The most recognizable face of the Rastafari movement is the late musician Bob Marley, immortalized on T-shirts and posters wearing a crocheted red, gold and green cap over natty dreadlocks in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Yet the movement, which has more than one million adherents, is "not about singing reggae," says Jake Homiak, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "It taps into an enormously deep root—a sense of longing for a place in the world by peoples of African descent."
Homiak, who has immersed himself in the culture for 30 years, is the curator of the recently opened exhibit "Discovering Rastafari!" Nearly 20 Rastafarians consulted on all details of the exhibition, the first of its kind in any major museum.
The exhibit recounts an intricate history and imparts nuance to a movement that celebrates African liberation, global peace and "one love." Its origins can be traced to a biblical passage: "Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God," reads Psalm 68:31. Enslaved Africans in the American colonies believed this foretold their emancipation. In the 20th century, Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey frequently cited the passage, predicting that a savior would be crowned in Africa.
On November 2, 1930, that prophecy appeared to be fulfilled when Ras (an Ethiopian title of nobility) Tafari Makonnen—believed to be a descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon—was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Black preachers in Jamaica saw the event as the second coming of Christ. Selassie was a charismatic figure who captivated audiences worldwide, as when he declared before the United Nations in 1963, "Until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes...the dream of lasting peace...will remain but a fleeting illusion." He ruled Ethiopia until 1974, when he was deposed by Marxist revolutionaries. Selassie died a year later, although many Rastafarians remain firm in the belief that he is still alive.
"This is a faith of extraordinary commitment," says Homiak, who describes how early Rastafarians in Jamaica were beaten and publicly humiliated. "People have sacrificed and struggled to keep this faith alive." A glass case at the Smithsonian exhibit displays such manuscripts as the Holy Piby, a proto-Rastafarian text that was widely circulated across the African diaspora before being banned in Jamaica during the 1920s.
One of the exhibit's advisers, Ras Maurice Clarke—a Rastafarian originally from Kingston, Jamaica, who now lives in Washington, D.C.—says that he wanted to "dispel the ignorance and fictitious talk about all we do is smoke ganja." Because the advisers were wary of stereotypes, they debated whether to feature Marley in the exhibit. Ultimately, they included a small tribute to the king of reggae. "It made no sense to do an exhibit on Rastafari and exclude the person who was the most famous purveyor of the Rastafari philosophy," Homiak says.
Selassie's messages of liberation and unity are paramount in Marley's music, as well as in the lives of Rastafarians today. Empress (a title bestowed on a mother) Melanie Wright, who came from Hartford, Connecticut, with her family to be at the opening, says that she found her calling on the streets of New York after seeing countless posters of Selassie: "He fought for the freedom of Africa, so part of saying you're Rastafari means you're living to reclaim that history."