Rastafari: The Secret History of the Marijuana Religion
The world’s most profound movements begin with a great enlightenment. People hear of this epiphany that changes lives, and become disciples to spread the word. Over years and centuries these true believers form churches to meet and celebrate their beliefs and traditions while encountering opposition and persecution. The cannabis culture has its own profound religion borne out of three important epiphanies that happened serendipitously around 1930, and one more when religious prophet Bob Marley was born on February 6, 1945.
This cannabis religion requires a believer to consume and distribute cannabis as sacrament and medicine. It acknowledges the prophecies of the Christian Old Testament, with an important nod to the New Testament. It takes prophecies of the ancient biblical texts, fusing them with the liberation writings of African-American philosopher and activist Marcus Garvey. This is the story of our great present-day cannabis religion and the sacrifice and struggle that brought it to the forefront of our movement.
Jamaica is an island in the Caribbean Sea, discovered by Columbus in 1494 but occupied by the British beginning in 1655. For two hundred years African slaves, brought to Jamaica in slave ships from West Africa, worked the island’s rich soil, producing more sugar for export back to England than any other place on earth. By 1810, England had abolished slavery, but the white plantation owners of Jamaica resisted British instructions to abolish slavery on Jamaican soil, and a series of rebellions flared up amongst the many poor, rural slaves. Black slaves, who outnumbered whites by twenty-one, began uprisings and burned down plantations. Until 1820, male slaves could be whipped in the field, and both male and female slaves could be flogged as punishment. Rebellions and further pressure from England caused slavery to be abolished in 1838, but little change in the welfare of the people would be evident over the next hundred years, as Jamaica offered virtually no opportunities other than farm work.
For rural Jamaicans desperate to escape the limits of plantation existence, it meant going to the one big city on the island, where the white establishment’s banks, ports, and shipping might provide better jobs and a better future. But this was a false promise, and by the 1920s there was a teaming slum in Kingston built over a trench that took Kingston’s white neighborhoods’ sewage out to sea. This slum was known as “Trenchtown”. In this hot, poor ghetto where the English spoken is a patois – a dialect hardly recognizable to the English establishment – several streams of consciousness percolated amongst the weary children of slaves. The poverty was worsened by the worldwide depression in 1930 that reduced world industrial demand for Jamaica’s primary exports of sugar and bauxite (used to make aluminum).
Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born writer and newspaper journalist who worked ceaselessly for the improvement and liberation of the black people of the US and the Caribbean. For 15 years, Garvey made a global reputation for himself as an activist for black people and, in August 1914, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica as a means of uniting all of Africa and its children dispersed around the world – largely due to white man’s slave practices of previous centuries – into “one grand racial hierarchy.” As the group’s first President-General, Garvey’s goal was “to unite all people of African ancestry of the world to one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own.”
After corresponding with scholar and spokesperson Booker T. Washington, one of America’s most influential black men of the first half of the 20th century, Garvey arrived in the US from England on March 23, 1916 and visited with a number of Black leaders. After moving to New York, he found work as a printer by day, speaking at night on street corners, much like he did in London’s Hyde Park. It was then that Garvey perceived a leadership vacuum among people of African ancestry. On May 9, 1916, he held his first public lecture in New York City at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery and undertook a 38-state speaking tour.
Building a nationwide following throughout the United States in the First World War years (1916-1918), Marcus Garvey saw his movement become the largest African-American organization the world had seen to that time. On August 17, 1918, publication of the widely distributed Negro World newspaper began, with Garvey as an editor (without pay until November 1920). By June 1919, the membership of his organization had grown to over two million people. On June 27, 1919, the members of the UNIA, with Garvey as President, incorporated the Black Star Line of Delaware, a shipping company organized specifically to take American blacks back to Africa for repatriation and operating as a black capitalist self-sufficient venture that shipped goods as well. By September, they obtained their first ship. Much fanfare surrounded the inspection of the S.S. Yarmouth and it’s rechristening as the S.S. Frederick Douglass on September 14, 1919.
Garvey’s rapid rise in the urban black communities of America drew notice from American authorities. Racism in the United States was virulent through the US federal government and its police agencies. In this period, US authorities and the new Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) were keeping an eye on various “troublesome” groups, including communists, trade unionists, radicals, eastern Europeans, Negroes smoking cannabis, Negro musicians, and Negro radicals. Marcus Garvey survived assassination attempts and arrests, and his influence grew. By August 1920, the UNIA claimed four million members. At the International Convention of the UNIA on August 1, with delegates from all over the world in attendance, 25,000 people filled Madison Square Garden to hear Garvey speak.
Garvey rankled the existing black American leadership, especially William E. B. DuBois, who wrote, “Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.” DuBois was a scholar and writer of many books, and is considered the father of Pan-Africanism. Along with Booker T. Washington, he was one of the most influential black men in America of the first half of the 1900s. DuBois’ view of Garvey led to an acrimonious relationship between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), co-founded by DuBois in 1910, and Garvey’s UNIA.
DuBois was editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, with circulation of over 100,000 copies in 1920, while Garvey was an impatient firebrand demanding direct action with the weekly newspaper Negro World, which competed directly with The Crisis for the loyalty of the black urban American. Garvey recognized the influence of the Ku Klux Klan and, in a wildly daring move in early 1922, he went to Atlanta, Georgia for a conference with KKK imperial giant Edward Young Clarke. The intention was to see if the KKK wanted to contribute money for the return of blacks to Africa on the Black Star Line. On this policy of repatriation, Garvey and the white racist Klan’s politics overlapped. According to Garvey, “I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together. I like honesty and fair play. You may call me a Klansman if you will, but, potentially, every white man is a Klansman, as far as the Negro in competition with whites socially, economically and politically is concerned, and there is no use lying.” After Garvey’s summit with the Ku Klux Klan, DuBois and other African American leaders wrote to US Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty to have Garvey incarcerated, and shortly afterward, Garvey was.
