Rastafari movement in the United States

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The Rastafari Movement in the United States is the Rastafari Movement, founded in Jamaica, manifestation in the United States.



The name Rastafari is taken from Ras Tafari, the title (Ras) and first name (Tafari Makonnen) of Haile Selassie I before his coronation. In Amharic, Ras, literally "head", is an Ethiopian title equivalent to prince or chief, while the personal given name Täfäri (teferi) means one who is revered. The origin of Rastafari came from Jamaica and Ethiopia. Jah is a Biblical name of God, from a shortened form of Jahweh or Jehovah found in Psalms 68:4 in the King James Version of the Bible. Most adherents see Haile Selassie I as Jah or Jah Rastafari, an incarnation ofGod the Father, the Second Advent of Christ "the Anointed One", i.e. the Second Coming of Jesus Christ the King to Earth.The Rastafari way of life encompasses the spiritual use of cannabis and the rejection of the degenerate society of materialism, oppression, and sensual pleasures, called Babylon. Rastas assert that Zion (i.e., Ethiopia) is a land that Jah promised to them. To achieve this, they reject modern western society, calling it "Babylon", which they see as entirely corrupt due to materialism and greed. "Babylon" is considered to have been in rebellion against "Earth's Rightful Ruler" (Jah) ever since the days of the Biblical king Nimrod.

The lion is a symbol for Rastafari because it appears on the Imperial Ethiopian flag, used in Haile Selassie I's Ethiopia.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey, a native Jamaican, speaking on the topic of the creation of an African state for displaced Africans, told his followers to “look to the East Africa, for the crowning of the Black King." This was also to influence the minds of the masses of black people from continuing to worship King George of England. Marcus Mosiah Garvey was referring to Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the only remaining African Monarch of Biblical ancestry. However, some found a more literal interpretation. Among some of these were working class Jamaicans, who saw Garvey as a prophet, and more specifically the reincarnation of John the Baptist. Consequentially, when Ras Tafari of Ethiopia was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930, many saw the prophecy fulfilled, and proclaimed King Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia Jah, or God.

The movement has had strong cultural, social, and political effects on both Ethiopia and Jamaica, but to date, little scholarly research has been done on the effects of the movement on the United States of America. But this is not to say that such influences and affections do not exist in America, which many Rastafari see as the epitome of Babylon, and the hearth of all evil in the world. This does not stop Rastafari from immigrating to America, as a considerable influx of Jamaican Rastafari made the United States their new home during the 1960s and 1970s. The Rastafari movement played a vital role in the shaping of local United States society and culture, as was seen in the socio-cultural accomplishments of Marcus Garvey, the effects of localized Rastafari community building on the greater metropolitan area, and through the medium of Rastafari riddims, or reggae music. Adding to the idea that the United States is "Babylon" some American Rastas don't believe that the United States is Babylon due to the Revolutionary War against Britain.

Marcus Garvey was one of the most influential elements of the Rastafari Movement on the United States. Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born into working class Jamaica on 17 August 1887. At the age of 13, Garvey was already learning to influence the masses through an internship at his grandfather's newspaper printing business in Jamaica. It was not long before Garvey began preaching his ideals of Black Nationalism, as well as political and economic independence. In 1910, the young prophet began to spread his messages to countries of Latin America, such as Panama and Costa Rica. In 1914, Garvey would find his way to the United States. These ideals would greatly influence American society for generations to come, and were seen as a prelude to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association

Foremost, Marcus Garvey sought to organize blacks worldwide to give them an influential voice in society through overwhelming numbers. To do so, Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which appealed to Negroes everywhere, calling for them to “reorganize, link up (their) strength, morally, financially, educationally, and physically”. After failed attempts to create a following in Jamaica, Garvey relocated the UNIA to Harlem, in New York City, where membership grew rapidly and enthusiastically. By 1920, Garvey had over 2,000,000 members in over 1,000 local chapters of the UNIA.

