Rastafarians in the Bahamas having broken the habit of a lifetime by registering to vote in an upcoming election. For many years, apolitical Rastas chose not to vote, particularly because voters are required to mark an X on ballot sheets. A Bahaman Rasta spokesman, Ethelbert Harris, explained X signified something wrong or negative. “We don’t have to mark an X because we know X is always wrong, so we come to mark a tick if possible, but we want all the Rastas to come out and exercise their right to vote," he said.
Rithmond McKinney, a Rastafarian priest, also encouraged Rastas throughout the country to register to vote. He believes the thousands of Rasta votes will make a significant difference in the May election. McKinney said the community have been denied basic rights over the years. “We have been discriminated in the workplace and we feel the oppression”, he said. The push to enrol comes almost a year after the Bahamas Ras Tafarl National Gathering which sought to “chart the course of our destiny as sons and daughters of Rastafari here in The Commonwealth of The Bahamas Islands”.
The name Rastafari comes from Ras (Head or Duke or Chief) Tafari Makonnen, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I, the former Ethiopian emperor. Rastas accepts Haile Selassie as “Jah”, the God of their religion. The concept of Jah comes from the Christian Bible and was used as a contraction of Jehovah or Yahweh. It is also in the word “hallelujah” (praise Jah). Rastas were attracted to Selassie as was the only black leader in the world for much of the early 20th century. There was also the fortuitous omen that his titles “King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” matched the description of the Messiah in the Biblical Book of Revelations. The Rasta movement also adopted the Ethiopian colours of green, gold and red.
The movement first emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s. The man responsible for Rastafarianism was Leonard P Howell. Howell was a Jamaican who left the country as a young man to travel the world. He returned to his native land in 1933 and began to preach the new word. His message was “the messiah Ras Tafari has returned to earth". His vision of a Black God here on Earth struck a chord with desperately poor parts of the island. But the nervous British administration didn’t like his pro-black message. They arrested Howell for sedition and sent him to prison for three years. After that, he went back to his community where authorities harassed him for the remainder of his days.
Nevertheless his message stuck. Around the same time, fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey was spreading his Black Nationalist message in the US and elsewhere. In the 1920s Garvey created a black movement called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with over a million members. He encouraged those of African descent to return to their homelands. Back in Garvey’s own homeland, Jamaica, his philosophy fitted in with the Ethiopian visions of Lowell and although he never endorsed the deification of Selassie, Garvey was quickly accepted as a prophet of Rasta.
The religion remained a low-key Jamaican affair until the emergence of Bob Marley. Marley was a mixed race Jamaican who picked up Rastafarianism in his teens from his musical mentor Joe Higgs. Higgs was hugely influential. As well as teaching Marley religion, he was also the inspiration for a 1960s musical movement which evolved from Jamaican ska mixed with American rhythm and blues and calypso music. This new creation was called reggae. In his own reggae music, Higg's protege Marley merged a crusade for his adopted religion with themes of political oppression. He had his first international hit in 1975 and his album “Rastaman Vibration” reached the American top ten a year later.
Marley's message of peace, love, unity and brotherhood of all mankind proved popular worldwide and the religion quickly grew outside its Jamaican base. Because of its loosely-organized structure and because many adherents are nominal members of larger religious groups, precise size estimates of Rastafarians worldwide are difficult. The best estimate has a current global population of somewhere between 600,000 and a million adherents, of which there are 11,000 in the US.
Despite Marley’s own activism, Rastafarian culture does not encourage political involvement and most don’t vote. Yet Howell’s original vision for Rastafarianism was inherently political and played important role in the building of the black consciousness movement among the ex-slave population. But he was ruthlessly crushed by authority as was Ras Sam Brown who tried to create a Rasta party in Jamaica in 1961. Rastas heeded these warnings and have studiously steered clear of politics – until recent times. Perhaps inspire by the ghost of Marley, there are signs of Rastas now tentatively returning to Jamaican politics. Similarly the events in the Bahamas, are showing a new political awareness and a determination to stamp Rasta culture on the landscape. New Zealand may be far from the Caribbean but it does have its own Rastafarian MP Nándor Tánczos.
Expect to see more Rasta politics on the landscape in the years to come… as long as they get over their problem with “X”.