Rastafari rose to world prominence during the 1970s, with the superstar status of Reggae singer Bob Marley. Marley, unlike other pop figures who have adopted dreadlocks as a fashion statement, was a true devotee to the religion, and legitimized Rastafari as movement. But Rastafari dates to the early 1930s, founded in Jamaica, as a response to economic, social, historical and moral forces. The basic tenets of Rastafarianism are worth examining, in light of answering the question of whether Rastafari is a true religion.
Until the 1970s, the most common perceptions of Rastafari came from the crime-ridden ghettos of Kingston, New York or London, where the unkempt, marijuana smoking “Natty Dread” became a fixture in the black subculture . However, after the rise of Bob Marley, Rastafari “has been recognized not only as one of the most popular Afro-Caribbean religions of the late twentieth century…but also as one of the leading cultural trends in the world”. In June 1997, it was estimated that there are one million practicing Rastafari worldwide.
The small Caribbean island of Jamaica was a colony of the British Empire until the mid 20th century. From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, over 10 million Africans were forced from their homes and into slavery across North America, including some 700,000 brought to Jamaica . The Jamaican economy was largely rural in nature, based on small-scale agriculture. By 1930, capitalism and industrialism had begun to penetrate the colony’s infrastructure, forcing many black workers into factories as wage laborers.
The situation in Jamaica in 1930 was one of misery. Yet a spectacular event was taking place in Africa. The Jamaican press was full of news about the coronation of a black man, Ras Tafari, to the throne of Ethiopia as Emperor Haile Selassie I. The name “Haile Selassie” means “power of the Trinity:” in Amharic, and the new Emperor took on such titles as Lord of Lords, King of Kings, and Conquering Lion of the Tribes of Judah. “In addition to this biblical imagery, what truly awed the masses of black Jamaicans was that among the retinue of dignitaries paying Selassie homage was the British Duke of Gloucester. That a member of the English royal family should so honor a black monarch of an African kingdom was indeed extraordinary”.