Are Rastas Jamaican?

Rastafarianism originated in Jamaica in the 1930s and is commonly associated with Jamaica and Jamaican culture. However, Rastafarians can be found worldwide and come from many different backgrounds and ethnicities. So are all Rastas Jamaican? Here is a quick look at the history and global reach of the Rastafari movement.

The Roots of Rastafarianism in Jamaica

Rastafarianism emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s, arising from an interpretation of Biblical prophecy and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I’s coronation in 1930. The political climate in Jamaica, oppression of Black Jamaicans, and the influence of the Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement set the stage for this new religion.

Some key early proponents of Rastafarianism in Jamaica included Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley, and Robert Hinds. They spread the idea that Haile Selassie was the messiah and living god of the Black race. Rastas in Jamaica at the time faced significant oppression and discrimination from society and the government.

Early Rastas like Howell established communes to live out their faith and political visions. These communes aimed for self-sufficiency and promoted practices like growing marijuana for religious purposes. Jamaican Rastafarians also developed distinguishing lifestyle practices associated with the movement today like wearing dreadlocks, vegetarian diets, and avoidance of alcohol.

Rastafarian Culture Develops in Jamaica

Over several decades in the 1900s, Rastafarianism took on its distinctly Jamaican culture and appearance. Reggae music, which started emerging in the 1960s, carried strong Rastafarian themes and brought them into Jamaican popular culture.

Well-known Jamaican Rastas like Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley carried the messages of the religion and culture to the rest of the world. Rastafarian colors, symbols, and styles became iconically associated with Jamaica.

The Global Spread of Rastafarianism

Although starting in Jamaica, Rastafarianism has spread far beyond the island nation over the 20th and 21st centuries. Here is a look at the growth of the Rastafari movement and culture worldwide:

Early Spread

Small numbers of Rastas migrated abroad in the 1940s to 1950s, some to seek employment and others in part to escape prejudice in Jamaica. This led to early Rasta communities in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.

Marcus Garvey’s Influence

Marcus Garvey’s travels and speeches on Black empowerment had already spread his “Back to Africa” message across the Americas, Africa, and Europe. This laid the groundwork for acceptance of Rastafarian messages in many countries.

Reggae’s Emergence

Reggae music’s surge in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s carried Rasta culture across the globe. Well-known reggae artists like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots & the Maytals brought Rasta clothing, dreadlocks, and religious ideas worldwide through their songs and public image.

Conversion of Non-Jamaicans

From the 1960s onwards, individuals from African American, Black British, and African backgrounds with no Jamaican heritage converted to the Rastafari movement. Reggae music inspired many of these conversions.

Second-Generation Spread

In more recent decades, second and third generation Rastas have emerged outside Jamaica. People with Rastafarian parents have carried on the culture in their own communities, like Black British youth. Conversion to Rastafarianism continues today.

Where Rastafarians Live Today

Currently, Rastafarian communities exist worldwide. Some of the countries with significant Rasta populations include:

Jamaica About 10,000 Rastas in Jamaica currently by some estimates, concentrated in poor, rural areas
Ethiopia Rastas first settled in Ethiopia in the 1950s; approximately 2000 Rastas live there today
United States An unknown but substantial population of Rastas in the U.S., especially in urban areas
South Africa A growing population of Rastas can be found in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town
United Kingdom The U.K. has longstanding communities of both Jamaican-born and second-generation Black British Rastas
Canada Toronto and Halifax host large populations of Rastafarians
Other African Nations Small but growing Rasta communities have emerged in several sub-Saharan African countries like Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya

Can People of Any Race or Nationality Become Rastafarian?

Race or nationality does not preclude someone from converting to the Rastafari movement. While the religion originated among Black Jamaicans and has strong roots in the African diaspora’s experiences, individuals from any background may embrace Rastafarianism.