The UNIA had two principal goals: to establish black independence politically, and economically. Initially, Garvey came to America to preach his prophecy of Black Nationalism through Back to Africa movement. Under this action, displaced Africans would return to the land of their ancestors where they would create a prosperous African state, and lead Africa to become an influential world power. In 1924, with the financial assistance of the more than 2,000,000 members of the UNIA, Garvey sought to purchase 1 million acres (4000 km²) of land from the African country of Liberia. This land would serve as the place of repatriation Garvey had spoken of for nearly two decades. However, only 11 days after Garvey agreed to purchase the land, Firestone Tires, with the aide of the US government, stole the land from under Garvey's nose. Firestone paid an unprecedented price to purchase what Garvey saw as his land. This was, effectively, the end of the back to Africa movement. Although the movement was essentially a failure, it deeply affected America by showing the power of the black community, effectively giving them an influential voice within society. It showed that blacks would not stand for white oppression, and had the ability to organize and fight back against corruption. Overall, the back to Africa movement showed that blacks had the power to pool together and play an active role in political affairs.

The Negro Factories Corporation

Instituted on January 20, 1920, the Negro Factories Corporation sought to create corporations which would employ only blacks, as well as produce commodities only sold to black consumers. As Marcus Garvey proclaimed himself: “Negro producers! Negro distributors! Negro Consumers!” Garvey's ideal of an all black economy that could eventually supply black consumers across the globe was not only ambitious, but to an extent also successful. Under Garvey's guidance, independent black grocery stores, restaurants, Laundromats, tailor shops, millinery stores, and publishing houses were created. The Negro Factories Corporation had vital impacts on the United States. It proved to society that blacks were economically able, and could operate successfully and independently as business men and entrepreneurs. More importantly, it gave blacks across the country initiative and hope, as well as the secular identity required to prosper in American society.[ citation needed ]

The Black Star Line

Marcus Garvey's most famous initiative of black societal reform came from the institution of the Black Star Line. Created as an offshoot of the Negro Factories Corporation, and designed to correlate with the Back to Africa movement, the Black Star Line was announced on June 23, of 1919. The Black Star Line was created as a shipping company that would link black communities in America, Jamaica, Canada, Central America, and Africa. Ideally, the Black Star Line would transport black labored goods, including raw materials and manufactured items, to black consumers across the globe.

To purchase the company's first ship, as well as to get the shipping line to sea, Garvey had to raise $500,000, which he did though the sale of stocks to only blacks. This economic enterprise was so important to the black community, that over 15,000 spectators came to see the S.S. Fredrick Douglass take sail for its first trip to Jamaica. However, the company eventually folded in 1922, with net losses estimated to be over $1,000,000. But the Black Star Line still had profound effects on America, giving blacks the opportunity to invest in stock was new to the country, and thus gave them a modernized way of investing their money. Again, it proved that blacks could act as successful business men and contribute economically to America. The fact that the Black Star Line was an independent black movement showed that blacks were capable of organizing international businesses.

The social and cultural results of the Black Star Line were unheard of in the 1920s, and consequently presented blacks with more economic and social opportunities than ever before.

Rastafari community building

With Rastafari unable to bring themselves to Zion until the day of repatriation, they decided to bring Zion to their home, which for more and more Rastafari was Babylon (the United States). As Jamaican Rastafari began to immigrate to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, small, localized, and homogeneous Rastafari communities began to spring up across the country. Such communities appeared in Philadelphia, Boston, Hartford, Miami, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and most notably New York City. Specifically in New York City, six different Rastafari communities exist in five different boroughs. Most influential of these communities are Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

Generally, the building of localized Rastafari communities occurs through the establishment of Rastafari Community centers, schools, tabernacles, as well as Rasta Culture Stores.

The process

All Rastafari communities must undergo the community building process, which begins small, and then grows larger. The initial part of the community consists of extremely small Rastafari centers, where Rastas go out of convenience, but not necessarily to congregate with other Rastafari. The goal of these centers is to bring Zion-like elements to their respective Exodus communities. Examples of such centers are smoking yards or weed gates, where Rastafari go to smoke ganja, or marijuana, which they believe purifies the soul and brings one closer to the Almighty Jah. Another example of such centers are Rastafari stores, such as supermarkets where Rastafari goods may be purchased. These stores range from ital foods stores, to reggae record stores, to specialized medical stores.

The second level of community building occurs with the greater organization of Rastafari truly into a community. This often coincides with the creation of large churches, which provides the Rastafari with an organized and active community in which to carry out further Rasta evangelicalism. In Jamaican Rastafari practices, organized congregations are frowned upon, and finding Jah is seen as a personal passageway, but churches are essential for Rasta worship in America. These churches offer an array of opportunities, including Sunday schools for the youth, “rastalogical” counseling, Ital cooking classes, sewing and knitting, craft building and language instruction courses. Additionally, churches provide public recognition of individual Rastafari, as well as the movement overall. All for one and one for all.

