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"The Human Breath is a Dangerous Weapon"

A Look at the Economic Conditions of Jamaica and the Lyrics of Reggae Music and Poetry

Katy Kilian


The title for this paper is a quote taken from the poem, "Listen Mr. Oxford Don", by John Agard


Rastafarians use Reggae music and poetry to express themselves; one of their major themes for expression is economic oppression. Jamaica and the Rastafarians suffer more than their fair share of oppression, or as they would appropriately say, downpression, and poverty, yet they are still raising awareness, happiness, and hopefulness. The past and current struggles of the country give way to many powerful words either spoken or sung to the rhythm of Reggae.

The General Economic Conditions of Jamaica Compared to Those of America

The economic conditions of Jamaica lead to a hard life for many of its citizens. The percentage of the Jamaican population below the poverty line was 34% in 1997 ( 1999 World Development Indicators CD-Rom, World Bank). Like poor people all over the world, the poor people of Jamaica are oppressed, unhealthy, and worried. They do however; know what is going on. They know who their oppressors are, who is in control, who has money, and who has power.

Economic numbers, ratios, and statistics can be hard to understand on their own; if they don’t bore you to death first, but once compared to something similar they start to make sense and become interesting. I decided to compare Jamaica’s economic and social indicators with the United States, for two reasons: 1. We are all familiar with the U.S., and the numbers will have more resonance, and 2. " Most tourists to Jamaica arrive from the U.S, which is also Jamaica’s principle supplier of imports and chief market for exports." ( 1999 ABC - CLIO, Inc. Kaleidoscope(Lexus-Nexus))

Some key economic ratios are the GDP and the GNP, these are a measure of income. The GNP(Gross National Product) measures the total domestic and foreign income claimed by a certain economy. It includes the GDP and the money spent in Jamaica by visitors, minus the payments Jamaican’s made in other countries. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) measures the total output of goods and services; it is the sum of "gross value added by all resident and non-resident producers in the economy, plus taxes, minus subsidies not included in the value of the products. (1999 World Bank CD-Rom).

The GNP for Jamaica was four billion dollars in 1997. The GNP for America was 7.8 Trillion dollars for 1997. When this is worked into a per capita figure it works out so that Jamaica has a GNP per capita of $1,550, and America has a GNP per capita of $29,080.(W.B. CD-Rom 1999). These numbers show the huge difference in the amount of money America has to the amount of money Jamaica has. You knew we were richer, but did you know we were almost 19 times as rich?

Social indicators are some of the more interesting numbers to compare, and some of them are surprising. One of the basic social indicators is population and population growth. The population of Jamaica was 2.6 million in the middle of 1997, the population in the United States was 267.6 million in the middle of 1997. This means that the U.S. has 102 times the amount of people Jamaica has, but the amount of land each country has differs by a lot as well. America has 3,617,827 square miles with 1.9 acres of arable land per capita. Jamaica has 4,244 square miles and .3 acres of arable land per capita. ( 1999 ABC CLIO,Inc. Kaleidoscope) The average annual growth for both countries are similar; Jamaica was .9% and U.S. was 1% from 1991-1997.(1999 W.B. CD-Rom).

Another basic statistic used to determine the health of a country is it’s infant mortality rate (IMR). America has an IMR of 7; while Jamaica’s is 12. This means out of every 1,000 live births; 7(US) or 12(Jamaica), children die before they turn one year old. These numbers could be related to the fact that America had 51 hospital beds per 10,000 people(1993) and 28 doctors per 10,000 people(1996); where as Jamaica had 24 hospital beds per 10,000 people(1991), and 6 doctors per 10,000 people(1993). (1999 ABC - CLIO Inc.) These were some of the numbers I found surprising. I take it for granted that not only can I afford to see a doctor most of the time, but also I never have to worry about finding one.