However, some Rastas argue non-Black individuals cannot fully participate in Rasta culture, which grew out of specific hardships faced by Black populations. Others welcome converts of all races as long as they respect Rastafari’s African heritage.

Requirements for Conversion

Becoming a Rasta involves more than wearing dreadlocks and smoking marijuana. Key tenets of the religion include:

  • Believing Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the messiah
  • Rejecting modern western society, called Babylon
  • Embracing principles of justice and empowerment for the African diaspora
  • Adopting a vegetarian or vegan ital diet
  • Avoiding alcohol and tobacco
  • Using marijuana ritually

An individual who wholeheartedly adopts these principles, regardless of race or nationality, can be viewed as a legitimate convert to Rastafarianism by many Rastas.

Are All Rastafarians ‘Black’?

No, not all Rastafarians would be considered ‘Black’ or of African descent. While the overwhelming majority of Rastas today are of African heritage, minorities of converts come from other racial groups, including white Europeans, Asians, indigenous peoples, and more.

Notable Non-Black Rastafarians

Some famous Rastas of non-African background include:

  • Chris Blackwell – A white British man, founder of Island Records, and key promoter of Bob Marley & the Wailers
  • Henna – An ethnic Japanese reggae artist and Rasta convert
  • Ficus – A Māori reggae artist with Rastafarian beliefs from New Zealand

These and other non-Black individuals have found meaning in Rastafarian spirituality and culture. Their conversion illustrates that one does not need Jamaican or African roots to embrace Rastafari philosophies and ways of life.

Do You Have to Be Jamaican to Be a Rasta?

No, identifying as ethnically Jamaican is not a requirement to become a Rastafarian. While the religion originated in Jamaica and strongly identifies with Jamaican culture, Rastas today come from many parts of the world.

In fact, some Rastafarians criticize Jamaican society and politics for its treatment of the religion during its early years. Rastas living abroad argue they face less discrimination and feel more freedom to express their faith than those in Jamaica.

Diversity Among Rastas Worldwide

Rastafarians worldwide represent incredible ethnic and national diversity. Rastas identifying as Jamaican are a minority among worldwide Rastafarians today. The global Rasta community includes, among others:

  • African Americans (with roots from slavery)
  • Afro-Caribbeans besides Jamaicans
  • Black Africans
  • Black Brits
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Asians
  • White Europeans

The only common denominator is shared devotion to the religious movement centered on Haile Selassie that emerged in Jamaica. Rastas do not need Jamaican bloodlines to fully embrace the culture.

Can White People Become Rastafarians?

Yes, white people can become Rastafarians. A minority of white Europeans, Americans, and others of European descent have converted to Rastafarianism.

Overcoming Skepticism

Many Rastas are initially skeptical of white interest in the religion. Because Rastafari emerged from the hardship of Black oppression, some question white motivations and ability to fully commit.

However, white converts who demonstrate true devotion to Rasta lifestyles and philosophies tend to gain acceptance. Learning about hardships faced by people of color and displaying solidarity through action can help overcome skepticism.

Famous White Rastafarians

Some notable white Rastafarian converts include:

  • Sinead O’Connor – An Irish singer who embraced Rastafari and changed her name to Shuhada Sadaqat after converting to Islam
  • Gentleman – A German reggae musician with Rastafarian influences
  • Matisyahu – An American Hasidic Jewish reggae artist inspired by Rastafarianism

These and other white Rastas faced criticism and doubt initially. But their personal journeys to discover Rastafari spirituality ultimately led to acceptance in many Rasta communities.


Rastafarianism originated in Jamaica and grew out of a unique set of historical, cultural, and social circumstances. As a result, it is strongly associated with Jamaican identity. However, Rastafari has never been confined to Jamaican or African ethnicities.

From a small religion in Jamaica, Rastafarianism transformed into a worldwide movement touching almost every part of the globe. Today Rastas of many races, nationalities, and backgrounds embrace the faith. While respecting its heritage, Rastafari now transcends any one nationality or culture.

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