Rhetoric of Reggae
Alfred ‘Tuna’ Snider
What Unites the Rasta?
“Rastafarianism is a religion; it is a way of knowing in the deepest sense....Rastafarian theology is experiential, it is not meant to engage one merely intellectually. We cannot understand it and come to grapple with it unless we open ourselves up and try to live it and experience it through the contact of subjectivities.” (Owens 8).
“No one who understands what its mythology means to a people, what inner power it possesses over that people and what reality is manifested therein, will say that mythology, any more than language, was invented by individuals.” (Cassirer 6)
Any discussion of Rastafarian beliefs and practices ultimately leads to a seemingly contradictory world of myriad variations and interpretations on a singular theme. The self-imposed restrictions of living Ital, ritualistic behavior, and selections chosen from the Bible are all aspects of Rastafarianism that exemplify this variation. Whilst in theory, these aspects have generally accepted guidelines, in practice, any number of interpretations may be seen. This unavoidable incongruence can make a difficult task of nailing down and framing a singular set of ‘laws’ by which all Rasta can be identified. However, if one pushes aside the elegant jumble of dreadlocks, skin-fish, and Psalms, and attempts to discover the unifying tenet of all Rastafarians, indeed certain fundamental, universal beliefs emerge. One of these themes, which can be attested to by a great many Rasta, is considering the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as God on Earth.
“Who is a Rastafarian? This vexatious question is invariably reduced by the brethren themselves to the question of who actually has knowledge of (not just belief in) the divinity of Haile Selassie” (Owens 28). The Reverend Father Joseph Owens worked and lived in West Kingston from 1970 to 1972, during which time he came into close contact and trust with many Rastafarians. Through conversations with the Rasta, Father Owens gained insight into how Rastafarians view their religion, which he recorded in his book, Dread: The Rastafarians of Jamaica. In clarification of the above passage, he wrote that the Rastafarians distinguish between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’ in that knowledge describes an absolute certainty, while belief leaves the possibility of uncertainty (28). This emphasis on knowing over merely believing allows Rastafarians to be steadfast in their doctrine. Once one gains knowledge of something, the ultimate truth of the matter has been obtained.
To the Rasta, Haile Selassie I is not merely a man, but a guiding force that is deeply connected to, and influences all, a Rastafarian does.
The Rastafarians saw Haile Selassie as a real messiah in the flesh until August, 1975, but in the spiritual body since his death. His spiritual presence is with them in all they do. He is the supreme being of the cult to whom prayers are made, hymns are sung, and around whom a sizable body of myth is developed. (Barrett 109)
The goal is to be in tune with this ‘spiritual presence' at at all times; to live with this knowledge of Selassie I’s divinity, which is partially acquired through studying the Bible. “This book, the Bible, which was printed for us all, is truth in the right termulation, because it does spake of this man, His Imperial Majesty” (Catman in Owens 35). However, a Rasta will not seek absolutism in the words of the Bible itself. For Rastafarians, the existence of Emperor Selassie I gives validity to the scripture (not vice versa) in that it is an arrow pointing the way to him.
It all seemed to begin with Marcus Mosiah Garvey. In 1916, before he boarded a boat to the United States, the Jamaican civil rights leader is reported to have said, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King, he shall be the Redeemer.” Fourteen years later, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Negus of Ethiopia. He adopted the name Haile Selassie (Might of the Trinity) along with which the traditional titles such as Lord of Lords, King of Kings, and Conquering Lion of Judah. Recalling the words of Garvey, early Rastafarians (taking the name from Haile Selassie’s birth name; Ras (meaning prince) and Tafari) such as Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert, and Robert Hinds scoured the Bible for passages bolstering their new found belief. It turned out that many passages were found to tell of the coming of their Lord and King.
A Bible-reading Rastafarian can recount many numbers of these passages which point towards Selassie I. The first and quite convincing passage is Revelation 5:2-5:
And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice: Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, nor in earth,…was able to open the book, neither to look thereon…And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. (cited in Barrett 83)
Additionally, Revelation 19:16 reads: “And he hath on his vesture and his thigh a name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Barrett 83). Many view the similarities of these passages to the official titles of His Imperial Majesty as more than a coincidence. In addition, the line of kings from which Haile Selassie hails is considered to be directly descended by way of the Queen of Sheba, through King Solomon the Wise, to David; thus making Selassie the ‘Root of David’.
