independent, and strong. The dreadlocks are likened to a lion’s mane, and also to the biblical Samson. Rastafaris sometimes call themselves Nazarites, as they follow the Nazarite vow to remain unshaven, found in Numbers 6:5. Being unshaven is seen as natural and unencumbered. Initially it was a symbol of defiance to Jamaican society that saw long hair on men as a symbol of disorder and degeneration; the dreadlocks said that they were outside Jamaican society. Rastafaris called themselves ‘dreads’, where dread meant power and rebellion. Mid-20th century conservative Jamaican society saw it as unkempt, dirty, and dangerous. Police and teachers used to cut off Rastas’ hair in the 1950s and 1960s. However, following the popularity of reggae music and the spread of Rastafari culture beyond Jamaica, dreadlocks have become a symbol of the Rastafari that presents less of an immediate challenge, having become familiar and to an extent sanitised. Dreadlocks for the Rastafari still symbolise power, with some calling them ‘telepathic antennas’ (Christensen 2014: 71).

Rastafari colours are red, green, gold, and black. Red, black and green were the colours of the Garvey movement. Red signifies the blood of martyrs in Jamaican history from the Maroons to Marcus Garvey. Black is the colour of Africans from whom 98 per cent of Jamaicans have descended. Green stands for the vegetation of Jamaica and signifies hope of victory over oppression. Gold is from the Jamaican flag, a cross over green and black.

Rastas consciously created a new type of language, variously called Iyaric, livalect (rather than dialect), I-talk, ‘dreadtalk’, ‘soul language’, or ‘hallucinogenic language’ (see ‘Expression and Worship’ below). Rastafari viewed English as a colonial imposition of Babylon, but they had lost their original African languages through slavery. Iyaric inverts the English language symbolically, for example ‘oppression’ becomes ‘downpression’ because it drags you down. Rastas strive to use language in a way that unites sound, word, and power, so that words that have a negative valence also have a negative sound, and words with a positive valence have a positive sound. Some individual words are given specific meaning in Rastafari language, for example ‘Israelite’ and ‘Ethiopian’ mean the same thing, referring to a holy people, chosen by God. They use the symbol of ‘the Beast’ from the biblical Book of Revelation for Babylon, which means the oppressive colonial, imperial system of which slavery was a part, and more widely everyone who is not Rasta. Babylon is a general symbol for evil and oppression. The image of the African continent is also a frequent part of Rastafari visual iconography, a symbol of the Promised Land.

Places of Worship

For some Rastafari, there is no specific building for worship; they meet for weekly reasoning sessions in believers’ home or a community centre. In Jamaica, it is more common for Rastafari to live together in a commune, presided over by an elder, with a central yard for reasonings and Nyabinghi. In some yards there is what is called a tabernacle, which can be constructed for specific ceremonies or can be a permanent feature. The tabernacle is a space that centres the Nyabinghi and reasonings, which otherwise have a free-flowing structure. Tabernacles have a dirt-floor, a circular bamboo frame and a thatched roof decorated with Rastafari symbols such as the red, gold, and green colours, the lion, and depictions of the continent of Africa. They can also include a fire key, a high pile of stones with a wood fire on top, which is used in the Nyabinghi ceremony. The fire key man is in charge of the fire at ceremonies. The Nyabinghi Order has an altar at the centre of their tabernacles.

Prayer and Meditation

Chanting, prayer, and meditation are part of Rastafari ceremonies. Meditation is a way to be in communion with Jah, and through which they come to realise what is true or false in the Bible and what has been omitted in the Babylon translations. Rastafari meditate through ‘head resting with Jah’. It is a way of knowing their inner self, understanding the ‘book within’ that contains divine revelation. Prayer begins and ends meetings. Prayer and meditation are accompanied with smoking ganja for heightened spiritual sensations. Rastafari go into a deep trance like state after smoking a spliff or chillum pipe. There is a specific prayer that accompanies ganja smoking: “Glory be to the Father and to the maker of creation As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be World without end: Jah Rastafari: Eternal God Selassie I”. There is a specific prayer to Haile Selassie: “So we hail our God, Selassie I, Eternal God, Ras Tafari, hear us and help us and cause Thy face to shine upon us, Thy children” used on a daily basis to petition him. Women cover their hair to pray.

Pilgrimage

The main religious journey for Rastafari is repatriation, or return to Africa. This journey seeks to reverse the forced movement of black slaves from Africa to Jamaica and other colonies by the European empires. The early Rastafari preachers spoke of ships coming from Ethiopia to take them to land specially reserved for them in Africa by Haile Selassie. It was a journey to a land where they hoped to be free from oppression and racism. Repatriation was thought to be imminent in the 1950s. There was even an aborted attempt at repatriation in 1959, where hundreds of Rastafari gathered at docks in Jamaica waiting for the ships to arrive to take them away. Then in 1966 the visit by Haile Selassie to Jamaica was interpreted as the last step before repatriation. However, Haile Selassie reportedly encouraged Rastafari elders to support liberation in Jamaica before trying to come to Ethiopia. He did grant around 500 acres in Ethiopia at Shashamane for members of the African diaspora who wished to settle there, in return for their support during the war with Italy. Rastas, in particular, were drawn to Shashamane by this offer. Some Rastafari communities were established on this land, as of 2014 there were still around 800 Rastafari at Melka Oda near Shashamane, and a few in the cities of Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar. However, it became more difficult for Rastafari in Ethiopia after the deposition of Haile Selassie in 1974, when the Marxist revolutionaries nationalised the land the king had granted them. Furthermore, there was less enthusiasm for repatriation after the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. It is still common for Rastafari to visit Ethiopia on pilgrimages without settling permanently. For many Rastafaris in the 21st century, it is not a physical or literal repatriation to Ethiopia but a symbolic one, achieved through connecting and celebrating the African side of their identity. Repatriation to Africa can be interpreted in both physical and spiritual ways. Spiritual repatriation occurs through becoming fully aware of their African identity, discovering the truth about themselves through ‘head resting’ with Jah. Fairfield House in Bath has become a place of pilgrimage for Rastas in the UK as it was the home of Haile Selassie during his exile in Bath (1936-41), and now houses a museum and gallery.

