Bob Marley and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia

Reinaldo Marcus Green’s latest film, Bob Marley: One Love, is based on the life of reggae singer and songwriter Bob Marley, from his rise to fame in the mid-1970s to his death in 1981. Bob Marley was a devout practitioner of Rastafarianism. ⁠It was Rita Marley, who was his anchor and conduit into his journey as a Rastafarian. The movement regarded Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, as its Messiah. The belief that Haile Selassie, crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was the returned Messiah prophesied in the Bible and led to the birth of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica in the 1930s. His official title was “Lord of Lords, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and Light of the World”.

Experts estimate that the religion has around 1 million followers across all continents. However, the religion’s most recognisable figures are undoubtedly Bob Marley and Emperor Haile Selassie. One as a follower and the other as an unwilling messiah.

The poster of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film

Rastas adopted Haile Selassie’s imperial name and saw his coronation fulfilling a prophecy in the Book of Revelation. They believed that Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, was the Promised Land and that black people were God’s chosen people, destined to be liberated from white oppression. Bob Marley played a central role in introducing Rastafarian culture and beliefs to a global audience through his reggae music and charismatic personality. Many of his songs paid homage to or referenced Haile Selassie, including “War”, which featured a speech by the emperor.

In 1966, Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, which Marley and other Rastas saw as hugely significant, helping to cement their belief that he was the returned Messiah. Although Marley never met Selassie in person, his philosophy of non-violence and his activist legacy against oppression deeply inspired him. The emperor represented a messianic figure for the Rastafarian movement, which Bob Marley devotedly followed and helped to popularise worldwide through the lyrics and themes of his music praising the Ethiopian Emperor. Their ideological connection was central to Marley’s identity and message.

H.I.H Prince Ermias of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Consul to Jamaica, Yodit Hylton, Lij Anania Abebe, Mr Nicholas Melino/ Mrs Barbara Blake Hannah Lij Anania Abebe ADC/Prince Ermias, Mr Nicholas Melillo and Mrs Barbara Blake Hannah at the Bob Marley Museum in Jamaica.
H.I.H Prince Ermias of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Consul to Jamaica, Yodit Hylton, Lij Anania Abebe, Mr Nicholas Melino/ Mrs Barbara Blake Hannah
Lij Anania Abebe ADC/Prince Ermias, Mr Nicholas Melillo and Mrs Barbara Blake Hannah at the Bob Marley Museum in Jamaica.

The Rastafarian religion has several core beliefs and principles:

1.        Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, is the living God and the returned Messiah prophesied in the Bible.

2.        Repatriation to Africa, regarded as the ancestral homeland and promised land. Many Rastafarians seek to return to Africa, particularly Ethiopia.

3.        Worship of Emperor Haile Selassie I and rejection of the deification of the British monarchy.

4. Zion represents a utopian society free from oppression, racism, and corruption.

5.        The use of ganja (cannabis) as a spiritual tool for meditation and connection to the divine.

6.        Growing dreadlocks is a natural expression of their African identity and a symbolic rejection of Babylon (the oppressive system).

7.        Adherence to the Italic dietary laws, which include eating natural foods from the earth and avoiding chemically treated or artificially flavoured foods.

8.        To promote Pan-Africanism and the unity of all people of African descent worldwide.

9.        Resistance to all forms of oppression, especially the oppression of black people.

Rastafarianism preaches black consciousness, the repatriation of the African diaspora and a spiritual rejection of white dominance and the materialistic society of Babylon in favour of a more natural, African-centred way of life based on Zion.

Emperor Haile Selassie in Jamaica, 1966 © Lynn Pelham The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

One must wonder how the emperor felt about the Rastafarian religion and his role in it. Emperor Haile Selassie I had an ambiguous and somewhat complicated relationship with the Rastafarian movement, which saw him as the returned Messiah. On the one hand, he did not openly accept or endorse the Rastafarian belief in his divinity. As the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it went against his own Christian beliefs to be deified as God incarnate. However, he did not outright condemn or reject the movement. According to some reports, he found the Rastafari fascination with Africa and its repatriation efforts interesting. However, he disagreed with their belief that he was a messiah. During his visit to Jamaica in 1966, the emperor made several statements that Rastafarians interpreted as an indirect acknowledgement of their beliefs about him, although the meanings were ambiguous.

The Rastafari community rejoices in 2017 at having been granted residency in Ethiopia

When asked about the Rastafarian movement, he said: “True salvation can only be attained through this upright way and through hymns of praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty”. This was taken as a sign of agreement without any verbal communication.

At other times, the emperor tried to downplay the divine status accorded him, saying, “I’ve told the Rastas many times that I’m not the Messiah. The Messiah will come soon, but I’m just a man”.

