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Look to the East: Haile Selassie and the Rastafari Movement

Yaw Adjei-Gyamfi explores the links between Emperor Haile Selassie and Rastafarians and considers why he remains a source of inspiration for Rastas all over the world.



Recently, Ethiopia became the third African country, after Rwanda and Seychelles, to achieve gender parity in their Cabinets when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s appointments saw women taking up half of the posts. A week later, Ethiopia made history when, through unanimous parliamentary approval, Ambassador Sahle-Work Zewde was appointed president, making her the first female head of state of modern Ethiopia.

While hailing this development, Ethiopians have reflected on the days of Empress Zewditu, one of the first women to govern and represent Ethiopia in international relations in the early 20th century. However, this is not the focus of this article. On 2 November 1930, one of the largest public events ever in the world took place in Abyssinia. In his song “Blessed is the Man”, Kabaka Pyramid refers to this event: “Bowing at his feet, 72 nations; Ras Makonnen crowned Conquering Lion.” It was the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen as the last Emperor of Ethiopia, along with his queen, Empress Menen Asfaw. He took the name “Haile Selassie” (Power of the Trinity) when he ascended the throne. We remember his commitment to advancing the cause of Pan-Africanism, as well as world peace and harmony. He is regarded as having laid the foundation for modern-day Ethiopia and for the transformation of the country. This article attempts to establish the connection between the Rastafari movement and Haile Selassie.

Coronation as “King of Kings”

Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen on 23 July 1892, in Ethiopia. He was the son of Ras Makonnen, a chief adviser to Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, and the ruler became his mentor, placing him in positions of power from a young age. After Menelik II’s death, Tafari became a prominent political figure and began shaping Ethiopian government. He rapidly became known for his progressive policies. He served as a regent in the government of Empress Zewditu. Even under the conservative reign of Empress Zewditu, his progressive policies gained national attention. He won the hearts of the Ethiopian people, who described him as more globally minded, and had nationwide appeal. This love and admiration for Ras Tafari heightened when he secured Ethiopia’s entry into the League of Nations in 1923. He was the first Ethiopian ruler to travel outside of the country. Ras Tafari was crowned two years after the death of his precedessor, Empress Zewditu, in 1928. Not long after did he begin his transformation agenda with a strong belief in the power of education as an essential catalyst for the modernisation of a nation. On 2 November 1930, together with his wife, Ras Tafari was crowned the King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion in St George’s Cathedral, Abyssinia (Addis Ababa).


Haile Selassie of Ethiopia standing in front of a throne, probably some time in the 1960s, wearing a suit, stiff collar, and boat cloak. Photo: Wiki commons

Haile Selassie and the Rastafari Movement

Haile Selassie is regarded by the Rastafari fraternity as the incarnation of God, to unify all the peoples of Africa and the human race. The name of the movement comes from “Ras Tafari”, a combination of his name and the noble title “Ras”, which translates to “prince”. Marcus Garvey’s teachings greatly influenced the formation of the Rastafari movement. Although Marcus Garvey never actually followed Rastafarianism or believed in it, he is considered to be one of the movement’s prophets, because it was his ideologies that eventually grew into the Rastafari ideology. (Martin, 2009). Garvey proclaimed that black people should look for the Black King who would be crowned in the East, because this King was the Black redeemer and deliverer. When he left for the United States, many of his followers still gathered together, but had no leader to follow. In 1930, when Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, many Garveyites had forgotten the message Garvey had told them when he left, but when Selassie was crowned it was remembered by many Rastas (Parmett, 2013). Leonard Howell, the founder of the Rastafari Movement, was a Garveyite. Howell has been considered as the first Rasta and his book, The Promised Key, launched the propagation of his message of Rastafarianism. He declared:

His Majesty Ras Tafari is the head over all man for he is the Supreme God. His body is the fullness of him that fillet all in all. Now my dear people, let this be our goal: Forward to the King of Kings must be the cry of our social hope.

Read: Four decades after Haile Selassie’s death, Ethiopia is an African success story

Forward to the King of Kings to purify our social standards and our way of living, and rebuild and inspire our character

Forward to the King of Kings to learn the worth of manhood and womanhood.


Forward to the King of Kings to learn His code of Laws from the mount, demanding
absolute Love, Purity, Honesty and Truthfulness

Forward to the King of Kings to learn His Laws and social order, so that virtue will eventually gain the victory over body and soul and that truth will drive away
falsehood and fraud.

File picture: Rastafarians celebrate after the South African Constitutional Court ruled that the personal use of marijuana is now legal. EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook

According to Beckford and Charles (2017:119), “Garvey congratulated Ras Tafari (name of Haile Selassie before his coronation) when he ascended the Ethiopian throne in 1930.” In an article in the Blackman newspaper in Jamaica, Garvey wrote on the coronation of Ras Tafari:

The Psalmist prophesied that princes would come out of Egypt and Ethiopia would stretch forth her hands unto God. We have no doubt that the time is now come. Ethiopia is now really stretching forth her hands. This great kingdom of the East has been hidden for many centuries, but gradually she is rising to take a leading place in the world and it is for us of the Negro race to assist in every way to hold up the hand of Emperor Ras Tafari.

The Rastas accepted the idea of Ethiopia as being their saviour with the influence of Marcus Garvey. His inspiring words has created an image of God to the Rastas:

If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. If the yellow man’s God is of his race, let him worship his God as he sees fit. We, as Negroes, have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no colour, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles. The God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, let him exist for the race that believe in the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. We, Negroes, believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God- God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, the one God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship him though the spectacles of Ethiopia (Garvey, 1925:44).


Read: Empress Zewditu: Ethiopia’s First female head of State

These words gave the Rastafarians hope and motivation to find their God in Ethiopia and have pride in their race. It encouraged the people to believe that they can be their own leaders, without the white minority telling them who to worship and follow. Haile Selassie nonetheless refuted his status as God, as claimed by the Rastafari community, during his visit to Jamaica in 1966, saying: “I have told them clearly that I am mortal, and I will be replaced by the oncoming generation. And they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.”


Revolutionary singer and reggae icon Robert Nesta Marley popularised the deification of Haile Selassie through his songs, declaring him the “return of the Messiah”. He adopted the famous speech of His Imperial Majesty delivered at the United Nations Assembly in 1963 in his song “War”. In his song “Selassie is the Chapel”, he expresses his intense love and reverence for the Ethiopian emperor:

Haile Selassie I is the chapel. Power of the Trinity.

Build your mind in this direction

Take your troubles to Selassie; he’s the only King of Kings


Serve the living God and live

Take your troubles to Selassie

He is the only King of Kings

Conquering Lion of Judah

Triumphantly we all must sing


I search and I search on book of Man

In the Revelation, look what I find

Haile Selassie is the chapel

Here’s all the world should know

That man is the angel


Our God, the King of Kings

Emperor Haile Selassie remains a source of inspiration for Rastas all over the world. His name has characterised several messages delivered in their reggae songs, hailing him as the pillar of the Rastafari faith. On a day to mark the 88th anniversary of his crowning as the King of Kings, Rastafari brethren in Africa have convened in Shashemene, Ethiopia, for the second All-Africa Rastafari Gathering (AARG) under the aegis of the Rastafari Continental Council. His messages of hope, progress, love and peace continue to resonate in the minds of Rastas and Africans at large. Let me end in the words of Burning Spear: “Hail Jah, the Farai. Hail Him for everything which is Good… Hail him without any apology. Hail His Imperial Majesty.”