Bob Marley brought international attention to both reggae music and the Rastafari movement. On his birthday, we learn more about his religion.
Bob Marley, born Feb. 6, 1945, lived to just 36 years of age, dying May 11, 1981, of a malignant melanoma. But in the limited years he was given, he produced an amazingly broad discography that helped bring Jamaica’s reggae music to an international audience.
Hand in hand with reggae came Rastafari – Marley’s religion, virtually unknown to much of the world before his fame. Even now, more than three decades after Marley’s first international success, Rastafari isn’t well understood outside his native Jamaica. Most people know about the music and the dreadlocks, along with maybe a vague idea that there’s associated drug use, and that’s about it. Indeed, they often call the religion by a name, Rastafarianism, that’s not preferred by adherents. Ideally the religious movement is simply called Rastafari, and its followers are Rastafarians or Rastas.
Marley’s spirituality, and that of his fellow Rastafarians, goes far beyond a hairstyle and a name. Anyone who has listened to some of his most popular songs knows that he shared a message of peace and togetherness, often referring to a Lord.
But who is the Lord that Marley and other Rastafari reggae artists mention? Sometimes we hear God – sometimes Jah – so who exactly are they talking about?
A Rasta’s core beliefs share a lot in common with Christianity. The Christian Bible is scripture to the Rasta, and the trinity is worshipped – Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Jah is another name for the Christian God, but it’s the same deity under either name. Rastafarians, like Christians, also believe in Jesus as the incarnate son of God.
But while Jesus is very important to them, Rastas consider his teachings to have been corrupted by Babylon, their name for Western society. They also believe Jesus was a black man – an idea not unique to Rastafari (and one no less likely than the idea that he was a white man, given his Middle East birthplace). Marley himself commented on this aspect of Rastafari: “Wha’ dem [people of the world] want? A white God, well God come black. True true.”
Rastafari further distances itself from Christianity with a prime tenet of their religion: the divinity of former Ethopian emperor Haile Selassie. Though Selassie was never a Rastafarian himself, Rastas believe that verses from the Bible and other prophecies establish him as the second coming of the Messiah. Selassie is even the source of the religion’s name: before he became emperor, his name was Ras (an honorific title, roughly equivalent to Duke) Tafari Makonnen.
Rastafari also embraces a yearning for a return to a paradisiacal Africa, known to Rastas as Zion. There’s black pride involved in this aspect of Rastafari, but not black supremacy. Although that did begin to creep into the movement in the 1960s, it was quickly squashed by Selassie’s very vocal anti-racism. The dream of Zion is about finding both a utopia and an ancestral homeland, which has been denied to many blacks whose ancestors were taken from their homes by force. Zion is a subject that Marley returned to again and again in his songwriting. A notable example is Rastaman Chant, which features themes of both Babylon and Zion, repeating, “Fly away to Zion, fly away home” as well as “Babylon, your throne gone down.”
So where do the dreadlocks come in? It’s much more than just fashion. In part, they represent the Lion of Judah – a feature of the Ethiopian flag, and a symbol of both Selassie and his alleged ancestor, King Solomon. Additionally dreadlocks are a spiritual expression by Rastas wishing to keep their bodies in a state of wholeness, with no razor, comb or scissors touching them. The dreadlocks are washed only with pure water to maintain this wholeness. (The desire for purity and wholeness is also reflected in the Rastafari diet, which shuns meat and alcohol and tends toward lots of fresh fruits.) Not all Rastas wear dreadlocks – although they’re common – and certainly, not all who wear dreadlocks are Rastas.
Just as dreadlocks are a spiritual expression rather than a fashion accessory, drug use is part of the religion rather than a lifestyle choice. Smoking cannabis is a sacrament to Rastafari and considered important to the religion. Its ritual use may be part of Bible study and is believed to cleanse the body and mind, offer peacefulness and insight, and bring the Rasta closer to God. They’re far from the first to use the plant in a religious context: ancient people from China to Africa to northern Europe made cannabis use a part of their sacraments.
A final symbol of Rastafari that’s often not fully understood is the representative colors of red, gold and green. In part the colors reflect hues associated with both the Jamaican flag and Marcus Garvey, a publisher and orator who was considered a prophet by Rastas. The three colors are also those of Ethiopia’s flag. And to a Rasta, each color has a symbolic meaning: red represents the blood of martyrs, green the beauty of Africa, and gold the wealth of Africa.
Decades after Marley’s death, college dorms across America sport flags with his dreadlocked head superimposed upon a marijuana leaf on a red, gold and green background. Most fans don’t know the spiritual meanings of these symbols – but it’s hard to miss the spirituality in Marley’s music. His smooth and peaceful reggae is a powerful symbol of the religion he loved.
Originally published May 2015