Rastafarian movement in the United States

Rastafarian movement in the United States

The Rastafarian Movement in the United States of America was born in Jamaica, revitalized in Africa, and later returned to the North America. The Rastafarian Movement embodies its name as a movement, both figuratively, and literally.


Before it was known as the Rastafarian movement, it was referred to as the ideals of Marcus Garvey, of black liberation and repatriation to the African homeland. In the early 1920s, Marcus Garvey, a native Jamaican, speaking on the topic of the creation of an African state for displaced Africans, told his followers to “look to Africa, for there a king will be crowned”. It is assumed that Garvey was referring to himself, as he was already elected the provincial President of Africa by his own United Negro Improvement Association, but some found a more literal interpretation. Among these were working class Jamaicans, already followers of Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, who saw Garvey as a prophet, and more specifically the reincarnation of John the Baptist. Consequentially, when Ras Tafari of Ethiopia was crowned Emperor Haile Selassi I in 1937, many saw the prophecy fulfilled, and proclaimed Haile Selassie I Jah, or God.

The movement has had strong cultural, social, and political affects on both Ethiopia and Jamaica, but to date, little scholarly research has been done on the affects of the movement on the United States of America. But this is not to say that such influences and affections do not exist in America, which many Rastafarians see as the epitome of Babylon, and the hearth of all evil in the world. Ironically enough, this does not stop Rastafarians from immigrating to America, as a considerable influx of Jamaican Rastafarians made the United States their new home during the 1960s and 1970s. The Rastafarian movement has played a vital role in the shaping of local United States society and culture, as was seen in the socio-cultural accomplishments of Marcus Garvey, the affects of localized Rastafarian community building on the greater metropolitan area, and through the medium of Rastafarian riddims, or reggae music.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was one of the most influential elements of the Rastafarian Movement on the United States. Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born into working class Jamaica on the 17th August, 1887. At the age of 13, Garvey was already learning to influence the masses through an internship at his grandfather’s newspaper printing business in Jamaica. It was not long before Garvey began preaching his ideals of Black Nationalism, as well as political and economic independence. In 1910, the young prophet began to spread his messages to countries of Latin America, such as Panama and Costa Rica. In 1916, Garvey would find his way to the United States. These ideals would greatly influence American society for generations to come, and were seen as a prelude to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The United Negro Improvement Association

Foremost, Marcus Garvey sought to organize blacks world wide, in order to give them an influential voice in society through overwhelming numbers. To do so, Garvey established the United Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, which appealed to Negroes everywhere, calling for them to “reorganize, link up (their) strength, morally, financially, educationally, and physically”. After failed attempts to create a following in Jamaica, Garvey relocated the UNIA to Harlem, in New York City, where membership grew rapidly and enthusiastically. By 1920, Garvey had over 2,000,000 members in over 1,000 local chapters of the UNIA.

The UNIA had two principal goals: to establish black independence politically, and economically. Initially, Garvey came to America to preach his prophecy of Black Nationalism through Back to Africa movement. Under this action, displaced Africans would return to the land of their ancestors where they would create a prosperous African state, and lead Africa to become an influential world power. In 1924, with the financial assistance of the more than 2,000,000 members of the UNIA, Garvey sought to purchase 1 million acres (4000 km²) of land from the African country of Liberia. This land would serve as the place of repatriation Garvey had spoken of for nearly two decades. However, only 11 days after Garvey agreed to purchase the land, Firestone Tires, with the aide of the US government, stole the land from under Garvey’s nose. Firestone paid an unprecedented price to purchase what Garvey saw as his land. This was, effectively, the end of the back to Africa movement. Although the movement was essentially a failure, it deeply affected America by showing the power of the black community, effectively giving them an influential voice within society. It showed that blacks would not stand for white oppression, and had the ability to organize and fight back against corruption. Overall, the back to Africa movement showed that blacks had the power to pool together and play an active role in political affairs.

