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Who Are The Rastafari?

Aired 6/29/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

We will be providing discussion and insight into the very small religion of the Rastafari. Who are the most vital historic figures? What tenets does it prescribe to? And how do they respond to the public view of the Rastafari?

Who are the Rastafari? And who are the Rastafari to a secular American? The dread sporting Rastamen are more than nationalist enthused pot smokers. Rastafari expert, Dr. Merritt, will be discussing the central tenets of Rastafarianism; their practices, beliefs, key influences throughout their history, and what it means to be among the few Rastafari today. We will also provide a forum for the burning questions regarding marijuana use, nationalism, Reggae and Bob Marley.

Guest

Dr. Anta Anthony Merritt, SDSU Lecturer in Africana Studies, Presiding Priest in the Bobo Shanti Order of Rastafari, California/Arizona office, and author of one of the first scholarly studies of the Rastafarian Repatriation community in Ethiopia.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. If the average San Diegan knows anything at all about the Rastafari faith, it probably comes from the late Jamaican reggae singer, Bob Marley. The songs Jah live, chant down Babylon, Rasta man, all represent elements of a unique theology. As part of our ongoing series about religions in San Diego, we'll hear about the small community of Rastas in our city, what they believe, how they practice their faith. I'd like to welcome my guest, Doctor Anta Anthony Merritt, SDSU lecturer in Africana Studies, and presiding priest in the Bobo Shanti order of Rastafari of the California/Arizona office.

MERRITT: Greetings and blessings, love.

CAVANAUGH: I'd like to get our terminology straight. Sometimes people refer to this faith as Rastafarianism. Is that wrong?

MERRITT: In a sense it is. Rastafaris are very diligent about the use of words. We use the term Rastafari to describe this faith rather than Rastafarianism. First and foremost because Rastafari is the precoronation name of the Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie, who we regard as our king of kings and lord of lords, God incarnate. And second, the suffix -ism is generally used to indicate doctrin or ideology, such as atheism or sexism or racism, or religious denominations like Calvanism. Rastafari is more than an ideology or doctrine or another religious denomination. We say it is a livity or a way of life.

CAVANAUGH: You started us on some of the origins of Rastafari. Why don't you tell us about where this faith comes from?

MERRITT: Certainly. First and foremost, I want to say we give thanks for life and to the mighty life giver, his imperial majesty, Haile Selassie, king of kind and lord of lords, Jah, Rastafari. We say that this livity is ageless, from before the beginning of man-made time and without end. Its rebirth however can be traced to two prophecies that occurred in the 1920s. In 1922, reverend James Morris Webb was an organizer in UNIA, wrote the book the black man will be the coming universal king. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey himself said, look to the east for the crowning of a black king, he shall be our redeemer. Garvey's prophecy is the most well known. For this, many traditional Rastas regard him as the greatest prophet to ever come from the womb of a woman, we say. Reverend web's work is also significant because it's one of several indications that Rastafari was emerging in the consciousness of blacks in various parts of the black diaspora at about the same time. Rastafari was crowned king of kings in Ethiopia in 1930. He took the coronation Haile Selassie, which means mighty trinity. And early Rastas recognized his crowning as the fulfillment of these prophecies that I just mentioned. His coronation title is king of kings, lord of lords, are named that are identified with the returned Messiah in the prophetic biblical book of rev lazes.

CAVANAUGH: Would you call Rastafari a Christian religion?

MERRITT: Not really. Though some would see that there are some parallels or similarities in a very fundamental sense. The experience in that diaspora was a christianizing aspect that they broke away from, and radically broke away from. And Christianity particularly the missionary style Christianity that was preached to them during the enslavement era was part of that breakaway. Some might see some things or hear some things and say, well, this is a different kind of black Christianity or something like that when it's really not. It's really more based on fundamental traditional African communalism and ideas about divinity and God within man and within woman.

CAVANAUGH: This is, if I'm understanding correctly, an Afrocentric religion; is that right?

MERRITT: Yes, an African centered religion. The traditional forms of Rastafari, and I'm a member of the Bobo Shanti, the other traditional form is the Nyahbinghi. Those two houses -- in their emergence, they wanted to help blacks in diaspora recognize both the -- have a love for themselves, love for their Africanness, and have say spirituality and a sense of the divine within themselves which had been eradicated during the enslavement process in the post era as well. Going from, say, in Jamaica in the 1930s which was when the three most significant groups emerged, the house of the youth black faith which was established by honorable Bongo Wato, and the Pinnacle Commune that was established by Leonard Howell in the early 1940s, and the EABIC, Ethiopia Black International Congress in 1958 which was established by the honorable Prince Immanuel Charles Edwards. These were the fundamental foundational groups.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about the things that people might automatically recognize as part of the Rastafari tradition. I'm wondering what the significance of wearing your hair in dread locks is.

MERRITT: Well, this is an external sign, a commitment to the faith. In the book of Leviticus and numbers it talks about those who are separating themselves and following the tenants of the record God to not cut their hair or trim their beards. So this is regarded as one of the foundational very important aspects of the faith.

