Haile Selassie: Celebrating Bob Marley’s 70th on a Rastafari birthday

THURSDAY, JULY 23: During what would have been the year of Bob Marley’s 70th birthday, the world celebrates the legend of a Reggae artist—and, for the Rastafari, the man who helped place their religion on the international stage. Today, the Rastafari acclaim the birthday of their messiah, Emperor Haile Selassie—a man referenced in lyrics of Marley’s songs. In Rastafari communities worldwide, Selassie’s birthday is met with Nyabingi drumming sessions, chanting and dancing. Born in a mud hut in Ethiopia in 1892, Selassie—named Tafari Makonnen at birth—was the son of a governor who would become the final emperor of Ethiopia.

Did you know? The Rastafari receive their name from the combination of Ras—an honorific title, meaning “head”—and Tafari, part of Selassie’s birth name.

Looking for more Marley and other artists’ peacemaking music? Check out modern-day interfaith peacemaker Dan Buttry’s column—complete with links to videos.

Rastafari point to several sources as proof of Selassie’s destiny: astrological occurrences at the time of Selassie’s birth, a lineage traceable to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the prophesies of Marcus Garvey and biblical passages relating to Ethiopia and Zion. The constellation of Leo, which represents the house of Judah, was in full effect during the birth of Selassie on July 23, 1892. Marcus Garvey had been preaching of a messiah who would lead the African people to freedom. Biblical text relays that “he will be called … conquering lion of the tribe of Judah.” (For a Rasta view, click here.) When news of Selassie’s assumption of the Ethiopian throne reached Jamaica in 1930, the Rastafari movement was born.

Are Rastas Christian? Many Rastas believe in Jesus and embrace the Bible. What sets Rastas apart from other Christians is their belief that Haile Selassie was (is) a messiah. During his lifetime, Haile Selassie remained an Ethiopian Christian.


President Barack Obama visited The Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica, last April, and the museum has been receiving international media attention throughout the year of Marley’s 70th birth anniversary. Beyond Reggae, Marley wrote songs about war, revolution, protest, human rights and justice. Marley’s greatest hits collection, Legend, has been certified platinum 15 times, and the BBC named “One Love” the Song of the Millennium. This year, Billboard reviewed both the continued marketing of Marley’s image (he ranked No. 5 on Forbes’ 2014 Top Earning Dead Celebrity list) and the 10 protest songs that best exemplify his fight for social justice.

Interested in more? View a modern Rastafari celebration for Haile Selassie’s birthday here, and Time’s photos of Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica here. Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, converted to the Rasta faith after seeing Haile Selassie on his trip to Jamaica, claiming to have seen a stigmata print on his palm as he waved to the crowd. Rita influenced Bob in his conversion to Rastafari.

Grounation, aka Groundation, Day: Rastafari families recall Haile Selassie’s triumphant visit to Jamaica

SUNDAY, APRIL 21: Grounation Day marks a turn of events that shifted the worldview of the Rastafari religious movement—and converted Bob Marley’s wife to this faith with roots in Jamaica.

“GROUNATION” vs. “GROUNDATION”: As you will read below, the holiday’s name references the earth itself in a term often rendered “groun” in Jamaican media. However, the spelling is complicated by a popular tendency to add a “d” and make it “ground.” The “d” spelling now summons far more links via Google than the spelling minus a “d,” including a lot of independently designed Rastafari greeting cards and other media marking the holiday. Editors at the Wikipedia encyclopedia and the Urban Dictionary have adopted spellings without a “d.” But, it’s really your choice at the moment—”d” or no “d.” Read on and enjoy this fascinating story …


At 1:30 p.m. on this date in 1966, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie—who was already regarded as the Messiah of the fledgling Rastafari religion—touched down in Jamaica, beginning a short trip that would be his only visit to the country. (Wikipedia has details.) Reporters estimated that 100,000 Rastafari swarmed the Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, ready to welcome the Ethiopian leader whom they considered to be divine. The throng was so massive that Selassie couldn’t emerge from his plane. Then, Jamaican leader Ras Mortimer Planno stepped in to negotiate a proper entrance; Ras Mortimer Planno eventually would become a spiritual guru of Bob Marley.


Born in 1892, Haile Selassie I was Ethiopia’s regent from 1916 to 1930, ascending to the position of Emperor in 1930 and remaining there until 1974. Selassie was heir to a dynasty that could trace its origins, by tradition, to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Why did the Rastafari draw their spiritual connections? They were inspired by a famous Jamaican-American, the black nationalist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Many Jamaicans regard Garvey as a John the Baptist figure in their religious movement, especially as Garvey proclaimed: “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is at hand!” This kind of statement, often repeated by Garvey, was seen as pointing toward Haile Selassie.

From Selassie’s first years as Emperor, the Rastafari movement grew in Jamaica. Selassie was seen as a messianic figure who would lead oppressed people to a future golden age of peace, righteousness and prosperity. Selassie retained his own Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith throughout his life, although while in Jamaica, he never rebuked the Rastafari for their beliefs. Selassie appeared to encourage Rastafari elders by presenting them with gold medallions during his trip to Jamaica.


Selassie’s visit not only cemented respect for Rastafari in international headlines, but also changed the life of Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife. While a nonbeliever prior to this visit, she reportedly saw a stigma on Haile Selassie’s hand as he waved to the crowd, instantaneously making her aware of his divinity. Just moments prior, Selassie’s refusal to walk on a red carpet from his plane to the limousine translated into the Rastafari acceptance of grounation, indicating his “making contact with the soil”—and, furthermore, the name of this day as Grounation (or Groundation) Day.


Following the death of childhood friend Nate Dogg in 2011, Snoop Dogg began what many consider his most extreme transition yet: his acceptance of the Rastafari faith, which promotes peace, nonviolence and general kindness. After consultations with Rastafari elders, a documentary and a month-long recording session in Jamaica, Snoop has turned out 16 tracks in an album entitled, Reincarnated. Tracks will be available on iTunes April 23.