The legacy of Haile Selassie – A salute!


Statue of emperor Haile Selassie teaching 12 students at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Picture: Stephen Scourfield


There’s a little drum riff, the brass section comes in on the off-beat, then there’s Bob Marley’s unmistakable voice . . .


Until the philosophy which hold one race superior . . .

And another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned . . .

Everywhere is war . . .

It’s Marley’s song War, a powerful anthem for equality, and the lyrics are mostly the words delivered by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to the United Nations General Assembly in June 1963.

The emperor had ended his list of unacceptable inequalities across Africa with the words “the African continent will not know peace”, but Marley introduced the word “war”.

Despite his death from cancer, Marley is still the most visible devotee of the Rastafarian movement which, though more associated with his home country of Jamaica, has its roots here in Ethiopia.

Emperor Haile Selassie I took this name as the ruler of what may be described as the world’s original country (the country in which human ancestors developed, and which we first walked out of), but his original name was Tafari, and “ras” means “head” or leader.

He was born in 1892, crowned emperor in 1930, but lived in exile during the brutal Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1935 to 1941 – some of it staying in the Abbey Hotel in Malvern, Worcestershire, while his daughters attended Clarendon School in North Malvern (I was later nearby at North Malvern Primary School).

During his time in Malvern he attended services at Holy Trinity Church, in Link Top (where, incidentally, my mother and father were married and opposite my grandfather’s pharmacy).

When Haile Selassie returned as emperor of Ethiopia in 1941, he set about modernising the country.

Political opposition, rising unemployment and famine are seen as contributing to him being ousted in 1974 by a Soviet-backed junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam which, it is believed, finally killed him.

So, how does the music of Jamaica, and Bob Marley in particular, fit into all that?

Many Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie was God incarnate, or the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, in her book No Woman, No Cry, Marley’s wife Rita, also a Rastafarian, claimed she had seen a stigmata on the palm of Haile Selassie’s hand, resembling the marks left by Christ being nailed to the cross, as Selassie waved to crowds during his visit to Jamaica in 1966.

Other Rastafarians might just see him as God’s chosen king on Earth.

In using his words, Marley furthers the two aspects of the emperor – as head of State and as the living God of Rastafarian belief.

Haile Selassie’s shadow can still be seen in Ethiopia, though some Ethiopians I talk with comment that it may be the long-time ruler Meles Zenawi, who died last year, who did even more in advancing the country than the former emperor.

Haile Selassie’s tomb is alongside that of his wife in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.

And the last words to Emperor Haile Selassie – some of the words from that speech to the UN in 1963, used in Marley’s song . . .

. . . until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; that until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes; that until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all, without regard to race; that until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but fleeting illusions,

to be pursued but never attained . . .

until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest

have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and goodwill;

until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men,

as they are in the eyes of Heaven;

until that day, the African continent will not know peace.


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