By Bob Schulman
It was a long trip, but at last you're down in the Caribbean, sipping cool ones and shakin’ your booty to peppy reggae tunes. Chances are you don't know it, but behind that catchy music is a story linking some royal hanky-panky in ancient Jerusalem to a 20th century Ethiopian emperor today worshipped by a million people around the world. Here's how all this came about.
Legends say Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, heard about the great wisdom of King Solomon from a talking Hoopoe bird (possibly sent her way by the king's public relations man). The queen decides to get a first-hand look at the wise king, so she puts together a royal caravan of 797 camels loaded with gifts, makes the 1,400-mile trip from Sheba (now Ethiopia) to Jerusalem, swaps riddles, and more, with King Solomon for six months, and comes back pregnant. Their child is named Menelik, “the chosen one.”
Fast-forward 3,000 years, and all of this comes together again in an unlikely spot half-way around the world from Sheba. The legacy of Solomon and his stunningly beautiful black queen is seen today in the sun-drenched islands of the Caribbean – and particularly in Jamaica – in the adoration of a 20th century Ethiopian emperor.
You see his portraits all over the islands, from ghetto walls to the jewel boxes of reggae CDs. His likeness shows up in places of honor in as many as a million black homes in the Caribbean and elsewhere around the world. They call themselves Rastafarians. Rastas for short.
The emperor was Haile Selassie. Actually, that was his title, meaning Lord of Lords, King of Kings and the Conquering Lion of Judah. He’s believed to have been the 225th descendant of Solomon and Makeda in the Menelik bloodline.
His name was Ras (Prince) Tafari – hence the Rastafarians.
The Rasta religion is said to have been sparked by a prophesy. It was made by Jamaican entrepreneur Marcus Garvey, who’d moved to New York in 1916 to found an organization called the United Negro Improvement Association.
Under the UNIA umbrella – the organization reportedly had millions of members in 22 countries during its heyday -- Garvey promoted a “Back to Africa” movement in which the descendants of slaves would return to their ancestral homeland. As planned, they'd cross the Atlantic on the cruise ships of a company (owned by Garvey) to be called the Black Star Line (a poke at England's White Star Line, parent company of the Titanic and other mega-ships).
The movement didn’t pan out, but a prophesy made by Garvey before he was deported back to Jamaica in 1927 was to make him a legend in the islands. He said, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King, he shall be the Redeemer.”
On Nov. 2, 1930, Haile Selassie ascended to the throne of Ethiopia. In the “yards” and shanty towns of Jamaica and other islands, word quickly spread that Marcus Garvey’s prophesy had come true. A new religion took root, based in large part on the lineage of Haile Selassie and backed up by selected verses from the Old Testament. To the Rastafarians, the Ethiopian emperor was their God-king, or Jah as they called him.
The faith was thrust into the global spotlight a few decades later when Jamaican reggae tunes by island superstars of the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh began burning up the airwaves -- all packed with the singers' Rasta dogma.
Reggae songs still carry the Rasta message. Listen close, and chances are you'll hear repeated references to Haile Selassie, Jah and Marcus Garvey.
Tales of the Hoopoe bird live on, too. In one story, the Queen of Sheba challenges Solomon to build her a palace out of bird beaks. He then commands all the birds in the world to give up their beaks, which they do – all but the Hoopoe, who charges Solomon with depriving the world of bird beaks just to impress Makeda. The king agrees that he was being selfish, and rewards the Hoopoe with a crown of golden feathers. All Hoopoes have been born with the golden crown ever since.
A fact: In 2008, the Hoopoe was named the national bird of Israel.
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