Rastafari: Creative Rupture and Consciousness Raising

photograph of Bob Marley bag
Photo by the author. 

Since most of my students come to the course with rather limited knowledge of Rastafari, my first reading assignment is Rastafari: A Very Short Introduction (Ennis B. Edmonds, 2012). Although this text deliberately seeks to appeal to a wider audience beyond the academy, it engages the ideational and cultural components, the cultural and practices, and the trajectory of the history of Rastafari. Thus, it provides students with the language and vocabulary necessary for the critical analysis and informed discussion of the more academic works that we read throughout the semester.

I usually offer this course at three-hour seminar during the afternoon one a week (it may work better as eighty minutes sessions twice a well to escape the inevitable fatigue that sets in the afternoon). Each class session takes up a theme (e.g., repatriation, InI consciousness, ritual smoking of ganja, levity, etc). All students prepare for the class by reading three assigned readings on the theme and posting a comment on one of the readings and a question an another. Some of the comments and questions become part of the in-class discussion. One or two students are assigned to prepare a research poster utilizing the assigned readings and at least two other sources.

The first half of the class begins with a mini lecture in which I give context to the readings and/provide information not directly covered. The assigned students then present their research posters on the topic, followed by a discussion emerging from the presentations, the postings on the readings, and questions raised by the professors.

The second half of the class can take various forms. Experts in Rastafari studies sometimes attend the class remotely to give talks and lead discussions. Some days we utilize videos/video clips to highlight aspects of the topic. For example, one the day when discuss gender issues in Rastafari, we may watch and discuss two video clips—one of a former beauty queen discussing why she abandoned the stage and found meaning and fulfillment in Rastafari, and the other of a fashionista who abandoned Rastafari because of its perceived hypocrisy and restrictive gender roles for women.  In discussing Bob Marley’s role in the spread of Rastafari, we show clips of his performances and interviews and play and discuss songs in which he gives voice to perspectives rooted in his Rastafari consciousness.

Whatever approach we take, we try to balance structure with some openness to permit the discussion to take us into unexpected directions because of students interpretation or questions arising from the readings or viewing of videos or images. Obviously, other pedagogical strategies may be used to elucidate the subject.

Below, I provide four lists of resources:

  • The first contains proto-Rastafari texts that greatly influenced the movement and primary material produced by Rastas.
  • The seconds lists seminal ethnographic works that brought social scientific lenses to the movement since the 1950s to the present.
  • The third highlights works seeking to bring a variety theoretical perspectives and analytic frameworks to the movement.
  • The fourth includes resources focusing on the artistic dimensions of Rastafari and the creative works that take Rastafari as the subject.

While these works may not all find their way to the reading assignments on the course syllabus, a selection will support the knowledge base of background information for instructor and student alike.

Photograph: "Drawing the Chalice"
Photo by the author.

Though Rastafari emerged in Jamaica in the early 1930s, it stands in a long history of black resistance against European hegemony. Hence this first grouping of readings seek to locate Rastafari in the historical tradition of Ethiopianism and black nationalism that endeavored to create ideational and cultural spaces to affirm African cultural identity and heritage in the face of European oppression and repression. Some are primary sources written by forerunners of Rastafari and others by Rastafari adepts (including poetry and song lyrics). Included are also academic articles that place Rastafari in the tradition of resistance against European political and cultural domination.

“Bob Marley (Bob Marley & the Wailers) Lyrics.” https://www.azlyrics.com/b/bobmarley.html. Accessed March 18, 2022.

Brown, Ras Sam. Teacher. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXV3oTgQMbE Accessed March 18, 2022.

Brown, Ras Sam. “Treatise on the Rastafarian Movement.”. Accessed March 18, 2022.

Forsythe, Dennis. Rastafari: For the Healing of the Nations. One Drop Books, 1999.

Garvey, Marcus Mosiah, and Amy Jacques Garvey, editor. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Atheneum, 1969, c1923-25.

Howell, Leonard Percival, The Promised Key, ca 1935. https://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/tpk/index.htm. Accessed March 18, 2022.

Jerry, Bongo. “Mabrak.” In The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English. Edited by Paula Burnett. Penguin Books, 1986. 69-71.

Pettersburg, Fitz Balintine. The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy. 1926. https://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/rps/index.htm. Accessed March 19, 2022.

Rogers, Robert Athlyi. The Holy Piby.  Perlego, 2020.

Scott, William. “The Ethiopian Ethos in African American Thought.” International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2. Winter/Spring, 2004: 40-57.

Wallis Budge, E.A. Kebra Negast. https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/kn/index.htm. Accessed March 18, 2022.