Sometime in November 1919, the Bureau of Investigation (BOI, the precursor to the FBI) launched an investigation into the activities of Garvey and the UNIA. Although initial efforts by the BOI were to find grounds upon which to deport Garvey as “an undesirable alien”, a charge of mail fraud was brought against him in connection with stock sales of the Black Star Line after the US Post Office and the Attorney General joined the investigation. Of the four Black Star Line officers charged in connection with the enterprise, only Garvey was found guilty of using the mail service to defraud. His supporters called the trial fraudulent: postal employees lied, while other prosecution witnesses clearly perjured themselves. When the trial ended on June 23, 1923, Garvey had been sentenced to five years in prison. He initially spent three months in the Tombs Jail (Manhattan Detention Center) awaiting approval of bail for his appeal.
After being released on bail, Garvey continued to maintain his innocence, travel, speak and organize the UNIA. After numerous attempts at appeal were unsuccessful, he was taken into custody on February 8, 1925 and began serving his sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Two days later, he penned his “First Message to the Negroes of the World From Atlanta Prison” and made a memorable proclamation: “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.” Garvey would have a direct impact on some of the most influential black people of his century, including Malcolm X’s parents, Earl and Louise Little, who met at a UNIA convention in Montreal, Canada. (Earl was the president of the UNIA division in Omaha, Nebraska and sold the Negro World newspaper while Louise was a contributor to the same publication.) During a trip to Jamaica, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King visited the shrine of Marcus Garvey on June 20, 1965 and laid a wreath. In a speech, he told the audience that Garvey “was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody.”
In November 1927, President Calvin Coolidge commuted Marcus Garvey’s sentence and, upon release, Garvey was immediately deported to Jamaica. He received a hero’s welcome in Kingston, and set about activating the UNIA office in a more aggressive way, publishing a new daily Jamaican newspaper called The Blackman, debuting in March 1929. In speeches around the island and in the newspaper, Garvey frequently spoke lines like, “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand!” Garvey also founded Jamaica’s first political party in 1929, The People’s Political Party (he was elected to the Jamaican legislature in 1930 and 1932), and his message really took off among the farm workers and slum tenants when the worldwide depression caused more misery. In 1930, most Jamaicans called themselves Christian, and those Jamaicans attracted to Garvey’s liberation message were largely Christian. Although leery of the influence of religion, Garvey had founded the African Orthodox Church ten years earlier as an alternative to white churches’ European-centric teachings.
Suddenly, in November 1930, the world became aware that an African was to be crowned King of Ethiopia – then the only independent country in all Africa – and his name was Ras Tafari Makonnen (‘Ras’ meaning ‘Chief’ or ‘Head’). This previously little-known individual had ascended to the crown of Ethiopia after the death of Empress Zewditu; his coronation attracted monarchs and heads of state from all over the world, and a lavish affair ($3,000,000 in 1930!) was shown around the world in newspapers, magazines and cinema newsreels. This “Ras Tafari” was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie ( ‘Power of the Trinity’) I and, in Jamaica, some saw this as biblical prophecy come to pass. As the ideas of Marcus Garvey spread among Jamaicans, and with the appearance of a black king in Africa, a new philosophy emerged in the rural parishes of eastern Jamaica in 1933. Garvey’s message of African Unity and the coming of a black King from Africa were heard years before the next prophet of Rastafari, Leonard Howell, appeared on the scene. Garvey was the prophet, and Howell was the disciple saying the prophecy had come true.
Leonard Percival Howell was born in Jamaica in 1898, but left as a teenager to find work in the Americas. It is known that Leonard Howell sought work and lived in Harlem from 1924 to 1930. In 1929, Howell ran a “teahouse” where cannabis smoking and bhang beverages (cannabis yogurt-like drinks) were served. At the time, New York City had over 400 marijuana teahouses – or “viper dens”, “tea jukes”, and “tea pads” as they were variously called – before marijuana prohibition began in 1937. However, the UNIA building, where Garvey’s group had rented Howell space, was alarmed at this reefer den and decided to ostracize Howell, ejecting him from UNIA and his teahouse in 1930.
Deported from the US in 1932, Howell returned to Jamaica a man on a mission. Virtually unknown, Howell started preaching a never before heard doctrine: “Ras Tafari as messiah returned to earth”. In all his speeches (delivered with no success in Kingston but enthusiastically received in the rural parishes), he began to lay down a philosophy that heralded a black liberation movement inspired by the Bible, Marcus Garvey and the struggle of the black people – a spiritually uplifting code of behavior and belief under the divine inspiration of Ras Tafari Makonnen, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
In less than one year of going from village to village in the eastern parts of Jamaica, Howell had become a passionate and influential speaker. His extreme message found favor with the very poor peasants who made up the vast majority of Jamaica’s people, but the remarks were shocking to the white aristocracy and educated Christian black communities. To them, Howell was advocating sacrilege, mutiny and violent overthrow. Howell was arrested on December 16, 1933 for urging treason and sedition. At his March 13-16, 1934 trial at Morant Bay, in St. Thomas parish on the eastern tip of the island – the scene of hundreds of years of slave disembarkation – Howell laid out his Ras Tafari philosophy. Essentially, Howell was saying the Black peoples’ problem of oppression and racist structures had to be replaced by black peoples’ culture. In his speech, Howell laid out six points he repeated in all his speeches – points that, in 1934, were the first documented tenets of Rastafari: “hatred for the white race; the superiority of the black race; revenge on the whites for their wickedness; the negation, persecution and humiliation of the government and legal bodies of Jamaica; preparation for return to Africa; and acknowledgement of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia as Supreme Being and only ruler of the black people.”
