The Ties That Bind: Reggae, Rastafari, Judaism and Israel

I’ve been connected to Israel from when I was a child. Through my father, my mother, we have a strong belief in the history. If you’ve heard of my father…you’ve heard of Exodus….We are strongly connected to the history of Israel and feel a very spiritual and personal connection to that land and the people of that land. So this is an honor and a blessing and we will continue to have that connection no matter what anybody says or does and continue to support Israel.

These are the words of Ziggy Marley, son of reggae legend and Rastafarian icon, Robert Nesta Marley, O.M. (1945-1981) and accomplished recording artist in his own right as he received the Jewish National Fund’s Shalom Peace Award on the 14th of November 2015, “for his contributions to clean water and support for Israel.” For many people, it is easy to assume that by “connection,” he was referring to his marriage to Israeli artist manager Orly Agai, or the claim that Bob Marley’s paternal grandmother, Ellen Broomfield was a Jewish woman. However, as far back as 2011, Ziggy Marley revealed that his historical connection with Israel and Judaism stems from his own Rastafarian background.

As a Rastafarian for all of my adult life, I should be the last person to forget that although most people alive today are familiar with the appearance of a Rastafarian, very few know what that appearance actually means. Take for instance, the caption on a youtube video, wondering if this colourfully dressed man calling on his audience to say a prayer for the Rebbe is a Lubavitcher celebrating Purim. What is this connection that Ziggy Marley alludes to?

The author, a few years ago.
The author, a few years ago.

Even today, for many people, Rastafari is just a modern subculture, like the Goths etc, characterised by dreadlocks, red-gold-green flags, talking with an affected Jamaican accent, smoking marihuana and reggae music. With such a perception, it is easy to miss out on the fact that Rastafari is a bona fide religious and cultural identity, with much in common with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Indeed, those visible Rastafarian features, the red-gold-green flag, the dreadlocks, even the smoking of marihuana, are inspired by an interpretation of the Bible.

Crash Course in Rastafari

The Rastafarian Messiah. Emperor Haile Selassie I. Rastafarians hold that contrary to reports, the Emperor is still alive.
The Rastafarian Messiah. Emperor Haile Selassie I. Rastafarians hold that contrary to reports, the Emperor is still alive.

Rastafari emerged in the 1930s, inspired by the coronation of Ras (an Ethiopian title of nobility) Tafari Makonnan as Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of Judah, Elect of God, Light and Saviour of the World, the 350th monarch of a dynasty that claims from King Solomon of Israel and Nigist Makeda of Ethiopia, the so-called Queen of Sheba, and through her to Ori, the grandson of Cush, the grandson of Noah. Heads of State and other men of substance, including colonial governors, came to pay homage to this Black African monarch. For Rastafarians, this coronation was no ordinary event, happening as it did at a time when almost all of Africa was under colonial domination. In the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, verses were found to indicate that Jesus Christ would have a new name in his second appearance on earth, and he would also be styled King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of Judah.

However, while Rastafarian theology is steeped in Christian eschatology, the day to day culture of Rastafarian people is decidedly Judaic. The dreadlocks and beard, the most visible feature of Rastafarian people, is the ancient Nazirite vow- hence the Rastafarian aversion to alcohol. While some Rastafarians, like myself, are strict vegans and many are lacto-vegetarians, kosher observance is universal among the diverse sects. The same rules of modesty apply. I remember the confused stares, when I would be out with my then girlfriend, an Italian woman who wore not only a long skirt and dark headscarf, but a large Star of David on her lapel.

For Rastafarians, the physical “Zion” is Ethiopia, the land of the dynasty of Mennelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In the Kebra Naghast, the Ethiopian text that narrates in greater detail the story of the union of Solomon and Makeda (the Queen of Sheba), King Solomon predicts that the Psalmic verse Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto the Lord shall be fulfilled through a man, begotten of his bloodline. For Rastafarians, this man is Emperor Haile Selassie I. Because we have our own parallel Zion as it were, we do not claim the land of Israel or the city of Jerusalem as the Muslims do. The closest to a heritage site in Israel that we could call ours would be the house that Empress Manan lived in during the Imperial family’s exile following the Italian invasion in the 1930s. Our beliefs cannot be compared to Christian Replacement Theology, as we do not deny the Jewish people, or their claim to Israel.

On the reverse cover of Bob Marley & The Wailers' 1976 album, Rastaman Vibration, are the Blessing of Joseph taken from both Genesis/Bereshit (Jacob) and Deuteronomy/Devarim (Moses), with a verse from the New Testament Book of Revelation interpreted by many Rastafarians as a reference to Emperor Haile Selassie
On the reverse cover of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ 1976 album, Rastaman Vibration, are the Blessing of Joseph taken from both Genesis/Bereshit (Jacob) and Deuteronomy/Devarim (Moses), with a verse from the New Testament Book of Revelation interpreted by many Rastafarians as a prophetic reference to Emperor Haile Selassie.

Bob Marley was a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, founded by Dr Vernon Carrington, or “Prophet Gad” as he is known to his followers. An interpretation of I Kings 4:7 prompted Prophet Gad to conclude that, like astrological signs, everyone alive today falls under a Tribe of Israel according to their birth month. So, anyone born in April is of the Tribe of Reuben, March is of Benjamin, and so on. Emperor Haile Selassie, born in July, is of Judah. Bob Marley, born in February, is of the Tribe of Joseph. Anyone who has looked at the lyrics to Bob’s Redemption Song, will note that although they refer to the history of the enslavement of Black Africans, many of the words come from the narrative of Joseph, who was dumped in a pit, and whose “hand was made strong, by the hand of the Almighty.” and who was “separated from his brethren” (an allusion also of the separation of Black people in America and the Caribbean from their African nations.

Many reggae singers of Bob Marley’s generation belong to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, which supported youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to earn a living. The band Israel Vibration recorded their first album through a grant from the Twelve Tribes. On the sleeve to his seminal Are We A Warrior, Ijahman Levi (b Trevor Sutherland) inscribed the Blessing of Levi from Deuteronomy. The British singer born Max Elliot in June, 1961, is better known as Maxi Priest, a reference to the Tribe of Levi.

Jewish Reaction

“…the most fascinating are the Rastafarians, who in turn largely model themselves on the Jews. The Rastas believe that Africans are of the lost tribes of Israel, with a special identification with the King David and the tribe of Judah. The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, whom they worship as the long-promised biblical messiah, is everywhere called “the conquering lion of Judah.” Many Rastas wear the Jewish star of David with a lion in the middle around their necks. Their diet is essentially kosher, bereft as it is of any animal or dairy products. Many Rastas are extraordinarily well-versed in the Bible…”- Shmuely Boteach, The Jerusalem Post, 2008

Jewish people have been aware of Rastafarian people nearly from day one. I have not been able to verify this, but I have been told that Leonard Howell, one of the early preachers of the new faith, was married to a woman of Jewish heritage. It was a Jewish English-Jamaican, Chris Blackwell, who single-handedly brought reggae music to the rest of the world, launching the careers of legends such as Bob Marley.

Jews have also responded to this music that Chris Blackwell and others in his wake have launched on to the world. The most prominent artiste is Matisyahu, who incorporates not only reggae rhythms to his art but ambiguous lyrics and symbols that could be interpreted by Rastafarian audiences as overtly Rastafarian, such as “the King” and “Majesty”. A more vivid example of the universality of music that Bob Marley spoke of cannot be contemplated.

Ari Lesser is another Jewish artist who draws heavily from the influence of Rastafarian musicians. The title of one of his songs, “Give thanks” is another Jamaican expression that reggae singers have made popular around the world.

In 2005, Monica Haim, made the film Awake Zion, after noticing the Black people in her Crown Heights neighbourhood wore symbols that she had always regarded as uniquely Jewish.

There are many Christian musicians who have also played reggae music, such as the American band, Christafari. While Christafari boasts that they take on the appearance of Rastafarians in order to approach them and convert them to Christianity (“Reaching the lost at all cost” their website proclaims), the Jewish singers who have incorporated Rastafarian culture have distinguished themselves by showing a deep respect for it. True to their own Jewish beliefs, I am not aware of any attempts to convert Rastafarians to Judaism. This mutual respect and appreciation is something we- Jews and Rastafarians- can teach the other Abrahamics, especially those two with a history of conquest and imposition, and brutal persecution of perceived heretics.

Political Rastafari and Zionism

From the ’60s onwards, Rastafari married itself to Black civic rights groups in the West, and nationalist struggles on the African continent and the Caribbean. The crowning of a Black monarch of the House of David and Solomon at a time when the whole continent was colonised by European powers, who imposed their own interpretation of Christianity, was bound to have a political as well as a religious one.

However, political Rastafari has also lent itself to ideologies on the Left. Indeed, even activism whose connection to Africa and Black people has identified with the lyrics of Rastafarian reggae singers, which has allowed such musicians to earn a fortune performing in communities they would have never imagined they had anything in common. This too has caused a debate among Rastafarians, as identifying with such causes can be argued to be inimical to our core beliefs.This is where some Rastafarians who articulate anti-Israeli and anti-semitic sentiments are coming from. It is from this outlook that criticism of Ziggy Marley’s support for Israel is coming from. The author of this article has never been to Israel, of course, and only “knows” about the situation in the Middle East from what the media in his own country chooses to tell him.

I recall getting off the bus outside Marble Arch Tube Station in London one evening of 2002, and found myself between two groups of protesters, pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, and the police barely managing to keep them apart. The Palestinians began to shout about Blacks and Arabs being brothers and how Bob Marley sang about freedom, but the Israelis had one up on them. “You’re one of us, Rastaman!” one of them shouted with a distinctly American accent, beckoning eagerly. “Son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba!” Even the police waited anxiously for my response. “Oh, cummon, guys!” I said, “Look, we are all Abraham’s children. Can’t we get along?” Not quite the answer everyone was looking for, but there was some cheering from both sides.

Reggae music, that Rastafarian vehicle of expression, is loved by both Palestinians and Israelis. Israel has a vibrant reggae-loving community. Is it too arrogant to hope that the latest addition to the Abrahamic family of faiths may, through reggae music, bring the others to a spirit of brotherhood? As Bob Marley sang, Time will tell. What is clear so far is this: the Rastafarian people see the Jewish people as kindred and our two faiths as drawn from the same well. What is also clear is that, as an expression of our faith, Rastafarians stand with the Jewish people and with the State of Israel and this gesture has been reciprocated in no small measures.

About the Author
Masimba Musodza is a novelist, screenwriter, essayist, blogger and actor of some note, with work published all over the world and online. He was born and grew up in Zimbabwe, but has lived in the UK since 2002.
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