Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica

Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica

Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica

Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica


So much has been written about the Rastafari, yet we know so little about why and how people join the Rastafari movement. Although popular understandings evoke images of dreadlocks, reggae, and marijuana, Rastafarians were persecuted in their country, becoming a people seeking social justice. Yet new adherents continued to convert to Rastafari despite facing adverse reactions from their fellow citizens and from their British rulers.

Charles Price draws on in-depth interviews to reveal the personal experiences of those who adopted the religion in the 1950s to 1970s, one generation past the movement's emergence . By talking with these Rastafari elders, he seeks to understand why and how Jamaicans became Rastafari in spite of rampant discrimination, and what sustains them in their faith and identity.

Utilizing new conceptual frameworks, Price explores the identity development of Rastafari, demonstrating how shifts in the movement's identity--from social pariah to exemplar of Blackness--have led some of the elder Rastafari to adopt, embrace, and internalize Rastafari and blackness as central to their concept of self.


Rasta Ivey, one of the oldest living Rastafari women, recalled defending her faith despite being ridiculed and sent to an asylum for the insane. Another elder Rastafarian described how, before her twelfth birthday, she began hearing the voices of Christ and Haile Selassie I telling her about Africa and slavery. Her mother thought she was on the verge of lunacy. Brother Yendis remembered when, as a preadolescent during the 1940s, he saw a Rastafari man accosted by a belligerent policeman for no apparent reason. This incident led him to learn more about the Rastafari, as he questioned what made them so threatening. Today, the three remain as committed as ever to their Rastafari faith and identity, even though the paths that each followed to become Rastafari and their relationships to other Rastafari vary. What led them and others to embrace a stigmatized identity and become Rastafari? Why are Africa, slavery and injustice, and a language of redemption so prominent in the Rastafari self-concept and worldview?

A small but growing number of people began to identify themselves in the 1930s as adherents of Haile Selassie I, whom they viewed as an incarnation of God. These Rastafari, however, were concerned with more than religion. They were also concerned with racial redemption and the political concerns this entailed. Thus, we can very generally describe the Rastafari as a religiously and racially conscious people, many of them subscribing to some strain of the protean ideologies of Black nationalism. As Rastafari poet Mutabaruka explains it, Rastafari is a Black power ideology with a “theological nucleus” (2006:27). Within two years of their emergence, the British began spying on the Rastafari because of their anticolonial talk; within 30 years, elite Jamaicans had deemed them a threat to national security; and by the early 1970s, the Rastafari had become exemplars of Black culture noted for their caustic social commentary. The Rastafari are best known in the popular mind for their dreadlocks, their use of marijuana as a sacrament, and their contributions to the Jamaican . . .

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