Jahlani Niaah is Chairman of the School of the Sacrament and the Rastafari Studies Global Coalition, and a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, specializing in African diaspora praxes, Rastafari cosmology, and Indigenous leadership. Recently, Niaah presented about the sacramental use of ganja in Rastafari prayer ritual at Chacruna’s conference, Sacred Plants in the Americas II.
I was truly humbled to speak with Jahlani Niaah about the little-known and often misunderstood Rastafari movement. Within the psychedelic movement, the sacramental use of ganja by Rastafari is often overlooked and side-lined. In this interview, Niaah provides a historical overview of the origins of the Rastafari movement, explaining certain key elements of Rastafari praxis, and how ganja first arrived in Jamaica. Niaah also shares about the sacramental use of ganja among the Rastafari, the function ganja has served in the anti-colonial politics of the Rastafari, and the role it serves today in the mystic religio-political tradition.
Jasmine Virdi: The Rastafari is not my area of expertise at all, so forgive me if some of the questions do not do justice to the movement. In the West, I believe we have a very limited understanding of what Rastafari is, and I would love if you could share more about its roots and what it means to be Rastafari.
Jahlani Niaah: The term “Rastafari” speaks to the community, the religion, both the collective and singular. The movement is just over 90 years old, having developed in the 1930s in Jamaica, just after the coronation of the Emperor and Empress of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie the first, his Imperial Majesty, and Empress Menen Asfaw. Based on their emergence in the world, post-World War I, and following the decline of European colonialism, these two individuals became closely tied to Biblical teachings that Africans had received while being enslaved about the Messiah, deliverance, redemption, and salvation.
Linked to the prophecies of the Bible about the return of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the coronation of Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 was interpreted by individuals in Jamaica as the signs that were expected. A central aspect is that the king identified in Ethiopia prophetically ascended the ancient biblical throne of David and revealed himself as bearing the name “power of the Holy Trinity.” Altogether, it was understood to be the promise of the Almighty Creator in flesh, returning to rule. The movement really finds its beginnings around that message being brought to Jamaicans by someone called Leonard Howell as early as 1932–33. It has since developed, taking on complex cultural understandings, philosophy, practices, aesthetics, and political dimension.
Generally, Rastafari refers to members of the movement, but Ras Tafari is the inspiration behind the movement itself.
JV: I’m also curious about the etymology of the word Rastafari. Where does it come from?
JN: Rastafari is an African-centered, Ethiopianess movement that emerged in the late eighteenth century. Ethiopianism is the first intellectual movement that began among the Africans in the diaspora and it is centered on the pride that Ethiopia assured us of by having clarity in the Bible by name, by description, so we are told of the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba. There is an Ethiopian-centeredness within Rastafari, and the language of Rastafari is the Ethiopian state language Amharic. This is not to say that Rastafari routinely speak Amharic, however, the terms “Ras” and “Tafari” come from Amharic. In the formation of the movement, those words have become joined as one. Generally, Rastafari refers to members of the movement, but Ras Tafari is the inspiration behind the movement itself.
The name given to the emperor, crowned Haile Selassie of Ethiopia by his family at birth, is “Tafari” and “Ras,” the prefix, is a title. As he grew in authority and became elevated in government, he was accorded the title “Ras” which is a title for ruler or for sovereign. “Tafari,” the given name of the emperor, actually means “creator,” or “one to be feared.” Haile Selassie is a church name because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the church of state. Many of us also have Ethiopian baptismal names. Haile Selassie, taken to mean “power of the Holy Trinity,” is the name that the emperor received upon his baptism.
JV: Thank you so much for that in-depth explanation. I’m also curious about how ganja first arrived in Jamaica and how it became such an integral part of the Rastafari movement?
JH: There is a metanarrative that suggests that cannabis came to Jamaica by way of persons from the subcontinent of India arriving in the Caribbean in the 1840s as indentured workers to supplement the newly emancipated Africans. Labor was still needed, and so there was an importation of indentured laborers from India, and it is said that they brought with them as free people, their culture and their affinity for cannabis. However, it might be better to say that the use of cannabis becomes explicit after the arrival of the Asians.