The Chief Justice called Howell’s “Ras Tafari” beliefs “a devil doctrine”. The government’s prosecution against Howell was based on two points: Howell had called Queen Victoria ‘The Harlot Queen’ and told British subjects they were in fact Ethiopians. The actual ‘sedition’ was committed in court again when Howell said during his defense, “Ras Tafari as Messiah has returned to Earth,” and told the court “the king of England is not my king, not my sovereign…Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Africa, is my sovereign”. Howell was convicted of sedition and sentenced to two years in jail.
Prior to his arrest, Howell had been speaking to the downtrodden and anyone who would listen for nine months solid. One of the phrases that Howell used to describe the conditions of Jamaican blacks after the end of colonial slavery in 1838 was “this dreadful freedom” that must be transformed from “a meaningless existence” to one of self-aware black pride and empowerment. Listening to Howell were mostly young male field workers, laboring under intense sun and humidity. Many of them smoked ganja, as it was called, day and night. The cannabis was brought to Jamaica by Indian merchants in 1882, and found fertile growing conditions on the island where it was used in alcohol tinctures, salves, and oils. It was around 1919 when ganja was smoked – usually by young plantation workers – as it kept them musical and cool in the heat. The ganja also directed their thoughts to social injustice; indeed, there were to be uprisings in 1935 to 1938 in parishes where Howell had preached and ganja was smoked.
While in jail, Howell wrote extensively and continued to outline his philosophy, and put it in a document called The Promised Key. The black laborers saw Howell as a visionary, courageous, perhaps too radical, but his philosophy of this “Dread Freedom” and the reign of “Ras Tafari” continued to grow during his incarceration. Released in 1936, he continued to speak, and frustration was building in Jamaica. Tens of thousands of Jamaicans were migrating home after working abroad (between 1880 and 1912, some 146,000 Jamaicans went abroad to seek employment; Howell and Marcus Garvey among them, both leaving as teenagers). The worldwide economic collapse accelerated the impoverished conditions Howell saw in 1933. Riots, looting, burning and protests started in 1936 and by 1938 there was an uprising, a combination general strike and riots in eastern Jamaica. Within ten years of Garvey’s return and five years of Howell’s advocacy, Jamaicans were using pressure to get the white aristocracy to give way. But it was more than about poverty; it was about the long-term theft of their land.
In 1838, the ex-slaves sought to transform themselves into an independent community of small farmers. To this end, they bought small plots from anyone willing to sell, rented where they could, or simply squatted on unused land. The growth of an independent peasantry, however, was contrary to the interests of the big landowners who required a cheap supply of labor. In 1867, Jamaican Governor Sir John Peter Grant set up a Lands Department to repossess the land from the squatters. By 1912, over 240,000 acres had been returned to the Crown. This is why so many Jamaicans emigrated in that period – the disappearance of private ownership of the land by the black population left peasant farming and poverty as the likeliest future in Jamaica. It was only a matter of time before the displaced peasantry became a formidable army of unemployed and underemployed for whom stealing food and sustenance became the main option for survival. Jamaica’s white community added thousands of policemen, mostly in rural areas, and this pushed young black men to seek refuge in the slums of Kingston, the port city, and administrative and business capital of the island. The size of Kingston tripled in population from 1885 (34,000) to 1935 (115,000), mostly in slums for the displaced farmers. (Kingston now has 520,000 of Jamaica’s two million people in 2008.) The slums of Kingston were described by Marcus Garvey in his newspaper The Black Man. “In what is called the Spanish Town Road area in Jamaica, there are more people living in the most primitive and unfortunate state than can be found in any recognized part of the world. The people who live there outnumber who live in other sections of the city, yet the Governor never goes there nor legislators nor anybody of importance. The people indulge in Pocomania (voodoo) and in the practices of the most ruthless and horrible barbarities.” This was his final stay in Jamaica, and his criticisms of Jamaica were now met by ingratitude and hostility from Kingston teenagers, who, in a resounding humiliation, threw stones and insults at him on the streets. In the 1936 to 1938 period, the angry youths of Trenchtown and Tivoli Gardens felt Garvey was too polite and too much a representative from the genteel past. Crestfallen and disappointed, Garvey left for England and died in 1940 in poverty. Nonetheless, Garvey was the most important black philosopher to the development of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Bob Marley.
In the 1938 uprisings, Leonard Howell tried to return to St. Thomas but was literally turned away by a violent mob of plantation agents, politicians, black trade unionist leaders and police. Howell’s rival for the political affections of ordinary Jamaicans was William Alexander Bustamante, a union organizer in 1939, Jamaica’s first minister in the legislature in 1944 and, by 1962, Jamaica’s first post-independence Prime Minister. Bustamante is a national hero of Jamaica and never relented in his views of Rastafari, persecuting them from 1940 to 1966. Bustamante wrote to the Governor the following July 6, 1939 letter: “Serious trouble is brewing at Port Morant, in St. Thomas, owing to a mischievousness of a man named Howell, leader of this terrible thing called ‘Rastafari’. It seems to me the only right and proper place for this man is in the asylum. He is a danger to the peace of the community. I think he is the greatest danger that exists in the country today, and I believe the police can confirm.” The uprisings ended that year with universal voting granted for all Jamaicans – perhaps the political price for allying to England in the Second
In 1940, Leonard Howell set up a communal Rastafarian endeavor, “Pinnacle”, on an old 500-acre estate near Spanish Town in Sligoville of St. Catherine parish, outside of Kingston. Pinnacle was only accessible by foot and hidden from the rest of the world. It wasn’t his first commune – that was Tabernacle, in 1939 – but Pinnacle propelled Rastafarian belief into international news, as it was the first successful commune of its kind. Though Howell had in 1933 rejected certain aspects of Christianity, by 1940 the Old Testament was being combed for references that pointed to the righteousness of the Rastafari lifestyle and philosophy. Pinnacle maintained 600 to 1,600 residents working several orchards and farms, and was immediately self-sufficient.
