Most of its many sects worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, even though he was widely considered a despot in his native land and paid little heed to his adulation by faraway Caribbean people whose ancestry tended to be West African and not Ethiopian.
The worship of Selassie is rooted in Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey's 1920s prediction that a "black king shall be crowned" in Africa, ushering in a "day of deliverance." When an Ethiopian prince named Ras Tafari, who took the name Haile Selassie I, became emperor in 1930, the descendants of slaves in Jamaica took it as proof that Garvey's prophecy was being fulfilled. When Selassie came to Jamaica in 1966, he was mobbed by cheering crowds, and many Rastafarians insisted miracles and other mystical happenings occurred during his visit.
Adherents were long treated as second-class citizens in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, looked down on for their dreadlocks and use of marijuana. But discrimination never stopped businessmen from cashing in on the faith, whose red, green and gold clothing and accessories earn millions in sales of T-shirts, crocheted caps and other items. Marley's music and the faith's pot-laced mysticism has also been used to promote Jamaica as a tourist destination
Rastafarian and veteran reggae luminary Tony Rebel said discrimination against Rastas has faded considerably in recent years in Jamaica.
"That discriminatory vibe has relaxed. But even so, we still we don't see a person with locks working in a bank these days, we don't see a person with locks in the police force as we would see in America or other places," Rebel said.
The first dreadlocked politician in Jamaica's Parliament was elected only last year.
Many Rastas advocate reparations for slavery and a return to Africa. The latter is a particularly fervent desire among those at Bobo Ashanti, who differ from other Rasta sects in the belief that their founder, King Emmanuel Charles Edwards, was the black incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Some Jamaicans dismiss the faith as bizarre.
"There is a whole part of the society that would still consider Rastafari to be delusional, and this is largely hinged on the claims made about Emperor Haile Selassie and also the consumption of (marijuana) and the idea of repatriation," Niaah said.
But for adherents like Prince Xavier, a 27-year-old Frenchman who moved to the Bobo Ashanti commune a couple of years after being introduced to Rastafarians in his native Paris, it's providing answers and a positive self-identity.
"I'm learning a lot about Rastafari and about our heritage," said the bearded Frenchman, clad in a red turban and black robe. "It is a matter of life and death."
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd
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