The Negro Factories Corporation

Instituted on January 20th, 1920, the Negro Factories Corporation sought to create corporations which would employ only blacks, as well as produce commodities only sold to black consumers. As Marcus Garvey proclaimed himself: “Negro producers! Negro distributors! Negro Consumers!” Garvey’s ideal of an all black economy that could eventually supply black consumers across the globe was not only ambitious, but to an extent also successful. Under Garvey’s guidance, independent black grocery stores, restaurants, Laundromats, tailor shops, millinery stores, and publishing houses were created. The Negro Factories Corporation had vital impacts on the United States. It proved to society that blacks were economically able, and could operate successfully and independently as business men and entrepreneurs. More importantly, it gave blacks across the country initiative and hope, as well as the secular identity required to prosper in American society.

The Black Star Line

Marcus Garvey’s most famous initiative of black societal reform came from the institution of the Black Star Line. Created as an off shoot of the Negro Factories Corporation, and designed to correlate with the Back to Africa movement, the Black Star Line was announced on June 23, of 1919. The Black Star Line was created as a shipping company that would link black communities in America, Jamaica, Canada, Central America, and Africa. Ideally, the Black Star Line would transport black labored goods, including raw materials and manufactured items, to black consumers across the globe.

In order to purchase the company’s first ship, as well as to get the shipping line to sea, Garvey had to raise $500,000, which he did though the sale of stocks to only blacks. This economic enterprise was so important to the black community, that over 15,000 spectators came to see the S.S. Fredrick Douglass take sail for its first trip to Jamaica. Unfortunately, the company eventually sunk in 1922, with net losses estimated to be over $1,000,000. But the Black Star Line still had profound affects on America, giving blacks the opportunity to invest in stock was new to the country, and thus gave them a modernized way of investing their money. Again, it proved that blacks could act as successful business men and contribute economically to America. The fact that the Black Star Line was an independent black movement showed that blacks were capable of organizing international businesses.

The social and cultural results of the Black Star Line were unheard of in the 1920s, and consequently presented blacks with more economic and social opportunities than ever before.

Rastafarian community building

With Rastafarians unable to bring themselves to Zion until the day of repatriation, they decided to bring Zion to their home, which for more and more Rastafarians was Babylon (the United States). As Jamaican Rastafarians began to immigrate to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, small, localized, and homogeneous Rastafarian communities began to spring up across the country. Such communities appeared in Philadelphia, Boston, New Heaven, Miami, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and most notably New York. Specifically in New York City, six different Rastafarian communities exist in five different boroughs. Most influential of these communities are Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

Generally, the building of localized Rastafarian communities occurs in a two step process: first, though the establishment of smaller Rastafarian “hang outs”, and second, through the establishment of Rastafarian Community centers.

The process

All Rastafarian communities must undergo the community building process, which begins small, and then grows larger. The initial part of the community consists of extremely small Rastafarian centers, where Rastas go out of convenience, but not necessarily to congregate with other Rastafarians. The goal of these centers is to bring Zionist elements to their respective Exodus communities. Examples of such centers are smoking yards or weed gates, where Rastafarians go to smoke ganja, or marijuana, which they believes purifies the soul and brings one closer to Jah. Another example of such centers are Rastafarian stores, such as supermarkets where Rastafarian goods may be purchased. These stores range from ital foods stores, to reggae record stores, to specialized medical stores. The second level of community building occurs with the greater organization of Rastafarians truly into a community. This often coincides with the creation of large churches, which provides the Rastafarian with an organized and active community in which to carry out further Rasta evangelicalism. In Jamaican Rastafarian practices, organized congregations are frowned upon, and finding Jah is seen as a personal passageway, but churches are essential for Rasta worship in America. This is because churches fill the void in the Rastafarian’s spiritual life left by the infrequency of calendar ritual events. These churches offer an array of opportunities, including Sunday schools for the youth, “rastalogical” counseling, Ital cooking classes, and language instruction courses. Additionally, churches provide public recognition of individual Rastafarians, as well as the movement overall.

Localized community building influenced America in the sense that they introduced the greater metropolitan area to the Rastafarian community. American non-Rastas were welcome at Rastafarian hang outs, such as dance halls or reggae record stores. By building a community, the individual Rastafarian attained a sense of belonging and fellowship. These small pocket societies contributed to the growing diversity of American society, and thus helped to further establish America for what it was known: a cultural melting pot.