Howell interpreted the Bible to say a man could have multiple wives, and indeed, Howell had 13 wives within a few years at Pinnacle, siring ten children. (Prophet Bob Marley would later father 13 children through nine women.) Pinnacle was also farming large crops of ganja, as this magical ‘herb’ was required use for all residents at Pinnacle, as proscribed in Genesis 1:29, “And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good”. (Grass, Herb, Kind, are all common vernacular words for cannabis today that come from the Bible story of Genesis 1:29 and its association with Ras Tafari.) Additionally, it was sold to youth and true believers throughout the island. When Howell formed Pinnacle, there were no laws against ganja; smoking it was said to bring a connection with the holy and divine, and attract reason and calmness. The herb was regarded as “wisdom weed”, and the Rasta leaders urged that it be smoked as a religious rite, alleging that it was found growing on the grave of King Solomon and citing Biblical passages, such as Psalms 104:14, to attest to its sacramental properties: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man, that he may bring forth food out of the Earth.”
In 1935, Italy had invaded Ethiopia, the only independent country at that time in Africa. Although Haile Selassie I and his soldiers put up a brave resistance, their tribesmen and primitive weapons were no match for the modern war machine. Seeing their divine sovereign under attack, young Rastafari men joined the ‘Nyabinghi,’ a movement led by their Emperor. The original Nyabinghi was a warrior Princess from what is now Rwanda, who died fighting the Italians. Some Rasta began to call themselves Nyabinghi or ‘Nya-men,’ while Rasta meetings of solidarity were also called Nyabingi. The purpose of Nyabinghi was the overthrow of white domination by racial war. Howell had already struck this violent note in his six original tenets of Rastafari, and Nyabingi was defined in Jamaica as “death to black and white oppressors”. These Nyabingi gatherings incorporated the earliest structured Rasta behaviors for their women, including: Rasta ‘queens’ could not cook if menstruating, ‘reason’ with the ‘kingmen’ nor partake of the ‘chalice’ (a pipe to smoke marijuana). Biblical support was found for limiting Rasta women’s access to knowledge other than through the guidance of their ‘kingmen’. The Old Testament would also increasingly be used to foretell the divine path of Ras Tafari. The pulse of Pinnacle was the Nyabinghi ‘grounation’ sessions that sometimes lasted days. Rastas beat funde, kete and repeater drums in round-the-clock relays, chanting down Babylon by firelight and daylight. This relentless drumming and chanting led to trancelike states of higher consciousness, fuelled by giant chalices full of cannabis. Within a year, the Pinnacle was successful and perhaps the largest communal experiment ever on the island. The Rasta message of black pride, cannabis use, and defiance in the face of another world war brought on by the white man’s military ambitions was popular and represented a very large potential political problem.
It is in this period that Howell was affectionately nicknamed “Gong” (“The Tough One” or “The One”) and is known today as “First Gong”. (Bob Marley is called “Tuff Gong” and son Damien Marley is “Junior Gong”.) Authorities watched Howell with suspicion. In 1941, more than a year after opening Pinnacle, Howell was arrested in a violent police raid for cultivating marijuana alongside yams on the Pinnacle farms. Jamaican authorities, including Alexander Bustamante, the black and white clergy, and the white establishment regarded the Rastafari – and Howell particularly – as dangerous. All Howell’s enemies agreed that marijuana should be criminalized as a means to dislodge him from Pinnacle. Thus, just prior to the raid on Pinnacle, the Jamaican government outlawed marijuana in the “Dangerous Drugs Law”, mandating jail for anyone possessing, selling, growing or smoking ganja. Seventy residents of Pinnacle were arrested and 28 jailed under the new law; Howell himself sentenced to two more years in jail.
Released from prison in 1943, Howell developed a corps of guardsman, some of whom grew their hair long and were known as “Ethiopian warriors” or “locksmen” (these may have been the first Rastafari who used a form of dreadlocks as a sign of divine strength). No photographs of these locksmen can be found, and the first appearance of Rasta dreadlocks is debated; claims exist from 1936 (when historian Louis Moyston attributes the emergence of the dreadlocks to the time when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, based on images of Kikuyu fighters who fought with Haile Selassie against the Italians), to 1944 (the appearance of Howell’s locksmen), to 1947 (the first recorded reference to dreadlocks in The Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s main newspaper for over a century), 1949 (when the dreadlocked Youth Black Faith gang was first noted in the press), and 1953 (when images appeared in newsreels and other publications of the feared Mau Mau independence insurgents in Kenya who grew their “dreaded locks” while hiding in the mountains). The first historical example of dreadlocks prior to Ras Tafari are Hindu sadhus who today and for millennia have let their hair mat and become dreadlocked. The readings of Hindu mystics influenced Howell in the 1938 to 1940 period and Hindu influences show up in Rastafari culture today because of Howell’s experience. Just as words like “grass”, “herb” and “kind” from the Bible are used by Rastas to describe cannabis, so too does the word “baldhead” emerge from Leviticus 21:5 – unbelievers referred to as baldheads were usually civil servants, police, government authorities with clean-shaven faces and short, tightly cropped hair. In order to succeed in Jamaica’s white elite culture, Jamaican males would keep their hair close-cropped (baldhead) so Rastas did the opposite, growing dreadlocks – though dreadlocks were still rare until the late 1950s – because they brought alarm and ostracization from regular Jamaican society, so fearsome and menacing was the “dread” style.
Leonard Howell reformed Pinnacle in 1943 and with each raid, arrest and seizure of ganja crops became more extreme and militant in his exhortations. The militant, defiant dreadlock look dominated Rastafari culture by 1960, although Howell always had short-cropped hair and beard. As Christians, Rasta beard modifications were required by the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6:5 which reads, “All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow”, and Leviticus 21:5, “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cutting of their flesh.” This last admonition had dire consequences for Marley; when he was diagnosed with cancer of the toe in 1977 and doctors recommended amputation, Marley declined to have the toe removed – because no Rasta shall “make any cutting of the flesh” – and the cancer moved from his toe to his brain, killing him in 1981.
Although Rastafari is in fact a fundamentalist Christian religion, by the mid 1950s, Leonard Howell, Rastafari and Pinnacle had become a regular government target. First Minister Bustamante, in his anti-communist drive of 1954, invaded Pinnacle, arresting 163 “dreads”. The remaining Rastafari community thought Howell was becoming mentally unbalanced, egomaniacal, and was plainly a heat score, so the remaining members of the commune voted to exclude him from Pinnacle. The Rasta commune continued on without Howell, but government finally invaded in 1958, burning every dwelling to the ground and looting the entire place. All belongings were destroyed, including notebooks, ganja, and personal possessions. Jamaican police deliberately destroyed all of Leonard Howell’s 30 years of diaries, writings, photographs, memoirs, and letters from around the world, which were in the library at Pinnacle. The Jamaican government, by now under black rule, wanted no historical record of the Rastafari movement. Indeed, only a few photographs and writings of Howell exist today.
After razing Pinnacle to ashes, Police took every one of the over 1,000 residents and dropped them off near Trenchtown – the biggest slum in all of Jamaica. These discarded Rastas joined a percolating milieu of the poor, angry, dispossessed people who lived in continual violence and poverty. Yet from this teeming shantytown a vibrant musical culture emerged around 1958.
Nesta Robert Marley, originally from Nine Miles, a serene dot on the north coast of Jamaica, moved to Kingston in 1958 at the age of 13. Nesta, as his mother called him – Robbie to all others – was born of a 50-year-old white naval officer named Norval Marley and 18-year-old Cedella Booker. Like many before them, Nesta Marley and his mother Cedella eventually settled in Trenchtown. His friends were other street youths who were frustrated and riled up with their place in Jamaican society; one friend in particular with whom Robbie first developed his interest in music was Neville O’Riley Livingston, known as Bunny.
Over the next five years, Robbie worked odd jobs as a welder and mechanic, but played music in all his free time. Robbie was a “Rude Boy”, the name for the urban gang members of Trenchtown and other slums. This was a violent, dead-end neighborhood without water or sewage, infested with angry young men in a hot, humid climate. A street fighter continually running from police, and even sending toughs to beat-up or threaten DJs who wouldn’t play his music, Robbie had adopted the street nickname “Tuff Gong” – meaning Tough One – which endures to this day as the record label for all the Marley family members. “Everyday I jumped fences from the police for years, not weeks, for years,” he said of his youth in Trenchtown. “You either stay there and let bad people shoot you down, or you make a move and show people some improvement.” In 1963, a Rastafarian hand drummer named Alvin Patterson became his mentor, and immediately guided Robbie’s music in a streetwise direction. The first song Robbie wrote and performed under Patterson’s tutelage, “Simmer Down”, was released in December 1963 with Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh as the Wailing Wailers. Peter Tosh explained the name came from “a cry or moan of despair that was life in Trenchtown”; the band changed their name a few times before the decided on simply the Wailers. “Simmer Down” was the song of a changed Robbie, and Alvin Patterson’s Rasta influence is noticeable, as the song was a call to stop the violence among the Rude Boys.
Simmer down, oh control your temper
Simmer down, for the battle will be hotter
Simmer down, and you won’t get no supper
Simmer down, and you know you bound to suffer
Simmer down, simmer, simmer, simmer right down
In 1963, Robbie had short, cropped hair and was not religious, although he was born Christian. “Simmer Down” went to #1 on the Jamaican charts for eight weeks. It was music of the streets, a reality check that clicked with Jamaican youth and sold 77,000 copies. The style of music played by the Wailers was called “ska” or “rocksteady”; the word “reggae” would not come into style or use until 1968. While the Wailers performed regularly, they did not progress much further.
Two years after the Wailers’ big hit, Robbie’s mother Cedella remarried and moved to Delaware. She bought her son a plane ticket so he could join her and seek employment in the US, starting a new life. When Cedella went to get her son’s passport for the impending visit to America, the registrar at the Passport Office took umbrage at the name Nesta. “What kind of name is that? Is it a girl name? People think he a girl. Dem will laugh at him.” But the clerk found favor with the middle name: “Robert! Now see! Dere’s a good name for a man, Bob! Solid like a rock – like de name of a man should be. None of this Nesta, Lesta, Chester foolishness. I’m going to put down his name on the passport as Robert Nesta Marley.” From this time forward, Nesta Robbie Marley was officially Bob Marley.