One area where Jamaica is better off than America is in the accessibility of safe drinking water. In Jamaica 93% of the population has access to safe water, while in the big rich United States only 73% had access to safe water in 1991. For this report, "safe water" was defined as "reasonable access to an adequate amount of safe water(including treated surface water and untreated but uncontaminated water, such as from springs, sanitary wells, and protected bore holes). In urban areas, it could include public fountain or standpipe not more than 200 meters away. In rural areas, it implies that members of the household do not have to spend a disproportionate amount of their day fetching water. An adequate amount is that needed to satisfy metabolic, hygiene, and domestic requirements - about 20 liters a day per person." (W.B.CD - Rom).

Jamaican’s may have safe water, but a large amount of their children are malnourished. In 1991, 10% of the children under the age of five were malnourished. That seems like a lot to me considering America has 1% of it’s children under 5 growing up malnourished.(1999 W.B. CD) These numbers might be biased though, because the definition of a malnourished child for this study, was an American child, " whose weight is less than minus two standard deviations away from the median for the international reference population ages 0-59 months. The reference population, adopted by the World health Organization, in 1983, is based on children from the United States, who are assumed to be well nourished."" If they are only "assuming" the reference children were well nourished; that could cause a problem in the validity of this statistic. The diets and bodies are different in different countries; it seems weird to me that they would measure an American child with a Jamaican child. Why not use a Jamaican child, who is assumed to be well nourished? It just makes me wonder if Jamaicans think they have a 10% rate of malnourishment in their children under the age of five, or if America just projects that figure on to them.

So many numbers and statistics can be overwhelming, but I hope they are helpful in painting a more exact picture of where Jamaica stands economically in comparison to America. The preceding facts and figures I wrote about above were meant to give a backdrop to the rest of the paper, please keep them in mind as I go on to discuss current events and lyrics to poems and songs by Rastafarians.

Current Social, Economic, and Political Events in Jamaica

When I think of Jamaica I think of, white sand beaches, palm trees, coconuts, sunshine, beautiful people, waterfalls, ganja, and Reggae music. I am learning that, although Jamaica may have a landscape that looks like paradise, inside the people and the land are suffering. Why are they suffering? Money is a big reason. Their economy relies heavily on mining the mineral Bauxite; they are the third leading producers in the world.

(Responsive Database Services, Inc. Business and Industry 11/18/99) The mining of bauxite has lead to some major environmental concerns, due to the extensive acidic dust that results from its processing. In 1992, the mining of bauxite and its derivative Alumina accounted for over half the country’s export revenues.

Tourism is also a major money maker for the island, it brought in almost 1 billion dollars in 1995.(1999 ABC-CLIO,Inc. Klaeidoscope) The tourism industry is both good and bad for Jamaica. It does bring them the money they badly need, but at the same time, I think they are taken advantage of. American money is worth so much over there that most Americans could afford to pay more than they do to enjoy their stay there. The tourism industry puts the country into a position of denial about their AIDS epidemic. They do not want tourists to hear about it so they keep it quiet, when they should really be educating their people about prevention.

Despite the major industries, the Jamaican government faces a $250 million shortfall in its 1999-2000 budget. They plan to sell three years worth of Alumina to help out, but that would only bring in $150 million; causing some to say that doing so would only delay their financial problems. To make matters worse an American company Standard and Poor’s, who rates countries, companies, and industries on many things; one of them being credit worthiness gave Jamaica a B rating for long term foreign currency sovereign credit.( 1999 Global Information Network Interpress Service 11/18/99) This B-rating gives lenders the impression that Jamaica is not worthy of loans, although, as the Jamaican Finance Minister points out, Jamaica has never missed a debt payment. The rating also means that because Jamaica is considered a higher risk, they will have higher interest rates attached to any loans they do receive; interest rates that Jamaica can not afford. Because of this, Jamaica is not likely to go to the international capital market to try to raise funds for the 1999/2000 budget. Which is why they want to forward sell three years supply of its Bauxite. This option has raised many concerns. " It really is temporary. We still have to come to grips with the deficit in our fiscal accounts. If we don’t do that, and if we don’t get production going, then this is just a little breathing space;" says financial analyst Errol Gregory. Another concern about forward selling is about the prices they will receive. " The concern that I have is what kind of price this forward selling is attracting. I doubt very much if you can get premium prices, because you are not arguing from a position of strength, and if the price continues to rebound, you are not going to benefit. If you forward sell three years to cover this year, the question arises what happens next year or the year after;" says Norman Dacosta, Island Supervisor of the National Workers Union, specializing in the Bauxite sector. Jamaica is left with few choices; they did not want to go to the IMF for money because of their restrictive economic guidelines, but some view the IMF as a necessity.