CAVANAUGH: And we started off hearing a little bit of bob Marley. How is reggae music aligned with Rastafari?

MERRITT: Well, the real foundational music of Rastafari is not reggae. It's the Nyahbinghi music. Reggae was influenced by it, rather than the other way away. You heard in the beginning song you played by bob Marley, there were drums playing in the background. These are Nyahbinghi drums, rather different from the popularized reggae. That's the heart beat of Rastafari, the big base drum, the repeater, the funge, the kete, and the big base drum. So reggae was influenced by that. And starting in, I would say, the '70s reggae emerged from faster forms of mento and ska, and it slowed down to what we called a heart beat. And that really, I think galvanized a lot of the people to say what's behind the music? It was in a sense for me to hear this sound and not so much the reggae that we hear but my first concert was hearing Nyahbinghi drums, I said whoa. That stopped me in a real elemental sense.

CAVANAUGH: I must ask you about the use of marijuana as a spiritual practice in arrest far eye.

MERRITT: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: How did that come to be?

MERRITT: Well, there are many different views on that. I think one of the ones that, in terms of influence, needs to be looked at -- during the end of slavery in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, a large population of people from India were brought over. We hear for instance in Jamaica that they use the words Kali and ganga for marijuana. These east Indian words. And it is believed that the people, the indentured servants who were used to replace blacks who no longer wanted to do the work they had done under slavery, they brought this culture and tradition and shared this with the people who they worked with side by side. And there's a good indication as to believe -- to regard that as one of the foundational things to come over in kind of a cross cultural mix between the east Indians and the freed blacks.

CAVANAUGH: There is an awful lot of Rastafari in popular culture. You see the colors of the Ethiopian flag, people wear that, reggae music, the certain fixation the public might have with marijuana. I'm wondering, seeing your faith center the secular world in that way, how do you feel about that?

MERRITT: Well, one of the things that happened, I think, that kind of derailed for some people the Rastafari movement was that commodization of the faith, the colors, the marijuana. This was what for many people, and the reggae music, this is what for many people saw was the beginning and the end for them for Rastafari. There were elements who appropriated these symbols. And these were folks that were involved in drugs and gangs and so forth. And in fact there was a movie made, Steven Segal made marked to kill, or something to that effect. It was very controversial, focusing on what were called Rasta posses in New York. We see, the traditional Rastas feel very strongly that we need to represent the fundamentals of Rasta. And there are many Rastas for instance who don't smoke. There are many Rastas who don't listen to or participate in reggae music. The most important thing is that Rastas feel is to recognize Rasta within, to recognize God within. We say that in our order for Bobo Shanti order, we say this is a man and one woman kingdom, we talk about God in man and God in woman. Our founder and leader, king.

RIH2: Manual Charles Edwards was always a strong advocate to say this is a man and woman kingdom, and everything really revolves around recognizing that you are God and God is you. This is his embodiment, so to speak of, as we see him as a black Christ who would advocate as Christ did in the ancient times when he was being persecuted. He said, why do you persecute me? They said because you say that you are God. And he said, no, it says in the scriptures that you all are Gods. This is what we as Bobo Shanti for instance, and the Nyahbinghi as well, really focus on. It's the God in man and woman.

CAVANAUGH: We could talk about this for quite some time. I am afraid we are out of time. I want to tell everyone that I have been speaking with doctor Anta Anthony merit, an SDSU lecture, and he also holds a Rasta service every first Saturday of the month, either here in San Diego or in Los Angeles. And I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

MERRITT: It was my pleasure. Blessed.

Comments

Avatar for user 'maddog'

maddog | June 29, 2011 at 1:31 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

I listened with great interest to your program on the Rastafari. During the conversation your speaker referred to the suffix "ism" as indicating a doctrine or theology and used as an example Atheism. Atheism is the exact opposite as it indicates the absence of a doctrine or theology. I hope all the Rastafari who were listening understand the distinction. Keep up the good work.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | June 30, 2011 at 10:09 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

How about a hardball question, the deification of one of Africa's most reactioanry political leaders. Oh, and the extreme Evangelicalesque, fringe-like believe that the Pope is the "devil." LOL

But I guess that would be asking too much from a hug-all approach to the subject.

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Avatar for user 'natejohn'

natejohn | July 1, 2011 at 12:33 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

Hi Missionaccomplished,

This is the producer of this segment. I appreciate your feedback and will try to improve, use a more critical approach, and implement more difficult questions in my future segments.

Thanks for listening!

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Avatar for user 'amerritt'

amerritt | July 7, 2011 at 11:23 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Dear maddog: to clarify my use of ism regarding the word atheism: atheism, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is defined as "the doctrine that there is no deity". Atheists do have a doctrine; what is actually "absent" in their view is a deity. My desire was to help listeners recognize that anything ending in the word ism is a doctrine-nothing more, nothing less- and that the subject of Rastafari is more than a doctrine. RastafarI readily understand this distinction, which is why the suffix of ism is never used.
Hon. Priest Merritt

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