5 Origins of Dreadlocks in the Rastafari Movement
ow did dreadlocks become synonymous with the Rastafari movement? While the temptation may be to offer a simple answer to this question, the truth is more complex than some may realize.
The Rastafarian practice of wearing dreadlocks as an article of faith is the result of many different influences that converged during the early years of Emperor Haile Selassie's reign. What follows is a brief examination of those influences and how they shaped what is now accepted as a basic principle of the Rastafari movement.
Author Charles Price, in his book "Becoming Rasta," writes: "Putting" on one's "knotty," "covenant" or dreadlocks, had by the late 1970s become a primary means of publicly displaying or symbolically conveying one's identity and commitment to Rastafari." 1
1. The Ethiopian Connection
His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, was crowned on November 2nd, 1930. At that time, He was given the titles King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The flag of Ethiopia during His Majesty's time - green, yellow and red - has a powerful image of the Lion of Judah in the center proudly bearing the banner of His Empire. Seeing this, the early Rastafarians came to identify themselves, as followers of His Majesty, with this imagery of the Lion of Judah.
"The Rastas declared their identification with the lion - in its roar, its hair, its body strength, intelligence and total movements. The mane of the lion's hair was compared favorably with the locks of the brethren... This identification was made easier by the fact that the Ethiopian monarch had tame lions in his household and that he himself had acquired the title - The Lion of Judah" 2
But that's only part of the Ethiopian connection to dreadlocks. When one visits Ethiopia's ancient holy sites of Lalibela and Axum, the antiquity of their religion becomes clear. Traditions dating to the time of Christ and earlier are reminders of the continuity of Ethiopian history from Biblical times until now.
These traditional practices are illustrated by the Bahtawi, Ethiopian monks who have rejected worldly possessions in favor of a life of spiritual study. These holy men have, for millennia, taken the vow of the Nazarite as an expression of their faith. A vow which, as we will discuss later in this article, has the natural result of forming dreadlocks.
2. Warriors in Africa
According to many firsthand accounts, the popularity of dreadlocks within the Rastafari movement exploded with news reports of the liberation efforts in Kenya during the 1950's. The news media regularly reported on the events in Kenya with pictures of the African freedom fighters, known as "Mau Mau," whose hair naturally developed into dreadlocks during their prolonged struggle against the British.
"When the struggle of the Land and Freedom Army (called Mau Mau) in Kenya exploded, and the Rastas saw pictures of the freedom fighters with their natural hair, long and matted, the Rasta positively identified with these fighters and began to wear their hair in 'locks.'" 3
Knowing the events which took place in Kenya, and seeing the growing tide of African nationalism that was sweeping not just the African continent but wherever there were people of African descent throughout the world, authorities grew fearful of Rastafari. They labeled us as a subversive movement. This only added to their brutalization and suppression of the early Rastafari. "The State did not take a dispassionate attitude to the appearance of Black men and women wearing those locks, similar to the dreaded Mau Mau who were being shown on the British newsreels." 4
Even before the Mau Mau resistance in the 1950's, there were newsreels of other African warriors who wore dreadlocks during their resistance against foreign invaders. These warriors were situated at the very root of Rastafari, in Ethiopia. They were guerilla soldiers who refused to cut their hair until His Majesty triumphed over the forces of tyranny in World War II.
3. Natural lifestyle
"To the Rastafarians it signifies power, freedom and defiance. "Dread" means rebellion or a certain behavior pattern outside of society." 5
Dreadlocks are the natural result of allowing ones hair to grow freely without cutting, trimming or other manipulation.
This is especially true for people of African descent, who made up nearly all Rastafarians during the early years of the movement and still make up the majority of Rastafarians today.
For this reason - the natural tendency of our hair to form them - dreadlocks are a declaration of power in the face of powerlessness. A clear statement of defiance against a system which has for so long denied people of African descent their identity and heritage. A reaffirmation that our God-given features are no less beautiful than anyone else's. A reminder that in the embrace of our own individuality there is a unique beauty which should be a source of dignity, not shame.
"Ideologically, dreadlocks express the Rastafarian belief in and commitment to naturalness. Trimming and combing, as well as straightening, are regarded as artificial, because they change the natural looks… Dreadlocks thus bespeak the Rastas' uncompromising posture against the artificiality of Babylon." 6
4. African Identity
"The appearance of the Rastas with their locks threw greater fear into the hearts of the ruling class, for the popular version of beauty at that time suggested that a black person who wore their hair long and in its natural form was ugly and offensive." 7
Dreadlocks emerge for the early Rastafarians as a clear way to distinguish themselves from the dominant culture of the west, by embracing their natural African identity and rejecting the European standards of beauty which had for so long been forced upon them. In this way the dreadlocks became one of the many ways in which Rastafarians would reclaim their dignity and self-respect as Africans, and begin to remove the shackles of what Marcus Garvey called "mental slavery."
"Aesthetically, they indicate a rejection of Babylon's definition of beauty, especially as it relates to European features and hair quality. According to Rastas, hair straightening and skin bleaching by black people reflect a yearning for whiteness and are therefore symptomatic of alienation from one's African beauty." 8
5. Nazarite Vow / Biblical
Rastafari elder Sam Brown once said, "We are warriors… we take the vow of the Nazarites… When the people them look on I and I, them see I and I art dreadful and awesome, and them tremble in them boots!" 9
While the previous explanations are just as valid, the most common answer to the question "Why do you wear dreadlocks?" among Rastafarians is rooted in the religious traditions of our ancestors. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Moses sets guidelines for those who want to separate themselves from the regular members of society by devoting their lives to spiritual practice. This vow of separation is called the Nazarite Vow.
"Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall ...vow the vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the LORD ... All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow." - Numbers 6:2,5
Along with being a sign of our covenant with JAH, dreadlocks have been said to strengthen the link between the spiritual and physical realms. According to the Bible, it was his dreadlocks that gave Samson legendary strength against the enemies of the Lord. Without them, he was unable to subdue his enemies. In modern times, that connection has been preserved by Rastafari.
"Dreadlocks also function as a mystical link between Rastas and JAH, or "earth force." In this context locks are a kind of receptor or "psychic antenna" … connecting Rastas with their God and with his mystical power…" 10