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The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

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Going far beyond the standard imagery of Rasta—ganja, reggae, and dreadlocks—this cultural history offers an uncensored vision of a movement with complex roots and the exceptional journey of a man who taught an enslaved people how to be proud and impose their culture on the world. In the 1920s Leonard Percival Howell and the First Rastas had a revelation concerning the divinity of Haile Selassie, king of Ethiopia, that established the vision for the most popular mystical movement of the 20th century, ...
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The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

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Overview


Going far beyond the standard imagery of Rasta—ganja, reggae, and dreadlocks—this cultural history offers an uncensored vision of a movement with complex roots and the exceptional journey of a man who taught an enslaved people how to be proud and impose their culture on the world. In the 1920s Leonard Percival Howell and the First Rastas had a revelation concerning the divinity of Haile Selassie, king of Ethiopia, that established the vision for the most popular mystical movement of the 20th century, Rastafarianism. Although jailed, ridiculed, and treated as insane, Howell, also known as the Gong, established a Rasta community of 4,500 members, the first agro-industrial enterprise devoted to producing marijuana. In the late 1950s the community was dispersed, disseminating Rasta teachings throughout the ghettos of the island. A young singer named Bob Marley adopted Howell's message, and through Marley's visions, reggae made its explosion in the music world.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Powerful historical and social forces come together in Lee's extraordinarily useful book. The First Rasta moves with a truth seeker's determination through the slums of Trenchtown and Jamaica's back country, revealing a dauntingly complex landscape and history in which oral history is often more reliable than the written record." —Publishers Weekly

"Incredible . . . a spellbinding saga . . . Lee's insightful combination of toughness and sensitivity is amazing." —The Beat

"The loose threads of Rasta history [are] impressively woven into a flag of green, red, and gold . . . a clear-eyed political history." —Kirkus Reviews

Booklist
Insightful look at one of the most influential mystical movements of the twentieth century.
The Beat
A smashing yarn.
Dirty Linen
Absolutely fascinating . . . a compelling must read for anyone who even pretends to be a reggae or ska fan.
All About Jazz
An ambitious project and an unqualified success.
Relix
Exacting and lushly written, the book is worthy of the highest esteem.
Ugly Things
A journalistic detective story.
Global Rhythm
Gets to the roots of what would become Jamaica's two greatest exports: reggae music and Rastafarianism.
Publishers Weekly
Powerful historical and social forces come together in Lib ration journalist Lee's extraordinarily useful book, which appeared in 1999 to acclaim. Jamaican prophet Leonard Howell's revelations in the 1920s about the symbolic portent for the African diaspora of Ras Tafari's crowning as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia led to the birth of one of the 20th century's most enduring and influential religious awakenings. The colonial forces that ruthlessly suppressed Howell and Rastafarianism in his lifetime have also hidden much of his biography, which Lee has reconstructed through impeccable research and dogged sleuthing. Partly a record of its author's journey in search of those who knew and followed Howell, The First Rasta moves with a truth seeker's determination through the slums of Trenchtown and Jamaica's back country, revealing a dauntingly complex landscape and history in which oral history is often more reliable than the written record. Between his part in the intellectual ferment of the Harlem of Langston Hughes and Marcus Garvey, and the destruction of his religious compound in the late '50s, Howell endured lengthy stays in both prisons and mental hospitals, but emerges in these pages as confident and vindicated. Lee's passionate biography, which includes 11 b&w photos, should draw in not only for students of religion, reggae or Jamaican history but has something to offer to anyone interested in the people and ideas that continue to shape the postcolonial world. (July 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
International music journalist Lee weaves the story of Leonard Percival Howell, the forgotten prophet, leader, and founder of the Rastafarian movement, with a history of Jamaica over the last 100 years. First published in French in 1999 and now translated, corrected, and updated, this book is partially based on the oral history Lee sought out from Rastafarian elders in rural and urban Jamaica. Howell saw the return of the King of Kings in the Ethiopian King Ras Tafari and began preaching his beliefs. Although Howell, also known as Gong, was ridiculed and jailed (where he discovered ganja and Hinduism), he was able to establish a Rasta community of more than 4500 members, whose marijuana crops assisted the impoverished. During the 1950s, the crops were seized, and the community dispersed, but Rasta teachings spread through the island's ghettos. Many musicians, including Oswald William (Count Ossie) and Bob Marley, embraced Rasta teachings, and the author provides the basics for understanding the roots of the music and its meaning to the Rasta movement. While there is no comparable biography of Howell, Chanting Down Babylon: The Rasta Reader offers a good overview of the movement, while Kebra Nagast, the holy book of Rastafarians and Ethiopian Christians, provides information on the Rastafarian faith. This engaging account is recommended for popular religious collections.-L. Kriz, West Des Moines P.L., IA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The loose threads of Rasta history, impressively woven into a flag of green, red, and gold by French music journalist Lee. This is a "real-time adventure in ethnology and religious history," writes Stephen Davis in the introduction, and he might have added that it's a clear-eyed political history, for Lee is a student of Jamaican history as well as a bit of a spiritual seeker. Rastafarianism is with Bob Marley and reggae, though Lee shows that it's a multifaceted and abiding presence in Jamaica and beyond. It can be said to have started with Leonard Howell, a Jamaican who made the work of Marcus Garvey and Athlyi Rogers fit the Jamaican situation, borrowing elements of Millenarist and Ethiopianist religions, aspects of the Hindu cycle of karma and rebirth, and wedding them to the national struggle for power. As much as a spiritual vision, Rastafarianism was a class fight, a force at odds with the colonial authorities as it espoused the social redemption of the black race: this being treason, for the king revered was not George V but Ras Tafari: Halie Selassi I of Ethiopia, lord of the land of return. Then there is ganja, which Howell may have begun deploying in his "tea room" on 136th Street in New York-"we can hardly imagine him serving Lipton tea"-but which was used also for overcoming fear, as of the colonial authority. Ganja, like music, became entwined in a nexus of profit and spirituality yet played a pivotal role in the ascension of various political parties. And the music-Kumina on to Burru, Count Ossie, and Marley-could be what "defines the country," though that seems a step back in terms of Rasta's kaleidoscopic past. Lee is an old-school journalist, building the story from theground up. No politicos or academics for her: Rasta is a movement of everyman.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781556525582
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/28/2004
  • Edition description: Translatio
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author


Hélène Lee is a journalist for Libération, specializing in the music of Africa and the Caribbean. Stephen Davis is the author of Bob Marley, Hammer of the Gods, and Walk This Way. He lives in Milton, Massachusetts.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 19, 2008

    The First Rasta.

    This book is an excellent presentation of one of Rastas most influential yet under recognized figures. Very informative and pleasantly constructed, the author ties her search for information to her own spiritual search, yet remains objective and skeptically inquisitive. A great book on a truly amazing individual, his faith, determination and it's resulting legacy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2004

    If I can get through the book...

    This book has potential to be very informative if I could only get past the writing style . I learned in college that simplicity is the best way to present anything. I feel like this writer chose, big elaborate words when they weren't needed and I also feel like the book jumps around leaving the reader confused and unable to follow. I didn't think I would have to take out my dictionary just to read this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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