HEAR HIM ROAR: Rapper Snoop Dogg changed his name to Snoop Lion and converted to Rastafari last year
ON APRIL 21, 1966, Haile Selassie visited Jamaica. The visit from the Ethiopian emperor caused more than 100,000 Rastafarians from all over Jamaica to flock to the Palisadoes Airport (now Norman Manley International Airport) in Kingston, having heard that the man whom they considered to be the Messiah was coming to visit their island.
On the historic day, the emperor was saluted by people playing drums and adorning themselves in the symbolic Rasta colours – red, gold and green. The day became known as Grounation Day and has since been viewed as one of the most important holy days on the Rastafarian calendar.
Consequently, Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica greatly influenced the growing phenomenon of Rasta culture across the African diaspora and around the world; not just for black people, but those who also sought equality, and spoke out against poverty, discrimination and oppression, not forgetting those who lived organic, holistic lifestyles.
WARM WELCOME: Hundreds of people flocked to Palisadoes Airport to greet emperor Haile Selassie when he visited Jamaica in 1966
Throughout the years, Rastafarian culture has been greatly criticized, debated and questioned over its authenticity and the livity (lifestyle) it promotes. Rastas even came under attack, quite literally, during the infamous 1963 Coral Garden ‘incident’, which saw the Jamaican security forces rounding up, jailing and torturing hundreds of Rastafarians.
Often described as ‘Bad Friday’, the attack was the Jamaican security forces’ response to an incident in which a group of bearded men – who were assumed to be Rastafarian – set fire to a petrol station and killed two police officers. But to this day, many in Jamaica’s Rastafarian community insist that Rastas were wrongfully blamed for the attack on the petrol station, and last month, hundreds of Rastas took part in a protest march to mark the 50th anniversary of ‘Bad Friday’.
But despite the criticism the culture has received, today, the Rastafarian way of life has become vogue and its principles are now greatly encouraged across mainstream media, as a means to combat modern day challenges, stress and illness. Just last year, rapper Snoop Dogg famously saw the Rastafari light, changing his name to Snoop Lion and converting to the faith.
With this week marking the 47th anniversary of Haile Selassie’s historic Jamaican visit, Life & Style spoke to British poet Benjamin Zephaniah and award-winning reggae artiste Maxi Priest, to get their thoughts on why Rasta culture is becoming the norm.
MESSIAH: Emperor Haile Selassie influenced the Rastafari movement throughout the world
“A lot of the things we talked about in the early days in the Rastafarian movement have become almost mainstream,” says Zephaniah who is also a writer, musician and social activist.
“We don’t say vegan, we say ital and lots of people do that now. I remember being in Jamaica and seeing the grapefruits and other fruits on the trees. At the time, some people actually thought you were backwards if you wanted to climb a tree [to pick fruits] when you could just go to the shop and buy a can of Coca-Cola.
“But now, people appreciate they can buy good juices or they have juicers in their homes. There are also a lot of vegan restaurants. Eventually, the truth does come out.”
Backing Zephaniah’s sentiments, Maxi Priest, who found and embraced Rastafari during the ‘70s, says: “If we go back in time, Rasta has been echoing this mantra for years – natural living.
“Rasta has even spoken about our own West Indian food having too much starch, salt and oil. It’s Rasta who came with ‘ital’ food, which may not be as appealing as other foods, but the doctrine has always advocated for people to live a healthy lifestyle in order to ensure a longer life.”
Regarding the body as a temple, which must be loved, respected and well looked after, is another Rastafarian mantra. And contrary to popular belief, not all Rastafarians smoke marijuana, and if they do, they don’t simply smoke to get high.
However, this happens today within the context of an ever-increasing amount of anti-smoking campaigns highlighting the negative effects smoking has on the body, which are being taken more seriously now and are much more chronicled and echoed from the rooftops.
PASSIONATE: Benjamin Zephaniah is a proud Rastas
The reasons Rastas give up smoking marijuana are the same reasons why tobacco users kick the habit. Although there are many Rastafarians who still smoke, others, especially those who follow a stringent orthodox lifestyle, advise smokers to respect their body.
“Most people think all Rastafarians smoke marijuana, but I don’t smoke because I view my body as a temple,” says Zephaniah, who lectures at Brunel University.
“I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need ganja to get high and I didn’t like the habit I developed. So I have been getting high from not being high for the last 30 years.
Agreeing, Priest adds: “You get one chance to live and you must learn to preserve it so that you can live a longer life with meaning, caring and understanding.
“I had a heart attack, and even before the heart attack, I wanted to stop smoking. But when I had the heart attack - that made me realise how precious and delicate my temple is.
“The biggest myth about Rastafarians in terms of stereotypes is weed, but you don’t have to smoke weed. There is more to the understanding and the faith of being a Rastafarian than just weed.”
However, it is not only the advocacy of living a salubrious, wholesome lifestyle that has begun to grow in popularity amongst the wider masses.
There is also a new, more positive attitude amongst women towards natural and chemical-free hair.
Although dreadlocks are not worn by all Rastas, just as not all Muslim women wear burkas, to many Rastafarians, the growing of locks is a symbol of their faith.
Like Nazarites of biblical days, Rastafarians regard themselves as “the separate ones”.
Dedicated to pure and holy living, Nazarites vowed not to cut their hair, as described in the Bible in Numbers 6:5, which says:
“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 separated himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.” (King James Version.)
Today, dreadlocks have transcended racial and religious barriers. No longer are locks necessarily worn as a reflection of ancient traditions, cultural identification, or a symbolic representation of rebellion against oppression. For many, locks are quite simply a fashion statement.
“Bob Marley always taught us to trust in the universe and respect your hair,” says Zephaniah, who began growing his mane at the age of 11. “It now appears that the world’s consciousness is finally recognising that respecting your hair by keeping it natural and chemical free or even growing dreadlocks is the way forward.”
REGGAE ROYALS: Prince Charles and Camilla joined a group of Rastafarians during a visit to Jamaica in 2008
Asked whether he believes a person has to adorn dreadlocks to be considered Rasta, Zephaniah responds: “I used to say yes and now I say no. When I see people who are good people, completely inspired by Rastafari, who live Rastafarian ways but don’t have locks, I can’t condemn them.”
He adds: “We must also not forget that the person we call Rastafari had locks when he was young, but when he grew up he cut off his locks and became Haile Selassie.”
Priest states: “Locks are seen as a person’s covenant and identification, but it is not the be all and end all of a person’s liberty as a Rastafarian.”
Offering an explanation as to why Rastafarian culture has become more widespread, Zephaniah believes it is because the principles of the faith reflect “common sense”.
“Your body being a temple that needs to be looked after, eating natural foods; it’s all common sense,” he says. “The reason we have this idea about going back to nature is because Rastas realise that we are nature; we are part of the whole eco system of the world and what we do impacts the world.”
Considering the impact of Rastafarian culture throughout the world, Zephaniah says: “It’s interesting, if you count the number of Rastafarians in the world, as a world religion, it’s not that big. But we are in some of the most diverse places and our influence is much bigger than our numbers.
“So now you have white kids – you see them at festivals – all being influenced by the Rastafarian movement. Many vegans have also been influenced by Rastafarianism; not forgetting the culture’s influence on style, fashion and music.”
Concluding, Priest says: “Rasta is like what is often said about Jamaica – ‘it’s little but it’s talawa!’”