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Holy Zion!

A Study of Ethiopianism in Rastafarianism with a Focus on the Concept Of Ethiopia as Zion

Jennifer Skowera


Open your eyes and look within

Are you satisfied with the life you're living?

We know where we're going;

We know where we're from

We're leaving Babylon, we're going to our fatherland

(Marley "Exodus" 5).

In 1977, Bob Marley's lyrics reflected the ideology of Rastafarianism, defined by the New Dictionary of Religions as, "A variety of dynamic movements in Jamaica . . . since the 1930s among the poor landless men, inspired by Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement and the accession of Ras Tafari as emperor of Ethiopia" (Rastafarian). But the Rastafarians are much more than "poor landless men". They are an oppressed people who in the1930s found themselves in a hopeless situation. It was this hopeless situation that readied the minds and hearts of the Rastafarians to look beyond their lives in Jamaica. They began to look to a new life and a new world by the name of Ethiopia. The concept of Ethiopia as Zion, a destined homeland for all Black people, soon took hold of the Rastafarians so much so that it became the basis for their religion, Ethiopianism. According to one source, "It is the Rastafari movements, with its origins in Jamaica, that Ethiopianism has been most consistently elaborated for nearly seven decades" (Dread History). Ethiopianism, and specifically the belief in Ethiopia as Zion, was so accepted by the Rastafarians because it offered a sense of dignity and hope in an otherwise hopeless economic and social climate.

Jamaica 1930 was not the picture of peaceful jungles and calm sunsets that we see in travel agents’ brochures. Jamaica 1930 was a time of economic, social, and natural disaster. As Leonard Barrett, author of The Rastafarians, describes it, "Jamaica in 1930 was at low tide economically and socially" (84). The after math of the Great Depression was being felt worldwide, and Jamaica was no exception. The result was falling sugar prices and growing unemployment. The disappointment and frustration felt by the people of Jamaica was only worsened by the slow movement of political progress, the continuation of colonialism, the new limitations of emigration possibilities, and the rising growth rate that promised to fill Jamaica with more poverty stricken, depraved, and oppressed children.

For these awful economic and social conditions occurring in Jamaica in 1930, the island could find no sympathy in Mother Nature. On November 8, 1932, Jamaica and many of its surrounding islands were struck by a devastating hurricane that destroyed buildings and houses and took many lives. Then, not even one year later, on August 15, 1933, a flood of "record intensity" ripped through Kingston and Lower St. Andrew leaving disastrous effects (Discover Jamaica). The flood, along with the heavy rains that followed, left houses destroyed, L30,000 in demolished property, fifty three people dead, and a water shortage (Discover Jamaica). As can be imagined, the people of Jamaica were distressed, confused, and angry.

With the first few years of the 1930s filled with destruction and disappointment, it is not surprising that by 1938, violence and rioting were quickly spreading throughout Jamaica. However, with the people’s frustration and discontent also came forth a new wave of action in the form of the first lasting labor unions and a birth of new political parties (Zach 109). All of the disruption and disappointment also opened doors to new beliefs and ideas for the Jamaican people. With countless sources of oppression, the people were left with little to believe in and nothing to look forward to. All of this unrest primed the people of Jamaica, particularly the Rastafarians, to embrace the ideas of Ethiopianism, a religion full of hope, dignity, redemption, and most importantly, identity.

The man most responsible for bringing the ideals of Ethiopianism to Jamaica is Marcus Garvey. Barrett describes the man as ". . . the prophet of African redemption . . . [and through him] the spirit of Ethiopianism came into full blossom" (77). Garvey was a strong leader that came out with powerful ideas at a time when the Jamaican people had nothing to believe in but oppression. Garvey took his beliefs and organized the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which he described as ". . .[R]epresent[ing] the hopes and aspirations of the awakened Negro" (Who Was Marcus Garvey?). Through his organization, Garvey enlightened people all over the world to the dignity of the Black race and the superiority of ancient Africa. As Barrett states, " . . . [Garvey wanted Blacks to] assume the true leadership of the world as they had in times past" (77). In order to accomplish this, Garvey made his clearest goal one of repatriation. He preached that in order for Black people to rise to power, they must return to their homeland, return to Africa. This concept of repatriation was apparent in his famous slogan, "Africa for Africans, at home and abroad" (Dread History).