One scholar, Ken Bilby, suggests that cannabis has always been present in the Caribbean and in Jamaica, but the arrival of the East Indians provided a focal point for its celebration. My own research suggests that it was never a singular priority, in that the traditional African approach is one of mixtures of herbs, often including cannabis, but with no specific emphasis on the plant. There is still present, among Afro-Jamaicans, and Africans across the continent, the idea of personal smoking blends informed by individual tastes. There are a number of theories as to when herb first arrived in Jamaica; however, I am inclined to support the latter theory about its consistent presence because of my own research and what it demonstrates about the practice in our community.
JV: How did ganja first come to be criminalized in Jamaica? As far as I know, cannabis was first banned there under the 1913 Ganja Law.
JH: Ganja use moved from a cultural practice to a criminal practice 60 to 70 years after its visibility. The criminalization of ganja was driven by British laws that, in their own jurisdiction, laid out rules for a number of psychotropic plants, including ganja. The British had interest in controlling laboring populations, and criminalized practices that laborers were attracted to as a way to ensure they had control over action and movement of such people. A conversation emerged around the idea that ganja made the laborers lazy, defiant, and hard to work with. Thus, ganja became criminalized through various amendments that sought to label it as “dangerous” and bad for public health.
The criminalization of ganja and emergence of Rastafari almost occur in tandem. The Rastafari embraced ganja as a major part of its alternative lifestyle and, as it became criminalized, part of its alternative revolutionary, anti-social politics; insisting that ganja was a plant with no harm related to it.
The criminalization of ganja and emergence of Rastafari almost occur in tandem. The Rastafari embraced ganja as a major part of its alternative lifestyle and, as it became criminalized, part of its alternative revolutionary, anti-social politics; insisting that ganja was a plant with no harm related to it. Within the first two to three decades, the Rastafari centered around the use of ganja, not just as a human right, but as a ritual and a socio-economic good within the community, used as the key medium for meditation and communing.
This involvement of Rastafari with ganja is a major part of its early formation, guided by its founding fathers. Leonard Howell, who I’d mentioned, was known to have cultivated ganja as a cash crop, exporting it to the United Kingdom as a marketplace for it before it was restricted as a contraband. It was Howell, this early prophet of Rastafari who anchored the herb in a ritualistic way through verbal suggestions as to how to prepare and invoke its appropriate usage.
Howell was known to have had strong connections with the East Asian community, and so we know that culturally, the connection of the Asian arrivals in the 1840s impacted the way Rastafari culture developed. This is demonstrated in the preference for the Hindu term “ganja,” used to refer to cannabis. In addition, the paraphernalia used to smoke the herb also have maintained those influences. For example, kutchie, and chillum are terms that are still used in India to refer to aspects of smoking vessels. Rastafari also used to talk about burning “collie herb” which is a reference to Kali, the Hindu deity. Nowadays, this East Asian influence is increasingly less present as vocal aspects of the culture.
JV: Changing subjects slightly, I also read an article of yours in which you talk about Rastafari herb camps and their history as anticolonial sites. I’m curious to learn more about them and what function they served historically and in the present day. Beyond this, you described herb camps as a “Jamaican hybrid community therapy model, founded on ancient traditions, providing sacramental and recreational therapy.” I would love for you to expand upon this.
JN: My key focus looking at Rastafari is in discerning the implicit systems that have been developed in order to preserve and pass forward the culture to new generations. I started out looking at leadership and pedagogy in the Rastafari as my PhD, but I’m now more concerned about structural components; namely, the things that leadership is able to work through. That is what has brought me to looking at ganja and herb camps. My argument is also that ganja is a major medium for Rastafari instructions, such as Rastafari “overstanding” (as we describe understanding to be). In order to look more deeply at how ganja informs this, I needed to also look at the spaces for ganja ritual, production, and enjoyment. An herb camp acts as a small temple; a space in which people are preparing, working, and praying.
Generally, the herb camp provides a space where we can suit up and do our ritual, which acts as a way to reason together, to resolve issues, to pray together, and to share complex ideas and ambitions.
It is like a small temple, and in that space, people are preparing and working. Generally, the herb camp provides a space where we can suit up and do our ritual, which acts as a way to reason together, to resolve issues, to pray together, and to share complex ideas and ambitions. Ganja is now decriminalized in Jamaica, and so it is a provision that we are allowed to cultivate. The idea is that this is the space that one comes to in order to participate in the smoking of the chalice, the smoking of ganja.