In Daniel 7:9, it reads, “And I beheld till the thrones were cast down and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” In this passage, ‘head like pure wool’ describes the king as being black, as do the references to fire, which is traditionally associated with blackness.
Not only does the Bible prophesize descriptions of Haile Selassie, but also of events which surround him. Most notably is the passage of Psalm 18 and its connection with Haile Selassie’s historic visit to Jamaica in 1966. The Psalm reads,
He Bowed the Heavens and came down and darkness was under his feet, and he rode upon a cherub and did fly upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his secret place; His pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. At the brightness that was before Him his thick clouds passed, hall stones and coals of fire.
Compare this to the article from The Gleaner which covered the King’s arrival,
Everyone kept their eyes on the sky wondering when the plane carrying His Imperial Majesty from Trinidad and Tobago would arrive. Rain began to fall and the crowd continued to wait, hoping even for just a glimpse of the plane through the thick clouds that had formed. When the insignia of a roaring lion and stripes of red, green and gold finally came into view, the rain stopped. People shouted, "See how God stop de rain." The sound from the crowd was deafening as masses of people rushed to get closer to the island's distinguished visitor.
The arrival and passing of such imminent weather as Selassie’s plane descended into Kingston is believed to be the fulfillment of the Bible’s prophesy.
A Rastafarian’s approach to the Bible is always with a previous inherent store of knowledge and wisdom with which the teachings of the Bible interact to uncover an even higher truth. A Rastaman referred to as ‘Daniel’ spoke of “a book within, a book that was born in me, that has never been revealed. When such a book was open, a spirit, which is God in me, which is divine inspiration, tried to teach me things which I did not really know was within me” (34). The reason for this personal supplementation to the scripture may be based what Rasta believe to be the origin of the original Bible and its present incarnation.
For the Rastafarians, the Bible was written by and about black people. The ancient prophets and scribes who wrote the Testaments were black. The people about whom they wrote were black. It was all written in order to teach black people of all times about the proper way to worship and respect Jah. This original was written on stone in ancient Amharic, the language of the people at the time. Amharic was also the language Haile Selassie preferred to speak, for it was that of his people, the Amhara.
“The true prophets are black men, you know. The black man carve out things and leave it in Amharic. But the white man buck up words that he can’t really translate. So in the [English] Bible only half has been told. Still there’s a half that you never really know” (Eccleston cited in Owens 31). According to Rastas, the Europeans took the black man’s scriptures and in attempting to translate them, could not decipher the elaborate and succinct Amharic. Due to this, many sections were left out leaving us with the English Bible we have today.
It was this Bible, the King James version, that the white man used as another form of oppression towards the black slaves. The slaves, being in the depraved condition that they were, accepted the white man's Bible without being able to discern its true form. “The white man's Bible leads the people to believe, and so they never really know.” (Owens 33). By learning the Bible through a translation it becomes something that someone tells them. And hearsay can only be believed, not known. To know the Bible, one must come to learn it through its pure, original form. The Rasta know that there is more to the form of Bible that we know, and approach the words accordingly. Every Rastafarian feels himself endowed with knowledge of great religious and historical truths which have been hidden from the high mighty. (Eccleston cited in Owens 42). The true knowledge of the Bible is within all black men (a 'book within'), and insofar as the scriptures reveal this inner knowledge, the truth can be found.
To Rastafarians, the inspiration of this inner knowledge is found in some type of immediate spiritual contact with Emperor Selassie I himself: “I-n-I, who art found doing the divine word of our God and King, we communicate with our God and King through telepathical communication, with Emperor Haile-I Selassie I, unseen angel guiding and watching over I daily.” (Blackheart cited in Owens 43). Telepathic or not, every Rasta feels this physical or spiritual connection with the Emperor so strongly that they live one life with the King of Kings. This direct connection, is what causes Rasta to be wary of those who claim to speak for the Emperor. If what they are told is contradictory to what the Rasta know as truth, or have learned through their connection with Selassie I, then those words are regarded as deception, and thus discarded.
With the divinity of Haile Selassie I described as such, it can be understood how the works and deeds of the Emperor can become an object of Rastafarian praise. Emperor Selassie made many speeches to the international community stressing the necessity of universal peace, a stance behind which many Rastafarians could proudly stand. The words of his speech addressed to the United Nations in 1963 were most famously immortalized by Bob Marley in his song “War”.
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil...
