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Ethiopian Diaspora


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Esther Sellassie Antohin
Linguistics 601
Language, Culture and Society
Prof. David Smith
May 12, 1998

The phenomenon of Ras Tafari

This paper will look at the Rastafarian Movement. It will outline and briefly discuss some of its principle concepts, and linguistic developments.

It is somewhat unclear how the name “Ras Tafari” was adopted over the (more spiritual and prestigious) coronation name “Haile Sellassie” which means the power of Trinity. “Ras” in Amharic is the title given to Ethiopian royalties, and Tafari is the Empeor’s given name which can be translated as “the one that is revered and/or feared”. This name has become not only a holy appellation and a ritual invocation, but also the name of the movement itself. “Rastafari” is a Jamaican rendering of “Ras Tafari” and is the name given to the members of the movement. The name “Haile-Sellassie” is used mostly in prayers and songs. The other name reverenced in the movement is “Jah” or also “Jah-Ras-Tafari”. The origin of this word is obviously from the Biblical “Jehovah”. So too is the origin of the movement grounded in verses of the Old and New Testament. The one most quoted is said to be Revelation 5:2-5

And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice:
who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
And no man in heaven, nor in earth,...
was able to open the book, neither to look thereon....
And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not:
behold the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.

And Revelation 19:16,

And he hath on his vesture and on hi thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

The founders of Rastafarianism believed these words were indeed God’s revelations to the religious mind. Therefore they searched the scriptures to find more assurances of their new revelation. In the prophesy of Daniel they found not only a confirmation of Ethiopia’s antiquity, but also the color of the King. In Daniel 7:9,

And I beheld till the thrones were cast down and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

In addition to the King’s Black race which was implicit in their interpretation, the Rastafarians saw the fire synonymous with blackness. Paramount in all of this is not so much empirical truths, but rather the certainty of the doctrine. The success of this ideology was bound in the fact that it fulfilled an enormous spiritual need.

The roots of Rastafarianism goes as far back as the 1780’s when the term “Ethiopianism” had been adopted by a few slave preachers such as George Liele, who founded the 1st Baptist church which he named the Ethiopian Baptist church, and which for the most part was developed outside of the Christian missions and exhibited a pure indigenous flavor. But the movement that was to embody the Ethiopian ideology par excellence was the Black Africa Movement of the Jamaican born Marcus Garvey. His writings and fiery speeches proclaimed the glory of Ethiopia-Africa and the glory of things to come. He too was well versed in the ancient references to Ethiopia. It is the opinion of some, that Garvey was single handedly responsible for planting the seeds of this movement. Unlike those before him, he did not stop at the defense of the black race, instead he advocated the superiority of the Black man; stating that the Western world was so demoralized that there was no need to appeal to its conscience, “the dignity of the black race was only to be ignited for the Blacks to assume the true leadership of the world as they had in times past.” (Barrett 1977:77) Marcus Garvey did not enjoy a strong following in his own country. Following a series of arrests, he left Jamaica for the United States in 1916, where he was to expand his ideas on a larger platform. However he left behind a small but closely knit and outspoken group who identified themselves as Garveyites. The birth of this movement takes hold, at a very critical moment of Jamaican history.

The 1930’s was at low tide economically and socially. Politically, colonialism griped the country and the future of the masses looked hopeless. Further more in that same year, economical depression was a way of life and the aftermath of a severe hurricane had also ravished the country. Amidst this back drop a rather significant evident takes place. In November 1930 Ras Tafari, was crowned Negus of Ethiopia, taking the name Haile Sellassie , to which was added “King of Kings” and the “Lion of Judah,” placing him in the legendary line of king Solomon. This event brought representative of all the great-powers as well as journalists from every part of the world (never before had any African figure enjoyed such tremendous attention) the pomp and grandeur of the fabled empire and its young king, became a world event. For the people of Marcus Garvey’s leaning, this came as a revelation from God. “In Jamaica, an almost forgotten statement of Garvey who, on the eve of his departure to the United States was supposed to have said “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King, he shall be the Redeemer,” came echoing like the voice of God.” (Bareett 1977:81)

Since its inception, the Ras Tafarian movement continued to evolve in ways that could not have been perceived by someone like Marcus Garvey. The church he had founded had collapse while Garvey was still alive, and he himself was disgraced by allegations of business fraud. Nevertheless the movement would continue to survive long after Garvey. The writings published towards his latter life show that he had lost his admiration for the Emperor, on numerous grounds, among them was the issue of slavery, which was still practiced in Ethiopia. The Ras Tafarian attitude towards Garvey is interesting, he is still revered inspite of his opposition to “Jah-Ras-Tafari”, some Rastas attempt to explain this contradiction by stating that even John the Baptist had doubts about Christ. Rasafarianism is said to be the fastest growing social and releious movement in the world. Estimates range from 100,000 following in Jamaica alone, which is roughly about15 - 20% of the population. Although this Rastafari is in its third generation there is still no hard data on the size or distribution around the world. Part of this difficulty has to do with the question “Who is a Rastafarian”?


