July 23 2017 marks the 125th earth strong of Haile Selassie. 51 years on from his grounation in Jamaica, Rastas still fight the fight as highlighted by Chronixx on "Selassie Children" from the Chronology album.
Rastafari is an internationally recognised and respected faith. With its Jamaican origins rooted in African spirituality, Rastafari's message of love and livity resonates around the world. But despite being one of brand Jamaica's biggest exports, acceptance at home has always been a struggle. Jamaican history is littered with government-approved aggressions, namely the atrocities in Coral Gardens 1963 and the mistreatment of sacred site, Pinnacle.
Located on the outskirts of Montego Bay, Jamaica, Coral Gardens is a postcard-worthy tourist district with the grand landmark Rose Hall. To be seen as a hotspot with such a horrendous past does a disservice to its rich nature and picturesque landscape.
Reports suggest the catalyst was a land dispute between "bearded men" and a gas station owner in Montego Bay during the Holy Week of Easter. Newspapers on Holy Thursday, April 11, 1963, reported that Rastafarians armed with machetes and guns burnt down a gas station. However, many people dispute this story, believing the continual police harassment and expulsion from the owner’s land sparked the event. The incident resulted in several deaths, including three Rastafarians and two police officers.
Esteemed Jamaican author and literary scholar Carolyn Cooper is well-versed in Jamaican history. She believes Rastas were seen as enemies due to their unapologetic black power. "They, meaning the ruling elite, saw Rasta as a threat to state authority," she says via email. "Rasta sighted black power and refused to play the role of subservient victim. Rasta claimed the right to self-definition. So they had to be cut down to size."
Back in 1962, many of the ruling elite, known as the planter class, opposed Marcus Garvey's teachings and nationalist ideas of Jamaica. On August 6, 1962, Jamaica was granted independence from the British Empire. Trouble flared up in Coral Gardens the following year.
While newspapers blamed Rastafarians for setting the gas station on fire, Rastas who experienced the devastation maintain their community was wrongly accused. Instead, they believe men with beards were the culprits. Soon after, the floodgates opened on state-sanctioned violence against the Rastafarian community. Rastas were farmers in what is an affluent, picturesque area with great tourist potential.
It is widely acknowledged that Jamaica's first prime minister, Alexander Bustamante announced he wanted all Rastas brought in dead or alive. As a result, Bustamante is seen controversially within the Rasta community. Ironically, he was presented with Jamaican National Hero status along with Marcus Garvey in 1969. Garvey is highly-regarded within the Rasta culture for prophesying the coming of a black king in the East. Bustamante is a stark reminder that heroes aren't always universally appreciated.
"Colonialism played a central role," Cooper says of the incident happening less than a year after independence. "Flag independence did not mean that the politicians had emancipated themselves from mental slavery. They were still colonised, believing that Europe was superior to Africa. They simply took on the role of the coloniser and tried to keep black people in their place as perpetual servants."
On April 4 2017, Jamaica's current prime minister Andrew Holness apologised for the slaughter of Rastas. In a surprising twist almost 52 years from the day, Holness conceded the Coral Gardens incident was "a grave injustice." On behalf of the government, he said they would establish a $10 million trust fund to assist the beneficiaries of those who suffered loss during the "repressive incident".
Many, including Cooper, don't think much has changed beyond the surface promotion of Rasta as a commodity. "Rasta are still not accepted fully in Jamaican society," she states honestly. "Some of the symbols of Rastafari, like dreadlocks, have become fashionable. But this does not mean that the core ideology of Rasta has been accepted by the majority of Jamaicans."
"Things might seem a lot better for Rasta but once you dig beneath the red, gold and green surface you might find hidden resistance to the philosophy of Rastafari that is rooted in African consciousness."
Another point of contention is the mistreatment of Pinnacle in St. Catherine. It was the former home of Leonard Howell, one of the first preachers of the Rastafarian movement. The Jamaican government attempted to destroy the settlement on many occasions.
"Politicians do not recognise the value of the site as a powerful symbol of Rastafari economic independence," explains Cooper of the disregard for Pinnacle. "They do not want to admit that the destruction of Pinnacle was a barbaric act designed to punish Rasta for daring to organise themselves into a productive, self-sustaining community."
Alongside the fund for Coral Gardens, Andrew Holness pledged to set aside six lots at Pinnacle, declaring it a heritage site finally. "Pinnacle should be a site of celebration for Rasta across the globe," Cooper says of its significance. "It symbolises the daring of Rastafari who refused to be trapped in the concrete jungle and looked for a way out to create prosperity."
While the apparent acceptance may look or feel like a long-awaited victory, Cooper is a firm believer in staying true to the roots and forcing change. "Rasta need to claim Africa in Jamaica and get more involved in transforming the oppressive social institutions that are working against them," she explains. "Repatriation will remain a fundamental goal. But in the meantime, Rasta must do what they can to make Jamaica a better place for black people. Their vision of the future needs to accommodate both here and there."
As Buju Banton famously said on Hills and Valleys, "Only Rasta can liberate the people."