A common dispute often occurs between Garvey as the Prophet versus Garvey as the political leader. While Garvey’s motivations and actions were very political, he reached out to the Jamaican people, specifically the Rastafarians, with the wisdom and language of a Prophet. As Barrett notes, " . . .the theme of the Garvey movement has remained the most quoted text in the Rastafarian movement" (78). He gave Black people a reason to feel dignified and proud. Garvey believed that the Black race was superior, and he invited others to realize this, take pride in it, and reclaim power of the world that was once theirs. In a land where people had little hope, Marcus Garvey gave the people of Jamaica something to believe in: themselves. As Paul Zach, author of Insight Guides: Jamaica comments, "[Garvey] acquired a powerful hold on the imagination of the mass of the people and did much to create unity . . . and give them [Black people] a pride in their race" (207).

Perhaps one of the most amazing and significant events in the history of both Ethiopianism and the Garvey movement came fourteen years after Garvey uttered the words, "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the Redeemer" (Barrett 81). It was fourteen years later, in November of 1930, that Garvey’s prophecy came true when Ras Tafari, descendant of the biblical King Solomon, was crowned the Black King of Ethiopia. One Rastafarian describes the event by observing, "The news of a black regent claiming descent through the biblical lineage of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, stirred the imaginations of an entire generation of African Americans and refocused attention upon ancient Ethiopia" (Dread History). Finally, just as Garvey had promised, a Black man had become King. And not just King of anything, but King of Ethiopia, the oldest, and at one time the most powerful, throne on earth.

Ras Tafari, who took the name Haile Selassie at his coronation, was seen as the "promised Messiah from the House of Judah" (Jamaicans Of Ethiopian Origin And The Rastafarian Faith). As Barrett concedes, his crowning was seen as a revelation from God, a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, and a signal that it was time for redemption (81). The importance he had in his people’s lives and faith is represented through his many titles which include: His Imperial Majesty, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Light of this World, King of Zion, and Elect of God. Selassie’s people, including the Rastafarians, believe that he is God, and believe that "he will regather them from lands of captivity and bring them to their own land [Ethiopia] again" (Jamaicans Of Ethiopian Origin And The Rastafarian Faith). Finally, after a life of White oppression, a Black King held power over the promised land of Ethiopia. This gave the people of Jamaica someone to believe in, someone to look to, someone that could give them a renewed sense of hope and identity. For now Ethiopia is where they belonged, it is their God given home, and Selassie proves to be that God.

The second most important day in the correlation between Ethiopianism and Jamaica, the first being Selassie’s coronation, was what the Jamaicans call Grounation Day. On April 21, 1966, His Imperial Majesty was invited to visit Jamaica. Selassie was met at the airport by thousands of his Jamaican people. He arrived to the chanting of "Hosanna to the Son of David" (Redington 3). In 1930, God had introduced himself to the Jamaican people, and in 1966 he had come to meet them in their oppressed land. During his journey Selassie addressed his people and said, "Ethiopians and Jamaicans have a relationship going back for a long time . . . Jamaicans and Ethiopians were brothers by blood" (Jamaicans Of Ethiopian Origin And The Rastafarian Faith). These words gave Jamaicans assurance that they belonged somewhere, that Jamaica was not their home, that they were not meant to live under the White man. They are Ethiopians and Ethiopia is where they belong.

With Marcus Garvey’s prophecy filled at Selassie’s coronation and the Jamaican people uplifted by Grounation Day, Ethiopianism in Jamaica was becoming much more than a simple belief or blind faith, it was becoming a way of life for the Jamaican people, specifically the Rastafarians. As Barrett explains, ". . . Rastafarians . . . adopted the concept [of Ethiopianism] as a model for social transformation in Jamaica" (70). The Rastafarians believed that it was through Ethiopianism, through Selassie, that redemption would be found.

