The Promised Land: Bob Marley, Shashemane, and Rastafarian Utopia

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This article from Vanity Fair traces the Rastafarian community and its influences from Ethiopia to the Caribbean and back:

You do not have to look far in Africa to see the influence of reggae music. Once I met a Tuareg tribesman in the Sahara Desert who proudly played me a Bob Marley ringtone on his cell phone. Reggae music swept ’round the world in the 1970s, then receded a bit in most places. It still lives large in Africa. There is great reverence for the Jamaican classics, but there are also many lively local scenes. Reggae is music for the dispossessed, and Africa itself plays a leading role in reggae’s narrative. In reggae mythology, Africa is the Promised Land, the destined homeland where the African diaspora will someday be repatriated. Africa—and Ethiopia in particular—is the “Land of Zion” sung about in so many reggae songs.

Reggae has its own code and language, infused largely with the ideology of the Rastafarians—followers of a spiritual system that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica. A big influence on the Rastafarians was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader in the 1920s who led a Back to Africa movement among descendants of slaves throughout the Americas. Rastafarians regard Garvey as a prophet who predicted that one day a black man would be crowned king in Africa and would bring deliverance to dark-skinned people everywhere.

“Follow, follow, follow, follow Marcus Garvey’s footsteps,” sang reggae singer Burning Spear. And where exactly was Garvey going? “We’re leaving Babylon, we’re going to our father’s land,” Bob Marley told us in “Exodus.” Not Babylon, Long Island, mind you, but the metaphorical one where, as Marley sang, “the system is the vampire”—the wicked place that embodies all of what’s wrong with Western culture. Babylon, as Steel Pulse said, “makes the rules . . . where my people suffer.” [. . .] When Haile Selassie I was declared emperor of Ethiopia, in 1930, the followers of Garvey believed Garvey’s prophecy had been fulfilled. They declared His Imperial Majesty to be the Messiah, or “Jah.” Selassie’s pre-coronation name, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was adopted to name their movement.

[. . .] With more than a million Rastafarians in the world now, shouldn’t Ethiopia be teeming with Rastas?

Well, “teeming” isn’t quite the word, but there is a thriving community. In 1948, Haile Selassie made a substantial land grant to accommodate, for free, any Caribbean of African descent who wanted to “come home.” A wave of Rastafarian settlers in the late 60s made that community come alive. The land grant was in a village called Shashemane, deep in the beautiful Rift Valley, a six-hour drive south from Addis Ababa, the capital. I got a car and headed down.

Ethiopia these days is very much a country on the move. Once synonymous with famine (think Live Aid), it now has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. People in the capital told me that the Rasta settlement in Shashemane was today a bit of a tourist attraction for middle-class Ethiopians. Ethiopia has been through a lot of changes in the last 40 years. Haile Selassie and the monarchy were overthrown in a violent communist coup in 1974. That new regime, called the Derg, fell to rebels, in 1991, and then a new federal republic was declared in 1994. Anything connected to Selassie fell out of favor, and Shashemane endured some tough decades. Much of the land grant was reclaimed. Still, hardcore settlers hung on, and although the number of new arrivals diminished, immigration continued. I wondered if this Jamaican outpost had now become some sort of dreadlocked attraction for day-tripping sightseers—the African equivalent of Amish country.

The road south out of Addis was initially rough and congested with belching Chinese dump trucks, but it soon opened up to a clear new highway. Traffic thinned to mostly just donkey carts, the occasional cattle herd, and the constant stream of pedestrians you see on African roads. It was a stunning drive and got better as we went along. The sky was clear blue, expansive, and dotted with striking cumulus-cloud formations. We drove on past beautiful lakes. The scenery got progressively more verdant, almost tropical. A few miles outside of Shashemane, I saw a sign with Bob Marley’s image and the red, yellow, and green Rasta colors. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2014/02/shashemane-ethiopia-rastafarian-utopia

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