UNESCO, the cultural agency of the United Nations, has recognized Jamaica’s reggae music as contributing to “international discourse” issues, including those of injustice and resistance. The reggae music tradition has been described as “uniquely Jamaica” and its inclusion on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list highlights the need to preserve its worldwide popularity and voice for all people around the world. In adding reggae, UNESCO stated that the music tradition’s contribution to global discourse on injustice, resistance, love, and humanity emphasized how it is “at once cerebral, sociopolitical, sensual, and spiritual.”
- Stephanie Korney in Jamaicans.com
The most famous Jamaican religion is undoubtedly Rastafari, a complex spiritual and political movement that emerged in Jamaica during the depression years of the 1930s. It combined inspirational Jamaican folk Christianity with pan-Africanist sentiments inspired by Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association. In repudiating British colonialism, Rastafaris were inspired by Ethiopia, noted as the one land of Africa mentioned in the Bible. Ethiopia’s 20th century emperor Haile Selassie, “the Lion of Judah,” was believed by Rastafaris to be the 225th king of biblical Ethiopia; they took Haile Selassie’s name, Ras Tafari, the “Prince of Tafari Province,” as their own. Garvey’s dream of a return to Africa became the Rastafari dream as well, and some Rastafaris have indeed settled in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zaire.
Rastafaris interpret the Old Testament as the history of the Black people and as a prophetic key to understanding events in the modern world. They see themselves as successors to the biblical prophets and, like devotees of Jamaican Revivalist movements, often speak as the present-day voices of biblical prophets such as Moses, Joshua, and Isaiah. The characteristic Rastafari hairstyle, locs (dreadlocks), is said to symbolize both the lion’s mane and the strength of Samson. Some Rastafaris believe that African warriors wear their hair in a similar style. The sacramental use of marijuana among Rastafaris is believed to bring divine inspiration, to cure diseases, and to enhance strength.
In the United States, the rhythm of Rastafari reggae music has become one of the best known aspects of this Jamaican religious tradition. The lyrics, like the Rastafari lifestyle, often include a strong note of social protest as well as the dream of returning to the biblical Ethiopia. As Bob Marley sings,
We are the children of the Rastaman.
We are the children of the Higher Man.
Africa, Unite ’cause the children wanna come home.
Africa, Unite ’cause we’re moving right out of Babylon.
And we’re grooving to our father’s land.
Just as Rastafari identification with the biblical Ethiopia was a strong form of resistance to British colonial society in the 1930s, so today Rastafari protest affirms African identity in the face of Eurocentric Jamaican and American cultures.
- Harvard Pluralism Project
There's a land that I have heard about
So far across the sea (repeat)
To have you all, my dreamland
Would be like heaven to me (repeat)
We'll get our breakfast from the tree
We'll get our honey from the bees
We'll take a ride on the waterfalls
And all the glories, we'll have them all
And we'll live together on that dreamland
And have so much fun (repeat)
Oh, what a time that will be
Oh yes, we'll wait, wait, wait and see
We'll count the stars up in the sky.
And surely we'll never die