As for now the Finance Minister is hoping for a better S&P rating next year, but while the S&P says this could happen if the government reduces its deficit, it warns it could decrease the rating if the economy in the U.S. slows down, because they are Jamaica’s biggest over seas market.(1999 GIN IS 11/18/99). To me this emphasizes how tied we are to other nations and how much control we have over them. A bad credit rating by a world-renowned company in the U.S. makes it impossible for another country to borrow the funds they need at an affordable interest rate, and not to mention that we are Jamaica’s biggest buyers.

The third biggest earner of foreign exchange in Jamaica is sugar; however, concerns about this industry are troubling the country. Farmers supplying cane to the largest sugar factory, Frome are threatening to withhold their cane because of an unresolved dispute with the factory over deductions from their final payments for the 1998-1999 crop. In the past no deductions had been taken from this final crop; so that the farmers would have as much money as possible to start the crop for the next year.(1999 Global Information Network Interpress Service 12/7/1999) The crop for the 1998-1999 year had a yield of 205,000 tons, the goal of the industry is 300,000 tons. This goal is getting harder to reach because the farmers are having a hard time getting replanting loans at the beginning of the season because of stricter collateral requirements.(1999 GIN IS 12/7/99) This creates a never ending cycle. The farmer gets a deduction from his last payment, and then the farmer does not have enough money to plant for next year. The farmer applies for a loan, but can’t meet collateral requirements, so there is not enough money to plant a big crop, and the industry falls behind. Then, there is less money for the Jamaican economy and less money for the farmer. Each year it will get worse unless they find a way to fix it. This cycle of events affects 70% of the people in the cane belt areas, who make their living from the sugar industry, which is 25% of the whole island’s labor going(1999 GIN IS 12/799).

The government has tried to help by taking over three sugar factories, and pumping in 100 million dollars into the industry to try to keep it afloat.

Nevertheless, the farmers are angry. The farmers want the government to raise the price of the locally consumed sugar, but the government disagrees. The agency responsible for marketing sugar thinks the farmers should increase their efficiency. The global industry average cost per pound to produce sugar is 16 cents, while in Jamaica it costs 36 cents. (1999 GIN IS 12/7/99)

Economic hardship is a common denominator among countries with increased cases of disease and health problems. In Jamaica there is an increased number of cases of tuberculosis, with 93 cases reported in 1995 (1999 IPS 11/23/99). To make matters worse the poorer countries are loosing money that they have been receiving from other sources for years. "Money from traditional sources for the health sector in low-income countries is becoming more and more scarce," says Dr. Nick Drager, a medical officer attached to the World Health Organization.

This inequity is even more apparent when the HIV/AIDS situation is examined. The Caribbean has the second largest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world after Africa. (The Associated Press 2/25/2000). Dr. Brendon Bain of the University of the West Indies medical school stated that between 1% and 2% of Jamaica’s 2.6 million people have AIDS or are affected with HIV. (The Associated Press 2/25/2000). "From a survey of 8,100 school children in four English speaking Caribbean islands — 42% of them are experiencing sex before the age of 10. The figure rises to 62% by age twelve." The Washington —based Organization of American States’ Pan America Health Organization, conducted the survey. They say this statistic could reflect a high rate of child molestation. (AP 2/25/2000) We are not talking only about adults here, we are talking about the life and death of children. These figures seem to point out the truth in the unfortunate truth portrayed in the movie, Dancehall Queen, where the daughter of the main character was seduced by her much older Uncle Larry.