As stated by Norman Redington, author of A Sketch of Rastafari History, "According to classical Rastas, Rastafarianism is not a religion, an organization, nor a philosophy, but an active attempt to discern the will of JAH [God, Selassie] and keep it" (4). What this "attempt" leads to is a lifestyle based upon strong beliefs and faiths, exemplified by the general principles and practices of the Rastafarians. Barrett sums up these principles with six basic beliefs including: Selassie is the living God, Black people are the reincarnation of ancient Israel who have been exiled to Jamaica because of the White people, the Black race is superior to the White, His Imperial Majesty is planning for a mass return of the Black people to Ethiopia, the Black people will soon rule the world, and finally, Jamaica is a hopeless hell and Ethiopia is heaven (Zion) (104).

The concept of Ethiopia being Zion is perhaps the most important in the lives of Rastafarians. To them, Zion represents their true home, a place where they are accepted and belong. It is a God given place to which they will eventually be brought to: through redemption they will be brought out of Babylon (Jamaica) and into Zion (Ethiopia). What is most significant to the Rastafarians about Ethiopia as Zion is the biblical history and reference that justify their claims. Ethiopia and its people are mentioned throughout the Bible more than forty times. The Rastafarians take the Bible as the purest truth, when translated without the corruptions brought forth by the White man (Barrett 127). They look to the Bible not for moral lessons, but for the true history of their people and their destiny.

The Bible provides three main messages for the Rastafarians involving Ethiopia and its people. First, the Bible presents verses that identify the Ethiopians as holy and biblical people, as God’s children. In Amos (Chapter 9, Verse 7), the Lord likens the Ethiopians to the Israelites, God’s children, when He declares, "Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites [Ethiopians]? (The Bible). This passage blatantly compares the Israelites to the Ethiopians, and it is stated that they are the same; both are God’s children.

This message is repeated in Numbers (Chapter 12) when a story is told that begins, "Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite [Ethiopian] wife, for he had married a Cushite" (The Bible). Not only had Moses, one of the holiest Prophets, married an Ethiopian woman, but also the Lord punished Miriam for criticizing Moses’ marriage by giving her leprosy (The Bible). The Rastafarians use this passage to show that the Lord views Ethiopians as His people, just as deserving as Miriam or Moses. The effect of this is quite important. From the Bible, the source of pure truth, claiming Ethiopians as God’s people, the Rastafarians are able to take identity. In a world where they are constantly lower class, the Bible shows that they are deserving and important people. It lets them be proud of who they are.

The second message the Bible provides is that not only are the Ethiopians God’s children, but they are also strong, powerful people whose kingdom will rule forever. In Genesis (Chapter 49) Judah is compared to a lion, a prominent symbol in the Rastafarian movement used to represent Selassie, the Lion of Judah. The Bible says,

Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness — who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his (The Bible).

This passage promises that the Lion of Judah (Selassie) will be powerful and revered ("who dares to rouse him?"). It also promises that his kingdom (Ethiopia) and his tribe (Ethiopians) will be strong and untouched. This passage holds strong that Selassie, his throne, and Ethiopia will come to be a dominant force in the world.

This message of a strong force is repeated in Psalm 72. It is said that King Solomon, ruler of the dynasty that now belongs to Selassie, will not only "endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations" but also that "he will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor" (The Bible). Not only will the dynasty reign for all time; it will also save the people and defeat the oppressor. This passage gives hope that redemption will come, and that it will come from Selassie, descendant of Solomon.

Hope of redemption is offered again in one of the most revered passages, Psalm 68 (Verse 31). It is said, "Princes shall come out of Egypt [Ethiopia]; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God" (The Bible). Rastafarians find this passage to be the most significant because it openly states that Ethiopia will be a powerful nation and will be a nation under God. Many saw this passage as an explanation of Selassie’s crowning and it has become a strong justification for the belief in Selassie as God and Ethiopia as Zion.

