A melding of Old Testament teachings and Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism emerged in colonial-era Jamaica in the 1930s out of anger over the oppression of blacks.
Its message was spread by the reggae songs created by musical icons Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and others in the 1970s, and the movement has attracted a following among reggae-loving Americans, Europeans and Asians.
Academics believe at least 1 million people practice it worldwide.
In the United States, the population of Rastafarians appears to be steadily growing due in part to jailhouse conversions, said Charles Price, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica.”
“I regularly get letters from inmates seeking information,” Mr. Price said. “I also get regular invitations to talk to prisoners at local North Carolina juvenile facilities, often from chaplains trying to figure out what to do.”
Besides the well-known ritual use of marijuana, Rastas endeavor to reject materialist values and practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only unprocessed foods and leaving their hair to grow, uncombed, into dreadlocks.
Most of its many sects worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, even though he was widely considered a despot in his native land and paid little heed to his adulation by faraway Caribbean people whose ancestry tended to be West African and not Ethiopian.
The worship of Selassie is rooted in Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey’s 1920s prediction that a “black king shall be crowned” in Africa, ushering in a “day of deliverance.”
When an Ethiopian prince named Ras Tafari, who took the name Haile Selassie I, became emperor in 1930, the descendants of slaves in Jamaica took it as proof that Garvey’s prophecy was being fulfilled.
Outcasts no more
Adherents were long treated as second-class citizens in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, looked down on for their dreadlocks and use of marijuana.
But discrimination never stopped businessmen from cashing in on the faith, whose red, green and gold clothing and accessories earn millions in sales of T-shirts, crocheted caps and other items.
Marley’s music and the faith’s pot-laced mysticism also have been used to promote Jamaica as a tourist destination.
Rastafarian and veteran reggae luminary Tony Rebel said discrimination against Rastas has faded considerably in recent years in Jamaica.