How understanding Rastafari can help us gain an insight into black lives matter


Last year I wrote a book that included a chapter on the beliefs and practices of Rastafari- during the course of this year as I have embarked on a ‘book tour’ of sorts I have referred to issues of power in all aspects of society and our relationships and used the beliefs and background of Rastafari to show how these power dynamics can find expression in humanity’s responses. There are large swathes of the conditions that led to the development of Rastafari that are in evidence in the black lives matters movement today.

Rastafari developed in Jamaica during the 1930s following the coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia. One of the first to preach a Rasta ideology was Leonard Howell who taught that Haile Selassie was the Second Coming of Jesus foretold by the Bible. Howell’s message was rooted in Christianity, but was also seen to be anti-colonial in nature drawing on an African ideas and identity, offering an approach different to the European Christianity that was found in Jamaica and surrounding islands. It was a message of black empowerment and a policeman who witnessed Howell’s first declaration of Haile Selassie in 1933 recorded:

The Lion of Judah has broken the chain, and we of the black race are now free. George the Fifth is no more our King … Ras Tafair [sic] is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Black people must not look to George the Fifth as their King anymore – Ras Tafair is their king (cited in Murrell, et al, 1998, p. 38).

Howell wanted to formulate a spiritual practice that would give a political voice to Jamaica’s poorest workers. Powell drew on the teachings of Marcus Garvey whose organisation, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)’s, stated goal was to unite those of the African race with their homeland in Africa from which they had been forcibly removed. Garvey is revered as a prophet by some Rastas. In the New York Times of 3 August 1920:

We shall organize the four hundred million Negroes of the world into a vast organization to plant the banner of freedom on the great continent of Africa … If Europe is for Europeans, then Africa is for the black people of the world (New York Times, 3 August 1920).

Howell faced opposition from authorities and was imprisoned for sedition. On his release he organised a community in Pinnacle, this was to be a temporary home for those wishing to repatriate to Ethiopia. It soon developed into a place for those in society who had little voice and few rights.

Rastafari is a religion that developed a distinctive racial hermeneutic of history and identity. It sought the reclamation of black identity and the establishment of ‘Black Supremacy’ the place of the downtrodden would be raised. In discussing ‘Black Supremacy’ in The Promised Key the indication seems to be that it is about the raising of the status of the African rather than the subjugation and rejection of the white race. Howell suggests that “Black Supremacy will promote the mortals of every shade according to our power to go” (in Murrell et al., 1998, p. 367). There is a potential within Rasta teaching to view other races as inferior, in line with some of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, but this is, by and large, not the attitude taken by the majority of Rastafari. Having suffered injustice they are less likely to replicate it.

This idea of black liberation is inextricably linked to the messiahship of Haile Selassie I. For a messianic figure to be needed, there had to be something from which people needed liberation. In Rastafari terms the rescue was needed from Babylon. Babylon is a biblical reference and image symbolic of the ‘world’ and the idea of the Jews, as the chosen people of God, who found themselves in bondage to Babylon. Hence the Psalm which remembered better days when Israel was free and pointed to the defeat of Babylon:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered    Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones (Psalm 137).

This Psalm speaks of the bondage that Jews/Africans found and find themselves in, and also a future time when Babylon will be destroyed. The applicability of such a text to the Rasta understanding of their identity as descendants/reincarnations of the exiled people of Israel, how history is being repeated and how they can find liberation is the setting of the word to a song ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ This Rastafari song was written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton (The Melodians) in 1970, and popularised in Europe by Boney M in 1978. In the original version of the song by the Melodians, the references to the Lord were changed Far-I’ and ‘King Alpha’, both references in Rasta theology to Haile Selassie I.

Babylon, in Rastafari teaching, has reference to any system that seeks to subjugate the rights of individuals. Murrell suggests that rather than sitting and accepting the lot and the promise of a better future, a Rasta reading of Psalm 137 calls a person to immediate action:

Psalm 137 thus becomes a call not to capitulate in silence to Babylon or assimilate its cultural values; not to wallow in the mire of hopelessness and self-pity or wish for the former days of the nation’s glory; not to offer imprecations to a God who is not there for Rastas, silent, hidden (deus obsconditus), and indifferent to the people of African descent; but a militant song to rub Babylon’s nose in the dust – to chant down Babylon in “ah ridim” – and effect social change (Murrell, 2000).

