Haile Selassie was born 122 years ago this week. An emperor and leader, he had an interesting and, for some, puzzling relationship with Rastas.
Who is Haile Selassie?
Think about Rastafari and you’ll immediately conjure images of the charismatic reggae master Bob Marley, headful of swirling dreadlocks, singing classics like “No woman, no cry.” Marley was a Rasta – as followers of Rastafari are called – but not a prophet, nor even a leader and certainly not a deity. For Rastas, god is Ras Tafari: that was the name of the former Emperor of Ethiopia, who was born on 23 July 1892, and crowned in 1930. On his accession, he took the regal name Haile Selassie I. He was Ethiopia’s 225th and last emperor.Nearly 8,000 miles separate Adidas Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and Kingston, Jamaica, but a link between them was forged by a number of poor black Jamaicans who believed Ras Tafari’s coronation was the fulfillment of a prophecy and that he was their redeemer, the messiah written of in the bible’s Book of Revelations: “King of Kings, Lord of lords” (17:14).They believed he would arrange for a deliverance, which, as they saw it, involve a miraculous transformation in which they would be spirited away from their miserable lives of poverty in the Caribbean and relocated in Africa, the land of their ancestors and their spiritual lodestone. How and why did they arrive at what seems to outsiders a fantastic conclusion?
And who was Marcus Garvey?
“Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.”The prophecy was Marcus Garvey’s. Garvey (1887-1940) was a Jamaican who campaigned for political and social change on an island that had been an important centre for slavery. After the slave trade was abolished in 1833 and slavery itself ended by Emancipation, life did not improve dramatically for ex-slaves and their children.The constant struggle was caused by permanent racial inequality, as Garvey saw it. His solution after several years of politicking was to launch a steamship company called the Black Star line, with the intention of transporting the island’s (and, later, America’s) black population to Africa. It started operations in 1914.Garvey was a practical organizer and had no time for dreamers. He never said that the “black king” he had spoken of was an actual person; more likely he meant it as a symbolic figure. But, when Haile Selassie was crowned in 1930, many of Garvey’s followers made what seemed to them a logical link. Rastafari was the king and so the day of deliverance was imminent. That meant they should prepare themselves for transportation.
What did Garvey think of Haile Selassie?
It’s not unusual for followers of prophetic leaders to believe the world will be transformed as the book of Revelation depicts. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Cargo cults of the Pacific Islands, and the People’ Temple which committed mass suicide, were all inspired by prophetic forecasts of transformation. Hundreds of Rastas gathered at various meeting places and at different times awaiting the transformation that would take them to Africa. When it didn’t materialize, they remained undeterred and stayed unshakably committed to Rastafari. What Garvey actually meant was less important than what his supporter believed he meant. Even when Garvey left for the United States, his myth remained and grew. So when in 1937, he wrote in a publication called the Black Man: A Monthly Magazine of Negro Thought and Opinion that he regarded Haile Selassie as “a great coward” and described unflatteringly as “an Abyssinian Napoleon,” followers were not convinced he truly wrote this.
What happened when Haile Selassie went to Jamaica?
On April 21, 1966, Haile Selassie visited Jamaica. Remember, this was 36-years after his coronation and the enthusiasm of Rasta was undimmed. There was now a new generation of Rastas, many of whom still harboured the vision of an exodus. But by now, many had built an Rastafarian worldview: Babylon was how they described the white-dominated post-colonial system, which directed its efforts to controlling black people and keeping them in a condition Rastas described as “mental slavery,” meaning they were still subservient to whites and accepted their own inferiority. Haile Selassie was overwhelmed by the rapturous reception and clearly liked the lavish praise and worshipful admiration of Rastas. He did nothing to dispel beliefs in his divine status. By this time, Garvey had died and his criticism of Haile Selassie forgotten. The Emperor himself had been ousted in 1936 after Italy invaded Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, as it was then known. He lived in exile; this, in fact, was one of the principal reasons Garvey attacked him – for leaving his own countrymen at the mercy of Italy. Haile Selassie reinstituted his powers as emperor in 1941, with support from Britain. We don’t know for sure, but it’s likely that when Haile Selassie visited, a 21-year-old Jamaican who had, the year, before formed a trio called the Wailers, was among the rapturous thousands honouring their redeemer. His name was Robert Nesta Marley.
Where does Bob Marley fit in?
Bob Marley (1945-81) was arguably the most influential Rasta in history. He never claimed to be a prophet, though his music had a prophetic character; and he was never a leader, though his many followers treated him as one. Marley (pictured above) and his band the Wailers, in 1973, released their album Catch a Fire. Two years later the album Natty Dread sold well internationally. Both records were loaded with Rasta symbols and motifs, prompting music fans to ask questions about their meanings. By the time of the release of Rastaman Vibration in 1976, there were Rastas in practically every British city and in many parts of North America. Young black people had fashioned their hair into the long coiled dreadlocks, as worn by Marley, were carrying what were called prayer sticks (i.e. walking canes) and wearing clothes in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, green, yellow and red, usually with the addition of black. While their parents were, in the main, Christians, young blacks in places like London, Birmingham and Manchester, were drawn to a different theology, which incorporated a political critique. All around them they saw evidence of Babylon, personified in the police, but were guided by an image of deliverance in the form of Africa. And yet, the Messiah who, it was thought would arrange for the deliverance had just died.
So how did they reconcile what appeared to be a conflict between fact and belief?
“Lies of Babylon.” As a research student in the late 1970s, I recall hearing this a number of times when the subject of Haile Selassie’s disappearance came up. Many Rastas believed the white-dominated structure they called Babylon had propagated a falsehood in an attempt to undermine the then fast-growing Rastafarian movement. Others discounted the news by pointing out that Jah (the Rasta name for God) had temporarily occupied the earthly body of Haile Selassie. The passing of Haile Selassie’s body was merely a sign that Jah was not just a human being but also a spirit. A third interpretation and the one most Rastas adhere to, concerns the concept I and I: this refers to the essential unity of all humanity; we may inhabit different human bodies, but we are all spiritually united. Haile Selassie may have gone, but to see him as a single deity misunderstands the meaning of Rastafari: his spirit lies in all of us and can’t be extinguished. From birth, we are all ephemeral bodies, but our souls live on.
So what is Haile Selassie’s legacy?
It depends on who you are. For a Rasta, his spirit occupies, guides and will ultimately determine the future. For others, he will not rate as a powerful leader of an African nation, certainly not in the same way as his contemporaries Jomo Kenyatta (1891-1978), of Kenya, or Kwame Nkrumah (1909-72), the Ghanaian Prime Minister. His true legacy lies in less what he said or did and more in what others attributed to him; in other words, what they believed of him.
Before you go: didn’t you write a book called Rastaman many moons ago?
As a matter of fact, yes. It was based on my Ph.D research at the LSE. Of course, it’s well-dated now, but, believe it or not, it was recently republished as part of a “Routledge Revivals” series.