Unfortunately, a further dissection of the Emperor’s deeds renews the nuisance of contradiction we believed to have left behind. While Selassie outwardly spoke of universal peace and hoped through education be able to bring Ethiopia onto the international stage, his own people were victim to the proletarian drawbacks of any monarchy, namely poverty and famine.
In a monarchy, ownership of land is representative of power. The people who own the land, usually the noble class, control the agriculture which requires that land, as well as have the ability to lease their land to people of lower classes. While history is strewn with examples of documents and actions which dispelled this oppressive tenet by championing proper distribution of land (The United States Constitution, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, etc.), Ethiopia had not yet come to these terms.
Throughout his reign, Emperor Selassie I distributed five million acres of land to his people. However, only twenty-one percent of that land was given to poor peasants who had no land to begin with (Lefort 9). The rest of which was distributed among noble landowners, church and government officials and military officers. Subsequently, in the early 1970s, decreasing rains in Ethiopia had resulted in a massive drought which put a stranglehold on the country’s agricultural production causing many to be without proper food. It was estimated that over 250,000 people died from the famine and over1.6 million were affected. Judging from the scale of the famine, and the fact that the decreasing rains in the years leading up to the famine did not result in effective action, perhaps a more intelligent distribution of the land would have been a proper solution.
It can be understood how a people of such strong belief can choose not to see the contradictions found in object of their praise. Barrett stated that, “It is necessary to understand that movements of this type are not interested in empirical truth, but rather in the certitude of the doctrine. That is, if it fulfills an emotional need it can succeed” (84). For the Rastafarians, the knowledge of Selassie I is so necessary and fundamental, physical truths lose their meaning and are replaced by the internal truth. An example of this strength comes from Dr. M. B. Douglas, a missionary delegate to Ethiopia in 1961,
On the mission's arrival in Addis Ababa, the delegates were met by the Abuna, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and upon learning that the cult worshiped the Emperor as God, advised them not to make this known to the King because such information would cause him great displeasure. He informed them that the Emperor was a devout Christian and a regular worshiper at the cathedral. Dr. Douglas recalled that this in no way discouraged the Rastafarians; to the contrary, it only strengthened their belief. Their reply to the Abuna was, “If he does not believe he is god, we know that he is god;” they informed the Abuna that the King would never display his divinity for “he that humbleth himself shall be exalted, and he that exalteth himself shall be abased.” “The Rastafarians left Ethiopia,” observed Dr. Douglas, “more convinced than ever, that Haile Selassie is God”. (Barrett 108)
Even when directly in the face of contradiction, the Rastafarians respond positively, believing that the knowledge they possess within is the ultimate truth. Rasta's distrust of messengers looking to lead someone to believe what they say may also be a factor inn this case.
So, why appoint as God this particular black African king of a long line of black African kings? How in the face of so much contradiction can Rastafarians be forthright in their belief? Perhaps the light shed by the pan-Rastafarian institutions surrounding Selassie I on the nature of Rastafarian mythology can answer these and other questions.
Something that is considered universal is by nature indicative of the most basic and fundamental. That is, in our case, if knowledge of Haile Selassie’s divinity is considered universal to Rastafarianism, then the nature of that belief must be indicative of the nature of the creation of Rastafarian mythology.
F. W. J. von Schelling was a German philosopher of mythology in the late 19th century who once wrote, “Like knowledge, morality, and art, myth now becomes an independent, self-contained world, which may not be measured by outside criteria of value and reality but must be grasped according to its own immanent structural law” (Cited in Cassirer 4). This statement speaks of Rastafarianism (being a system of myths) directly. Rasta mythology is governed by its own laws, which may or may not correlate with external laws of society, government, or science. In the case of the Rastafarian, these laws are the inherent knowledge of the truth that lies within all black men. It is this knowledge which influences how Rastafarians approach the Bible and, in a sense, the entire world.
Much speculation has been given to the origin of mythology is human beings. Perhaps one of the first men to address this issue (whether he knew it or not) was Plato. In his Theory of Forms, Plato postulated that the world of our senses and experience are merely shadows their true form. This theory is illustrated in the Allegory of the Cave: We, the inhabitants of the world, are depicted as figures chained to the ground deep within a cave, bound from birth so that they cannot move and are forced to look at the back wall of the cave. Upon this wall, shadows of various objects are projected, held aloft by unseen figures and illuminated by a fire located at the midpoint of the cave. Past this fire, towards the entrance to the cave, sunlight begins to penetrate, growing stronger and stronger until one exits the cave and confronts the sunlight in its fullness (Plato 240-245).
