Marley performs in front of scrim of Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie)

Marley performs in front of scrim of Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie)

by John Edmundson

(The article below first appeared in the Christchurch-based magazine revolution, issue 13, August-October 2000; thus the references to Nandor Tanczos, who had just been elected to the NZ parliament in late 1999)

Among young people in New Zealand, Rastafari’s connections with dope and Bob Marley are probably the most significant element of its appeal, even though Marley, shortly before his death, abandoned it for Ethiopian Orthodoxy and decriminalisation of marijuana is now on the mainstream political agenda.

Whether or not “alcohol make you drunk, herb make you meditate,” as Marley so succinctly put it on his one visit to New Zealand, is surely beside the point.  The right of an individual to smoke dope or not without fear of criminal prosecution, not the spiritual significance of a joint, is the issue.

Nevertheless the election of Nandor Tanczos to parliament on the Green Party list in the 1999 general election was surrounded by a flurry of media interest in the man and his beliefs.  Tanczos was the darling of the news media, owing as much to his dreadlocks and exotic religious beliefs as his previous incarnation as media contact for the Wild Greens who carried out that audacious raid on a Lincoln University potato crop.

Dreadlocks, marijuana law reform and an unavoidable association with Third World superstar Bob Marley made Tanczos’ own media superstardom almost inevitable.

More than a hairstyle

Rastafari is more, though, than the outlandish hairstyle grown in accordance with a verse in Leviticus 21:15: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off off the corner of their beard. . .” and an obsession with the mystical and meditative qualities of ‘the herb’, the use of which they trace from an obscure line in Psalms 104:14: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man, that he may bring forth food out of the earth.”  Rastas believe the marijuana plant is to be found growing on the grave of King Solomon.

Rastas do a lot of things that appeal to sections of “alternative youth culture”, focused as it is on green issues, animal rights and generationalist politics.  Rastafarians are vegetarians.  Rastafarians smoke dope.  Rastafarians talk about liberation, struggle and the fight for freedom: “Get up, stand up, Stand up for your rights”, as Marley and co-Wailer Peter MacIntosh wrote in one of their most famous songs.  However, people in New Zealand who think Rasta is cool might change their minds if they learn a bit more about it.

Anti-women

The vegetarian diet forms a part of Rasta belief that upholds purity as a great virtue.  Any food that could be contaminated is not ital, the Rasta equivalent of kosher or halal.  In a world obsessed with a fear of anything scientific, such spiritual backing for this fear is comforting.

Purity extends well beyond food consumption however.  The strict Rasta shuns sex outside marriage.  Strict Rastas marry only other Rastafarians and do not recognise the validity of marriage outside the faith.  Like most traditionalist religious cults, Rastafari demands a strict dress code for its women, a code from Deuteronomy 22:5: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord they God.”

This stance came through strongly in the lyrics of Bob Marley: “You can’t tell the woman from the man, they are dressed in the same pollution” (‘Midnight Ravers’ from Catch a Fire, 1973).  For Rastas in the real world, this meant Bob Marley in jeabs, t-shirt and denim jacket, while the I-Threes – Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths, arguably the greatest trio of women vocalists in 1970s pop – dressed in traditional African robes.  Exotic yes, but also poignantly symbolic of the station of women in the world of Rastafari.

Rasta women are even supposed to go about veiled in public.  Again, a literal reading of the Bible is the source of this rule, namely Corinthians 11:5-6: “For every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.  For if the woman not be covered, let her also be shorn, but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.”

As in orthodox Judaism and Islam, women are seen as unclean during their menstrual periods, at which time they live even more segregated lives than normal.

Black liberation?

The aspect of Rastafari that really made me sit up and take notice when I became aware of it in the 1970s though was the call to arms in the fight for black liberation.  Here was a movement that seemed to weave radical demands for black liberation into their music in a way that was completely uncompromising.

GarveyReggae musicians sang about slavery, about the ongoing oppression of blacks under capitalism in     ‘Babylon’ – the West – and the need to fight to overthrow oppression.  Yet at the same time, it promoted hellfire and brimstone religion.  The blending of black liberation politics with fundamentalist religion which so typifies Rastafarianism dates back to the time of Marcus Garvey, a prominent figure in the ‘Back to Africa’ movement in the early 1900s.

Garveyism arose out of the defeat of anti-racist struggles in the United States and the rise of the Jim Crow system of segregation, which reigned in the southern USA from the late 1800s until well into the 1960s.

Mysticism and the invention of a ‘promised land’, so central to Garveyism, are relatively common features of ideologies which arise out of the defeat of oppressed peoples and the growth of a sense of hopelessness.  Of course, the movement never had any real intention of taking blacks from the United States and the Caribbean back to Africa.  In the end it collapsed, amid recrimination and claims of crookedness (Garvey had collected funds to start a shipping line for the repatriation).