Photo by the author.

Prior to 1960s, most of the written accounts about Rastafari were newspaper reports which concentrated mainly on laws enforcement encounters with members of the movement. Since George Eaton Simpson’s 1955 article on his observations of Rastas in Kingston, social scientists have trained their ethnographic lenses on the movement and have produced a growing body of works in Jamaica and around the world. This list is just a representative sample of those works.

Barrett. Leonard. The Rastafarians: Sounds of Cultural Dissonance. Beacon Press, 1988.

Bonacci, Giulia. Exodus! Heirs and Pioneers, Rastafari and the Return to Ethiopia.
The Press, University of the West Indies, 2015.

Cashmore, Ernest. Rastaman: The Rastafarian Movement in England. George Allen and Unwin, 1983.

Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari: Roots and Ideology. Syracuse University Press, 1994.
Kathrin Hansing, Rasta,Race, and Revolution: The Emergence and Development of the Rastafari Movement in Socialist Cuba. Lit Verlag, 2006.

Homiak, John P. “From Yard to Nation: Rastafari and the Politics of Eldership at Home and Abroad.” In Ay Bobo 3: Rastafari (Afro-Caribbean Cults: Resistance and Identity), Vervuert, 1994.
Helene Lee, The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism. Lawrence Hill Books, 2003.

Erin MacLeod, Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Lands. NYU Press, 2014.

Owens, Joseph. Dread the Rastafarians of Jamaica. Heinemann, 1982.

Simpson, George Eaton. “Political Cultism in Western Kingston.” Social and Economic Studies, 5 (1955): 133-149.

Smith, M. G., Roy Augier, and Rex Nettleford. Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica. Institute of Social and Economic Research (Mona, UWI), 1960.

Photo of murals on a wall showing musicians and a vinyl record
Photo by Michael Christopher Brown via JSTOR.

In recent decades, scholars of Rastafari studies have engaged in interpretive and theoretical readings of the Rastafari phenomenon. Going beyond descriptive renderings, they have sought to tease out the implications of Rastafari on such issues as race, identity, cultural and political change, and gender discourse. While some of the following texts are single-authored, others are edited volumes with a wide collection of articles that reflect on an array of issues including the challenges and trajectories of aspects of the movement.

Barnett, Michael, Giulia Bonacci, and Erin C. MacCleod, editors. A 2020 Vision Perspective On the Rastafari Movement (IDEAZ 15—Special Edition), 2020.

Barnett, Michael, editor. Rastafari in the New Millennium; A Rastafari Reader. Syracuse University Press, 2012.

Monique A. Bedasse, Jah Kingdom: Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism in the Age of Decolonization. UNC Press, 2017.

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari: From Outcasts to Culture Bearers, Oxford University Press, 2003.
Hutton, Clinton A., Michael Barnett, D. A. Dunkley, and Jahlani Niaah, editors. Leonard Percival Howell and the Genesis of Rastafari. The Press, University of the West Indies, 2015.

Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, editors, Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafarian Reader. Temple University Press, 1998.

Price, Charles. Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari in Jamaica. NYU Press, 2009.

Illustration of Bob Marley and a lion
Photo by the author.

If you ask a Rasta what the movement is about, you are likely to hear in response, “It’s a culture.” In other words, Rastafari is a total way of life, not just a religion relegated to certain activities. As part of this culture, Rastas have always shown a predilection for expressive artistic endeavors, especially music and visual arts. The following resources give us a window into how Rastafari have shaped creative and artistic endeavors.

Bender, Wolfgang. Rastafarian Art of Jamaica. Warwick Publishing, 2007.

Dawes, Kwame. Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius. Bobcat Books, 2007.

Dawes, Kwame. Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetics. Peepal Tree, 1999.

Mais, Roger. Brother Man. Interlink Publishing Group, 2007.

Middleton, Darren J. N.  Rastafari and the Arts: An Introduction. Routledge, 2015.

Miller, Kei. Augustown. Vintage, 2018.

Patterson, Orlando. Children of Sisyphus. Peepal Tree Press, 2011.

Walcott, Derek. The Joker of Seville & O Babylon, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Ennis B. Edmonds is the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon College, where he has taught since 2003. Edmonds holds a PhD is Religion and Society from Drew University (Madison, NJ) and has teaching and research expertise primarily in Religion and Society in the United States and African Diaspora Spirituality. In addition, he has studied and taught courses on Religion and Popular Culture. Among his publications are Rastafari: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012), Caribbean Religious History: An Introduction (with Michelle Gonzalez, NYU Press, 2010), and Rastafari: From Outcasts to Cultural Bearers (Oxford, 2003).