Because it is inextricably linked to reggae music in our popular conception, a lot of people have come to think about Rastafarianism as a benevolent, all-comers religion that preaches universal love and kind buds for everybody.
Not exactly. The inadvertent father of Rastafarianism, Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey, started preaching shortly after WWI about an African repatriation of New World blacks and prophesied their general salvation thusly: “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the Redeemer.” In 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen ascended to the throne of Ethiopia, claiming to be the 225th son of King David in an unbroken line of Ethiopian kings. Ras Tafari Makonnen proclaimed himself Emperor Haile Selassie and the apparent truth of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy spread throughout the impoverished black populations of the Caribbean.
As Rastafarianism gained a foothold, a distinctive ideology and cosmology began to emerge as well. The movement’s rabid anti-colonial stance was enough to ensure that its ideologues would be hounded as political subversives (Garvey served nine months in an Atlanta prison on charges of mail fraud, later disproved), but there was even more to it. Among the six major principles of Rastafari, as outlined by early leader Leonard Howell, were explicit references to “hatred for the White race, the complete superiority of the Black race, revenge on the Whites for their wickedness,” and so forth.
And the really interesting part is the historical record is occasionally conflicted about what Haile Selassie, a devout Christian, thought of his Rastafarian “followers” and their eclectic synthesis of ethnonationalist pride and Judeo-Christian tradition. One thing that is known is that when a group of Jamaican Rastas made the pilgrimage to Ethiopia in 1939, they were denied entrance to the Emperor’s palace by Haile Selassie himself.
All this and more—the whole convoluted history of Rastafari—is only half of why I find the band Christafari so absolutely fascinating. See that glowering countenance in the photo? That’s Mark Mohr, the primary songwriter and spiritual force behind this trailblazing group in the new field of Christian reggae. And what a force it is. In addition to being a successful recording star and international performer—Christafari was the only reggae band to play at Clinton’s 1997 Inaugural Ball—Mohr is also a minister, and the lyrics to 1999’s WordSound&Power are an epistemological smorgåsbord of Biblical references, Haile Selassie references, lengthy explanations, and pleas for monogamy, pre-marital abstinence, and brotherly reconciliation. Anyone who thinks that some the more esoteric tenets of Rastafari could do with a little reclamation in the spirit of brotherly love should check out Christafari’s tough-love gospel message.
And guess what? The music is perfectly palatable, slick contemporary reggae.
Christafari appear in concert this Monday at the Fort Missoula Amphitheatre. Show starts at 8 PM. Tickets are $10 at the gate, $8 advance, available at all TIC-IT-EZ outlets.