A new wave of radicalisation and hope saw black workers in the States abandon mysticism and join white workers in the mass radical unionisation movement of the 1930s and in forward-looking anti-racist struggles.

Hibbert

Joseph N. Hibbert

In the less economically-developed Caribbean, especially Jamaica, however, Rastafari emerged out of the detritus of Garveyism.  Ex-members of Garvey’s movement – Leonard P. Howell, Jospeh N. Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley and Robert Hinds – founded Rastafarianism.  The slums of Kingston, lacking any credible radical liberation movement or other form of forward-looking, emancipatory politics, became ideal ground for the new superstition.

The movement took particular inspiration – and its name – from the Ethiopian leader Ras (translated as duke or even prince) Tafari, who was crowned emperor of then-Abyssinia in 1930.  Ras Tafari took the name Haile Selassie and placed himself in the legendary dynasty begun by the Queen of Sheba.  To Howell and the others it appeared that the ‘God of Ethiopia’, to whom Garvey had made rhetorical reference, had arrived.

leonard-p-howell

Leonard P. Howell

Over the next decade the Rastafarians became established in Kingston.  In 1940 Howell founded a retreat, Pinnacle, near Spanish Town and this community began growing ganja.  The movement received further impetus when Jamaican independence failed to deliver a socio-economic transformation of the country.  Rastafarianism became especially strong amongst the Kingston unemployed.  The fact that, despite their focus on going back to Africa, the Rastas did no such thing, enabled them to avoid the cruel realities of Selassie’s Ethiopia in which people were, if anything, even worse off than in Jamaica.

From theology to reality

Rastafari clearly derives much of its theology from the Bible.  In fact, it is a strand of Christianity.  More specifically, it is most closely akin to Ethiopian Orthodoxy which, in true medieval fashion, held the Ethiopian Emperor to be its spiritual head.

So far, this makes Rastafarianism look a lot like other pre-Reformation Christianity where the Pope was the head of the Vatican, a state which held significant secular power at times during the Middle Ages.

But Rastafari goes further than this.  It holds that the now-deceased Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was much more than the mere head of a Christian denomination.  He was God on earth!  So Ethiopia spent decades as ‘God’s Kingdom on Earth’, directly overseen his his benevolent majesty, Haile Selassie, aka Ras Tafari, aka God.  And what was this heavenly kingdom like to live in?

The man who would be God

Actually, Ethiopia has consistently been one of the poorest countries in Africa.  Eighty percent of the country’s fertile land was owned by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the feudal oligarchy, of which Selassie was a member.  While Selassie amassed a string of bizarre titles – and phenomenal wealth and power – hunger, poverty and illiteracy were endemic throughout the country.

Rastafarians, being staunch supporters of African independence and self-determination, admired his All-Dispensing Majesty’s anti-colonial stance.  The corollary of anti-colonialism in Rasta is implacable hostility to ‘Babylon’, Western imperialism.

Selassie, however, saw the United States somewhat differently.  While he talked the talk of anti-colonialism and expressed solidarity with southern Africa’s independence movements, he courted Israel.  Israeli army advisors trained the Ethiopian military in anti-guerrilla operations.

Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers went to the United States to train with the US military.  His Most Unrivalled Majesty also received more military assistance from the United States than any other country in Africa.  In fact, by 1963, US military aid to Ethiopia represented about half the total US military aid to the entire African continent.

Selassie, who had once been quite popular with liberal western journalists, shocked them in the early 1970s  The man whom Nandor Tanczos claims as God on earth fed imported meat to his dogs on silver platters and had planes fly in caviar for the palace, while tens of thousands of his impoverished and oppressed subjects starved to death.  Not surprisingly, a revolution overthrew the old tyrant.

After His Sublime Majesty was overthrown in 1974, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski went to Ethiopia and interviewed the deposed emperor’s household servants, many of whom were in hiding within the country.  Their stories present a fascinating and revealing insight into the operation of Ras Tafari’s ‘divine’ government.  The servants described His Peerless Majesty’s attitude to progress and the modernisation of the country:

“He always sympathised with progress and improvement.  But he could not stand it when someone undertook reform on his own, first because that created a threat of anarchy and free choice, and second because it might create the impression of there being other charitable ones in the Empire besides His Magnanimous Highness.  So if a clever and astute minister wanted to carry out even the smallest reform in his own backyard, he would have to direct the case in such a way and so present it to His Majesty that it would irrefutably, in the commonly-accepted fashion, seem that the gracious, concerned innovator and advocate of the reform was His Imperial Highness himself, even if in reality the Emperor did not quite understand what the reform was all about.”