Before moving to the US, Bob had met a young girl named Rita Anderson and married her on February 10, 1966. He moved to Delaware the following March to earn money for his next musical project and to re-unite with his mother. At this time, Bob was not a Rastafarian. He was working odd jobs in Delaware when Haile Selassie I came to Jamaica in April 21 of that year. More than 100,000 believers came from all over Jamaica to greet “The Emperor of Ethiopia”, “The Lion of Judah” at the airport and line the streets of his motorcade procession. Upon arrival at the Norman Manley Airport, he began to exit the plane but retreated when he saw huge billowing clouds of ganja smoke and thousands of Rastafarians chanting “Jah Rastafari”. Some were carrying signs such as “Selassie is Christ”, “King of Kings” and “God Anointed”. He refused to leave the plane until his security was assured, even though only 15,000 of the multitude were dreaded Rastafarians, but they were the most enthusiastic and vocal, puffing enormous cannabis spliffs. Only when the smoke abated did His Imperial Majesty leave the plane.
Rita Anderson Marley went to see his arrival, but traffic was snarled around Kingston and she could not get close. Selassie’s motorcade left the airport only to pass right by Rita’s car and, in that brief moment, Selassie waved at her. She had an immediate powerful spiritual experience that confirmed in her mind the righteousness of King Selassie. Rita talked excitedly in correspondence with her husband about her new passion. Bob, a skeptic about religion until now, took her seriously. While in Delaware, he had a dream where a father-like figure in a felt hat and coat put a ring on his finger. It was a story Bob told his mother immediately, and Rita by letter. Later, in 1968, he would say that it was Haile Selassie, his father incarnate, who gave him the ring in the dream; in 1978 the grandson of Haile Selassie – who died in 1975 – gave Bob a black ring with a gold lion that had been worn by his Imperial Majesty. (Bob Marley still wears the ring today in his burial place.) In those ten years, Bob Marley went from local musician to the world’s foremost musical ambassador for peace and justice.
Upon his return to Jamaica in October 1966, Bob came under the tutelage of respected Rastafari Mortimer Planno. Little known is that Bob and Peter Tosh wrote more than eighty tracks from 1968 to 1972 for Cayman Music, a company run by Danny Sims, earning $50 a week. Sims had met the two Wailers while acting as manager for singer Johnny Nash (famous for the 1968 hit song “I Can See Clearly Now”) and said, “There was no ‘Jah’ in the music Bob was making back then. It was all ‘Jesus this’ and ‘the Lord’ that.” Bob’s own music in the 1968 to 1972 period, however, was developing a consciousness that reflected his increasing self-education; he voraciously read Rasta texts and the works of Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X when he wasn’t writing music for himself, the Wailers, and Cayman Music. It was in these four years that Bob became a true believer, growing dreadlocks in 1970.
“Marcus Garvey was prophet,” Bob said in an interview about his conversion. “Marcus Garvey tell everyone we must look east to the king. Everything Marcus Garvey has said has come to pass. Everyone see it. Everything he said in that time happen today. And everyone see it happening.” He “pledged to work for righteousness. God’s given me inspiration. God is the boss, he tell you what to do. You must understand, God is ever living and Haile Selassie is God. God is not everybody. Some people say ‘I’m a man, you’re a man’ and they look upon man and say ‘that man God’. It’s not like that. A man have to prove himself to be God, Haile Selassie is God.” All his music from this point forth bore a serious spiritual message based on Rastafari and universal struggle against oppression. Bob now believed his music could be used as a message of freedom, hope and peace for the impoverished and oppressed. From 1970 to 1981, Bob Marley became the world’s best-known advocate of Rastafari with over 170 of his songs integrating elements of Rasta philosophy.
While Bob was writing music in 1969, the first hit “reggae” song appeared, “Return of Django” by Carlton and Ashton Barrett in a band called The Upsetters. Bob loved this new sound and enthusiastically embraced it as his own. He got Carlton and Ashton to join the Wailers on their return from an Upsetters tour of England. This was the truly seminal Wailers: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Ashton and Carleton Barrett. In early 1970, their first reggae hits “Duppy Conqueror” (Duppy means spirit), “Who The Cap Fit”, “400 Years”, and “Soul Rebel” were written. The 1973 release of the great and historic album “Catch a Fire” by the Wailers made them known worldwide and, when Eric Clapton and others began recording Marley’s songs, his fame spread fast. The Wailers and Bob Marley & The Wailers put out ten albums from “Catch A Fire” to the final album “Confrontation” (released posthumously), with cumulative sales of 320,000,000 worldwide. The 1977 release “Exodus” was deemed the greatest album of the century in Time Magazine’s Top 100 albums of the century.
No other single man in modern times has advanced a religious faith to hundreds of millions in the space of three decades. Although it has only about one million adherents, Rastafari and its inextricable relationship with cannabis are recognized everywhere on earth, and there are Rastafarian communities on every continent. Bob Marley was not the only outstanding reggae musician from Jamaica, but he popularized the genre for the world and, in the golden age from 1970 to 1980, gave a green light to some of the best reggae music ever (Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals, Sly & Robbie, etc.), to get Jamaica onto the world stage.
Bob was unabashed in his endorsement of cannabis, variously referring to it as “the healing of the nations”, “the tree of life”, “spliff”, “ganja”, “herb”, and “kaya” (also an album title). “Like how alcohol is the destruction of mankind, herb is the healing of the nations,” he once said. He admitted to a BBC interviewer that he smoked one pound of herb each week, and was not ashamed to be photographed or filmed with a big spliff. The song “I Shot the Sheriff”, made popular by Eric Clapton but written and performed by Bob on the “Burnin” album, is all about a pot grower hunted down by a relentless sheriff.
Sheriff John Brown always hate me,
for what, I don’t know.
Every time I plant a seed,
he said, kill it before it grow.
