For many peoples of mainstream society, Dreadlocks and Ganja (Cannabis) have become the cornerstones of understanding and recognizing Rastafari culture. In the Examiner article, “What is Rastafari”, knowledge of Rastafari as a legitimate spiritual philosophy with a deep history in Judeo-Christian biblical verse is established to rectify this common misunderstanding.
This article takes a look at the roots and ideology behind these two of Rastafari’s greatest elements, Dreadlocked hair and Ganja. Spanning the centuries of human existence, from ancient Egyptian carvings to Hindu sculptures, images of dreadlocked peoples have been uncovered.
Rastas began growing their locks as a symbol of their faith, in part inspired by the Biblical account of Samson. Samson is the only man in the Bible given extraordinary strength, enough to slay a lion with his bare hands, with his power resting in 7 dreadlocks – provided that he never cut them. During the political upheaval of 1940’s Jamaica, Dreadlocks became synonymous with the Rastafari Movement, symbolizing freedom, strength and the voluntary removal of oneself from “Babylonian” society.
Dreadlocks are a sacred part of a Rastas identity. A Rastamans locks are his crown, symbolizing him as a King of Kings in the image of Haile Selassie I. A Rastawomyn, known in Rastafari culture with high respect as Queen or Empress, keeps her locks covered out of respect and honor to Jah. They are a Rastas lion’s mane, a proud symbol of strength and potency. Dreadlocks stand as a clear and quiet challenge to society’s social and religious “norms”. They remain a physical method of witnessing the Rastafari faith with the same devotion of prophets and saints from biblical texts. Later on the visionary leader and musician, Bob Marley, would bring this ideology to the world.
In late 1940’s Jamaica, as widespread political malarky and the anti-colonialism movement reached an all-time high, Jamaica’s people had experienced deep let-downs from multiple political parties promising change. After over a decade of peaceful marches met by police confrontations, the people were faced with a choice: continue to involve themselves in politics or withdraw from society.
The Rastafari Movement had already been spreading through the Jamaican population in small factions and groups since the 1930’s, ignited by Marcus Garvey and the growing knowledge of Haile Selassie I. Yet it was through this intense political and social unrest that the Dreadlocks of Jamaica were truly born. Gathering in back ‘yards’ was standard practice in Jamaica, yet in the slums of Trench Town where Rastas began to gather, ‘yards’ became known as ‘camps’, places where “brethren came and stayed to listen to reasoning and discussion”.
From the Dreadlock reasoning camps emerged a young Rasta named Brother Watson, known as Wato. Wato defined his camp as an organization named the Young Black Faith (YBF). The YBF was officially founded in 1949, and was comprised of a young, rowdy and devout group of Rastafari activists who both respected their elders and acknowledged that it was time for the next generation to reform the Rastafari faith. They gave themselves the title “Warrior” or “Dreadful” to symbolize the purging of ‘superstitious practices’ and the upholding of Rastafari through aesthetic discipline. The YBF Dreadful’s stood firm in their right to wear locks and beards as both a challenge to society and to reflect the image of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I.
The YBF was constantly reasoning at their camps, and this also meant that Ganja was smoked. The smoking of Ganja is viewed as sacred ritual to Rastafari, a means to “clean the body and mind, with the ability to heal the soul and bring one closer to Jah (God).”
The Dreadlocks created strict codes of conduct for Ganja as spiritual sacrament. Passing the herb from left to right, gracing the herb before taking a draw, and not being permitted to leave the camp before the herb was consumed were among these camp codes. Yet it was the YBF that took the next step and institutionalized Ganja as an integral part of the Rastafari Movement. During this high tempered time of anti-colonialist revolt; authorities used the possession and trafficking of Ganja as a reason to imprison herbalist members of the Rastafari Movement. The oppression (known as downpression) of Ganja was viewed as the oppression of the people by the Babylon system. According to the reasoning of the YBF, the use of Ganja was condoned in the Bible, and if the government attacked the people for their use of a sacred herb, then the government’s ultimate desire was to suppress the people.
The Rastas found themselves in a spiritual battle against their oppressors, the government officials whose arms were the police force. This struggle continues into present day. For Rastafari all over the world, discrimination, stereotype and misunderstanding about their way of life puts them in constant dispute with the law. If society takes a closer look at the Rastafari way of life, they will find a peaceful, spiritual people whose intent is to life harmoniously within the natural wonders of our planet. As Brother Wato said: “We say that every man have free access to the tree of life.”
Special Thanks to Barry Chevannes, author of Rastafari Roots & Ideology
Special Thanks Ras Jahsua
PHOTO CREDIT: JUN MAR PRADO OF RASTAFARI MOVEMENT