Rastas in New York City say their religion is about discipline and self-reliance – no matter the stereotypes.
Lael Fox has always been a Rasta. “It’s the only thing I know in life,” the 20-year-old said. Born in Queens to Jamaican parents and raised in the Rasta faith, he considers it central to his identity. He just wishes the rest of the world didn’t think it was all about reggae and weed.
Fox is one of fewer than a million people around the world who practice the Rastafari faith, which is less than a century old. Although many outsiders refer to the religion as Rastafarianism, some Rastas consider the term derogatory, objecting to the ‘isms’ they think are too prevalent in Western society. They believe in an Ethiopian messiah, the celebration of black identity and repatriation for Africans scattered across the world by centuries of slavery. Yet thanks primarily to their use of marijuana, the popular stereotype of them as “pot-smoking hippies” seems hard to shake, no matter how much Fox and his fellow Rastas try.
It probably did not help that the rapper Snoop Dogg, who has a well known fondness for weed, made headlines in July when he announced his spiritual awakening and conversion to Rastafari. He has abandoned hip-hop in favor of reggae and been rechristened by Rasta priests, becoming “Snoop Lion.”
Many poked fun of the artist’s claim to be a reincarnation of Bob Marley — probably the most famous Rasta in history — suggesting Snoop might be experiencing a mid-life crisis. Others suspected a publicity stunt to promote his new album, or an excuse to smoke more marijuana. Few appeared to take him seriously. Yet Snoop Dogg’s conversion highlighted a general lack of knowledge and understanding of Rastafari among the American public.
Fox and other Rastas say their faith is not at all frivolous. It preaches discipline, self-reliance and self-knowledge. To them, it is both a religion and a way of life.
Rastafari was founded in Jamaica in 1932 on the belief that an African messiah would emerge to liberate blacks from oppression around the world. Nineteenth-century Christian preachers in Jamaica prophesied his arrival, pointing to Psalm 68:31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” Jamaicans struggling against social inequity looked to Ethiopia as a symbol of black pride. To them, its illustrious history became an emblem of the achievements of the entire African continent, and many expected the savior to come from Ethiopia.
In the early 20th century, Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey reinforced these hopes with his “Back to Africa” repatriation movement. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914, not only to fight racism and colonialism, but also to reconnect Africans in the Diaspora with their motherland. From the association’s headquarters in Harlem, Garvey encouraged its members to prepare for an exodus to the promised land of their ancestors: Ethiopia.
Garvey also hoped that an independent black leader would emerge in Africa. When Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, he became the leader of the only autonomous African country in the League of Nations. The African messiah, Garvey and many of his followers believed, had arrived.
Leonard Percival Howell, the founder of Rastafari, declared that the emperor was divine. Haile Selassie’s title as a prince — Ras Tafari — inspired the name of Howell’s new religion.
Rastas worship Selassie as an incarnation of Jah (Rastafari’s name for God) and reject Western culture (called Babylon) in favor of what they regard as more authentic African traditions. They believe in repatriation to Africa and also adhere to the Ital diet, which limits the consumption of meat. Some wear dreadlocks as a sign of religious commitment and rebellion against Babylon.
Lael Fox worships at the Church of Haile Selassie I in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It holds a royal charter from the Imperial Ethiopian World Federation and considers itself the only official Rasta church in the United States. Not all Rastas deem it necessary to worship in a church. Yet for Fox and the rest of his congregation, weekly services are integral to their faith.
The Church of Haile Selassie is boldly painted in yellow, red and green — the colors of Rastafari — and worshippers say they take their faith just as seriously as the congregation at the Episcopalian church across the street. Inside, the walls are covered with pictures and photographs of Haile Selassie I. There is also an image of him on the altar, alongside a Bible edged in Rasta colors. During services the room is thick with the smoke from burning incense.
Zakiya Qualls, 23, is from Washington, D.C. A PhD student in biomedical science, she was brought up in a Christian household but gradually became dissatisfied with it. “It’s always been in my nature to question things,” she said. How did all the animals fit on Noah’s ark? How was the immaculate conception scientifically possible? “It didn’t make sense to me,” she said. No one at church seemed willing to offer any answers. “I became very disconnected with it.” Qualls began researching other religions – “reading and Internet searching and just talking to people,” she said. Her research eventually led to her conversion to Rastafari four years ago.
“Being a Rasta stands for having your own thing to believe in,” she said, adding that Rastafari teaches a specifically black theology, not imposed on Afro-Caribbeans by white, Western influences.
Although proud of the high profile that Marley’s music helped Rastafari achieve, Qualls is disappointed by how much has been misconstrued about her new faith. “It’s really annoying,” she said. “It opened the doors for people who didn’t really understand it to think they did.”
Marijuana, for example, is not smoked purely for recreation. It is a Rasta sacrament used to access the sub-conscious, which Rastas believe is usually off-limits due to social conditioning. “If there’s misconceptions, it’s because people aren’t doing independent research on us,” she said.
Like Qualls, Dwight Deflorimonte’s Christian upbringing left him full of questions. “I just never understood how a man who never knew me died for my sins,” he said. But he has no difficulty with worshiping Haile Selassie as God. “We do not mean he’s a metaphysical god, like somebody who snaps his fingers and makes a tree grow,” he said. “We mean a liberator, someone who liberates the people.”
Those accustomed to the religion’s freewheeling image might also be surprised that Rastafari stresses hard work and discipline. Sunday school students at the Church of Haile Selassie are told to be up at the crack of dawn or risk becoming sluggish and uninspired. Qualls believes her faith has helped keep pushing her toward self-improvement. “The principle of being self-reliant and not relying on anyone else is a big driving force,” she said. “It makes you understand that if you’re not going to do it, no one else will.” A church sermon put it plainly: “ORDER. If you don’t like to follow directions, this is not for you.”
The emphasis on structure also appeals to Ras I, who converted to Rastafari 30 years ago and is raising his nine children as Rastas. Ras emigrated from Jamaica at the age of 7 and lost two brothers to gun violence. Concerned about the lack of role models for Afro-Caribbean boys, he was determined that his sons develop an identity separate not only from gang culture, but also from hip-hop consumerism as well.
“What I do at home as a Rasta, I expose my children to the culture,” he said. “It’s really about remembering how we should and could live.”
Lael Fox agrees. “[Rastafari has] given me much more courage and much more pride in being black,” he said.
Asked why the stereotypes of his religion persist, he replied, “People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Because they don’t really understand Rastafarianism and what it’s based off, they’re just going to take what they know and run with it.”