Localized community building influenced America in the sense that they introduced the greater metropolitan area to the Rastafari community. American non-Rastas were welcome at Rastafari hang outs, such as dance halls or reggae record stores. By building a community, the individual Rastafari attained a sense of belonging and fellowship. These small pocket societies contributed to the growing diversity of American society, and thus helped to further establish America for what it was known: a cultural melting pot.


Reggae was known in Jamaica as a popular dance move until 1968, when the Toots & the Maytals released their single “Do the Reggay”. From this point on, Reggae referred to a genre of music centered on a steady and regular beat played on a rhythm guitar, called the “bang”, and biblical lyrics pertaining to Rastafari ideology. In Jamaica and around the world, reggae, and especially the music of Bob Marley, was used as a medium to bring about social and political change.

This was seen in Zimbabwe’s independence movement in the 1980s, as Bob Marley’s hit song Zimbabwe is today seen as a second national anthem. But what is unique about reggae is that it rarely strays from its Rastafari roots—reggae lyrics have a universal Rastafari theme. Despite the fact that reggae has not always been as popular in America as in Jamaica, reggae music has deeply affected American culture, not only through the radio waves, but also through the ways of the Rasta man.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley was and is reggae music's most transcendent figure. He lived in Delaware briefly before returning to Jamaica to pursue his musical career, which was discernibly influenced by musical genres then popular in the US. Along with his band the Wailers, Marley was able to become the first international music star to rise to prominence from the 'Third World'. Although Marley was initially very popular in Jamaica for the better part of a decade with the Wailers being Jamaica's biggest stars for a much of that time, it was a slower climb to international fame for both Marley and Reggae music. The first two 'official' Wailers albums, 'Catch a Fire' and 'Burnin' received great critical acclaim, but sales were less than impressive. However, after the split of the original Wailers and the release of 'Natty Dread' in 1974 as well as the 1975 'Live" album, Marley's music and message began to take hold specifically in England (UK), where Bob Marley and The Wailers' two performances at the Lyceum Ballroom are regarded as two of the most influential concerts ever to take place in that country. In 1976, Bob Marley and The Wailers "Rastaman Vibration" LP cracked the American charts peaking at #8, as well as producing Marley's only Hot 100 single 'Roots Rock Reggae'. All of Marley's follow- up LPs with the exception of "Babylon by Bus" placed in the US Billboard Top 100, and his message only continued to grow, having a profound effect on a large element of American society, very specifically on white American society. Marley's 'Exodus' released in 1977 is considered his crossover LP placing at #15 and #20 on the Black Albums Chart and Billboard Chart respectively. Towards the later half of Bob Marley's career, his message began to pick up steam in America's black community, a segment of US society that had long remained impervious to the impact of Bob Marley and Reggae music[ citation needed ]. However, a series of legendary shows at Harlem's Apollo Theatre in 1979 coupled with the release of the militant Pan-African oriented 'Survival', as well as an appearance at the Amandla Festival in the same year, began to elevate Marley's reputation in the eyes of black America[ citation needed ]. By the time of Marley's passing in 1981, the Rastafari faith had developed progressively, e.g. in the creation of the 'Twelve Tribes' sect which Marley himself was a member of. In the US (as in other parts of the world) the music press played a crucial role for Rastafari to be heard, felt and seen. Even though it wasn't fully understood, and occasionally mocked or ridiculed, the Rastafari lifestyle was essentially (as far as the western press was concerned) indistinguishable from reggae music.

The Rastafari faith or way of life remains largely misunderstood. However, as a result of Bob Marley's international reputation in life as well as his enormous posthumous success which only continues to grow, the Rastafari movement in the United States has multiplied considerably since Marley died in 1981. The influence of reggae music and its association with Rastafari reached a peak with the success of Rasta artists such as Marley, his wife Rita Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, and many others. The reputation of reggae music in general and Bob Marley in particular only continues to gain new respect among younger generations of appreciative fans and the Rastafari message has, along with this popularity, found its place alongside some of the world's great philosophies and ideologies. Even if Rastafari is not universally embraced, concepts of it are widely accepted and appreciated, due largely to the popularity of Bob Marley and reggae music. Marley is considered in many Rasta circles to be a prophet, and holds a similar standing with many people throughout the world who do not identify themselves as Rastafari.

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