Birthday of Haile Selassie: Rastafari celebrate the final Ethiopian emperor

Dark-skinned man in Rasta hat and sunglasses, making peace sign with fingers

A Rastafari man. Photo courtesy of Pxhere

TUESDAY, JULY 23: Rastafari around the world—estimated to number 700,000 to 1 million—hold Nyabingi drumming sessions and celebrate the birthday anniversary of their God incarnate, Haile Selassie I. (Note: The belief that Selassie is God incarnate is not universally held; some Rastas regard Selassie as a messenger of God.) Born Ras Tafari Makonnen, Haile Selassie served as Ethiopia’s regent from 1916 to 1930 and emperor from 1930 to 1974.

TAFARI MAKONNEN: FROM MUD HUT TO PALACE

Beginnings were meager for this emperor-to-be, born in a mud hut in Ethiopia in 1892. Selassie—originally named Tafari Makonnen—was a governor’s son, assuming the throne of Ethiopia in a complex struggle for succession. The nation’s leaders favored Tafari for the role of emperor—and, in 1930, he was crowned. Selassie would become Ethiopia’s last emperor.

Years prior to Haile Selassie’s enthronement, American black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey began preaching of a coming messiah who would lead the peoples of Africa, and the African diaspora, into freedom. When news of Selassie’s coronation reached Jamaica, it became evident to some that Selassie was this foretold of messiah. Beyond the prophesies in the book of Revelation and New Testament that Rastafari point to as proof of Selassie’s status, the emperor also could trace his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafari pointed to Selassie as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David and the King of Kings.

Did you know? The Rastafari receive their name from the combination of Ras—an honorific title, meaning “head”—and Tafari, part of Selassie’s birth name.

Selassie remained a lifelong Christian, but never reproached the Rastafari for their beliefs in him as the returned messiah. To this day, Rastafari rejoice on July 23, the anniversary of his birth.

TIME MAGAZINE AND THE WORLD: SELASSIE’S STORY

Magazine cover, man on front in fancy clothing of nobility

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

LEAGUE OF NATIONS—One of the most poignant chapters in Selassie’s life—and a key reason that he came to global attention—was an impassioned appeal for help that Selassie delivered to the League of Nations in 1936. In 1936, TIME magazine named him its Man of the Year.

The magazine’s “honor,” today, looks like nothing but ridicule for what TIME editors regarded as a foolish figure on the global stage. Dripping with sarcasm and openly racist, the TIME profile of Selassie included this description of him:

The astounding marvel is that Africa’s unique Museum of Peoples has produced a businessman—with high-pressure publicity, compelling sales talk, the morals of a patent medicine advertisement, a grasp of both savage and diplomatic mentality, and finally with plenty of what Hollywood calls “it.”

Selassie was in a life-and-death struggle with Italian aggression in his homeland. The TIME cover story appeared in January 1936. International opinions of Selassie changed dramatically that summer, when he made a passionate plea for help in a personal appearance before the League of Nations in Europe. His plea did not result in the help he sought, but the appeal now is considered a milestone in 20th century history. William Safire included the League address in his book, Great Speeches in American History.

NEWS: RASTAFARI PLEA FOR RELIGIOUS RECOGNITION FOR CANNABIS USE

Rastafari in the Bahamas are requesting state recognition and inclusion involving their use of cannabis in a sacramental manner in their communities, as was reported by Tribune 242. Sources report that Rasta priests in the Bahamas hold the opinion that, as occurred in Jamaica and Antigua, the government should issue a formal apology for the longstanding oppression placed upon Rastafari communities for their sacramental use of cannabis. Rather than risk arrest or job security for what Rastas regard as “a way of life” and their “sacrament,” those in the Bahamas are voicing requests for further national discussions on marijuana law.

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Haile Selassie: Celebrating Bob Marley’s 70th on a Rastafari birthday

Colored headshot of Bob Marley laughing

Bob Marley brought international attention to the Rastafari movement. Photo by Jason H. Smith, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, JULY 23: During what would have been the year of Bob Marley’s 70th birthday, the world celebrates the legend of a Reggae artist—and, for the Rastafari, the man who helped place their religion on the international stage. Today, the Rastafari acclaim the birthday of their messiah, Emperor Haile Selassie—a man referenced in lyrics of Marley’s songs. In Rastafari communities worldwide, Selassie’s birthday is met with Nyabingi drumming sessions, chanting and dancing. Born in a mud hut in Ethiopia in 1892, Selassie—named Tafari Makonnen at birth—was the son of a governor who would become the final emperor of Ethiopia.

