Monthly Archives: July 2014


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.



If you’re grumbling about the number of athletes who have opted out of or are still prevaricating about whether to compete in the Commonwealth Games, blame Usain Bolt. The most charismatic and globally popular sports star since Muhammad Ali has decided to skip the games’ individual sprint events and run in only the 4x100m relay. Bolt (pictured above) has redefined track in much the same way as Tiger Woods redefined golf and Michael Jordan basketball: not with his style, so much as his brand – his name, image and imprimatur sell goods, most unrelated to sport, to any market in the world. Last year, Bolt renewed his endorsement deal with Puma, which lies well behind adidas and Nike, the sports goods market leaders. The deal is worth $10 million over two years (until 2016) to Bolt, who also has promotional contracts with Virgin Media, Visa, Nissan, Gatorade, Swiss watchmaker Hublot and Soul Electronics with which Bolt will develop his own line of headphones. He has also published two books, pushing his early earnings to about $20 million.

So for him, the prize money available on the IAAF Diamond League circuit from which most athletes earn a stable living (winners are paid $10,000 per event) is negligible. Typically, Bolt will command an appearance fee of between $200,000 and $350,000 per meeting. Promoters may balk at this, but his appearance guarantees a full stadium. He alone would have conferred respectability and glamour on the Glasgow tournament. So why isn’t he interested?

A Commonwealth Games medal would not add commercial value to Bolt’s brand and, a defeat or disqualification (remember: he was DQ’d from the 2011 World Championships) would be damaging from a marketing perspective. Bolt’s declination is a big blow for the Commonwealth Games. But imagine the cost-benefit calculation behind the decision. The tournament has nowhere near the lustre of the Olympics, nor even the IAAF World Championships. Its television audience is relatively small and interest among the world’s richest economic nations – and hence the most prosperous markets for advertisers – is limited. The Commonwealth embraces some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Mozambique and Rwanda. Thirty-one of the member states have populations of 1.5 million or less.

So while there is a collective population of near two billion and a few fast-emerging economies, the games do not present an especially attractive proposition for advertisers. One can imagine the global corporations that pay Bolt wondering out loud whether it is worth risking his reputation in a tournament that counts for little. Those who reject this explanation as too cynical should recall the fuss Bolt kicked up last year when he was invited to participate in a post-Olympics event. HMRC, the British government’s tax service demanded its cut of his earnings. Because he spends so much of his time in the UK, he is liable to pay 50 per cent of his earnings in tax.

A tax amnesty was brokered for the 2012 Olympics, but Bolt was reluctant to return for only half his usual fee. Sports Minister Hugh Robertson was obliged to step in to help induce Bolt, though British taxpayers were understandably upset at the prospect of a multimillionaire athlete’s being excused paying tax, while they were forced to surrender a chunk of their wages to the government. Asked if it was because he would lose as much money as he would earn from running in London, Bolt replied: “That’s what my agent told me.” And, of course, agents are in business to make money. It may disappoint fans to learn that their heroes are motivated by much the same pecuniary incentives as everyone else, but sports stars are not idealists. The Chariots of Fire have long since bolted. Nowadays professional sportsmen and women are working for money. Bolt’s official position is not clear: he is apparently not injured but just hasn’t trained enough. His fellow Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has also decided to miss the games. Yohan Blake followed Bolt’s example and pulled out of the Commonwealth Games. While Blake pulled up in a race last weekend, few believe it is an injury that is prompting his withdrawal: the double Olympic silver medallist said he could not put his preparations for Rio 2016 at risk. Translated, this is: “The Commonwealth Games are worthless. There is no money, prestige or any kind of benefit to be gained from winning a tupenny ha’penny medal at a third-rate Games.”