The modernisation that he did undertake tended to be at the beginning of his reign and he was always careful to ensure that strict imperial authority was maintained over any innovations which might be introduced.  His Supreme Majesty’s concept of communication with his subjects remained rooted firmly in the Dark Ages.  While he believed that the channels of communication should remain open between the palace and the commoners, his means of accomplishing this was a relic of centuries past:

“And so at nine o’clock he would arrive at the Old Palace.  Before the gate a crowd of subjects waited to try to hand petitions to the Emperor.  This was theoretically the simplest way of seeking justice and charity in the Empire.  Because our nation is illiterate, and justice is usually sought by the poor, people would go into debt for years to pay a clerk to write down their complaints and demands.  There was also a problem of protocol, since custom required the humblest ones to kneel before the Emperor with their faces to the ground.  How can anyone hand an envelope to a passing limousine from that posture?  The problem was solved in the following manner.  The vehicle would slow, the benevolent face of the monarch would appear behind the glass, and the security people from the next car would take some of the envelopes from the extended hands of the populace.  Only some, for there was a whole thicket of these hands.  If the mob crawled too close to the oncoming cars, the guards had to push back and shoo away the soliciting multitude, since security and the solemnity of majesty required that the procession be smooth and free of unexpected delays.”

Selassie’s conception of the state of his subjects was completely out of touch with reality.  Visits to the provinces, which were a nightmare for the palace staff, involved massive clean-up operations in the provinces to be visited.  Carefully choreographed receptions, complete with adoring children, were arranged.  His people’s poverty was, however, a feature of his ceremonial calendar.  On important days, he would venture out with his aides to distribute cash to his subjects in a bizarre spectacle which contradicted the lofty ideals he spoke of in the United Nations.  A servant explained:

“I also took care of another bag, a large one that was filled with small coins on the eve of national holidays: the Emperor’s birthday, the anniversary of his coronation, and the anniversary of his return from exile,  On such occasions, our august ruler went to the most crowded and lively quarter of Addis Ababa, Mercato, where on a specially constructed platform I would place the heavy, jingling bag from which His Benevolent Majesty would scoop the handfuls of coppers that he threw into the crowd of beggars and other such greedy riffraff.  The rapacious mob would create such a hubbub, however, that this charitable action always had to end in a shower of police batons against the heads of the frenzied, pushy rabble.  Saddened, His Highness would have to walk away from the platform.  Often he was unable to empty even half the bag.”

His Indefatigable Majesty supported the idea that a layer of technocrats could be of great benefit to Ethiopia’s development, but only on terms that kept the palace’s grip on society complete.  However, the whole idea of an educated group which was not directly under imperial control frightened the palace:

“Because there used to be no public schools or universities in our country, the Emperor began sending young people abroad to study.  At some point in the past His Majesty himself directed this effort, choosing youngsters from good, loyal families.  But later – ah, these modern times make your head throb – such pressure came to be applied, such pushing to go abroad, that His Benevolent Majesty gradually lost control over this craze that possessed our youth.  More and more of these youngsters ventured to Europe or America for their studies, and – how else could it have ended? – after a few years the trouble started.”

Not keen on literacy

The King of Kings was not a big supporter of newspapers and literacy.  He financed the only printing presses permitted in the country, and this loyal press produced only 25,000 newspaper copies daily, in a country with a population of over 30 million.

As one of his loyal servants put it, “His Highness worked on the assumption that even the most loyal press should not be given in abundance, because that might create a habit of reading. . .”

Eventually, the grinding poverty of the country, and the frustration felt by students unable to study and implement any useful ideas, meant that revolt was inevitable.

Firing on the ‘mutinous rabble’

The palace found revolts of the people against His Worthy Majesty quite incomprehensible.  This courtier’s testimony speaks volumes:

“Reproaching, calumniating ever more arrogantly, they spoke out. . . taking advantage of His Clement Highness, who only rarely ordered that the mutinous rabble which spilled from the university gates in a larger mass each year be fired upon.”

The court of Ras Tafari was a relic of a past that we are better to have left far behind.  It was populated with people who held bizarre titles more reminiscent of fairy tales or medieval despotism than twentieth century reality.

There were door-keepers who took pride in the perfect timing with which they opened the door, in order that His Reverend Highness could pass through without changing his walking pace.

There was the official cushion bearer, with his huge selection of cushion sizes and shapes, so that His Peerless Majesty’s feet would not dangle absurdly from the high throne.  (Selassie was short, whereas his predecessor, Meneluk, had been unusually tall.)  But perhaps the most bizarre was the job of looking after the indiscretions of the emperor’s dog.  One of Helassie’s flunkies explained:

“His name was Lulu.  He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed.  During various  ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on dignitaries’ shoes.  The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet.  I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth,  This was my job for ten years.”

Maybe those who uphold Haile Selassie, King of Kings and Conquering Lion of Judah, should try it.

 

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Comments
  1. PhilF says:

    When revolution did break out in the Caribbean, for instance the Grenada revolution of 1979, the local Rastas weren’t keen at all. They were quite hostile to the New Jewel Movement which led the struggle in Grenada.

  2. Darius Maobi says:

    blog. An excellent read.