Hélène Lee: The First Rasta--Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

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Hélène Lee
The First Rasta—Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism
Lawrence Hill Books
ISBN: 1556524668


Every culture has its hero; every religion has its messiah. Sometimes the lines become blurred, and that's when we learn about the relationship between needs and wants among the fellow members of our species. We all need to believe there is a force of good (a force indeed), and we all want to be close to it. How that comes to be realized, and how the duality is balanced, lies in the mind and spirit of the individual. Think on that. It matters at every step along this story and life as well.




I. The First Rasta

This article aims at revealing some ideas brought to life by Hélène Lee, the author of The First Rasta. The French journalist and world traveler has lived a patchwork quilt existence, traveling Jamaica and Africa, which serves her analysis of the Jamaican belief system called Rastafarianism quite well. She has the perspective to see Jamaica from the inside without losing herself in its mystery and magic. That's no small thing. Her story revolves around Leonard Howell, whom she presents as the first real prophet of Rastafarianism. She touches on history, language, art, and culture along the way.

The First Rasta is an ambitious project and an unqualified success, though the story shifts perspective dramatically once Howell's main following disintegrates. By presenting the high points of Lee's narrative in an abbreviated form, I hope to shine light on the specific aspects she stresses the most in her story. Interested readers can look to the book to see them expanded in full technicolor.




II. Reggae and Rastafarianism

Jamaican culture, to the extent it has been recognized by the world, revolves around its music. Reggae has come to be the Caribbean island's greatest export. Bob Marley's birthday is a national holiday. One look deeper and it's readily apparent that reggae and Rastafarianism are inextricably intertwined. Marley for one never hid the fact that he viewed his music as a platform for his beliefs. Rastafarianism, for those few outsiders who are familiar with the term, usually represents a hair style and colorful clothes, spirituality and ganja. But that's just the beginning of it. (Though ganja, as we will see, was almost the premature end of it.)

Hélène Lee looks at this culture through the many prisms of personal experience, first-hand oral tradition, and scholarly study, forming a predominant focus on its hero in The First Rasta, Leonard Howell. Like any proper cult leader, Howell's roots and experiences remain shrouded in mystery. Lee takes on his cloudy past and tries her best to unravel the many threads (often contradictory) that inform his story. In the end her book is a revelation, not so much about Rastafarianism—though it's more than informative on that subject—but more about our heroes and our messiahs, our needs and our wants. And those are universal concepts.




III. The Chief, The King, The Lion & The Messiah

Rasta culture has exploded over time from its meager beginnings in the '30s to its relative legions of believers today. The origins of the word explain the core of its meaning. Back in 1927, an Ethiopian of noble descent became Ras Tafari ("chief Tafari"). He ascended to the throne in Ethiopia in 1930, adopting the formal title Haile Sellasie I ("Power of the Trinity") along with a string of other names: "King of Kings," "Lord of Lords," "Light of Saba," "the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah." He claimed direct descent from Queen Sheba and King Solomon.

Lee recounts how Rasta culture evolved from worship of Selassie as a messiah, thoroughly associated with the beauty of blackness, the injustice of slavery, and the idea of the diaspora (and its corollary, return). When Selassie came for a Jamaican state visit in 1966, thousands of followers greeted his plane weeping and moaning. Even after Selassie's death - which caused great consternation and a schism among Rastas - these guiding principles still reign supreme.




IV. The First Rasta

It's all about needs and wants, really. Jamaica, a British colony once mostly inhabited by African slaves, is rooted in the vast and usually race-based extremes of wealth and poverty, domination and submission. Despite the abolition of slavery and independence from Britain, these injustices never really went away.

Rastas turned to Selassie because he represented an abstract vision of African strength and the idea of home—both in the sense of a united Africa and a spiritual center. It certainly didn't heart to have a devoted proponent/prophet in the form of Leonard Howell, either.


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