Glasgow 2014 will, for sure, be a specular success: it will be efficiently organized, well attended and viewed by television audiences all over the …. er, Commonwealth. It is just not a marketable product; it does not present a commercial showcase in which “brand ambassadors” can advertise their sponsors’ wares to an international market. Even if the individual competitors are enthusiastic about the event, their agents and sponsors will be deterring them. Bolt may be secretly disappointed: an appearance at a venue full of adoring fans where he can do his usual shtick in front of tv cameras and pick up another medal for his cabinet would not be an onerous task for him, even if he does end up weighing-in to the British taxman. But he isn’t in control: like other pro sports stars, he’s made a Faustian pact that renders him at the mercy of his corporate paymasters.

The humiliation of a nation: Will Brazil recover in time for the Olympics?

… and are Brits really such good losers?

Q: So Brazil is now gearing up for the Olympics in a couple of years. Do you think the nation is thinking twice about it following the World Cup?
A: Well, clearly things have not gone according to plan and Brazilians are putting on a brave face but everyone will remember the 2014 World Cup for the riots that formed a backcloth to the main event, the last-minute rushes to get the stadiums finished, and, of course this historic annihilation of Brazil by Germany. So everything that could have gone wrong has done and I expect Brazil is ruing the day it bid for the World Cup. The Olympics? My guess is that any popular support Brazil had for the World Cup vanished after 23-minutes of the Germany game.
Q: How do you mean? One game couldn’t change everything, could it?
A: Some games are epochal, by which I mean they define an era. I’m not old enough to remember it (believe it or not), but in 1953 Hungary dismantled the England team 6-3 and this is still regarded as marking the end of one era and the start of another. England was regarded as the preeminent power in football and many other sports. But after the Hungary game, England never managed to restore its prestige or indeed identity. It won the World Cup once in 1966, but has never won anything else. Brazil has, since the 1950s, been seen as the custodian of the beautiful game. Even when the team was beaten, it went down in style: Brazil has for six decades symbolized everything that is good about football. But after being humbled, it will never again be thought-of in this way. Mention of Brazil and football will now evoke images of the 7-1 debacle.
Q: And I suppose you think this will linger as we approach the Olympics.
A: Let’s put it this way: Brazil spent about $15.4 billion or £9 billion on the World Cup and a lot of people saw this as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Money, incidentally, that they felt should have been spent on roads, hospitals, schools and other public projects. That’s why there were so many protests. The government justified the World Cup as a showcase for the nation. Brazil’s economy has slowed down a bit lately, but it has for years been one of the fastest growing economies. So the argument went: the World Cup and the Olympics will be a world stage announcing the arrival of Brazil as a major economic power. The government and Fifa, I’d venture, secretly wanted Brazil to win the trophy. This would have quietened down the protests and at least given the public something to boast about. Instead, the tournament showcased the humiliation of the nation. So the next couple of years will be very difficult for Brazil. The protests are bound to spiral and I can imagine the public support for the Olympics has gone.
Q: While you’re here, what about the British experience in this summer of sport? As well as the England team’s embarrassing exit from the World Cup, there’s been the disappointing Wimbledon of Andy Murray, Chris Froome’s early departure from the Tour de France and …
A: Let me stop you there. I see where you’re going. Brits are accustomed to this: they take defeat with a smile on their faces and don’t get disconsolate. I know they usually go into competitions with absurdly inflated expectations. But they never get suicidal when they lose and the reason for that is simple: it’s sport. That’s all. Brits are good losers. Aussies and Americans may mock them for that, but I think it’s a good thing: if you like sport, then you should be able to assimilate losing just as easily as you do winning. That’s the nature of competition. Brits keep things in perspective. No one is going to slump into a deep depression over a few setbacks. In fact, everyone in the UK is looking forward to the Commonwealth Games now.
Q: Commonwealth Games? Not exactly the Olympics, is it?
A: So what? It’s more of a festival, a celebration of sport. Traditionally, the Commonwealth Games are known as the “friendly games” because the tournament lacks the cutthroat, win-or-die-trying mentality. This closer to the spirit of sport in the late nineteenth century, but is this so bad? Competition was once defined in terms of doing your best, respecting your rivals and taking satisfaction from competing. Now its about winning. Perhaps we’ve lost something.