What Was Bob Marley's Religion?

Bob Marley and the Wailers - 'Natty Dread'
© Island Records

Reggae legend Bob Marley converted from the Christianity of his childhood to join the Rastafari Movement in the late 1960s. By all reputable accounts, he remained a devoted Rastafarian and an ambassador of the belief system until his death in 1981.

What Is Rastafarianism?

Rastafarianism, which is more appropriately called "Rastafari" or "The Rastafari Movement," is a loosely-organized Abrahamic faith that believes that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who reigned from 1930 to 1974, was the second coming of the Messiah (based on both ancient Biblical prophecies as well as contemporary ones, including those of Marcus Garvey), that the Holy Land is in Ethiopia, and that Black people are the lost Tribe of Israel, and that they must repatriate Ethiopia in order for God's Kingdom. Rastafari believe that Western Culture, and Anglo-Saxon culture, in particular, is the legendary Babylon, evil and oppressive (or, in Rasta vocabulary, "downpressive").

How Did Bob Marley Practice His Religion?

Bob Marley took on elements of Rastafari faith and practice in the later part of the 1960s. He grew his hair out into dreadlocks (this Rasta practice is based on Leviticus 21:5 "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh."), took on a vegetarian diet (as part of the Rastafarian diet practices known as ital, which are informed by Old Testament rules and thus share some similarities with kosher and halal diets), partook in the ritual use of ganja (marijuana), a sacrament for Rastafarians, as well as other elements of practice.

Marley also became a spokesperson for his faith and for his people, becoming the first major public face of Rastafari and using his influence to speak openly about Black liberation, Pan-Africanism, fundamental social justice, and relief from poverty and oppression, particularly for Black Jamaicans, but also for oppressed people throughout the world.

Rastafari in Bob Marley's Music

Marley, like many other reggae musicians, proudly used Rastafari language and themes, as well as pertinent scriptural references, in the song lyrics that he wrote. His songs cover many topics, from romantic love to political revolution, but even his most romantic love songs ("Mellow Mood," for example) often feature references to "Jah" (the Rasta word for God).

There is a substantial body of his work that deals directly with Rasta beliefs, both metaphysical and worldly. Some of those songs include the following (click to sample or purchase an MP3):

  • "Natty Dread" ("Don't care what the world say, I-n-I gonna have things our way")
  • "Positive Vibration" ("If you get down and you quarrel every day, you're saying prayers to the devil, I say.")
  • "Small Axe" ("The goodness of Jah-Jah I-dureth for I-ver")
  • "Exodus" ("Jah come to break downpression, rule equality, wipe away transgression, set the captives free.")
  • "Survival" ("We're the survivors, the Black survivors, yeah! We're the survivors, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Thrown in the fire, but never get burn.")
  • "Forever Loving Jah" ("'Cause only a fool lean upon, lean upon his own misunderstanding. And then what has been hidden from the wise and the prudent been revealed to the babe and the suckling, in everything, in every way, I say yeah!")
  • "Redemption Song" ("How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? Yes, some say it's just a part of it: we've got to fulfill the book.")