Did you know? The Rastafari receive their name from the combination of Ras—an honorific title, meaning “head”—and Tafari, part of Selassie’s birth name.

Looking for more Marley and other artists’ peacemaking music? Check out modern-day interfaith peacemaker Dan Buttry’s column—complete with links to videos.

Rastafari point to several sources as proof of Selassie’s destiny: astrological occurrences at the time of Selassie’s birth, a lineage traceable to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the prophesies of Marcus Garvey and biblical passages relating to Ethiopia and Zion. The constellation of Leo, which represents the house of Judah, was in full effect during the birth of Selassie on July 23, 1892. Marcus Garvey had been preaching of a messiah who would lead the African people to freedom. Biblical text relays that “he will be called … conquering lion of the tribe of Judah.” (For a Rasta view, click here.) When news of Selassie’s assumption of the Ethiopian throne reached Jamaica in 1930, the Rastafari movement was born.

Are Rastas Christian? Many Rastas believe in Jesus and embrace the Bible. What sets Rastas apart from other Christians is their belief that Haile Selassie was (is) a messiah. During his lifetime, Haile Selassie remained an Ethiopian Christian.

NEWS: OBAMA VISITS MARLEY MUSEUM, FAMILY CONTINUES LEGEND

President Barack Obama visited The Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica, last April, and the museum has been receiving international media attention throughout the year of Marley’s 70th birth anniversary. Beyond Reggae, Marley wrote songs about war, revolution, protest, human rights and justice. Marley’s greatest hits collection, Legend, has been certified platinum 15 times, and the BBC named “One Love” the Song of the Millennium. This year, Billboard reviewed both the continued marketing of Marley’s image (he ranked No. 5 on Forbes’ 2014 Top Earning Dead Celebrity list) and the 10 protest songs that best exemplify his fight for social justice.

Interested in more? View a modern Rastafari celebration for Haile Selassie’s birthday here, and Time’s photos of Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica here. Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, converted to the Rasta faith after seeing Haile Selassie on his trip to Jamaica, claiming to have seen a stigmata print on his palm as he waved to the crowd. Rita influenced Bob in his conversion to Rastafari.

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Birthday of Haile Selassie I: Rastas party hardy around the world

Artwork of dark-skinned figure in elaborate crown and robe with red, yellow and green flag in back

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, a key figure in the Rastafari religion. Photo in public domain

TUESDAY, JULY 23: Bashes commence from Barbados to London, from Las Vegas to Tokyo as Rastas worldwide celebrate the birth anniversary of Haile Selassie I. The Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, Selassie—born Ras Tafari Makonnen on this date in 1892—is a messianic figure in the Rastafari religion. (Wikipedia has details on his life.) Rastafari hold that Ethiopia is their spiritual homeland, and that Selassie will lead those of the African Diaspora into a future Golden Age of peace, righteousness and affluence.

The central concept of Rastafari began 10 years before Selassie was even crowned, with a Jamaican-American nationalist leader known as Marcus Garvey. When Garvey began preaching of a “black king” and “the day of deliverance” in 1920, his words were interpreted as prophesies when Ras Tafari was crowned emperor in 1930. The Rastafari movement began almost immediately, with the additional support of Selassie’s family—who identified him as a descendent of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Today, followers debate beliefs about Selassie and the nature of divinity, but he remains a revered, sacred figure. The religion claims between 200,000 and 800,000 followers today. The majority of Rastas reside in Jamaica.

IN RASTAFARI NEWS: REGGAE SUMFEST AND COAST-TO-COAST PARTIES

Jamaica is in the midst of a weeklong Reggae Sumfest on the birthday of Haile Selassie this year, as artists hit the stage for this annual show. Meanwhile, Rastas in cities around the world beckon celebrants for Haile Selassie’s birthday, with concerts, drum fests, stage shows and more in London, Tokyo, Las Vegas, Barbados, California and New York. (Get a full list of events here.)

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(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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