The Jamaican Culture is made up a rich blend of cultures passed down from the:
● Tainos/Arawaks, who originally inhabited the island before its discovery by Columbus.
● Spanish and British conquerors.
● African slaves – whose ways of living are dominant in the Jamaican culture.
● Chinese and East Indian indentured workers which were brought to Jamaica.
Our culture is expressed in diverse ways, with some expressions varying from parish to parish . . . and even differing from household to household. Read additional details about our culture (family life, maroons, folk life and more) from this link – PDF – A 1920’s Study of Jamaican Folk Life (Culture) by Martha Warren Beckwith
In this section, we will briefly describes five expressions of the Jamaican culture – attitude, religious beliefs, cuisine, music & dance, and art.
The Jamaican Attitude
The culture or “ways of living” in Jamaica is first obvious in the Jamaican’s attitude to excel and to achieve in spite of all odds, in any country, and in all arenas of life – Science and Medicine, Music, Commerce, Education, Agriculture, Sports, and so on. Jamaicans are known to be resilient.
Jamaicans are very creative, hard-working, and industrious. Many are superstitious. They are kind and expressive, and most are friendly.
Jamaicans like being successful and are natural trendsetters. Almost all Jamaicans will stand out in a crowd, but there are some that blend well with others and are known to alter their own Jamaican accent to that of another national even if they’ve only met for a few minutes.
Some Jamaicans view almost every situation as humourous and will even use serious matters to create a joke; while others are cautious and guided by past experiences, old wives’ tales, wise sayings, scripture, and proverbs. Many Jamaicans are proud and may become offended when you take liberty with them, insult their dignity, disrespect them, and attempt to treat them as fools.
A majority of Jamaicans have demonstrated in one or more aspects of their lives, the attitudes passed down from slave ancestors. Quite a number of them have a low sense of civic pride as if they’re still citizens of Africa, China, India, etc., from where their ancestors were taken. Jamaica, seemingly to them, is not perceived as their homeland.
Some Jamaicans also discriminate against each other like the slaves from various tribes did in the past. They judge their own Jamaican people by their physical features, status, complexion etc., and make statements such as:
- “We don’t chat with broad-faced or big nose people”;
- “Get away you cruff you (i.e. good for nothing. Nb. cruff is the dead skin peeled off from the foot bottom). You is handicap (i.e. worthless), a real bhuttu (i.e. low class or uncultured), negrish (i.e.uncouth), you old nygah you (i.e. an uncivilized nigger)”;
- “How you so dark? (i.e. unintelligent). Anything too black not good (not to be trusted)” etc.
Further, since the half-white offsprings produced by African slave women for their English masters were favoured over other slave children, some of the negro slaves began hating their beautiful ebony complexion. This low self-esteem is manifested today, and some Jamaican still perceive the lighter skin toned person as better off and having an edge over them. Thus thousands of Jamaicans (both males and females) have become preoccupied with either lightening (bleaching) their skin colour or seeking out fairer-skinned or Indian companions to produce ‘beautiful’ offspring with ‘pretty’ colour and ‘pretty’ hair.
Also, like the ancestors who worked slavishly on sugarcane plantations who sought various opportunities to break from extreme hardship, many Jamaicans too, seem to gladly appreciate any day where they may have a legitimate reason to be absent from duty, school, and work. Regardless of this mindset, it is important to note that Jamaicans are not inclined to be lazy.
These are some of the manifested attitudes observed in many Jamaicans living at home and abroad, attitudes that have been passed on through the generations, and are being reinforced in various ways in the Jamaican society today.
Jamaican Religious Beliefs
The Jamaican culture includes various traditional religious practices and beliefs.
There is freedom of religion in Jamaica with over 80% of the population being influenced by Christianity and approx. 10% being Rastafarian/Spiritualists. Jamaica is a religious country and it is known to be the country with the most churches per square mile than most anywhere in the world.
The Rastafari Movement or Rastafarianism originated in Jamaica in the 1930’s.
This religion has its belief system and teachings based on portions of the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. However, it’s followers – Rastafarians or Rastas, worship Haile Selassi I of Ethiopia as the incarnate Son of God.
The Rastafari Movement has impacted the Jamaican culture in various ways and many Jamaicans, who are not Rastas, have embraced some of the practices of this Movement in the areas of:
- Language – Rastafarian terms and expressions
- Use of colours (red, gold, and green)
- Fashion (dress and hair style)
- Philosophy of natural living
In the past, persons who were not Rastafarians were known as “bald heads” since they did not wear their hair in locks; so you were either a Rasta or a bald head. But over the years, there are many Jamaicans (who are not Rastas) wearing the dreadlocks hairstyle, so much so that a newer description would be: Rastas, Dreads (i.e. persons with the locs hairstyle), and Bald heads.