He said, kill them before they grow.
Bob knew well that people who smoked herb were persecuted by Babylon, the ruling system: “Them crucify Christ, remember?” Condemning cannabis was blasphemy: “You mean they can tell God that it’s not legal?” he queried a Canadian journalist – by extension that made God a criminal too, he reasoned. Bob spoke at length about cannabis in a New Zealand television interview in 1979, “The more you accept herb, the more you accept Rastafari. Herb is important to those who accept it, but it is more important to the people who do not accept it yet, because herb is a reality. Herb is not something you create, herb is a plant. Herb’s so good for everything. Why these people who want to do so much good for everyone, who call themselves government and this and that, why them say you must not smoke herb? They say you must not use it because it make you rebel. Against what? Against the men who want to create desire and want these material things, and captivate your mind, they promise you a pension and them keep it all. Instead of wanting to work for the Man then you want to be the Man. Herb make you look at yourself. You not want to bow to these things... When the world confuse you and you’re worried, and you don’t have time to think, herb is the thing that gives you a little time for yourself, so you can live.” As to cannabis being outlawed around the world, Bob said, “ I don’t care. The people who make it outlawed are but a few; the majority of people who are hurt want it. A few men with guns, prisons, make a bad life for us. They don’t want people power, they don’t want Rastafari.”
Bob Marley is certainly the prophet of the cannabis culture, and a prophet of Rastafari with Marcus Garvey and Leonard Howell. His funeral in May 1981, just three months after Howell’s, saw Marley buried with his guitar, soccer ball, and a fat branch of marijuana.
“I see myself as a revolutionary. Rasta is the future.”
Bob Marley, 1979
Biblical Prophecy of the Arrival of Haile Selassie I as Living God
Essential to Rastafari is that Ras (meaning head, Duke, Chief) Tafari Makonnen, who was crowned Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, on November 2, 1930, is the living God incarnate. Called Jah, he is the black Messiah who will lead all those of righteous livity (wholesome natural lifestyle) into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice called Zion (a new Earth, Isaiah 65:17). Selassie I also had the titles King of Kings, Elect of God and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. These titles are a close match for those of the Messiah mentioned in Revelation 5:5 (which verse reads “Lord of Lords” rather than “Elect of God”.) Psalm 87:4-6 is also interpreted as predicting the coronation of Haile Selassie I. King David, ruler of Israel (1004-965 BC), and his son Solomon the Wise (965-930 BC) are said to be direct descendents of Haile Selassie. The Kingdom of Judea (Israel) was crushed by the Assyrians in 722 BC and its people carried off into exile and death. Over a hundred years later, Babylonia conquered the Kingdom of Judea, exiling its inhabitants and destroying Jerusalem.
The Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia was founded by Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who had visited Solomon in Israel. 1 Kings 10:13 claims “And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.” On the basis of the Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Nagast, Rastas interpret this verse as meaning she conceived his child, and from this, conclude that African people are among the true children of Israel, or Jews. Black Jews have lived in Ethiopia for centuries, disconnected from the rest of Judaism; their existence gave some credence and impetus to early Rastafari, validating their belief that Ethiopia was Zion. Rastas believe that they, and the rest of the black race, are descendants of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, cast into captivity outside Africa as a result of the slave trade. Bob Marley included Haile Selassie in many songs, including “War” from Rastaman Vibration, which paraphrases Selassie’s speech to the United Nations in 1963: “Until the philosophy that holds one man superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war.”
Most Rastafari believe that Selassie is in some way a reincarnation of Jesus and that the Rastafari are the true Israelites. At the heart of Rastafari is the belief in being one’s own “kingman” or “chief”, saying they have been conditioned into slavery, but convert this into a belief in their own divine potential, believing that as Selassie I dwells within them, they also are worthy kings and princes. Many Rastas study the book Kebra Nagast, a sacred text over 1,000 years old, which mixes Jesus Christ with the Old Testament. Based on the prophecies in this book, Rastas determine that Selassie is the 225th regal descendent of Sheba and Solomon, thus a direct relative of Jesus of Nazareth. Rastas are satisfied that Selassie’s bloodline was entirely African and many Biblical persons would have been black, giving the Bible more power to these oppressed African descendents. In this realization, the Bible is much less Eurocentric. Ethiopian culture was perhaps the only African place not influenced by Europeans. Only after Selassie’s death in 1975, did Ethiopia adopt the western Gregorian calendar.
Rastas call Selassie “Jah”, or “Jah Rastafari”, and believe there is great power in these names; he is also referred to as H.I.M. (pronounced “him”), for His Imperial Majesty. They call themselves Rastafari to express the personal relationship each Rasta has with Selassie I. Rastas like to use the ordinal with the name Haile Selassie I, deliberately pronouncing the Roman numeral for “one” – signifying “the First” – like the letter I (“eye”) as a means of expressing a personal relationship with God. Haile Selassie I reigned Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. In 1936, TIME Magazine named him “Man of the Year” for his brave defense of Ethiopia against the 1935 Mussolini-led Italian fascist invasion.
Homosexuality and Women
Rastafari are very conservative in their view of homosexuality, it is condemned largely based on Old Testament edicts. In the summer of 2007, in the Toronto, Ontario area, five Jamaican dancehall musicians, including Buju Banton, had their shows cancelled for virulently anti-homosexual lyrics that called for the murder or eradication of “queers”. Bob Marley was far more benevolent towards homosexuality; he had no cause to disdain them, but they could not be Rastafari.
