Every year the Haile Selassie I Birthday Celebration offers rolling reggae rhythms and spicy Caribbean food beneath fluttering red, gold, and green Ethiopian flags. This year, after 17 years as one of the biggest reggae festivals in the midwest, the two-day celebration is attempting to return to its spiritual foundation.

“We want to have it more cultural this year,” says Isiah Ferguson, a founder and organizer of the event. “Sometimes, when we try to teach the history, it goes in one ear and out the other, so we’re putting [Rastafarian history] with the music.”

Mickiel Gabriel Diaz, another founder of the celebration, will open the event with a traditional Rastafarian prayer and “nyabingi,” the spiritual drumming that sounds like a heartbeat.

“The celebration came to us as an idea to enlighten people about what Rasta is really about,” says Kingston-born Ferguson, who owns a reggae music shop in Chatham, Conquering Lion Records. “Some people have all these fearful images. They see you with dreads and think you’re a depraved thief. We wanted to let people know that there’s a history to what we do.”

“A rasta is one that deal with love and righteousness,” says Diaz, who participated in the early days of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica in the 40s. Selassie’s coronation in 1930 and his claim of direct lineage from the Bible’s King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba prompted his followers to declare the sovereign, also known as Ras Tafari, the messiah returned. “I read the Bible and understand about Jesus and Selassie, ’cause it’s the same person,” says Diaz.

The Rastafarian religion emerged from Marcus Garvey’s black consciousness movement during the 1930s in Jamaica and gained international recognition with Bob Marley’s rise to fame in the 70s. Much of the spiritual basis of Rastafarianism has been lost in popular fads like growing dreadlocks. The custom originally came from Leviticus, which teaches “do not cut the hair at the sides of your head.”

“Rasta is not dreadlocks on your head, ya know,” says Diaz. “If you see me on the street, you wouldn’t call me a Rastaman,” he says, shaking his trimmed head. “And it’s all I know.”

This Saturday marks the 102nd anniversary of Selassie’s birth. The celebration, which drew 2,000 people last year, will feature chants and speeches in addition to a dozen bands and about 50 vendors. “It’s like a religious holiday,” says Ferguson. “We want people to hear about our culture. We would like to unite instead of divide.”

The 17th annual Haile Selassie I Birthday Celebration takes place Saturday and Sunday, noon to dusk at Seven Hills, the hilly area in Washington Park, at 56th and Cottage Grove. It’s free. Call 873-0680 for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.