Three important consideration towards determining a definition -
a) It embraces a wide range of beliefs and practices which are manifested in a variety of social forms.
b) It is intergenerational and interracial and is preported to transcend distinctions of sex and economic class. Although the original Rastas were primarily the down-trodden and from rural Jamaica. Today the Rasta comes from all walks of life and is found in the urban and suburbs of many large cities in the world. Any definition of this movement therefore must be broad and include this pluralistic nature of this philosophy.

As a religious phenomenon, it evokes frames of reference which in the minds of its aderents, transcend all other frames of reference in human experience, more on this point later. Rastafai is perhaps accurately labeled as a non-established, emergent religion, that is to say that it is not institutionalized nor does it follow a clear method.


I-n-I, Livity, and Ethiopia represent the three basic elements of the Rastas “social ethics” and when taken together it evokes a frame of reference which represents a distinctive way of being conscious of the world.

I-n-I is central in understanding the Rastafarian reality. The idea of I-n-I connotes the self as being linked with symbols of divine agency i.e. Sellassie I, Rastafari I. I-n-I is used as a substitute for “me” which the Rastas consider a servile and exclusionary word, and also for the words “you,” “them,” and “we,” all of which detach the object from the speaker. Furthermore the “I” of the self is fundamentally related to the”I” in Sellassie I (the Roman number I or first is entirely disregarded and instead understood as the first person singular). Similarly the use of “I” is rather extensive, it is used to replace the first syllable of particular words, such as “I-cient” (ancient), “Ital” (vital/pure) “I-ration” (creation or vibration), and “I-techtion” (protection). Thus I-n-I heralds the collapse of the radical dichotomy between creator and creature and heaven and earth which was a basic premise of missionary Christianity. “The self-consciousness of one’s linkage to Jah or Jah’s linkage to one’s self implies a further relation to other selves.” “Since Jah is believed to be manifest in all persons, all persons are joined to one another by virtue of their unity with Jah.” (Johnson-Hill 1988:23). The Rastafarian who chooses to assert I-n-I is thus and ‘uplifted’ one, one that has rediscovered his/her dignity.

“Livity” is a term used to designate the Rasta lifestyle orientation and one that correlates with moving towards “the moral quest” of “Ethiopia-Africa”. This quest entails a collective vision of the good. The I-n-I self who has a personal relationship with nature seeks to live in harmony with the environment, that is to live authentically in relation to nature. “Ethiopia” pertains to a vision of dignity, religious communion, equal rights, and justice. This sentiment is expressed in the following Rasta (reggae) lyrics Drum Beat to Africa:

Rasta Man
beat yu drums
dem is a direct link
wid de madda lan
sho can deny dat...?
(from Roots Are I)

“As the antithesis of Babylon, Ethiopia represents the transcendence of a negative self-image, religious hegemony, and economic and political domination”. (Johnson-Hill 1988:29) Jamaica, and the world, is understood to be in the clutches of the agents of “Babylon”. “Babylon” is often equated with Western Civilization and is also understood as an artificial affluent society of self-absorbed individuals who worship idols and live decadent lifestyles at the expense of the poor. The Rastas deep feelings of resentment is amply expressed in the reactionary lyric below.

Come let we repatriate
to Ithiopia - Africa
I and I Fatherland
And leave this West behind.
We are going home
Let us chant Babylon down
Let us dance
Let us sing
Let Niyabinghi show us how
We the 70,000 who never bow.
(from Repatriation/Redemption Chants)

The Rasta creative energy has perhaps found one of its best expressions in language. On one hand they have adopted a series of biblical terms such as “brimstone,” “hellfire,” “Zion,” “Armageddon.” “Babylon,” and “Nazarite.” which they commonly use in attempt to find distinct self expression. In similar manner they have invented, works like ”Irie” (a positive greeting, “mash down” (destroy), “downpressers” and “politricks” (politics). The Rastas also take words with negative connotaions, and attempt to transform them in a positive light for example, “overstood,” rather than understood. The Rastas believe that words are too powerful to be used so carelessly, because they can heal and destroy they must be used wisely.


Raggae music which came directly out of the Rasta movement was by in largely responsible for the popularity of this movement. Indeed reggae music has been a powerful medium of communicating the message and spirit of Rastafari, and the “dreadlocks” has become the symbol of black- pride in the 90’s as was the afro in the 1960’s and 70’s. This movement has also inspired a new type of language symbolism which for the most is hardly documented. The Rastafarian speech has been called “soul language,” ghetto language,” and “hallucinogenic language.” It is characterized as the language of the uneducated because among other things it is almost devoid of subject-object opposition as well as without verbs and has other peculiarities. As a result outsiders can hardly make sense of what the average Rasta says. Nevertheless it is a fascinating field of study well worth investigating.

