Wed | Sep 30, 2020

What is the 'Jamaican culture'?

Published:Sunday | August 5, 2012 | 12:00 AM
The stark difference between the music of Bob Marley (above) and Vybz Kartel (below) causes many citizens to question what really is Jamaican culture.
The stark difference between the music of Bob Marley (above) and Vybz Kartel (below) causes many citizens to question what really is Jamaican culture.

Garth Rattray, Contributor

A post-Independence nation's culture is akin to an individual's personality. They both 'inherit' traits from the 'parents', (the former colonialists and biological parents, respectively). They are both impacted and changed by subsequent environmental influences. By six to seven years of age, the vast majority of human beings fully develop their personalities.

However, because of existing and sometimes emerging subcultures, globalisation, macroeconomic forces, modern technology, easy international travel, migration and a plethora of other internal and external influences, our culture is constantly evolving.

Which perceived Jamaican culture is genuine? The culture manifested on the tourism-oriented north coast is certainly different from our downtown Kingston culture. And, the impression that the Japanese have of Jamaican culture is very different from the impression that Haitians have.

Liberal countries have multiple mini-cultures that continuously change and interweave to produce a dominant hybrid culture. National culture, the personality of a nation, is therefore never static and follows more than one uncertain paths that lead in the same general direction.

National culture is representative of the soul of a nation; it sets the tone, pace, limit and direction of our development (or lack thereof). Consequently, a very good friend of mine believes that national culture should be directed and not allowed to meander along its own uncertain and potentially negative course. Therefore, perhaps we should establish entrenched policies that actively steer our culture and not just passively monitor, record and facilitate it.

Defining Jamaican culture

Currently, the Jamaican culture can be described by our unique music (various modern and traditional music), our folklore, customs, language/dialect, cuisine, religion, various kinds of art and, ostensibly, our behaviour/conduct.

In spite of all that, the real issue here is this question: After 50 years of Independence, what do people think of first when asked about the Jamaican culture? It doesn't matter how academics, anthropologists, historians or politicians define 'culture', the impression that we leave on others is all that matters.

Therefore, when asked about 'Jamaican culture', the answers will vary from sun, sea, sand and smiles to aggression, indiscipline, crime and murder. Others will think of reggae music and some will think of cannabis. Some will remember our X-rated dancehall music and others will muse about our rhythmic and clean reggae harmony and lyrics.

Some will think of Bob Marley and Louise Bennett and others will remember our African roots, diverse ethnicity, Kumina, quadrille, bongo drumming and traditional art forms. Some people will recall our politics, scammers, poverty and mendicants while others will consider our Olympic heroes and natural friendly nature.

Maybe it is full time that we seek to define ourselves culturally. Then again, perhaps we cannot and probably we already have. One must, therefore, ask whether the perception that we portray accurately represents our true culture or not. If the two are one, would that bode well for us as a nation? And, if they are disparate, how do we change that perception to fully represent our culture (assuming that it is advantageous to do so)?

While I was about to check the air pressure in all four of my tyres at a popular Kingston petrol station, an elderly-looking cyclist approached the pump. I handed him the hose and invited him to go first. He stood momentarily stunned and remarked, "You are a (real) Jamaican!" He obviously remembered the days when we were courteous and thoughtful towards one another. What it comes down to is this: Such behaviour should be the norm and the rest will follow.

We need to consciously remove our negative traits and keep the positive ones so that the 'Jamaican culture' will engender positive thoughts, no matter how it is defined, examined or interpreted.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and