So, while Haile Selassie did not endorse Rastafarian worship of him as a god, he did not forcefully denounce or attack the movement, probably not wanting to alienate the substantial Rastafarian presence in Jamaica and other areas of the Caribbean. His responses were nuanced and open to interpretation by followers.

Emperor Haile Selassie during a state visit to Bern in 1954 © Swiss National Museum

The Rastafarian movement does not have an officially centralised hierarchy or a single leader to whom all Rastafarians adhere. However, within the wider Rastafarian community, there are various groups or ‘houses’ that have their own leadership structures. While these houses have internal hierarchies, no supreme leader or governing body exists for all Rastafarian groups worldwide. Decentralised leadership is one of the defining characteristics of the movement. However, highly influential and respected elders, scribes, and thinkers have helped shape Rastafarian ideology over the decades through their teachings, writings, and reasoning within their respective orders or camps.

Following the abolition of the monarchy in 1974, the new Marxist regime in Ethiopia made it illegal to promote Rastafarian beliefs about the divinity of the emperor. This caused a rift, as Rastafarians wanted to continue worshipping Selassie’s legacy. At the same time, the royal family had to publicly distance itself from these beliefs. Since then, the relationship between the Rastafari movement and the descendants and remaining members of the imperial family in contemporary Ethiopia has been complex and varied. Rastafarians still revere Haile Selassie as a messianic leader and regard his lineage as sacred. However, the emperor’s descendants have different views on the Rastafarian veneration of their relative, although His Imperial Highness Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, President of the Imperial Crown Council of Ethiopia, has made several visits and outreach efforts to the Rastafarian community in Ethiopia and worldwide, as well as visiting Jamaica.

Bob Marley in 1979, before the Reggae Sun Splash concert in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

In 2005, he made a historic visit to the Shashamane community in Ethiopia, which is populated by repatriated Rastafarians from the Caribbean and elsewhere. This was one of the first times a member of the Imperial Family had visited a Rastafarian settlement. During the visit, Prince Ermias took part in discussions with Rastafarian elders. They spoke about keeping alive the vision and legacy of his grandfather. He has also given interviews acknowledging the Rastafarian veneration of his grandfather, stating that he respects their beliefs even though he does not share their deification of the former emperor.

In 2013, Prince Ermias attended the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the Rastafarian movement’s settlement in Shashamane. They campaigned for the rights of the Rastafarian community in Ethiopia, including their land claims relating to property promised to them during his grandfather’s reign. Prince Ermias has walked a fine line between embracing the positive philosophical links between Rastafari and his grandfather’s positions while stopping short of endorsing the spiritual deification of Haile Selassie as the Messiah. Thus, while not fully aligning himself with Rastafari beliefs about his grandfather’s divinity, Prince Ermias has sought to build bridges, listen to their perspectives, and uphold the rights promised to the Rastafarian community by the former Ethiopian monarchy his family represents.

Finally, in 2017, authorities granted identity cards to Rastafarians who have been living in Ethiopia since the 50s. These cards address their statelessness, provide them with residency, and most legal privileges in the country, although they do not grant citizenship. They migrated from the Caribbean in the 1950s, after Emperor Haile Selassie—bequeathed hundreds of hectares of land to them.

Bob Marley influenced Rastafarianism through his incredible music and powerful lyrics, referencing Rastafarian concepts, principles, and figures. Songs such as ‘Exodus’, ‘Redemption Song’, ‘Rastaman Vibration’ and ‘Buffalo Soldier’ contained Rasta imagery and teachings about peace, love, unity, repatriation to Africa, and rejecting oppression. His music introduced Rastafari ideas to millions around the world. As one of the most famous performers of his era, Marley used his celebrity platform in interviews and live shows to educate people about Rastafarianism. His dreadlocks and references to Haile Selassie I, brought the religion to new audiences.

He was one of the most high-profile converts to Rastafarianism in the 1960s, lending credibility to the movement. His adherence to the Rasta principles of non-violence and living a natural, righteous life resonated deeply with his ideals. He supported repatriation, a core tenet of Rastafarianism, the belief that believers should return to Africa, the ancestral homeland. Marley helped buy land in Jamaica and other countries to facilitate this goal for Rastafarian communities.

The 1978 book and documentary ‘Catch a Fire’ provided an in-depth look at Marley’s life and belief system and introduced Rastafari to a new demographic worldwide. He was the embodiment and ambassador of Rastafarian culture internationally through his art, lifestyle and principles throughout his life and career. It is impossible to overstate his impact on the global exposure of the religion, but towards the end of his life, Bob adopted the Ethiopian Orthodox faith and received the name Berhane Selassie/The Light of the Trinity. His last wish was to be buried in Ethiopia, but the Communist Government of Mengistu Haile Mariam refuted the request.

Trailer of the film

Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation      Source: travelfilmarchive

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