Expression and Worship

Rastafari ‘dread-talk’ or iyaric is a conscious construction of language as a form of religious and political expression. It is based on the Jamaican dialect, or patois, in particular the syntax and grammar. The syntax is almost devoid of subject-object opposition and verbs. Rastafari use words philosophically. The pronouns ‘me’ and ‘you’ are replaced with ‘I and I’. This is to try to overcome binary oppositions and identify with the sufferers and oppressed of society. The use of ‘I’ as the first and second-person pronoun is a way of reminding each person of their worth and value as not a ‘slave by nature’. ‘I’ is used as both subject and object. ‘I’ also replaces the prefixes in certain words, such as ‘I-ceive’ instead of ‘receive’, ‘desire’ becomes ‘I-sire’, and ‘create’ becomes ‘I-rate’. The use of ‘I’ expresses the unity and interconnectedness of all persons as incarnations of Jah. ‘I’ stands for the ability to see. It is a central concept of Rastafari word/sound/power. ‘I’ is aware of the connection to Jah, whereas ‘me’ is unconscious of this. Seeing and knowing are synonymous for the Rastafari. They change a negative to a positive sound vibration e.g. ‘dedicate’ to ‘livicate’, ‘library’ to ‘truebrary’. They make sound vibrations descriptive, e.g. ‘destroy’ to ‘downstroy’ because destruction tears things down. Rastafari refer to themselves as kings and queens, and the knitted tams that cover their dreads are called ‘crowns’.

Rastafari have a verbal culture centred on philosophising. It is a formulation of language that is used as a way of fostering group identity. ‘Reasoning’ is the name given to Rastafari discourse, in which members come together spontaneously on a regular basis to have lengthy discussions on any subject; people join and leave fluidly, topics change rapidly. It is how they interpret the world. Rastafari avoid language that contributes to servility, self-degradation, and objectification. They try to use language that sounds like what it is, for example ‘down-pression’ in place of ‘oppression’ because it drags you down. Language and music have power for the Rastafari. Chanting the name of Haile Selassie resurrects him. Words have creative force. This idea comes from the African concept of nommo, that words and word-sounds have innate power. Emancipation requires a new language to liberate; the language of Babylon enslaves. This is a process rather than a defined lexicon. It is a way of fighting against oppression and slavery through language, which they view as a spiritual battle, a battle of consciousness expressed through language.

Art, Music, Drama and Creativity

Rastafari have been very influential for the artistic and cultural works of Jamaica, including literature, poetry, painting, sculpture and carving, ceramics, theatre, dance, and music. Rastafari use art as a medium for social and spiritual messages, not simply decoration. It is a way to transform society. Rasta artists use found materials, such as boards, glass, and cardboard, in keeping with their veneration of nature and identification with the poor. They eschew expensive materials. Their works try to portray the daily experience of the poor. Art for the Rastafari is about the enrichment of life not just display. Since the 1970s, Rastafari imagery has become more commercialised as it has been spread alongside reggae music. The cultural impact of Rastafari, especially in Jamaica, has been much greater than the number of adherents would suggest. Music has a religious purpose, which Rastafari phrase as ‘churchical’. Traditional Rastafari music has its roots in 19th century gospel music and African drumming. Chanting and drumming feature heavily in meetings. Three types of drum are used: bass, a large drum; fundeh, a smaller upright drum; and peta (repeater) an even smaller drum. Count Ossie introduced ritual drumming in the early days of the movement; his rhythms were recorded from 1960. The drums each have a symbolic role: “The downbeat of the drummer symbolises the death of the oppressive society but it is answered by the akette drummers with a lighter upbeat, a resurrection of the society through the power of Ras Tafari” (Barrett 1977: 193). “The steady pulsing beat of the bass drum provides constant pressure which works to bring about the end of an oppressive Western system. The regular one-two heartbeat rhythm of the fundeh grounds and comforts. The repeater allows vent for protest as well as an avenue for the creative improvisation of the individual” (Christensen 2014: 66). The idea is to call to Africa through music. It is a music of invocation that aims to invoke the spirit and help it rise up over the oppressive system of Babylon. The Rastafari national anthem is taken from the anthem of the Garvey movement, “Ethiopia, Land of Our Fathers”, and is often a part of Rastafari ceremonies.

Rastafari music has had a considerable influence on mainstream music in America and Europe. Rastafari music first inspired the styles of ska and rocksteady. More significantly, reggae music is based closely on patterns of Rastafari ritual music. Reggae continues the Rastafari theme of making strong social and political commentary through music. One of the first reggae songs to become internationally successful was “Do the Reggae” by Toots and the Maytals in 1968. However, it was Bob Marley, a Rastafari, who was the most well-known performer of reggae music. His religious and political message through music was inspiring to people worldwide as well as Jamaicans beyond the Rastafari movement. Marley toured the world and spread reggae music and with it Rastafari beliefs, around which many of his songs are based.