If someone were to mention the Rasta movement, perhaps one of the first people to come to mind would be Bob Marley, singing passionately to the beat of his emotive Reggae music with his dreadlocks swinging and the crowd cheering. However, although Marley and his group, The Wailers, did much to draw attention to the Rasta movement, there was a time - exactly fifty years ago - when Rastafari crowds in Jamaica cheered even louder for the man they called the ‘Lamb of God’: Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
When Haile Selassie’s aeroplane burst through stormy rainclouds on 21st April 1966, ready to land on a runway overflowing with agitated Rastafari followers, the heavy, persistent rain stopped abruptly and the Jamaican sky blazed with bright sunlight. Many of the people present saw this as a sign that their Messiah had really come. The streets of Kingston, Jamaica, were lined with hundreds of thousands of people, dressed in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, waiting excitedly for the arrival of the man they believed to be their living black Christ. As the Ethiopian Emperor emerged from the plane, he was overwhelmed by his reception and the reverence towards him.
So, why was this visit so important for so many and why has it gone down in history as the day that changed the Rastafari movement?
Haile Selassie, previously known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, was the 225th and last Emperor of Ethiopia and thought to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. When he came to power in 1930, Ethiopia was the only country in Africa that had not been colonised; for those torn away from their African birthplace, oppressed into back-breaking labour through slavery and continually denied basic rights, Ethiopia represented a spiritual homeland. In the 1920s, the Jamaican activist, Marcus Garvey, revered by many for his opposition to racism, prophesied, “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer”. Selassie’s coronation, a few years later, was taken to be the fulfilment of Garvey’s prophecy and also of verses in The Bible’s Book of Revelation. Although he never claimed to be divine, Selassie became recognised as the Judeo-Christian god, Jah, who would deliver the Rastafari people from ‘Babylon’ - their white oppressors - and reunite them with their African homeland.
The momentous events of 1966 changed the attitude of many people in Jamaica to the Rastafarians, a group who had previously been outcasts in society and portrayed in the media as madmen and devil worshippers who ate the hearts of children. They had often been ill-treated by the Jamaican authorities and the police, but through this visit, the Rasta movement gained international recognition and became more respected. Furthermore, it was the arrival of Selassie in Jamaica that converted the wife of Bob Marley, Rita Marley, to the Rastafari religion. She thought that when the Emperor whisked past her on the Kingston streets, she had seen stigmata - the deep, time-worn scars of nails - on the palms of his hands. In turn, this strengthened Bob Marley’s own religious beliefs and his Rasta lifestyle became a focus for the lyrics and style of many of his hit songs and influenced the global spread of reggae in the following years.
The arrival of Haile Selassie in Jamaica on 21st April 1966 is an occasion celebrated every year by millions of Rastafarians all across the world and is known as ‘Grounation Day’. Not only did this memorable event change the course of Jamaican history and draw global attention to the island’s vibrant and unique culture, it was also the catalyst for a musical style that has shaped the music of the world today.
Images sourced under a Creative Commons license