Ethiopia as Zion is the third message the Bible presents to the Rastafarians. In Genesis (Chapter 2, Verse 13) it is said that, "A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters . . . The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush (Ethiopia)" (The Bible). The Rastafarians believe that this passage signifies that Ethiopia was part of Eden, and therefore that Ethiopia, like Eden, is a place of utopia, the purest, holiest land . . . Zion.

With the concept of Zion being so important in the lives of Rastafarians, it is not surprising that it is also a popular topic in reggae music. According to Barrett, "Reggae . . . [is] a medium of social commentary . . . It still serves as a social safety valve through which oppressed people express their discontent" (Barrett vii). Reggae music is a way for the Rastafarians to express themselves: their hopes, their beliefs, their frustrations, and their disappointments. It is a way to communicate and educate others about the life they are living. Because religion is such a strong part of the Rastafarian life, it is also a strong focus in reggae music. Subjects that are at the center of the Rastafarian religion like Ethiopia, Zion, Babylon, repartition, redemption, unity, Selassie, the Bible, Marcus Garvey, African history, and Black pride also have a dominant presence in reggae.

Two excellent examples of reggae artists that convey these messages are Bob Marley and Mutabaruka. These two artists and their work are the center of the connection between Ethiopianism, Rastafarianism, and reggae music.

Barrett calls Marley the "Rastafarian song-prophet" and explains "Marley stamped his personality on reggae until the sound became identified with the Rastafarian movement" (viii). The result was that Marley’s music was seen as a direct expression of all Rastafarians and therefore his songs provide a good look into the values and issues of Rastafarianism.

For example, in his song "Africa Unite", Marley calls for unity of Black people. He calls for unity against Babylon and unity towards Africa (Zion), when he sings.

Africa, Unite

'Cause we're moving right out of Babylon

And we're going to our father's land

How good and how pleasant it would be

Before God and man, yeah

To see the unification of all Africans, yeah

As it's been said already

Let it be done, yeah

We are the children of the Rastaman

We are the children of the Higher Man

In this song, Marley touches on three of the major beliefs of the Rastafarians. The first is portrayed in the title, "Africa Unite". The belief is that through unity, redemption will come. The second is the idea that redemption will come in the form of Jamaicans being taken out of Jamaica (Babylon) and brought to their homeland, Ethiopia (Zion, "our father’s land"). Lastly, Marley sings, "We are the children of the Higher Man", which clearly refers to the belief that Haile Selassie is God, the Rastafarians are His people, and redemption will come from Him.

Marley continues with,

We are the children of the Higher Man

So, Africa,Unite,

Africa, Unite

Unite for the benefit of your people

Unite for it's later than you think

Unite for the benefit of your children

Unite for it's later than you think

Africa awaits its creators,

Africa awaiting its creators

Africa, you're my forefather cornerstore

(Marley "Survival"6)

Not only does Marley call for unity, he gives the reasons why this unity is so important. Unite for each other as well as for yourself. Unite because the time has come, there can be no more waiting, things will only get worse if left alone. Unite for those that come after you, give them freedom. Africa (Ethiopia, Zion) is waiting for you, its where you belong, unite so we can return to our home.

In another song, "Exodus", Marley directly addresses the movement of people out of Jamaica and into Ethiopia. He sings,

Exodus, movement of Jah people, oh yeah

Open your eyes and let me tell you this

Men and people will fight ya down (Tell me why?)

When ya see Jah light

Let me tell you, if you're not wrong (Then why?)

Ev'rything is alright

So we gonna walk, alright, through the roads of creation

We're the generation (Tell me why)

Trod through great tribulation

Exodus, movement of Jah people

Exodus, movement of Jah people

Open your eyes and look within

Are you satisfied with the life you're living?

