It was a rainy April day in 1966 when Emperor Haile Selassie came to Jamaica. As his plane landed, the rain stopped, and the tarmac was mobbed with people. The crowd shoved security forces out of the way, and official protocol had to be scrapped. Inside the plane, the Emperor waited for half an hour, surprised and overwhelmed by the enthusiastic welcome.
That visit 50 years ago is the stuff of legend, retold again and again. For Rastafarians, it was a visit from a man they consider divine. For newly independent Jamaica it was the visit of an African king.
I arrived at the same airport on Apr. 21, 50 years to the day since the Emperor’s visit, and the atmosphere was electric. Hundreds of Rastafarians arrived in buses, many dressed in traditional Ethiopian embroidered garb. They held signs in Amharic, an Ethiopian language, welcoming the grandson of Haile Selassie, their messiah, back to Jamaica. The air was thick with the smoke of ganja, which Rastafarians smoke as a sacrament. As the crowd chanted, a drum circle beat out a sacred rhythm.
I grew up in Ethiopia and now live in Jamaica. Like many Ethiopians, I have always been puzzled by the Rastafarian belief that Haile Selassie was an earthly manifestation of God. So when I learned that Ermias Sahle Selassie, Haile Selassie’s grandson, would retrace his grandfather’s steps, visiting Jamaica on the fiftieth anniversary of the Emperor’s visit, I knew I had to witness it.
April 21, is “Grounation Day” for Rastafari (as Rastafarians refer to themselves), a holy day that marks their messiah’s setting foot on Jamaican ground. At the airport on this day, people carried framed photographs of the Emperor in a military cap. One man wore the same cap in the rasta colors with the Emperor’s visage knitted into it.
Yet the prince who approached the crowd outside Kingston airport had close cropped hair and wore a conservative grey suit.
Two lines of men in bright red, dreadlocks piled high on their heads or flowing down their backs, held up Ethiopian imperial flags—green, gold, and red with the Lion of Judah in the center—forming an arch for him to walk through.
It was a scene that could be hardly be more different from the formality of the Ethiopian royal family. Rastafarianism, a strongly anti-establishment religion that condemns the material world of “Babylon,” and the Ethiopian royal family, perhaps the very definition of the establishment, are strange bedfellows.
And yet, as the prince passed and the crowd stretched out to touch him, the prince reached back, grasping their hands.
I heard calls of “Jah Rastafari!” It felt like a sort of homecoming.
The Black king to the East
How did a monarchy in East Africa, thousands of miles away from Jamaica, form a bond with an anti-establishment movement on an island in the Caribbean? Why was a prince whose family was overthrown over forty years ago greeted with ululation and celebration?
The answer turned out to be in a phrase of Marcus Garvey’s, the Jamaican black nationalist, that was repeated over and over as I followed Prince Ermias around Kingston during his four-day visit: “Look to the East for the crowning of a Black King, he is the Redeemer for the days of deliverance are near.”
Garvey, a Jamaican hero, was born in the late 1800s, Jamaica, lived long after slavery was abolished in 1833. But his fellow Black Jamaicans lived on an island that was still a British colony ruled from England and Black Jamaicans were still poor, mostly landless and longing for the “deliverance” that Garvey promised.
Then in 1930 Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. He ruled the only African country to successfully resist colonization, in part due to a famous victory three decades earlier over Italian troops.
Garvey’s prophecy appeared to have been fulfilled with the crowning of this Black king and Rastafarianism was born. Rastafarians take their name from Haile Selassie’s name before he was crowned and took an imperial name: Ras Tafari. Ras, literally “head” is a title akin to “governor” while Tafari was Haile Selassie’s first name.
As a young religion, Rastafarianism has been the target of mockery for plenty of reasons, not least of which is the belief that a man who died under two generations ago is divine. I have been guilty of that myself. But as I talked to Rastafarians, I realized I had missed the point. It is about more than a black king in a distant land.
Haile Selassie and Ethiopia were part of black Jamaicans making a new history for themselves; rejecting the hand that history had dealt them. An African king represented their rightful or “divine” heritage, instead of one of slavery, oppression, and racism.
Orville Morris, a Rastafarian who was nine years old when the Emperor visited in 1966, told me, “I choose to be a descendant of a free and independent people… free of that negative and oppressive legacy (of slavery and colonialism).”
Ann Witter, who was 16 when Haile Selassie came to Jamaica, and has lived in Ethiopia, told me that she felt like Ethiopia was her spiritual home. “If I hadn’t been born here in slave country, I would have been born there,” she said.
