Bob Marley's religion, Rastafarianism, believed in Ethiopia as the homeland of all black people, but Benito Mussolini wanted this country for himself.
Bob Marley wasn’t just an iconic reggae superstar from Jamaica. He was also a devout Rastafarian and, without a doubt, the number one reason why most people in the world know anything about Rastafarianism. While they probably don’t know a lot about this religion, and they might not even know that it’s a religion at all, they’re definitely familiar with some of its symbols thanks to Bob: the dreads, the lion of Judah, and the red-yellow-and-green flag, among others. Bob’s beliefs were essential to his music and image, which is why, even after his untimely death in 1981, these symbols are everywhere, from posters and t-shirts, to backpacks and wallets.
But what was Rastafarianism about? Why was Bob so captivated by it? And what does it have to do with Benito Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943?
The answers to these questions take us to Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. As a result of the Berlin Conference in 1885, European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany had all claimed colonies in the continent and were reaping the profits of exploiting territories rich in minerals, precious metals, and fertile land. Italy, though, had been left almost empty-handed. It only had Somaliland and Eritrea, and when it tried to invade Ethiopia in 1896, it was brutally defeated by Emperor Melenik II. It was the first African victory over an European country since the times of Hannibal, and it put a definitive stop to Italy’s colonizing efforts in the territory. In other words, after this victory, Ethiopia was the only free country in the entire continent.
Ethiopian Highlands (Flickr-Hulivili)
Back on the other side of the world, Jamaica was a prosperous British colony in the Caribbean, but its wealth was made on the backs of slaves and later their free descendants, black people whose lives were defined by oppression, poverty, and racism. Life on the island, far from being a tropical paradise, was extremely difficult, and there was nothing that gave them hope that things would get better in the future.
The Poor Man's Heritage (Jamaica c. 1910)
Enter the scene Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican leader and thinker who introduced Rastafarianism to the world and changed black thought forever. Garvey taught Jamaicans about their history: how Africa was a beautiful and rich continent before the Europeans got there, how their ancestors were free and proud, and how there was nothing wrong with being black. He taught them that, as black people, Africa was their real homeland, and that the only way they would ever be free from slavery and racism would be to move back to Africa. One country in particular was the spiritual homeland of all black people, and that country was, of course, Ethiopia, the one place that had never been colonized by Europe.
Ethiopian Flag (during the reign of Haile Selassie I)
However, with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, things would change, and Ethiopia’s freedom would be in danger. Italy’s Prime Minister and de facto dictator, Benito Mussolini wanted to colonize Ethiopia in order to give more prestige to his country. He was emulating Adolf Hitler, who had already colonized other territories in Africa. Mussolini successfully invaded Ethiopia in 1935, forcing the emperor at the time, Haile Selassie I, into exile. Six years later, though, the Italians were kicked out by the United Kingdom and South Africa, allowing the emperor to return and rule over his country. It was the only time any European power was able to occupy Ethiopia in its history.
Haile Selassie I
That man, Haile Selassie I, was not only Ethiopia’s emperor, but also the Rastafarian’s God. The name he had before being crowned emperor in 1916, Ras Tafari Makonnen, gave the religion its name, and he is considered to be God incarnate, descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He ruled over Ethiopia until his death in 1974, giving Rastafarians in Jamaica and all over the world hope for a homeland, “Zion,” in Africa, where a black man was king.
This figure, the religion he inspired, and the historical events that surrounded all of this shaped Bob Marley as a man and as a musician. And although you might not agree with the way he saw the world or the beliefs he had, his music is inseparable from his religion, so it’s necessary to know these things in order to fully understand him.
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