Listen to Rastafarian songs "Nybingi Medley" and "King So High"
Visit the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Web site for purchase and more information
Jake Homiak is the curator for Discovering Rastafari! at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on exhibit until November 2008. Along with a panel of 17 Rastafarian advisers, Homiak created the exhibit to dispel the stereotype that Rastafarian culture is merely about marijuana and reggae music. On display are artifacts that represent the cultural, political and social origins of the cultural movement.
Homiak works in the Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology and has been immersed in the Rastafarian culture for 30 years.
Can you talk about the origins of Rastafari culture?
It started with Ethiopianism, which is a philosophy that gained ground in the American colonies in the late 1700s. It emerged as the first literate blacks began to discover a way of relating and reading themselves into the Bible. The reason why these references were important to blacks is because the Bible was their only literate source at a time when they were seen as less than human. The single reference in the Bible that was most important to the flourishing of this ideology is found in Psalm 68, verse 32. It's a redemptive verse that goes "Princes shall come out of Egypt, Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God."
Then, just to jump forward, when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I was crowned in November 1930, it received enormous media coverage around the world. This event was interpreted as the second coming by some blacks in Jamaica and it was all within the framework of this Ethiopianist doctrine.
And what's the importance of black nationalist Marcus Garvey in Rastafarian culture?
Marcus Garvey was the summation of 20th-centuy pan-Africans. Garvey himself preached in the idioms of Ethiopia. He routinely used the phrase "Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God." Garvey also made a reference that black people need to see God in their own image. And perhaps the most significant thing that connected Ethiopianism to the crowning of Emperor Selassie was that Garvey is reputed to have said, "Look to Africa where a black king will be crowned and when you see that the day of deliverance will be near." So Garvey's teachings formed a foundation for what would become Rastafari. All of this—Ethiopianism, Garveyism and Biblical literacy—kind of came together to form the basis of Selassie's divinity that began to be preached in the early 1930s. It's about reclaiming an African identity, about seeing one's self through the spectacles of Ethiopia.
How did reggae music develop?
Reggae got its start in the late '60s and early '70s. Everyone knows that Bob Marley was the king of reggae, and he took it all over the world. But reggae also had its predecessors. There was an indigenous Jamaican music that developed in the '40s and '50s. First it was minto, which was a more European kind of music played with a banjo, tambourine and drums. There was a music called ska, and this was truly a people's music. Ska began to make inroads in England in the '50s, when a lot of Jamaicans migrated to England. Reggae was also influenced by an African drumming tradition known as buru, music that came from the period of slavery and was generally practiced among the lowest classes of ghetto dwellers in Kingston. The Rastas at the time made common cause with the Buru people, which later became Nyahbinghi drumming.
What famous Bob Marley song really exemplifies the culture and his beliefs?
One of the most important songs he ever sang is called "Jah Lives" and it was important because he sang that song when Selassie was declared dead in 1975. Marley wrote and recorded that song within two weeks of Selassie's passing. It was a statement to the world and fellow Rastafari that God could not parish off the face of the Earth and certainly not the Rasta man's conception of God. Also, when Bob Marley sang the racial song “War,” all he was doing was putting Selassie's words to music. He was singing a speech that Selassie made to the UN in October 1963.
How did you first become interested in the Rastafari movement?
I always knew that I was going to do work with a black diasporic community. I had been at graduate school too long, and I really wanted to get into the field and some money became available to work in the eastern Caribbean and I said, "I'm going to do this Rasta thing." If there was a single moment that was transformative in my mind, it was the second day I was in Jamaica. I was driving out into the hills in Llandewey, and I came around this corner. There was a Rasta whose locks were all white and they hung down to the middle of his back and he had a staff and he was wearing a crocus bag. The sight of him was like seeing Moses come down off the mount. I remember I stopped the car and he came up to the window and he said, "Jah son where ya go?" But I just kind of stammered something and said, "I hope we see each other another time." And sure enough we did. That was transfixing for me.
What aspects of the culture does the exhibit highlight?
There are some very nice things that come through in a video that shows the dignity of this culture. That's a major thing I wanted [visitors] to know. Rastafari people have suffered enormously and have come through. The first Rastafari who began to wear dreadlocks in the '40s and '50s were beaten and scorned, and their dreadlocks were trimmed as an act of public humiliation. There was enormous pressure and brutalization of the members of the movement and they've come through this with their faith and resolve intact.
How has the subject of Rastafari been represented in other museums?
To my knowledge, this is the first exhibition in any major museum where someone has tried to take on a story about the origins and development of Rastafari at its core. There have been exhibits about reggae for sure. There have been exhibits that have shown pieces of Rastafari art—stuff that can be easily framed in a European aesthetic. But this is really about Rastafari at its revival core.