But in 2006, “Jamaica is the worst any of us has ever seen,” says Rebecca Schleifer of US-based Human Rights Watch, and author of a scathing report on the island’s anti-gay hostility. Buju Banton, who is one of the nation’s most popular dance-hall singers, grew up the youngest of 15 children in Kingston’s Salt Lane, a slum dominated by ultraconservative Christian churches and intensely anti-gay Rastafarians. Banton’s his first hit, 1992’s “Boom Bye-Bye”, boasts of shooting gays with Uzis and burning their skin with acid “like an old tire wheel.” The singer Elephant Man declares in one song, “When you hear a lesbian getting raped, it’s not our fault... Two women in bed, that’s two Sodomites who should be dead.” Another, Bounty Killer, urges listeners to burn “Mister Faggoty” and make him “wince in agony.”
Reggae’s anti-gay rhetoric has seeped into the country’s politics. Jamaica’s major political parties have passed some of the world’s most punitive anti-sodomy laws and regularly incorporate homophobic music in their election campaigns. Biblical proclamations on homosexuality, such as Leviticus 18:22 “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” are commands to the Rasta. Rastafari believe that homosexuality is a product of Babylon (the corrupt modern world) and will not be found in Zion, the Promised Land of black justice. Jamaica has more churches per capita than anywhere else on earth, most of them preaching a fundamentalist Christianity. Jamaican Rastafari believe in racial segregation and an ultra-orthodox fire-and-brimstone reading of the Old Testament. The hard-line Bobo Shanti have an even stricter interpretation of the Old Testament. Not all Rastafari are homophobic, but TIME Magazine referred to Jamaica as “the most homophobic place on Earth” because of the dozens of murders and hundreds of attacks on gays on the island each year.
The Rasta view of a woman’s place in the world is also extremely conservative. The women in Rastafari are normally referred to as Queens. Many Rastafarian marriages are informal (common law) and this explains the rather loose paternity obligations of some Rasta men. A woman’s role is housekeeping, childrearing and pleasing her King. A Rastafarian Queen must reject “Babylonial” society, or Western culture. Rastafari women cannot use make up, they cannot dress in short skirts and they cannot use chemicals in their hair. Many Rastafarian women cannot use any form of birth control, as it is not natural and also seen as a Euro-centric way to control the African population, and abortion is also not an option, as it is seen as murder. Rastafarian women are expected to know their place and nurture the community.
On Acceptance of White People as Rastas
The exclusionary nature of Rastafari is understandable. In its origins, it was a black liberation and empowerment movement to throw off white colonial dominance, and a rejection of the white European-based world order. It was not however, a rejection of the white man’s interpretation of the Bible, as Rastafari adopts virtually all the white Orthodox Church’s Biblical canon. The Holy Piby, known as the Black Man’s Bible, is principally about the destruction of white “Babylonia” and the return of the black Israelites to Africa.
In all the Rastafarian culture before Bob Marley in the 1970s, there were no white Rastas, nor were Rastas allowed to have sex with or marry whites. Today this taboo has fallen with many Rasta men marrying white visitors to Jamaica, although one might cynically attribute this to opportunism (i.e. a visa out of Jamaica). Until Bob Marley’s music spread around the world, a white Rasta would be inconceivable, but Marley’s dominant international message was one of black justice, black direction, peace for all peoples, and love – love of self, love of the world, love for God. There is little rancor to the white race in Bob Marley’s powerful and enduring musical messages. Marley made Rasta fashionable and comprehensible to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including a post-colonial, post civil-rights generation of young white people.
The most observant Rastas follow a dietary law called Ital (from the word ‘vital’). Ital food is completely natural, not canned, free of chemicals and preservatives and eaten as raw as possible. Old Testament prohibitions against pork and shellfish are part of Ital; most Rastafarians are vegetarians or vegans. Coffee and milk are also rejected as unnatural, and Rastafarians condemn the use of alcohol, since it is a fermented chemical that does not belong in the temple of the body, and it makes a person stupid, thereby playing into the hands of white leaders. This is contrasted with the holy herb of marijuana, which is natural and believed by Rastas to open their mind and assist in reasoning.
Rastas developed the King’s Iyaric, a language with nuanced differences from British English, which is regarded as ‘Babylon’ culture. Rastas speak a patois, an African rhythm incorporating English language, and is difficult for the white ear to readily distinguish.
"I" replaces me, you, mine, ours, and us. Rastas affirm “I and I”, leaving no separation in the identity of things. “Me” is felt to turn the person into an object, whereas “I” is about the individual. “I” also shows a personal relationship to God.
“I and I” is, according to Rastafarian scholar E. E. Cashmore, “an expression to totalize the concept of oneness, the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we’re one people, in fact.” The term is often used in place of ‘you and I’ or ‘we’ among Rastafarians, implying that both persons are united under the love of Jah.
Livity is a life that is natural and earth loving.
Babylon is the corrupt world of materialism, white man’s rule, the system.
Zion is the perfect world of balance, individual rights and dignity.
Irie means positive emotions and peaceful vibrations. Irator replaces “creator”. Idren or Bredren and Sistren refer to the oneness of Rastafarians and are used to describe one’s peers (male “bredren”, female “sistren”).
The dreadlocks Rastas wear are related to the fear of the Lord, as well as the fear locksmen inspired in the early stages of the movement.
Polytricks is a Rasta term replacing English “politics”, because so many politicians, etc. turn out, they say, to be more like tricksters.
Red literally means stoned, or under the influence of cannabis due to reddening of the eyes being a side effect of being under the influence.
Downpression replaces “oppression”, because oppression holds man down instead of keeping him up (pronounced “op” in Jamaican patois.) Similarly “downgression” equals “violence” (from aggression).
Overstanding (also “innerstanding”) replaces “understanding”, referring to enlightenment that raises one’s consciousness.