We know where we're going;

We know where we're from

We're leaving Babylon, we're going to our fatherland

Marley is letting the people know that even though they live in a life full of oppression; if they put their faith in Selassie everything will turn out alright. The future is already known: they will be brought to Zion, their "fatherland", they just have to believe.

He continues,

Jah come to break down 'pression, rule equality

Wipe away transgression, set the captives free

Exodus, movement of Jah people

Exodus, movement of Jah people

Movement of Jah people

(Marley "Exodus"5)

This verse has a direct correlation with Psalm 72, mentioned earlier, that says, "he (King Solomon) will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor". Marley is reiterating that Jah will save His people. He will set His people free and break down oppression.

Mutabaruka, labeled both a dub-poet and protest-poet, provides another good view of the Rastafarian beliefs (Mutabaruka Web Site). In "Canaan Lan’ ", he writes what the Bible has foretold of the future, of Selassie, and of the Jamaican people. He sings,

now listen this

i tell you true

that the king of kings have been shown to you

the king of isreal have been revealed

to open the book and to loose the seal

the throne of david shall ever stand

to guide and protect the sons of ham

Mutabaruka says that Selassie, the "king of kings", has been "revealed". Selassie has been brought to His people through his crowning. Selassie and His kingdom will rule forever and will save the Black people (the sons of ham) and guide them through their life and struggles.

He continues,

Behold the days come saith the Lord

When they shall no more say the Lord liveth

Which brought up the children of Israel

Out of the land of Egypt

But the Lord liveth

Which brought up and which led the seed of the

House of Israel out of the North country

And from all country to which I have driven tem

And they shall dwell in their own land

(Mutabaruka "The Ultimate Collection 4)

Mutabaruka is reiterating that the day will come when the Jamaicans, and all oppressed Black people, will be brought out of their oppressed lands and brought into Zion ("their own land"). In his poem, Mutabaruka is assuring his people that the prophecies are true, Selassie is God and He will bring His people to their homeland, to Zion.

In "Garvey", Mutabaruka pays tribute to the leader and calls for a worldwide movement, reminiscent of Garvey’s, of history and pride. He sings,

garvey garvey rise agen

teck wi from dis evil den

garvey garvey rescue wi

from disyah ideology

marcus garvey risin from earth

like moses pick from birth

com children say it loud

mek dem know wi still black an' proud

i'm black and i'm proud

By comparing Garvey to Moses, Mutabaruka is looking at Garvey as a Prophet, much more than just a political leader. He is calling to Garvey ("rise agen"), but is really calling for a revolution, another movement to inspire the Black people. Mutabaruka feels that Garvey’s words are not being heard as strong as they once were. He is asking for a resurgence of that energy, he wants people to stand up and be proud of who they are just as Garvey did in his day. Mutabaruka is taking the first steps to initiate this revolution by stating, "I’m Black and I’m proud".

He continues,

afrikan leaders just wait

garvey action wi can duplicate

black pride im did preach

to de young we must teach

put garvey in wi reality

mek wi check im philosophy

talkin bout our history

dat begin before slavery

com children say it loud

mek dem know wi still black an' proud

Again, Mutabaruka is saying that another movement like Garvey’s is in order. The time has come to once again claim Black pride. In order to do so, they must not only be proud of who they are, but also where they came from. They must teach "our history dat begin before slavery", the history of Africa, of Ethiopia, because that is who they are. They are not Jamaicans, their history does not begin there; they are Ethiopians and must teach and be proud of their African history.

Mutabaruka continues with the idea of African history and identity when he sings,

from egypt to timbucktu

from morrocco to south afrika too

we walk proud over de lan'

out of afrika it all began

garvey taught race first

afrikan slavery was not a curse

we can accomplish w'at we will

great afrika was great we are still

com children say it loud

mek dem know wi still black an' proud

i'm black and i'm proud

Mutabaruka is saying that it does not matter where you live, whether its Egypt or Morrocco, if you are Black you are from Africa. Africa is where history began, and Africa is where Black people still belong. Mutabaruka believes Black people should be proud of where they came from and be proud that they want to return to their history ("great afrika was great we are still").