Not only are children being targeted AIDS, but woman are as well, " A third of the reported cases in the Caribbean are among women, it reported last year that seven of eight youths being infected between the ages of 10 and 19 are female." (AP 2/25/00) The Health Minister of Jamaica John Junor said the challenge was fighting, " the irresponsible sexual behavior of our men." Peggy McEvoy, Team Leader for the Caribbean program for Geneva-based UNAIDS, which handles AIDS policy issues, education, and research, says that married women face high risks because their partners sleep with other women and won’t wear a condom. "Married women here (the Caribbean) do not have the negotiating power within a marriage to insist on a condom", says McEvoy. "Their husbands would kick them out. In addition, many women are unaware that their husbands are having extra marital affairs." We saw this behavior by Jamaican men in the films we watched in class. We saw them leave their wives with no money and many kids to deal with it all themselves. We also saw the objectification of women and the promiscuous behavior by men in Jamaica.

Islands such as Jamaica are reluctant to address this problem because they do not want to lose their tourists. They cannot afford to lose tourists or the money they bring in. This is ironic though, because much of the AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean is blamed on tourists. Poverty forces a lot of men and women into prostitution; often with tourists; " the islands with tourism are the ones that don’t want to talk about it very much, there’s a tremendous amount of sexual activity involved with tourism. There’s a lot of fear that if tourists are aware they’re not going to come" said, McEvoy.( AP 2/25/2000)

The citizens of Jamaica and the Caribbean can not afford the huge bills associated with having AIDS. One man in Trinidad says he pays $1,000 a month for his AZT treatment, which most people can not afford. Another dimension of the epidemic is that the people who are usually infected are the most productive individuals in the society. "The rising incidence of HIV cases, if left unchecked in the region, will lead to continued n0egative growth, and the eventual destabilization of our economies;" notes a study conducted by a joint effort from CAREC (Caribbean Epidemiology Centre) and the University of the West Indies. This would be very bad for Jamaica considering that they have had, "on average, negative economic growth of 1.7% over the last 26 years" ( IPS 2/3/2000).

How are Jamaican people dealing with these problems? By, "juggling, hustling, and migrating." (IPS 2/3/2000) Some families have to rely on their children to earn money or let their children fend for themselves, and many leave Jamaica. " Children are becoming premature bread winners to support themselves due to economic stress in Jamaica. In many cases, there are no fathers in the home and mothers can’t make ends meet," says Judith Maitland, a social worker. (Inter Press Service 2/3/2000). This reminds me of "Mystery Lady’s" situation in Dance Hall Queen, she wanted her daughter to do whatever it took to keep the money coming in, even if it meant giving her body to her Uncle Larry, and at such a young age. It also relates to the statistic stated previously where so many children were having sex by the time they were 10 to 12 years old.

Jamaicans have also developed the practice of "child shifting", which means that children live with many care givers. In 1996 a report released by UNICEF(United Nations Children’s Fund), states that, " 18.6% or almost one fifth of Jamaican children under the age of 18 did not live with either of their parents." This may be another reason why so many children are having sex so young, with no father in the home, or no parents at all to teach them, or just out of desperation, they "sell" their bodies for a place to live. Or perhaps they just act irresponsibly because they do not know any better. The study also adds, "that some 44.5% of children with no permanent home live in poverty." This adversely affects the school attendance of many children; between 19 and 25% of children fail to attend classes regularly, making poverty a never ending cycle. Almost 25% of Jamaica’s population is said to be illiterate, "Inadequacies in the qualifications and skills of early school - leavers mean that many young people are out on the streets rather than gaining the knowledge they need to improve Jamaica and it’s development." (IPS 2/3/2000)

