Rastafari and Jamaica

November 30, 2017

Rastafari began as a religious movement on the outskirts of Jamaican society. A crusade for the appreciation of African roots rooted in the tenets of Garveyism and biblical beliefs of the messianic qualities of Haile Selassie, Rastafari, in its early years, was considered to be radical lunacy by the greater Jamaican population.

But over time, this relationship changed from rejection, to acceptance, and finally, to commercial exploitation. Rastafari became a part of popular Jamaican culture through music, and then was accepted as a religion because of sympathetic 1960 study composed on Rastafari, the visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica, and more general social changes in Jamaica.

Even before 1960, Rastafari ideals began to penetrate Jamaican society through music. Around 1955 or 1956, Jamaican music evolved from ska, a fast-paced music that encouraged dancing and espoused fun and love, to rock steady, a genre with a slower beat and more socially conscious lyrics.

Rastafarian social criticism infiltrated some of the rock steady songs. Rock steadily evolved into reggae, a music genre heavily influenced by Rastafari. Reggae, along with Rastafari, basked in a time of acceptance during the late 1960s and early 1970s in Jamaica. Rastafarianism took a step towards acceptance in society through Jamaican popular music.

The 1960 study was compiled by MG Smith, Rex Nettleford, and Roy Augier, a team of social scientists from the University of West Indies. The study was a pivotal point for Rastafari. It marked a change in the relationship between the Jamaican government and society and Rastafariani.

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The government began to show signs of accommodation for Rastas, which led to an eventual acceptance. This accommodation included, as the study advised, an investigation into the Rastafarian idea of repatriation, and the government sent Rasta representatives to Africa to explore this option. Before this study, Rastas were seen in Jamaican society as lunatics or criminals, mostly because of the false stereotype that ganja induces violence.

The 1960 study reduced these stereotypes, and described Rastas as a peaceful group, but also as a group marginalized by the Jamaican government and society. This triggered the movement of Rastafari from the margin to the center of Jamaican society.

Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, and during the visit, Rastas experienced a rise in eminence and popularity. Rastas attended state dinners, and had a private meeting with Selassie himself. The visit of this major dignity or, from the Rasta’s perspective, this biblical messiah, gave the Rastafari movement credibility. Additionally, as part of the effort to “rehabilitate” rastas, or accommodate them into Jamaican society, the Jamaican government invited the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to establish itself in Jamaica to provide a place for Jamaicans to assert their African origins, but in terms of Christianity rather than Rastafarianism.

Besides these concrete events, trends in Jamaican society led to a more wide-spread acceptance of Rastafari. Jamaica’s “middle-class intelligentsia” had become disillusioned with the Jamaican government and its impotency; the government had largely not addressed the issue of poverty and social problems in Jamaica. This disillusionment resulted in a trend of radicalization that resulted in Jamaica’s Black Power movement. These radical intellectuals were now more accepting of Rastafari ideals.

Also, Rastafari began to slowly infiltrate Jamaican society in the same way that “rock n’ roll” infiltrated American culture. In the late 1960s and onwards, Rastafari ideals and practices began to seep into popular culture of the Jamaican youth. Young people now sympathized with Rasta ideals, and were not afraid to express Rasta thoughts, wear Rasta clothes, use words or phrases that originally came from Rastafari, and even disobey the illegalization of marijuana.

Today, strong Rasta influences are seen in Jamaican music, art, literature, the performing arts. Rastafari symbols and designs are widely used commercially in the tourist imagery and to present the image of Jamaica as creative and alternative. Rastafari is a very diffusive religion; there are no set doctrines. The spread of Rastafari allows people to pick up pieces and beliefs, and so a diversity of peace-loving ideals are born from Rastafari.

Ultimately, these changes were beneficial for the Rastafari movement. Although commercial exploitation can be seen as degrading of the true theme of the religion, the same public acceptance that creates such tourist-y exploitation facilitates the ability of more people to base personal ideas off of the peaceful, loving, and empowering messages of Rastafari.

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