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Book Reviews

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

By Published: October 1, 2003
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.

Hélène Lee relates her study of the so-called first rasta in a narrative that pauses for oral accounts and dwells in depth on scholarly examination. Given that this is the first formal study of Leonard Howell, her occasional dryness deserves forgiveness. Debating whether and when exactly Howell lived in Panama during his youth, for example, holds only marginal interest and relevance. But the scholars care, so let them study this. The rest of us can move on.

And Lee's story, as it unwinds, is masterful in its coherence and understanding. Leonard Howell, son of an agricultural worker and sometimes tailor, left Jamaica in his youth to explore the big world, pausing in New York to absorb the surging black culture of the Harlem Renaissance and its intense, often fragmented spiritualism. Apparently he never went to Ethiopia, an interesting fact given his obsession with that country and its leader. But no need; he learned how to preach and recruit. These skills allowed him, after some time, to build a following in his home country.

Whether or not they might seem like a distant antecedent, Howell's roots matter. They help explain his methods (not too different from street preachers and cult leaders of the day, though he had his own rules and a personal vision). His relationship with Marcus Garvey, mentioned at several points throughout The First Rasta, remained more ideological than personal. The return to Africa was the shared concept. Bob Marley did not write "Exodus" for no reason.




V. Pinnacle

Along the way, as might be expected given the insecurity of Jamaica's government and Howell's outspoken criticism of false authority, he was subjected to police scrutiny and imprisonment. He spent some time in a mental institution. But despite intermittent bouts of growth and persecution, Howell found a home for himself and his people. It was called Pinnacle, a patch of land high in the hills of Jamaica, isolated from the rest of the island, with an incredible view of the land and the sea. The land wasn't particularly fertile, but Howell managed (after some hard times) to find sustenance for his community of thousands of followers.

Which brings us to the sacrament of Rastafarianism. Marijuana, or ganja, has long been regarded by Rastafarians as a vehicle for spirituality—ganja projects its strength in the form of awakening and awareness. Here is where Hélène Lee hits her stride. She makes a point of visiting Pinnacle (now defunct and run down), spending enough time to absorb the ghostly spirit of the place.

Starting on page two and through most of the book, she relates how Pinnacle became home for a people who shared a messiah and a hero, a safe haven from the forces of oppression. Interestingly enough (and relevant to the Rasta belief system), women played a subordinate role to men both in the general community and in Howell's personal harem. Apparently he was quite an attractive fellow, or so they say. I don't doubt it.

Here is the ultimate irony of Leonard Howell and Pinnacle. Lee does a masterful job of communicating this point, conveying the information without judgment or heavy-handedness. The sacrament of Rastafarianism, a fundamentally peaceful and private gesture toward reconciliation, became the movement's product. When sacrament becomes product, you know a culture is in trouble. (Look at today's world for more evidence.)

Anyway, ganja was the (ostensible) reason Pinnacle went down. The Jamaican goveernment grew tired of its massive marijuana cultivation and export, sending forces up the hill to burn the fields down and destroy the commune. They succeeded.




VI. Aftermath and Rebirth

After this 1954 event, Howell mostly faded into the background until his death. Other leaders stepped up to fill his shoes, propagating his core ideology and introducing enough new ideas to fragment and unify the movement. Without Pinnacle, Rastas returned to the urban ghetto, where their poverty served as a constant reminder of the basis for their beliefs. Depending on their affiliation, they were subject to harrassment and persecution by the government or rival sects. The Twelve Tribes of Israel (founded in 1968) drew Bob Marley into their fold, for example, as a representative of Joseph. But the Twelve Tribes did fly high for long.

Lee spends some time with the aftermath of Howell (who didn't personally go until 1981, after his "seventh crucifixion"). It's not a particularly exciting time, except for the music.

The people of Jamaica are from Africa; their music is black too. Early drum units (called to jam in Rasta communities, for example) made a pact with instrumentalists, with the end result that their beat became simplified but still highly stylized. Count Ossie had his first big hit in 1961. Jamaica would go through ska and rocksteady before it hit reggae, and then down the road dub, toasting, and dancehall. At each step along the way the international community found a new source of musical food to devour. Less and less of the music may be ostensibly associated with Rastafarianism, but those roots still run deep in a spiritual sense.




VII. The Meaning of Rastafarianism

The fundamental concerns of Rastafarianism past and present revolve around the dichotomous relationships between Zion and Babylon. Zion, for the Rasta, represents a return to home and spiritual peace. It is that place of good we all desire to inhabit, in this case a special corner of Africa one can call spiritual home. Babylon symbolizes oppression (and white masters, among the racist faction), injustice (economic as well as social), and many other things which demean human dignity. To turn toward Zion requires turning against Babylon, which is reason enough for anyone to pause.

Interestingly enough, only a very tiny fraction of Rastafarians actually made the pilgrimage to Africa, despite the fact that Haile Selassie reserved a special place for them to live. The vision seems to have been more important than the execution.

Reggae may have been the mouthpiece of the movement, but the fire lives on in thousands of Jamaican hearts. They know what they need, and they know what they want. It always helps to have a leader (in the form of Leonard Howell or Bob Marley, or any of today's visionaries), but in the end they are more the channel than the revelation.

Hélène Lee understands all this. The ensuing events following the demise of Pinnacle mostly evade hearty concern on her behalf, which is fair given the book's obsession with the "first" Rasta. She treats them as relevant details which connect a continuum, but obviously wasn't all that inspired about it. An understandable position... let the scholars come to terms with the complete story from soup to nuts. The music makes a nice link for her to recognize and appreciate.




VIII. In The End

But in the end politics, history, and culture all matter. We all need a hero; we all want a messiah. If not today, then tomorrow: rebirth is the route to eternal life. Smoke some ganja and listen carefully to some Marley and maybe you'll understand this fundamental truth more deeply.

But don't smoke ganja while reading The First Rasta, though, or you'll get derailed in no time flat.

Note: this book was originally published in 1999 by Flammarion, France as Le Premier Rasta. The translation by Lily Davis and the author works great for me.

The First Rasta is also available in paperback form as of January, 2005.

For more information, visit Independent Publishers Group on the web.

Also see Time magazine's extended Selassie coverage, or read Haile Selassie's address to the United Nations General Assembly in October, 1963.



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