It is hard for families to provide a home when so many of the people are unemployed. Unemployment currently is just over 16%; (IPS 2/3/2000). Just for reference, the general economic goal for unemployment, or what is considered a "good’ level of unemployment, is 4%. It was also estimated that in 1999, on average 2,000 people lost their jobs each month. In 1999 it was estimated that 750,000 people out of a population slightly over two million are living below the poverty line, which is defined as earning the minimum of $25 per week,(IPS 2/3/2000). The average annual Jamaican income is $8,000 ( The Associated Press 10/4/99). One of the dresses "Mystery Lady" wanted to buy in Dance Hall Queen, cost $8,000. At the time I wondered how much $8,000 was in Jamaica, now that I know it is the average annual income of a Jamaican, I have a whole new appreciation for the dresses the women wear in the contests and the contests themselves. It makes me wonder if the women in the dancehall scene are wealthy Jamaicans or if they are more like "Mystery Lady", in that they just scrape together enough money to get a costume made for them?

Some people can not scrape enough money to make it in Jamaica, and some are just tired of the situation, and many are leaving the island. More Jamaicans came to the U.S. in 1999 than in 1998. In fact, between October 1998 and September 1999, the U.S, embassy granted 11,480 immigrant visas and 72,588 visitor visas. This is a huge increase from the numbers during the same period, a year earlier: 9,579 immigrant visas and 49,325 visitor visas. (IPS 2/3/2000) Unfortunately, many of these people leave behind their families and have big dreams of making lots of money in the U.S. to support their families back in Jamaica, but these dreams are usually quickly destroyed.

The violence and the recession leave many people no choice, "People are fed up with high levels of violence and the deep recession that the economy is in, without any prospects of turning around," explains Barry Chevannes, Dean of the University of the West Indies’ Faculty of Social Sciences. (The Associated Press 10/4/99) One statistic to show how prevalent violence has become, is that among a population of just over 2 million, 953 people were murdered in 1998. This could be because, the economy has been shrinking, and the population of young people has been growing, which translates into fewer jobs for young people, which then leads to crime and violence.

It is mostly the middle class of Jamaica that is leaving, the ones without enough money to protect themselves, but with enough money to move. Unfortunately, these are the people Jamaica really needs; they are the people with MBAs, accountants, engineers, and other professionals. "They don’t want to raise their kids in this kind of environment," says Dawn Ritch, a columnists for Kingston’s Gleaner newspaper. (TAP 4/13/00) Jamaicans are, however, very patriotic, and many who leave say they would like to come back in the future. Ralston Smith, an aid to the Prime Minister, is not sure more people are leaving." Jamaicans are a migratory people and can be found from Australia to Europe, and I don’t know if any significant migration is taking place," says Smith.

The goal of this paper is not to look at Jamaica and all of it’s troubles and forget that America has it’s own economic troubles. The point is to see how connected America is to Jamaica economically; how just because we have more people and more money we have more control, and how what we do with the economy in our country effects Jamaica as well. Despite the conditions I have discussed about Jamaica, they do have hope and a love for life, and they have music to prove it.

Examples of Reggae Lyrics

The lyrics of Reggae music and Dub poetry have a multitude of effects on the people of Jamaica and people who appreciate the music. It is an upbeat happy sounding music. The words can be saying sad, tough, and hard to hear things, but still sound uplifting, fun, and romantic. One of the most important aspects of the words is that they raise consciousness about a multitude of social issues.

John Agard is a poet I found on a web page of people released on LKJ records, which is named after Linton Kwesi Johnson, considered the first dub poet. Some words from this poem Listen Mr Oxford Don, particularly apply to my paper; Giving people pride was one of the functions of the reggae poems and songs I mentioned previously, and I think this one is a perfect example.

