Rastafari - enduring fascination, lingering fear

Guyana Chronicle
October 6, 1999

LAST MONTH's brouhaha in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) over the banning a Trinidadian woman because of her Rastafarian hairstyle, serves to remind Caribbean peoples just how long fears and prejudice can linger in human consciousness. The banned woman, Ms Trudy McDavid, 39, had travelled to the BVI with her two elderly aunts to meet two sons of her late sister.

Ms McDavid had cleared Immigration and was waiting with her relatives for a taxi, when she was approached by an official and informed that she could not stay on the island because she was a `Rasta'. No amount of entreaties from her relatives could persuade the official to allow McDavid to stay for the visit. She was taken back to Immigration and deported. As Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh noted in an article published in the `Guyana Chronicle' on Saturday, "To be deported from one Caribbean island because your hairstyle fits a discriminatory law against a particular religious/social group, is shockingly outrageous." Since then, we have learnt, the BVI has repealed the banning law.

It is indeed an affront to Caribbean peoples that at the closing of the 20th century, dreadlocks - the most visible manifestation of Rastafari, can be the excuse for banishing persons from an island state. The music and the culture of Rastafari are now wonderfully embraced by peoples of many other tribes and tongues. Japan is a mecca for Reggae artistes, and tall, handsome young men distinguished by dreadlocks are some of the more arresting male models on the fashion runways of Paris and Milan.

Rastafari emerged in Jamaica during the economically deprived times of the 1930s. Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), had, since the days of the 1920s, urged his followers to, "Look to Africa, when a Black King shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near." In November 1930, when Ras Tafari of Ethiopia was crowned as the Emperor Haile Sellassie, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, many Garveyites soon became persuaded that this was the King of whom their leader had spoken. The grinding poverty of those years of the Great Depression, helped to fuel the dreams and aspirations of the downtrodden to the notion that spiritual and material salvation would come to them through this God-King Ras Tafari.

This was the genesis of Rastafari. In the years to follow the culture would yield its own tenets and philosophy, it would develop its own poetic muse, devise its own music and articulate its own peculiar mode of dress. Most satisfying of all, Rastafari would name the world by establishing what Rex Nettleford called, a "language of assertion" in which the "I" was the centre of the universe. Bob Marley, is no doubt the artist who most popularised the concept of Rastafari through the medium of Reggae.

The negative reputation gained by some followers of Rastafari through gun crimes and drug-running over the years has made many people wary about the movement and suspicious of anyone who refuses to wear his hair in conventional style. In the times of the 1970s and 1980s, many young, university-educated dreadlocked men and women faced tremendous struggles with the establishment for the right to hold respectable jobs. Today, there are Europeans and Japanese sporting dreadlocks and encountering no difficulty whatever at international airports, so accepted had Rastarari become.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples