The Multifaceted Development of Jamaican Identity:

Both Religious and Linguistic In Nature

Aileen Ozay

Rhetoric of Reggae












Nearly every human being on this earth can identify with a sense of belonging. One may belong to a certain club, school, region, country, social group, etc. Many times, this belonging works in reciprocity with a person’s identity. Identity is often referred to as a multifaceted aspect of personality, normally associated with an individual’s relationship to certain social groups (Fitzpatrick 14). Most times, this identity works hand in hand with aspects of nationhood associated with language and religion. A great deal of people take for granted this sense of identity which seems to evolve naturally throughout one’s life. The quest towards establishing a state identity is not a simple affair, yet many social theorists find that language and religion are two main pillars from which identity is formed. The purpose of this piece is to illustrate the ways in which the formation of language identity and religious identity contribute to an understanding of Jamaican culture at large which is (of course) represented in reggae music. The far reaching ability of language and religion in the realm of identity should not go unnoticed.

The term ‘identity’ is used very loosely in today’s vocabulary. It is usually regarded as an aspect of personality associated with an individual’s relationship to particular groups. “ the late 1600s the terminological situation (of the term identity) was further complicated by the coining of such terms as cultural identity, political identity, ethnic identity, and national identity. These overlapping terms refer to some of the many forms of collective identity” (Morris 8). In order to define collective identity, the distinction between ‘member’ and ‘non-member’ becomes very important. Hence, there is created a thick line between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ National identity also follows this type of “judgment proliferate,” (Morris 10) signaling an obvious distinction in the contemporary world between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in many branches of life, including linguistic and religious tendencies.

            A brief understanding of Jamaica’s diverse history is compulsory in understanding the myriad of events which have lent themselves to questions about Jamaican identity. Though the mass of land which is known a Jamaica has in common its geographical coordinates, the area which constitutes Jamaica is “a complex amalgam of races and ethnicities, drawn together from the repercussions of slavery, colonialism and migration” (Clark 1). Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494, Jamaica was inhabited by an indigenous group by the name of the Arawaks. The impact of Spanish contact with this hunter-gatherer society was stupendous. New diseases, economic activities, and migration disrupted and destroyed the Arawak community almost entirely. Disappointed by the absence of gold on the island, the Spanish used Jamaica as a base for supporting the conquest of the Americas, particularly Mexico with its treasures of gold and silver. By the mid 1600s, the area now known as Jamaica was captured by the British expedition following their unsuccessful invasion of Hispaniola. The island was of little strategic importance for the Spanish, and they succumbed to British power. The British first experimented with indentured European labor before resorting to the large scale importation of Africans to be used as slaves on the sugar plantations. The British economy, as well as plantation owners benefited tremendously from their newfound prosperity in Jamaica (Cashmore 32). Over 90% of the 2.5 million people living in Jamaica today are descendants of slaves brought from western Africa by the British. These slaves suffered decades of vile mistreatment before 1838 when the slaves were emancipated and the plantations had to begin paying wages to its workers. Some slaves, referred to as Maroons, escaped to the mountains to live in small bands. By 1938, the national movement for independence and decolonization began to occur with the help of revolutionary individuals such as Marcus Garvey, a prominent Jamaican black rights activist. Jamaica was granted independence in 1962 (Cashmore 35).

            As globalization becomes more relevant in today’s society, ideals of economics, politics, and human affairs will naturally shift. This change has made groups and individuals more ontologically insecure and existentially uncertain about conceptions of identity. “One main response to such insecurity is to seek reaffirmation of one’s self identity by drawing closer to any collective that is perceived as being able to reduce insecurity and existential anxiety. The combination of religion and nationalism is a particularly powerful response (an “identity-signifier”) in times of rapid change and uncertain futures, and is therefore more likely than other identity constructions to arise during crises of ontological insecurity” (Kinvall 1). As it is, religion and nationalism produce particularly powerful stories and beliefs because of their ability to convey a picture of security, stability, and “go-to” explanations (Kinvall 1-2).



            It should come as no surprise that when the Ras Tafari movement began to take hold, the Jamaican public embraced it with open arms. After all, the Jamaican public was just faced with independence, and they sought brand new cultural items to associate themselves with. Most times, change occurs at the precipice. For thousands of individuals in the West Indies during the late 1970s, the world of their ancestors and parents drifted farther away, becoming distant and somehow unrelated to their own situations. As time progressed, they became disconnected from the old-world mentality and immersed themselves in the movement known as Ras Tafari. At this point, new sets of beliefs were learned, transforming self conceptions and ambitions. Many Jamaican individuals look back on this as an exhilarating period of revelation (Cashmore 309).

This “disjuncture with the parental culture” was signified by the acceptance of Haile Selassie as a savior. This moment symbolizes the Jamaican entry into a new reality and way of life. An endeavor which one Rasta characterized as “to revive our true self and really know our ability to discover our history” began to gain popularity as this agenda was deemed as fruitful and rewarding (Cashmore 314). The commonly accepted idea was that the Rasta had always existed, yet the coming of Selassie made them realize their role and intention. This conception goes along with the idea that this strong sense of identity was never absent from the life of the Rasta; it just went unnoticed. Finally, after decades of plight, a shared identity was located and popularized by the Jamaican people. “It is inevitable that we, as black people, were never and can never be apart of this country where we do not belong; like a heart transplant, it rejects us.” Cashmore suggests that this type of withdrawal into racially exclusive groups results from an individual’s realization of a common identity and shared destiny (310).

The main pillars of Rastafarianism uphold two truths: 1. the Divinity of Haile Selassie and 2. His ability to instigate the African redemption. Apart from these, the determination of a Rastafarian doctrine is highly individualized, and up to individual interpretation. One may easily connect to Rastafarianism in a unique way, which might be different from other Rastafarians. Herein, one may experience security for belonging to a larger social group while still preserving beliefs and practices which are crucial to them. The personal, non-descriptive relationship between Rasta and his religion allows for a large range of people to grasp on in different ways. This might be why Rastafarianism has gained such wide acclaim, especially by Jamaican inhabitants. The creation of Rastafarianism immediately stimulated new patterns of interaction. “Gangs which has previously come together as a more or less spontaneous evolution of the rudimentary schoolboy gangs became the vehicles for a new type of socialization” (Cashmore 310). The drifting Rastas came to internalize a totally fresh comprehension of the world and their place in it, yielding a completely new sense of national and individual identity.

The ital diet which is adopted by more “conservative” Rastas also exemplifies a “identity-signifier” or “judgment proliferate” in relation to Jamaican sketches of identity. Rastas believe that every human has ‘life-energy’ or ‘livity’ and in order to preserve and foster this positive energy, one must consume an ital diet belonging to mostly unprocessed food. Other stipulations include avoiding salt, coloring, additives, cigarettes, and even alcohol (though when it comes to ganja, the consensus, as mention by Peter Tosh, is “legalize it”). Basically, Rasta’s believe that what is put into one's body should enhance Livity rather than reduce it. Throughout history, religions have adopted forms of restraint when it comes to food choices. These choices reflect both an adherence and a sacrifice.

       "Every religion provides ways by which humans can try to relate to a supreme being             or some supernatural force. Many of the practices and beliefs of the various religions are attempts to explain those things which humans themselves can not understand or control. Each religion has evolved certain rituals or customs which are important to the members of that religion. The observance of these rituals and customs is believed to be mandatory since they express and reaffirm the various beliefs of the religion" (Lowenbrg, 126).

Let’s admit that food is a huge part of human life. After reproduction, the pursuit and consumption of food is arguably the next most primal, instinctual practice humans partake in. For the Rastafarian forefathers, an ital diet provided yet another vehicle by which to empower and belong by eliciting dedication and reverence to certain practices. The ital diet is also highly individualized, which lends to a more inclusive standard by which Jamaican individuals may relate and identify.


                        As mentioned, language has a great deal to do with a person's conception of their own identity as well as the identity of the nation with which they claim citizenship. The question must first be addressed: What constitutes a nation? French scholar, Ernest Renan suggests that a nation is a “spiritual principle based on shared memories, the cult of a glorious past, as well as the ability to forget shameful events [in the nation's past]” and above all, “a daily plebiscite: the collective affirmation of a national will by the citizens of a country” (Duany 15). There is, of course, no set ideal regarding the term 'nation,' and so Renan's definition might come across as a bit vague. This is to be expected when contemplating the meaning of a term which is used in so many different contexts. The identification of a national language constitutes a great deal of heft for the Jamaican people, for it is the ever-present basis of their nation's roots and social constructs. “The identification of a language with a people has been given the most attention. it is a truism that the equation of language and nation is a historical, ideological construct...Exported through colonialism to become a dominant model around the world today, the nationalist ideology of language structures state politics, challenges multilingual states, and underpins ethnic struggles to such an extent that the absence of a distinct language can cast doubt on the legitimacy of claims to nationhood...” (Woolard&Shieffen 55). An ideal arises which constitutes a strong tie between 'one language' and 'one people' (Fitzpatrick 29). 

                        Patois is an overarching term which refers to the language most commonly used in Jamaica. Patois is a Creole, meaning it is a stable language that originated from a mixture of various languages. The local Jamaican language reflects a history of contact with a variety of speakers. Jamaican Creole has a majority of its roots in English, yet some lexicon is borrowed from other languages such as the Arawaks’. Creoles have experienced a revival since the social, political, and academic changes brought about by colonization, especially in the past few decades. Their community prestige has risen since creoles started being used in print and film. In fact, some have been standardized, and are used in local schools and universities around the world. (Woolard&Shieffen 50) The standardization of Jamaican Creole enforces an ideal of solidarity and nationhood for many Jamaican citizens, both abroad and at home.

                        The divide amongst language use in Jamaica is worth mentioning, for it is reflected in ideals of Jamaican identity. Aside from Patois, some individuals also speak Jamaican Standard English which is very similar to British English. In the past, Patois has been regarded as the language of the lower class, while Jamaican Standard English was regarded as a language of the elite. This all has to do with ideas left over from colonialism. The need to speak and comprehend Standard English is was a helpful skill in Jamaica since it is an absolute prerequisite for a high paying job. The majority of individuals in Jamaica does not finish secondary school, and are therefore not well versed in Standard English. Herein, language choice comes not only as a mark of social class, but also education, economic standing, and urbanization (Justus 42).     

 Many social theorists believe that this type of classificatory behavior associated with Jamaican language choice will soon taper out, and the main justifications for this theory rests upon folklore and reggae music. “To translate folklore meaningfully into Jamaican Standard English is difficult if not impossible; to translate the lyrics of traditional folk songs is totally unacceptable. In the lyrics of contemporary reggae music, Patois is the medium, and the lyrics are filled with double entendres, depending heavily upon participation in the local culture and understanding of the message conveyed” (Justus 45).As Bob Marley sings,

This morning I woke up in a curfew

O God, I was a prisoner too.. yeah..

Couldn’t recognize the faces standing over me

They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality

How many times do we have to cross

Before we can talk to the boss?

All that we got seems lost

We must have paid the cost

Burnin and lootin to survive yeah!

Burnin all pollution tonight

Burnin all illusions tonight


In lyrics such as these, reggae creates a notion that is truly Jamaican. “It speaks of the Jamaican condition as it actually distinguishes Jamaica from Europe or to a lesser degree from Africa. It expresses the beliefs that people from time to time think they have for themselves, beliefs which inform the trinity of identity, race, and protest” (Justus, 46). Marley’s lyrics illustrate the extent that self-categories shape social action while formulating models of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Reicher 1).


“Rastas have taken carte blanche narratives, poetry, and prophetic materials from the Older Testament and Africanized them to express their sense of identity” (Nettelford 14). The example provided below is an excerpt from an ancient Hebrew lament which Rastafarians have adopted as a common liberation song.

Cause, the wicked carried us away captivity,
required from us a song, but
How can we sing King Alpha's song
inner strange land? (repeat)

(The Melodians on Psalm 137)

It is interesting to observe the way in which reggae music provides a unifying connect which transcends ages and ethnicities. The next excerpt from a song by Peter Tosh incorporates the notion of ‘mother Africa’ and further embodies the carte blanche narratives which encompass Jamaican rhetoric.

There's so many things about you
Wondering where you are
They try their best to hide you Mama
But I search and I find you
In you there's so much beauty
In you there's so much life
In you there's so many kingdoms
To me it's out of sight
You're the maker of gold Mama
You're the maker of diamond
You're the maker of pearls
And the maker of all precious goals
I've been waiting, yearning, looking
Searching to find you
I've been crying, praying hoping
That I may find you Mama
You're my mother Africa
You're my father Africa

Take note of the religious undertone regarding the “search” for Africa. Also, the last two lines, regarding the all-encompassing ‘Africa’ as both a maternal and paternal form alludes to the personification of the omniscient Africa which will save all.

Reggae performances are also a main staple of community life in Jamaica and some other Caribbean countries. Many times, dancehalls and amphitheaters allow for a community center where many Rastas and other community members may take part in the organization of such musical events (Justus 23). This type of activity reinforces group cohesion and reciprocity. This essential group bond is a trademark of reggae music and Jamaican identity, as is represented in Jimmy Cliff’s song, “Reggae Night.”

Reggae night, we come together when the feeling's right
Reggae night, and we'll be jammin 'till the morning light

There'll be people comin' from the North and South and East and West
So you better look your best, man
Now, lightnin' strikes at 8, so you better not be late
For this rub-a-dubbin', rockin', jammin', fun, fun, lovin', yeah
Reggae night, we come together when the feeling's right,
Reggae night, and we'll be jammin 'till the morning light

You will find it happens only once a year
So take advantage of this festive cheer
Make we bring we family and let's tell some friends
And everyone will have a jam, jam, session

As was mentioned, changes in collective categories of identity are at the core of social transformation. The “causal linkages” among identity change, institututional change, and change in modes of practice are complex topics. Explanation of patterns of identity change in terms of wider social processes and resource distribution, while remaining open to the sense of complexity. The individual’s experience  is exemplified in the moments of intentionality that arise when individual chooses the direction of change.  Modes of identity change in a society experience radical change in socio-political structures (Todd, 1). At this point, one might realize that a large majority of Jamaican identity lends itself to a lively exchange at the group level while maintaining multidimensional individualistic realms. While Rasta and Reggae culture prides itself on bringing the community together, the individual remains free to approach the system on his/her own terms. Rastafarianism firmly promotes the individual quest for almighty “jah.” The Ras Tafari mentality upholds the belief that ‘we are all one,’ while still allowing for a myriad of ways to reach jah and evade Babylon. Again, these ideas were mostly borrowed from earlier religions, yet they fell into syncopation with the Ras Tafari mindset. The bible reads, And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:39). This attitude is further revealed in Jimmy Cliff’s song, “We Are All One.”

No matter where we are born, we are human beings
The same chemistry
Where emotions and feelings all corresponding in love

You can't get around it, no matter how hard you try
You better believe it
And if you should find out that you are no different than I

We all are one (We all), we are the same person (Same person)
I'll be you, you'll be me (I'll be me, you'll be you)
We all are one (We all), same universal world
I'll be you, you'll be me

This schema is also evident is a well known Jamaican poem by Nadia Patterson:

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up only one body.
So it is with the body of Jah: all of us are of a different status, but the body is made up of the same elements. Some of us are Jews, Some of us are Gentiles, some are slaves, some are free. But we ALL have been baptized into Jah's body by one spirit, we all have received the same spirit.
If the foot says "I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand", that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says "I am not part of the body because I am only an ear and not an eye" would that make it any less a part of the body?
Suppose the whole body were an eye then how would you hear. Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything?
Jah made our bodies with many parts, and He put each part just where he wants it. The One body is not complete with out its many parts. The I (eye) can never say to the hand "I don't need you", the head can't say to the feet "I don't need you". We are HIM regardless of race, cast, creed, and culture.

Here, the construction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is figuratively broken down. Self affiliation and group affiliation become one. A tradition such as this, which is carried out by Ras Tafari culture and mainstream Jamaican life, allows simple identification between an individual basis and a national basis. One’s psychological identity is deeply rooted in self-image, self-esteem, and individuality (Kinnvall 35). The Ras Tafari tradition, as noted by Jimmy Cliff’s lyrics  and Patternson’ s poem, slightly transcend the highly individual realm of identity to include the initiative that all is one (though, of course, this ethic is not always carried out in Jamaican society).

The relevance of language and religion in Jamaican culture may be easily identified by the public’s epic serge towards Rastafarianism and Reggae. It is not too often, in today’s world, that new languages and religions are created. This is why inguists, social scientists, social philosophers, and anthropologists around the world have a field day examining the evolution and nature of Patois and the Ras Tafari traditions. What’s especially interesting is how the Jamaican quest for individual and national identity is so closely bound to ideals of language and religion. As a Birmingham Rastaman noted in 1976, “Rasta is not a version of reality, as you say, Ras Tafari is reality” (Cashmore 307).




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