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ETHIOLIST is a very active group of cyber Ethiopians around the globe




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Good e-book on Ethiopia in Electric Library

Academic Sources on Africa

African Culture and the New world, teaching resources on Africa and the Caribbean

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WILDFIRE -- Humble Tafari



Esther S Antohin
Spring 1998
UAF Anthropology


The topic I have selected is tentatively entitled "Ethiopian Americans: A Study of the Ethiopian Diaspora." My aim is to explore the cultural, ethnic, religious and political dimensions of this particular immigrant group, thus a broad and all encompassing title.
The significance of studying this group of people is very much tied to the overall lack of knowledge and misconception surrounding the continent of Africa. Even in this age where information on anything under the sun can be obtained instantaneously; Africa as a subject continues to be misconstrued. It is a common and accepted idea to refer to this vast continent of over 9,000,000 people as though it were one nation.
However the reality is that most of the African countries are faced with massive problems ranging from, socio-political disintegration, genocide, ethnic wars, disease, and starvation. These are some of the reason for the continuous immigration to the United States.
According to a report put out from Department of State and the Immigration and Naturalization Service; the ceiling for refugee admissions from Africa to the United States for Fiscal Year 1994 and 1995 was 7,000. A quota which clearly doesn't meet the demand.
The United States is literally a micro-cosmos of the globe; now more than ever this land is home to people from all over the world. As a society we can stand to gain much from understanding how our newest citizens fair in this great land. I think facilitating their success is a good investment for the future. It is not less important than ecological, concerns we have.
Research such as this can be useful in the following ways. Help develop a better understanding of our societal conditions, Help create a more educated, successful citizens. Address political and economical issues. utilized to improve conditions facing immigrants. On the other hand we can also effect our foreign policy and how we interact with the other nations.

For references see books bellow and for AFRICA go to page 22 (New: Africa II)


Antiquity Page!

(not sorted out)

For historical data and accuracy the reader should get the books, which I arranged in several categories.



Haile Selassie. My Life and Ethiopia's Progress, Michigan State Universuty, East Lansing, 1994 (Trans. Harold Marcus)

Haile Selassie. Heyewet ena Yeityopya Ermeja, Addis Ababa University, 1972

Doresse, Jean. Ethiopia, Frederick Ungar Pub. Co. New York, 1959

Getachew, Mekonnen. Neguse Negestu 1884-1967, Addis Ababa []

Kapuscinski, Ryszard. The Emperor. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, NY 1983 (Popular book I didn't like. Judge for yourself)

Lockot, Hans Wilhelm. The Mission: the life, reign and character of Haile Selassie []

Schwab, Peter. Ethiopia & Haile Selassie 1972, FACTS ON FILE, INC. NY.

SOCIETY Cohen, Ronald and Britan Gerald. Hierarchy & Society Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Philadelphia, 1980

Ethiopia, CIA facts book, Country case study 1992

Halliday, Fred and Molyneux. The Ethiopian Revolution, London 1981

Lefort, R. Ethiopia: An Heretical Revolution? Zed Press, London, 1983 (exelent book)

Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia, U of California Press Berkeley, 1994 (Also, another book on Haile Sellassie. The author worked on translation of Haile Sellassie autobiography part II)

Pankhurst, Sylvia. Ethiopia, A Cultural History. Lalibela House, London, 1955

Pankhurst, Richard. A Social History of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University, 1990 Also, The Red Sea Press, edition 1992 (see his articles in Addis Ababa Tribune on-line)

Schwab, Peter. Haile Selassie I, Nerlson-Hall Chicago, 1979
Schwab, Peter. Ethiopia: Politics, Economics and Society. Lynne Rienner Pub. Inc. Boulder, CO 1985

Spencer, John. Ethiopia at Bay, Reference Publications, Inc. 1984 (****)

Tiruneh, Andargachew. The Ethiopian Revolution 1974-1987, Cambridge U Press, 1993

MY FAVORITE BOOKSEthiopian Booshelf

For now I mark them with (*)

[References (don't know how to do notes on web)]

Front Cover quote from Dread, The Rastafarians of Jamaica, Joseph Owens. Heinemann, London and Kingtston, 1976.

1. Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, Reggae International. New York: R&BP, 1982

2. Timothy White, Catch a Fire. New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1982

3. Leonard Barrett, The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977, revised and updatd, 1988

4. Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, editors, Reggae International

5. [NOTE] An African belief which survived in Jamaica holds that if a person does not receive a proper burial, his spirit (then called a Duppy) will remain on earth and can be invoked by "Obeahmen" to wreck havoc for the living. A "Mayalman" is a medicineman who, through extensive knowledge of herbs and folk wisdom, is able to offer remedy to one inflicted by Duppies.

6. Stephen Davis, Bob Marley. New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1985

7. Dennis Forsythe, Rastafari: For the Healing of the Nation. Kingston: Zaika Publications, 1983

8. Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, editors, Reggae International

9. Adrian Boot and Vivien Goldman, Bob Marley, Soul Rebel; Natural Mystic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

There are many more. I'll try to list them later. There is a new page BooksAmination

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