The images that the inhabitants of the cave see on the wall of the cave are all the objects that one experiences in this world. Those forms are all that we know and understand. However, those forms are merely adulterated versions of the true object it depicts, which we never experience. The figures projecting the images and the fire within the cave represent the agents of the fallacy that the inhabitants experience, and the sunlight represents the knowledge which illuminates this fallacy and leads one to know the ideal form of the world. Plato created a dichotomy of real and unreal worlds: a world of belief and a world of knowledge.
Like Plato, Rastafarians concern themselves with a world of truth and a world of untruth. Suppose the cave is Babylon, the shadows are the King James version of the Bible, the fire and unseen figures are agents of Babylon (white men), the figures which they hold are the Amharic Bible, and the sunlight represents the inspiration of Haile Selassie I. The white men try to make black men believe in their Bible, and hide from them the truth of the world and their people. However, in the Rasta version (or should I say dub version), the sunlight of knowledge extends faintly beyond the fire, deeper in to the cave so that a small portion of the images cast on the wall are cast by the sunlight. This represents the knowledge which exists in all and, if followed, will lead to the full understanding of truth and the higher knowledge: Haile Selassie I.
While this exercise give us a classical counterpart to which the Rastafarian view of the Bible is weighed, it allows us to understand a view which facilitated the creation of a mythology. By understanding that the Bible they are given is incomplete and veiled, their approach must be with a yearning eye towards the Bible's original version. Thus, Rastas look to interpret the Bible as the original scribes intended it, for the black man. The books speak of the tribulation and oppression of black people, and prophesize of black kings and black messiahs. And the inner knowledge tells them that this is truth.
In the early 20th century, another German philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, discussed the nature of mythology in his work The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Cassirer considers the dissimilarities between empirical thinking and mythological thinking, referred to as theoretical thinking. Concerning empirical thought, Cassirer writes,
“It is at all times the order, the necessity, of phenomena as a whole that serves as a criterion for the truth of the particular empirical phenomenon and of the “reality” that should be imputed to it. Thus in the theoretical organization of the world of experience each particular is mediately or immediately referred to a universal and measured by it.” (31)
Empirical thought experiences the particulars of the world as constituents of the whole. One determines an experience's connections to other particulars and is measured against the whole in order to discover its placement within the whole.
To Cassirer, mythological thought considers each particular as it currently displays itself, viewing each particular as a whole.
Myth lives entirely by the presence of its object—by the intensity with which it seizes and takes possession of consciousness in a specific moment. Myth lacks any means of extending the moment beyond itself, of looking ahead of it or behind it, of relating it as a particular to the elements of reality as a whole. (35).
The object is not measured against something that is not given, the knowledge rests with the moment itself.
To a Rastafarian, this object of infatuation is the divine being of Haile Selassie I. All the aspects of Rastafarian behavior towards this particular: the spiritual connection with H.I.M., their approach to the Bible, and their treatment of contradiction, recognize nothing but the moment of Haile Selassie. The world extends not before nor past this conviction.
It is this final example which cements Haile Selassie as the universal in Rastafarianism. Not only does a dissection of Rasta beliefs lead to this realization, but explanations from great thinkers of mythology across the centuries, points there as well.
For millions of people, religion provides many things: hope, comfort, understanding, reason (among many others). But how can one find hope and understanding in an ever varying, ever changing world? We can say that everything is relative, and what is to one may be different to another, but in a system of belief, such as a religion, there must be a universal on which all else is based. A constant which can provide a follower with infinite support. In the case of the Rastafarian, this constant is the Emperor Haile Selassie I.
Barrett, Leonard E., Sr. The Rastafarians. Beacon Press Books. (Boston, MA). 1997.
Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 2. Yale University Press. (New Haven, CT). 1955
Cole, Alan and Barrett, Carlton. “War.” Rastaman Vibration. Harry J. Studios. 1976.
Lefort, Rene. Ethiopia: An Heretical Revolution?. Zed Press. (Totowa, NJ). 1983.
Owens, Joseph. Dread. Sangster's Books Stores Ltd. (Kingston, Jamaica). 1976
Plato. Republic. Trans. By Waterfield, Robin. Oxford University Press. (Oxford, England). 1993.
Tortello, Rebecca. “All Hail: The State Visit of Haile Selassie I.” The Gleaner April 20-24, 1966.