JV: Thank you so much for sharing with me, I am so moved by the opportunity to witness the herb camp. Perhaps tangentially, another question that springs to mind is in relation to children and plant medicine. I’m wondering if there is a specific age at which youth can join in these sacramental ceremonies.
Rastafari is a community of initiates where ganja is concerned; it teaches this and advises what are the best protocols and practice, proposing consequences and remedies if these things are not ordered in the way suggested.
JN: It is not a homogenous space as far as individual practice. I think that there is a general acceptance by most members of the community that ganja is more harmless than harmful, and, placing that in a more affirmative way, it is more positive than negative. The knowledge that the community holds is that the use of ganja needs initiation, and people differ as to how early that initiation should occur. Rastafari is a community of initiates where ganja is concerned; it teaches this and advises what are the best protocols and practice, proposing consequences and remedies if these things are not ordered in the way suggested. There is enough authoritative sort of command: if someone sees another person in a particular state, they understand how critical their own response should be in aiding.
Generally, that the approach is that persons must be initiated and initiation can take place very early. In some instances, parents might introduce babies to the secondary smoke which is infused in their space, for them to be able to naturally just inhale what is residual. There is also specific introduction through preparing ganja and saying “let’s smoke,” and I even have a colleague who, very early on, gave his son all of the ritual vessels that he needed, teaching him that ganja is a kind of food-medicine that you need to understand your own hunger. He introduced him to it and left him to begin to develop a relationship with the plant.
I am not aware of any member of the community being particularly averse to children being exposed. Normally what happens is that children experiment, usually in secret, and parents either ask them, “why the need for secrecy?” or they allow them the secrecy so that they can monitor and govern their own habits, in their own space and time. There is no specific teaching, but generally, there is a great level of support, especially after adolescence.
JV: Most things I have read point to the fact that men generally dominate the Rastafari movement. Could you tell me more about the role of women in the Rastafari movement? Are women part of smoking rituals?
JH: It is an interesting question you’ve raised because Rastafari, especially in the Jamaican context, is largely male dominated. In terms of official statistics, it is said that 85% of the movement is male in Jamaica. There is really a minority female presence in the movement, and almost an expectation that Rastafari is male. This has framed what is often described as a patriarchal movement.
Having said that, it is true that Rastafari is particularly Old Testament in its understanding of woman. Among some members of the community, this Old Testament interpretation is further refined or reduced by its reliance on ecclesiastical teachings about women, how they should conduct themselves, how they should dress, and even the separation of women who are menstruating. In some instances, especially among the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress, there is an expectation that women, even when married with families, should separate themselves during menstruation from their households. Their husbands should provide the support services to have his wife unmolested with the need to cook and tend to children. At the same time, there is also a more popular culture where women are seen as queens and empresses, so there is a lived separation. There is an overarching doctrine and ideology that holds and celebrates women as the figure of the Black Madonna, the source of all creation, restoring a sense of regal dignity in black women.
Livity is a central concept for Rastafari, in the way that I suggested that Rastafari prefers to be read and spoken to as Rastafari and not Rastafarianism, livity is our preferred notion of what we represent versus religion.
JV: Another question is related to Rastafari culture more broadly: I have read across the term livity, and I’m wondering what that means and how that relates to sacramental ganja use?
JH: Livity is a central concept for Rastafari, in the way that I suggested that Rastafari prefers to be read and spoken to as Rastafari and not Rastafarianism, livity is our preferred notion of what we represent versus religion. If you were to ask us to express to you who we are, we would say that we are a livity. Livity is a way of life, but it is also part of the continuum that determines who is Rastafari; so, often, it is spoken that it is the livity and not the rhetoric or the mere appearance that determines who is Rastafari. Livity is an ontological statement of selfhood, born out of the day-to-day expressions of the heart and actions guided by it.
JV: I could talk to you all day, but I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. Thus, my final question is broad: What else would you like to share with people reading this piece?
JH: My intention is to explore and share a little glimpse into a bigger body of work that looks at Rastafari and ganja in Jamaica; to talk about ganja as a part of prayer. My inspiration is that decriminalization amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act in Jamaica have provided an attitude for Rastafari to use ganja as a sacrament; but, this shifting conversation can’t necessarily be interpreted through the language and the logic of the colonizer. My interest is in presenting prayer, not as a mere verbal act, but as a ritual. I’m of the hope that people will see a little more into the complex but simple, life-giving aspects of the culture of Rastafari.
Art by Mariom Luna.
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