Mon | Apr 6, 2020

Peter Espeut | Derailing the Jamaica project

Published:Friday | February 28, 2020 | 12:21 AM

Not everyone supported Project Jamaica when it launched in 1962. As I recall, residents at the time could choose whether to become nationals of the new nation, or remain British citizens. Our family discussed it and we decided to be Jamaican, but others chose otherwise.

Citizenship was one thing, but to be Jamaican culturally was to be neither British nor African; it was to be both, and yet neither. A popular model to describe Jamaica was posited by social historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who was buried last week in his native Barbados. In 1971, he published a book, titled The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820, which described the synthesis of a national culture. The first arrivants – both European and African – brought their culture and their memory of a homeland.

The first generation born here were creoles – creole whites and creole blacks, and some browns; and as the races mixed, so did the cultures, producing something new and unique and powerful. Creolisation advanced with each succeeding generation, such that creole whites and blacks had more in common. You could say that the result was – ‘Out of Many, One People’.

Nowhere is this process of creolisation clearer than in our music. As a child, at home we learnt and sang mento folk songs, and then in my teens there was ska, rocksteady and reggae. Right now, nothing unites Jamaicans of all colours and classes more than our music.

For the last decade or so, the Jamaica Music Museum, headed by the extraordinary Herbie Miller, stages ‘Grounation’, a combination of historical behind-the-scenes exposé, musicological analysis, virtuoso instrumental and vocal performances surrounding our musical heritage.

This year the theme is ‘Black Head Chineyman: The Chinese Jamaican Contribution to Jamaican Popular Music’. For the last three weeks, we have been exposed to the huge contribution that Jamaican Chinese DJs, sound system operators, producers, sound engineers, distributors, musicians and singers have made to mento, ska, rocksteady and reggae over the years.

Earliest sound system

Tom ‘The Great Sebastian’ Wong set up what is probably the earliest Jamaican sound system at his store on the corner of Luke Lane and Charles Street. Ivan Chin produced the recordings of mento star Alerth Bedassee in the 1950s; Bedasee’s Night Food is probably the first recorded Jamaican hit song.

Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin of Randy’s record store at North Parade, produced some of the Jamaica’s earliest classics, and with his wife Pat, founded VP Records, today the largest distributor of Jamaican music to the world. And it was Leslie Kong of Beverly’s, on Orange Street, who first recorded Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, and Bob Marley.

And there is much more. Grounation this year is riveting! It runs for one more Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Lecture Room at the Institute of Jamaica. I recommend it highly!

But the point that comes out clearly is that creolised persons from many continents have melded together what today is globally identified as authentic Jamaican culture. All Jamaica’s races and ethnic groups together have made reggae and Rasta and Revival and running and rum what they are today.

It would seem that Project Jamaica has a future!

Inevitably, there were ‘mimic men’ (to borrow a phrase from Naipaul) on both sides, creoles who denied their creole identity and sought to identify with either Europe or Africa. You see them every day, uncomfortable in their jackets and ties, and in their faux African robes. Most of us are mix-up-and-blenda, but the mimic men (and women) stick to one or the other, making a clear statement that they do not support our national motto.

The European mimics often sport fake Oxonian accents, as they sip red wine and listen to Mozart. “We are Africans”, the African mimics say, “not Jamaicans”; “When it comes to the World Cup, why don’t Jamaicans support African teams?”

What we have become is neither British nor African – but Jamaican. We must not let mimic men and women derail the Jamaican project.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to