As I spoke to Rastafarians who, like me, were following the prince around Kingston during his visit, I realized that for them, Haile Selassie and Ethiopia are about “emancipation from mental slavery,” like that Bob Marley song so many of us have been singing along to all these years.
Not much material is available about what Haile Selassie himself thought of Rastafarianism. He infamously dodged journalist questions about being a deity. Believers insist his non-denial should be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement that he was divine; skeptics think he was just being polite.
Rastafarian legend has it that he privately said to his followers, “Be still and know that I am him.” The statement, with its Biblical echoes, could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his sacredness or as a reference to his title: His Imperial Majesty, often abbreviated as H.I.M.
Haile Selassie’s grandchildren tell a different story.
“[Haile Selassie] wanted to be absolutely clear that he was not a saint or a messiah.” Prince Bedemariam Mekonnen Haile Selassie, one of the Emperor’s grandsons, told Erin MacLeod, author of Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in Search of the Promised Land.
What is clear is that Haile Selassie decided to embrace Rastafarians, a group that were not only marginalized and oppressed, but actively persecuted in Jamaica, even after independence in 1962.
Rastafarians still complain of discrimination by their fellow Jamaicans, of being called “dutty Rastas” (‘dirty’) for their dreadlocks.
It was very significant, then, back on that tarmac in 1966, that the Emperor requested that a Rastafarian—Mortimer Planno, who had previously visited Ethiopia, help the king navigate his way through the throngs when he arrived at the airport.
At a time when Rastafarians had little political power, Haile Selassie met and dined with them and awarded them gold medals with the Imperial Lion of Judah insignia. The Emperor also gave the Rastafarians a land grant in Shashamene, Ethiopia, so that they could realize their dream of returning to the “Promised Land.”.
Flying the Emperor’s flag
And Rastafarians returned the favor when Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup in 1974. The military group that seized power, a military committee, known popularly as the Derg or “committee,” tried to systematically erase the Emperor from Ethiopian history.
Although Haile Selassie had been a champion of modernization, Ethiopians under his rule were still largely poor, illiterate and landless. A drought, the international oil crisis, and discontent in the military ranks, combined to create conditions ripe for a coup. When he died a year later, the Derg claimed it was due to complications from a prostate operation, but many suspected foul play.
The Derg, which adopted communist ideologies, eventually controlled Ethiopia with bloody terror. But it could not have known the power of reggae music, the weapon that Rastafarians would wield to keep Haile Selassie relevant and his memory alive.
When the Emperor died on August 27th 1975, journalists reportedly rushed to confront Bob Marley with the death of his deity. His response was “Jah Live,” a single released shortly thereafter: “Fools sayin’ in their heart, Rasta your God is dead… Jah Live!”
During the joyless days of the Derg era in Ethiopia, I remember listening to Bob Marley’s hits – songs that talked about “Selassie I,” redemption, freedom, and exodus to the Promised Land. For people like me, those songs were about the Derg regime as oppressor. I wouldn’t learn until many years later, living in America, that they were about Jamaica, or maybe just about any Black person who longed for an end to injustice.
In a way, Rastafarians and reggae music have made Haile Selassie and his imperial flag shorthand for black liberation and the cause of liberation in general.
“That flag has a meaning for more than just Rastafarians. The whole war against Italy, the fact that Ethiopia remained uncolonized, really made Ethiopia a beacon, a lighthouse to the pan-African movement,” Steven Golding,the president of the Kingston chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the son of former Prime Minister Bruce Golding told me.
In Jamaica, Rastafarianism has worked itself into the culture and popular consciousness. One gets the impression that Rastafarians make up far more than the 1% reported by the country’s 2011 census. Images of Emperor Haile Selassie and references to “H.I.M.” are common sights. The Ethiopian flag’s green, gold, and red, with the Lion of Judah are all ubiquitous, and on this island are taken to be symbols of Rasta.
Most Jamaicans are Christians, so belief in the Emperor as deity is anathema. But many embrace him in the same way that generations of music fans embraced Bob Marley’s music: on the basis of their understanding of Rastafarianism as a sort of jumble of “one love,” ganja, and the mysterious affinity for an African king. Some are surprised to find out Haile Selassie, like his short-haired grandson, does not have dreadlocks.
Back at the airport, I watched an employee snap a photo of Prince Ermias with her cellphone.
What did he mean to her, I asked. Like most Jamaicans, she was Christian, she told me, but she liked the Rastafarian message of “one love,” and she thought Haile Selassie might be a prophet, or at least have “heavenly qualities.”
“He empowers black people,” she said. “A lot of us are Rastafarians at heart.”