What this meant for Rastafari is multifaceted; Cashmore recognises this in the suggestion that Babylon meant that:

… some regarded it as a mandate for attacks on any manifestation of Babylon, whether the police, store owners or property; some understood their role as more passive, comforting themselves in the belief that Jah would reconstruct society and elevate them from their lowly positions. In between these two there lay a plethora of variegated responses organised around Rastafarian principles (2013, p. 94).

Babylon is/was the structures of white imperialism that sought to reinforce the status quo and ensure that black people were kept in their place. This is evident in the imagery found in Reggae music. Consider the lyrics to Bob Marley’s Babylon system:

Babylon system is the vampire, yea! (vampire)
Suckin’ the children day by day, yeah!
Me say de Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,
Suckin’ the blood of the sufferers, yeah!
Building church and university, wooh, yeah!
Deceiving the people continually, yeah!
Me say them graduatin’ thieves and murderers
Look out now they suckin’ the blood of the sufferers (sufferers)
Yea! (sufferers)

Tell the children the truth…

Come on and tell the children the truth

‘Cause, ’cause we’ve been trodding on ya winepress much too long
Rebel, rebel!
And we’ve been takin’ for granted much too long
Rebel, rebel!

I think the reactionary nature of Rastafari beliefs are reflected in the situation of black lives matter. The problems and subjugation are not imagined, nor are they superficial they are systemic in nature. The way out for Rastas is the establishment of Zion:

In contrast to the Babylonian West, with its alienating and oppressive social institutions, Rastas invoke the term ‘Zion’ as the ideal to which they aspire … it represents justice, harmony, and community … The positing of Africa as Zion, the true home of Rastas and all black people, speaks to a desire to escape the domination and degradation experienced under the Babylonian system of the West (2012, pp. 40–41).

For some Rastas, the reality of Zion is found within Ethiopia and repatriation there is seen to be an ideal. For others the repatriation is the restoration of African identity and pride, this is seen to be most important and more realistic in the living of a Rasta way of life today.

The time of Marcus Garvey and the desire for a separate nation has moved on, but the restoration of black identity and pride, and the removal of all obstacles systemic and individual is key to that hoped for society that Martin Luther King described, where people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’ I don’t think King was describing a society where differences disappeared, but one where differences were celebrated and not used to divide. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, nut understanding Rastafari as a student of religion helps me understand the systemic nature of the problems that society faces.

The inequalities and prejudices are both historical and systemic. Being a part of the system means that sometimes/oftentimes people of all colours are blind to the injustices that are faced. Black people may just accept things as ‘just the way things are’ and white people may not recognise their place in the power dynamic. This was brought home to me in a non-racial situation when I read Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey. He writes about his experiences in Pollok, Glasgow in the early 1990s. I did missionary work in Pollok around that time, but on reading McGarvey’s book I recognised some things, but I did not recognise aspects of his experiences where he felt ‘acted upon’ and isolated from the system within which he lived and was set up to support him. I didn’t question his experience, but realised that my experience was limited to one of those ‘in power’ and that I did not truly understand the reality in which he lived. This is the reality he described:

This is the other ‘deficit’ we rarely talk about or acknowledge. The deficit in our respective experiences when we come from lower class or higher class backgrounds. The deficit in how that experience is represented, reported and discussed. This deficit, which appears to be widening, has led to a culture that leaves many people feeling excluded, isolated or misrepresented and, therefore, adversarial or apathetic towards it. And it’s often based on people living in run-down social conditions, with little money, in stressed-out, violent communities… It’s the belief that the system is rigged against you and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile. That the decisions that affect your life are being taken by a bunch of other people somewhere else who are deliberately trying to conceal things from you. A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a very good reason for it: it’s true (Darren McGarvey, (2018, p. 37).

He continues further:

Enthusiasm to take part and be active in communities quickly dissipates when people realise the local democracy isn’t really designed with them in mind; that it’s designed primarily so that people from outside the community can retain control of it, over the heads of those who live there. (Darren McGarvey, 2018, pp. 48-49). 

People who do not experience the reality of the oppressed or the minority need to step outside of their own experience and really listen to the voices of those for whom a minority expression is real. I realise I need to stop trying to help in the way that I think works, but listen to how others feel things can be mended and society overhauled so that all have a voice and are heard.


For more information about the beliefs of Rastafari you might like to read Beyond the Big Six Religions 


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