Rastafari demystified

Montreal writer Erin MacLeod explores Ethiopia’s Rastafari movement in Visions of Zion.

Visions of Zion fullMost Montrealers know Erin MacLeod as a reggae music critic and culture reporter, for the Mirror (RIP) and Cult MTL, among other newspapers and websites. She’s also been a teacher, a lecturer and an international development worker in Jamaica and Ethiopia, and her new book, Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land, brings all of her passions together.

I spoke to her about this project, seven years in the making, ahead of this weekend’s local book launch:

Darcy MacDonald: What are some of the most common misconceptions about Rastafari? Or rather, what are the things people tend to flat-out not understand about the religion and its followers?
Erin MacLeod: There are a lot of stereotypes: the image of the dreadlocked, weed-smoking, Bob Marley-soundtracked Rastafari is looked upon as not being a serious movement. I suppose the idea of it being a “religion” might also be a misconception. It is really more of a movement — what Rastafari might call a “livity.” A way of life.

DM: The closest text I have read to make any comparison is Tim White’s Catch a Fire, which lays out Rastafari 101 for the layperson pretty well, but what are some of the relevant texts that inspired you or that perhaps you discovered in your research?
EM: My work was specifically about the Ethiopian perception of the Rastafari, so I read a whole lot about Ethiopian history, such as looking at the 1896 Battle of Adwa, and its resonance. What was more important to my research than texts was speaking to people in Ethiopia: priests, students, broadcasters, journalists, shop owners, waiters, Rastafari, children of Rastafari and so on. Oral narratives truly shaped and created the text.

EM: Where does your own interest in the subject stem from?
DM: In 2003, I was a Cuso International volunteer in Kingston, Jamaica. I had always been a fan of reggae, but living in Kingston meant that I spent quite a bit more time thinking about the lyrics, talking about Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and Shashemene. On my return to Montreal, I had the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia with Habitat for Humanity, and ended up spending some time travelling to Shashemene, 250 kilometers from Addis Ababa, and visiting the Rastafari settlement there, a settlement on land that was famously given to the black people of the world by Haile Selassie as a thank you for support during the Italian occupation of the country in the 1930s. I thought, based on what I learned in Jamaica, that it would be a Rastafari town, but instead I found a few hundred settlers living on the outskirts of a town of 100,000 Ethiopians. I asked a friend in Addis what Ethiopians think about these immigrants to the country. His response? “No one every asks us.” I thought it would be a good idea to ask, and as someone whose Irish and Scottish roots led me to feel connected with post-coloniality, I found this situation fascinating. A movement that stems directly from a post-colonial understanding of the world coming up against the Ethiopian historical narrative of independence. Alongside this, there is also the fact that the relationship between Ethiopians and Rastafari sheds light on issues of immigration and the negotiations that happen between migrants and host communities.

DM:  Who is your intended readership for Visions of Zion? What might an academic take away from it and what might a general-interest reader find more gripping?
EM: Of course, the book is academic, but I really also wanted it to be appealing to a general audience. I’m a bit of an obsessive storyteller. I’m interested in listening to stories that people tell, and in this book attempting to bring together different narratives in order to paint a picture of the Ethiopian perception of the Rastafari. I interviewed over 100 people for the book, and I think that their stories and ideas and perceptions are fascinating. I hope that those who read the book will think so, too, even if they’re not necessarily reading from a scholarly perspective that might see this book as a piece of work dealing with immigration, pan-Africanism, cultural identity, citizenship and post-colonialism, among other topics.

DM: What impact do you hope the book will have? What difference can it make?
EM: I hope that the book can act not only as a means of describing the relationship between Ethiopians and Rastafari, but that it can also provide a case that can inform relationships between host communities and immigrants. Here in Quebec, where there has been a continuing and quite dispiriting discussion of so-called “reasonable accommodation” and “values,” I think that understanding other situations can be very helpful. I believe that there is great potential for Rastafari to contribute to Ethiopian society, but there is a gap of understanding that, if filled, would make this much more possible. ■
Erin MacLeod launches Visions of Zion (NYU Press) at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard W.) this Saturday, Nov. 1, 79 p.m., free