In 1930, Haile Selassie was crowned the 85th emperor of Ethiopia, a line that claimed direct descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It was a pretty big deal, what with at the time Ethiopia being the only original African kingdom not to have been conquered by European powers. The coronation of the new king was welcomed with great celebration in his new kingdom. It was seen as such a big deal that Time magazine plastered it all over the cover of their periodical, including the various ostentatious title that all emperors are required to have; king of kings, lord of lords, the conquering lion of the tribe of Judah, elect of God, etc. It was these titles that attracted the attention of a poor street preacher in Jamaica, a man named Leonard Howell. Now if you don’t know much about street preaching, the key is to get people to actually stop to listen to you, it’s kind of the whole point. To get this done, you have to have some kind of a shtick, something like being a very flamboyant speaker, or maybe saying something so crazy that people would stop just to try and figure out how crazy you actually were. Leonard went with the latter, for whatever reason declaring that the new Emperor of Ethiopia was totally the second coming of Jesus Christ.
At the time, Jamaica was home to some 900,000 people of African descent and 100,000 people of British descent. This being the 1930’s, you can probably guess who was running the country and what methods they were using. All in all it was a pretty shitty situation. Now for Leonard, though preaching that Haile Selassie was Jesus did totally get the attention of his disenfranchised fellows, it didn’t really keep it for very long. After all, if you’re poor as shit, Jesus living on the other side of the world is only oh so interesting. To spice things up a bit, Leonard began adding on to his sermons, claiming that not only were people of African descent better than Europeans in the eyes of god, but that god wanted them to return Africa where they would be rewarded with the riches being currently denied them. The promise of a possible better life held people’s attention much better, and Leonard began to attract a following. Now at the time, the idea of the descendants of former slaves returning to Africa was not a new one. In fact, a famous Jamaican named Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa Movement had been espousing such a belief for the past thirty years. Leonard just kind of co-opted it and spiced it up a bit, even going as far as claiming that Garvey was totally a prophet of god or something like that. Garvey, living in London at the time, had no idea that apparently he was now god’s voice on Earth.
Eventually Leonard’s street preaching caught the attention of the British authorities, who really not wanting any competition in the royals department, locked him up for two years for sedition. However, as soon as Leonard was released, he led about a thousand of his followers into the mountains and founded a commune where he and his followers could live the lives they believed they should be living if they were still in Africa. For Leonard, this involved eating only organic and vegetarian foods, having multiple subservient wives, and growing a shit ton of pot to smoke and sell. It was this selling of pot that attracted the attention of the British authorities again, well, that and the stockpiling of weapons for an eventual revolt, and Leonard was thrown into jail again, but was released two years later.
The early years of what became known as the Rastafarian movement were difficult ones, what with Italy invading Ethiopia and overthrowing Halie Selassie in 1936, but when he returned to power in 1941, the movement found new popularity. For many of the poor of Jamaica, it provided a hope that they had never felt before. For their part, the British raided Leonard’s commune again and again, eventually completely destroying it and locking Leonard up in a mental institution in 1954. However, it was too late. Rastafarianism had already spread across the Caribbean and into the U.S and U.K. In response to Leonard being locked up, the more militant members of the new religion tried to seize control of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, in 1958. Another violent incident in 1963 led to a major police crackdown. Hundreds of Rastas were arrested, with many tortured or killed while in custody. This caused such a political backlash, that the Jamaican government decided that perhaps it would just be best to try and find ways to get along.
In 1966, the Jamaican governement invited Haile Selassie to visit Jamaica. When he arrived, the confused emperor found thousands of Rastas cheering and praising him. Not being one to refuse adoration, he just kind of went with it. Over time the Rastas became less militant as members of the growing middle class joined the movement and subsequent political figures courted their approval. In the 1970’s, the reggae music of Bob Marley and his contemporaries spread the ideas of the Rastafarians around the world, though often just the hair and clothing styles, which angered a lot of the religion’s actual practitioners. It would be kind of like if rebellious youths started wearing crosses and Catholic priest robes. During this period the Rastas also attempted to start a community in Ethiopia, but they were met with hostility by the locals who considered them a bunch of foreigners.
In 1974, a terrible famine in Ethiopia resulted in Emperor of Haile Selassie being overthrown and imprisoned by a military coup. A year later, he was strangled to death in his bed. This was a bit of a problem for the Rastafarian movement, what with them believing that the second coming of Jesus could not killed. Many members left the movement over the proceeding decades, joining the evangelical Christian sects that were becoming all the rage. Many of the remaining Rastafarians refused to believe that Haile Selassie actually died, even when his body was eventually found buried under his bathroom in 1994. Today there are an estimated million Rastafarians worldwide, and the movement has been credited with creating a sense of collective sense of cultural consciousness amongst the African diaspora. Not bad for a street preacher and a copy of Time magazine.