Some Jamaicans, who are not Rastas, have also developed an appreciation for Cannabis or Marijuana which is used in the religious ceremonies of Rastafarians.
This religious practice involves using the chalice and the smoking of Marijuana, which they call “Wisdom Weed”.
In Jamaica, Marijuana is also known as Herb, Sensimina, Weed, and Ganja.
Since Marijuana is used in religious ceremonies and also cultivated by several Rastafarians, we also find a small percentage of Jamaicans – who are not Rastas, using ganja products, and also growing a Marijuana plant or two in their private gardens.
* Please note: It is legal to possess small quantities (2 ounces/57 grams) of Marijuana for medicinal, scientific, religious, and personal use in Jamaica.
Further, each household, in Jamaica, is allowed to legally grow no more than five ganja plants on their premises. Read the Fact Sheet on The Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015 [PDF] for further details.
Despite the Christian religious influences in the Jamaican Culture, many Jamaicans are superstitious and have a conscientious fear of ghosts or spirits, which they call “duppies”. Many duppy stories are shared among Jamaicans from as early as childhood, and many persons have been advised to do and say certain things to ward off evil spirits.
In the Jamaican culture, some persons also practice (or consult those who practice) an African religious belief called Obeah. Read more about Obeah @ Jamaican Traditions – Obeah in the 21st Century.
Obeah was brought to Jamaica by the African slaves who practiced it as their religion.
Obeah is one type of witchcraft and sorcery. It is also referred to as black magic. Obeah involves the usage of certain plants (herbs), pharmaceutical products, and spirits (i.e. demons).
There are so many Jamaicans who practice witchcraft – knowingly and unknowingly. They have, at one time or the other, said or done seemingly “innocent chants and practices” with childhood peers, relatives etc. without even realizing their involvement in this form of iniquity.
The reasons Jamaicans practice (or consult those who practice) Obeah are many. These persons get involved with Obeah men and Obeah women that are also known as “bush doctors” for:
- Protection against evil spirits
- Success – in court cases, examinations, visa applications, job promotions etc.
- Health reasons – receiving baths, potions, medicines
- Love and relationship charms
- Removal of spells and curses
- Protection of home and workplace against attacks from evil and “bad mind” persons.
The work of Obeah is done mainly in secret as it is illegal to practice it in Jamaica. Read details about the Obeah Law passed in Jamaica since 1898.
The cuisine of Jamaicans is influenced by the multi-cultural dietary and cooking techniques embraced within the Jamaican culture.
It involves the usage of fish, a mixture of meats, vegetables, ground provisions, fruits, curry, Jamaican spices & herbs, and other ingredients to produce many savory dishes, drinks, fried foods, sweets and deserts.
Jamaican Music and Dance
Music and Dance are key components within the Jamaican culture. Both forms of expression have been directly influenced by the music and dance forms that existed from the era of slavery; and both music and dance reveals what our culture in Jamaica is like.
Jamaican music is a motivating force; it is a means to freely express ideals, and an art that showcases the creativity of the Jamaican people. Through music, values and attitudes are relayed; and the messages provide wisdom, advice, stories, and warnings . . . sometimes shared with a tint of humour.
Although Jamaicans appreciate all kinds of music, their use of instruments and their musical expression (based on experiences within the Jamaican culture), have resulted in the origination of the following music genres: Dancehall, Dub, Mento, Reggae, Rock steady, Ska.
There are also several Dance forms within the Jamaican culture, some of these are: Bruckin, Dinki-mini, Jonkunnu, Kumina, Maypole, Revival, Quadrille.
The rhythm of Jamaican music seem to flow through the blood stream of every Jamaican, and they must almost, always move along with the beat of their favourite genre.
Jamaicans thrive on music; and various musical events are scheduled for holiday seasons; ceremonies; social, religious and national functions; birthdays; and for some persons – every weekend.
The music industry has boomed, and because of this, many individuals have created music groups and established organizations to provide entertainment regularly. Jamaican music and dance are also enjoyed by persons in other Caribbean islands and in many countries of the world. Click here to read a study about our music (with emphasis on our Jamaican folk music).
Jamaican art – paintings, sculpture, carvings, jewelry, textiles and clothing etc., is another form of cultural expression of the Jamaican people that is admired, sought after, and treasured.
Jamaican Artists put much effort in their work and take pride in their unique designs and production.
The Jamaican Artist is also reputed for producing top quality work that is rich in colour, inspiring, and innovative.