Reggae great Lee “Scratch” Perry was once quoted as saying that reggae combined “the riddims from the ghetto, and the music from the streets”. Reggae was known in Jamaica as a popular dance move until the late 1970s, when the Toots and the Maytals released their single “Do the Reggay”. From this point on, Reggae referred to a genre of music centered around a steady and regular beat played on a rhythm guitar, called the “bang”, and biblical lyrics pertaining to Rastafarian ideology. In Jamaica and around the world, reggae, and especially the music of Bob Marley, was used as a medium to bring about social and political change.

This was seen in Zimbabwe’s independence movement in 1980s, as Bob Marley’s hit song Zimbabwe is today seen as a second national anthem. But what is unique about reggae is that it rarely strays from its Rastafarian roots—reggae lyrics have a universal Rastafarian theme. Despite the fact that reggae has not always been as popular in America as in Jamaica, reggae music has deeply affected American culture, not only through the radio waves, but also through the ways of the Rasta man.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley was an influential reggae singer, who, with his band The Wailers, was able to become the first international music star that rose from the ghetto of the third world to achieve world wide fame. However popular in Jamaica, Marley’s funky riddims did not gain popularity as quickly in America. In fact, the first Bob Marley and the Wailers album to crack the American music charts was "Rastaman Vibration" in 1977, which was Marley’s 11th professional album, and 10th year in the music industry. Eventually, Marley’s music became more popular in America and his last album before his death in 1981, "Survival", sold over 10 million copies in the United States to date. Other albums, including "Live!", "Exodus", "Kaya", "Uprising", and "Confrontation" have all achieved "gold" status by American Music Company Billboard. For his lyrical tribute to the Rastafarian Movement, Bob Marley was seen as a prophet. Marley’s words brought the ways of the Rasta out of Trench town in Jamaica and deposited them all across the globe. Marley’s music was especially influential in America, where he single handedly enlightened the populace to the Rastafarian movement. Marley had stated that one of his goals was to bring reggae, along with Jah, to the youth of America. And while most consider Marley’s attempt a failure,Fact|date=April 2008 without doubt Marley tried relentlessly, even altering his reggae style to try and crack the American charts. This is specifically seen in the Rastaman Vibration single "Roots, Rock, Reggae" which fuses popular elements of American R&B with traditional reggae roots. However, Marley most influenced American culture by offering musicians a new genre of music to compose, as is seen in the reggae of bands like Matisyahu, 311, and Sublime, rather than by bringing the Rastafarian Movement to the streets.


Riddims of Rastafarian reggae artists were especially popular within the localized Rastafarian communities of the United States, specifically in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York City. Here, Rastafarians and Hasidic Jews lived as minority religious groups side by side. But reggae was a powerful tool of the Rastafarians and transcended religious divisions and entered into the home of Matthew Miller, a Hasidic Jew. Today, Miller is better known as the world’s first Hasidic reggae artist, Matisyahu. When asked about his influences, Matisyahu is quick to point out that the riddims of Bob Marley were what first lured him into reggae as a teenager. Matisyahu’s reggae is still some what true to Rastafarian doctrine, however when he refers to Zionistic elements, he approaches it from a Jewish point of view, as opposed to Bob Marley’s Rastafarian point of view. In this sense, Matisyahu still remains true to and especially the music of Bob Marley the roots of reggae, but fuses it with his own lifestyle to create unique Jewish reggae, which is heard in hit songs such as “King Without a Crown” and “Chop ‘em Down”.

Concluding ideas

The effects of the movement are undeniable all throughout the world, especially in Jamaica, and all throughout Africa. Garvey’s ideals of black nationalism, along with political, social, and economic independence were revolutionary, and ultimately a prelude to the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. Through localized Rastafarian community building, America has learned social acceptance, and gained cultural diversity. But what truly makes the Rastafarian movement unique is its diffusion, not through the use of missionaries as many other major religions do, but through the corporate mediums of pop-culture and reggae music. As is seen, the Rastafarian Movement has had profound affects on many elements of American society. As the movement continues to spread in coming years, such an influence can only grow stronger.

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