In his final verse, Mutabaruka touches on one of Garvey’s most important points, Black and African pride. He sings,

if u don't know where u commin from

u wont know where u are goin

a people without a knowledge of their past

is like a tree without roots

afrika for afrikans

those at home an' those abroad

if you have no confidence in yourself

u are twice defeated in de race of life

but with confidence u have won

even before u have started

(Mutabaruka "Outcry" 2)

Mutabaruka writes that there is no hope for the future without an understanding of the past. Without the knowledge of Black history, the people will be lost and unable to move forward, they are like "a tree without roots": no grounding, no foundation. Mutabaruka then goes on to use one of Garvey’s most famous lines when he sings "afrik for afrikans those at home an’ those abroad", stating that all Black people are Africans and all Africans belong in Africa. This philosophy has a distinct connection with the concept of Africa, specifically Ethiopia, as Zion, a place where all Black people are destined to belong.

In his final lines, Mutabaruka tells his people to take pride in who they are. He writes that Black people are already oppressed, but by taking no pride in their race or history, they are helping in that oppression. With confidence and with pride, Mutabaruka believes that "you have won even before u have started". By taking pride in your history, you will be strong in your identity and it will be harder for others to break you down.

In perhaps one of his most powerful songs, "Whey Mi Belang?", Mutabaruka takes on the most important message of Ethiopianism and Rastafarianism: identity. Black people, such as the Rastafarians, were taken from their homeland of Africa and were forced into places like Jamaica where their oppressors have treated them like lower class. They are abused and neglected, and although they know they deserve a better life, it is hard to have hope in such awful circumstances. The Rastafarians know that they are not Jamaicans and they do not belong in Jamaica, but who are they and where do they belong? Mutabaruka answers these questions when he writes,



west indian?

den a which country i belang?

chinese - china

indian - india

european - europe



west indian?

den a which country i belang

negro - black

but negroland no

nigga - stupid

but stupidland no

west yes

bui i nu indian

den a which country i belang?

i affe guh trace

my original place

try fe fine out

wa mi is all about

a come ya fram de east

dat i know

but in de east

there is no negro


dat i caa figga

west indian?

a which country i belang?


a rememba a land

weh man ack like man

dem use fe call wi




(Mutabaruka "Check It" 1)

Mutabaruka asks the question straight out, "Whey Mi Belang?", where do I belong? The Chinese belong in China, Indians in India, Europeans in Europe, but where does a Black man belong? There is no Blackland, so where is his home? Like many Black people and like many Rastafarians, Mutabaruka wants to know where is his homeland, where can he call home, where does he come from, where does he belong? The answer is clear: he is an Ethiopian. The Bible declares it, Haile Selassie, the living God confirmed it: the Rastafarians are Ethiopians and they belong in Ethiopia, it is their home and destiny . . . it is their Zion.

In 1930, the Rastafarians in Jamaica were in a living hell with no hope of escape and no sense of who they were. Then came Marcus Garvey’s movement that initiated a revolution of Black pride and introduced Africa as a destined homeland for all Black people. Next came His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie’s coronation that gave the people a God to believe in and to guide them through their life of struggle. These events lead to a resurgence of hope and pride that manifested in the religion of Ethiopianism. Ethiopianism gave the Rastafarians a new view of life, a life of hope and faith that lead Mutabaruka to finally be able to answer the essential question "whey mi belang" with one word: Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the light at the end of the tunnel of oppression that the Rastafarians have lived their whole lives in. Ethiopia is hope. Ethiopia is faith. Ethiopia is identity. Ethiopia is home. Ethiopia is destiny. Ethiopia is Zion.


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---. Survival. 1979.

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---. Outcry. 1984.

---. The Ultimate Collection. 1996.

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Who Was Marcus Garvey?

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