" Me not no Oxford don

me a simple immigrant

from Clapham Common

I didn’t graduate

I immigrate

But listen Mr Oxford don

I’m a man on de run

and a man on de run

is a dangerous one

I ent have no gun

I ent have no knife

but mugging de Queen’s English

is the story of my life

I don’t need no axe

to split/ up yu syntax

I don’t need no hammer

to mash up yu grammer

I warning you Mr Oxford don

on de Oxford dictionary/

imagin a concise peaceful man like me/

dem want me serve time

for inciting rhyme to riot

but I tekking it quiet

down here in Clapham Common

I’m not a violent man Mr Oxford don

I only armed wit muh human breath

but human breath

is a Dangerous weapon

So mek dem send one big word after me

I ent serving no jail sentence

I slashing suffix in self - defense

I bashing future wit present tense

and if necessary

I making de Queen’s English accessory/ to my offence."

This poem explains what it is like to enter a new culture. The people try to make you lose your own culture and forget your own words, because forgetting your own words is a loss of power. The poem also says that language is a big part of culture and the individual. I really liked this poem because it is expressing so much pride in Jamaican language, and so much power in words, and at the same time he is being quite clever.

Popular Reggae singers also tackle the issue of AIDS and protected sex; for example, " Rubbers", by Frisco Kid, the chorus of the song is,

" Mi want to jook offa Jacqualine

But mi haffi draw for my rubbers, for my rubbers,

sex nice but the AIDS ting

Wi mek yuh die like flowers, die out like flowers"

This is the music that young people are listening to, and this is what they need to hear. It is very important that someone they look up to is telling them what to do for their own good. Earlier in my paper I said that many children and teenagers are not living with their families, are not attending school, and are having sex very young, so music is a very good way to get the message to them.

I also mentioned before that many Jamaicans try to find a better life in the U.S. and that the better life does not always happen for the immigrants. Buju Banton adresses this issue in his song, "Immigration Law":

" Tell unno fi come, bout unno nuh ready yet

Only citizens alone shall get a healthy kit

Sam get serious, tighten all loop holes

Woe be unto all petty pushers, so called dupe

Not what you gained, but what you attained

To live and die in the USA, such a shame

Analyse your imprint with what you have gained

Minimum wage is blood sweat and pain

You take my identity and left me in shame

Oh Jah, oh Jah"

Buju Banton has another song titled, " Destiny", which I really like, the chorus of the song is as follows:

" The rich man’s wealth is in the city

Destruction of the poor is his poverty

Destruction of your soul is vanity

Do you hear

I and I, I wanna rule my destiny

I and I, I wanna rule my destiny"

I think this quote speaks for itself. The last musician I will discuss is Macka B, my personal favorite. One of my favorite stanzas is:

" The richer get richer the poorer get poorer

The gap between the rich and the poor get wider

Some people just want all the power

Explotation of another is an order

Without the fear of the almighty father

Them woulda neva give a penny to a begga."

There is no need for me to interpret these lyrics because they are so straightforward. Tuna introduced the class to the dub poet Mutabaruka. I was inspired to find some more poems by him. Some of the poems I found, related very well to my paper, and I really enjoyed them. I especially enjoyed these;

Revolt Aint A revolution

"why are we fightin each


tryin to overthrow our


why are we still sayin freedom

still freedom can’t com

we have to learn things

from ancient history

to help build a new society

we have to remember

nkrumah and garvey

to build our own economy"(1st stanza)

"why are we measurin’


as determined by the west

why are we still sayin yes

to all their industrial mess

we have to understan’ the

times we are livin in

and remember where we

have been

we have to remember

what happened in slavery

so as not to repeat that

history."(3rd stanza)

Mad reality

" a neva trouble u yesterdeh

a neva trouble u todeh

u si mi pon de street a sleep

a doh ave nuthin fi eat

u come trow dutty water pon mi

den u blame society"(1st stanza)

In both of these poems, Mutabaruka proves my point that dub poetry gets the word out about issues. They also show that Americans and the west are not always that helpful to Jamaica. The poems also make people aware of an alternative view of what is happening politiclly. The media is never critical of government or society, so somebody has to be, and Mutabaruka does an excellent job.

I tried to interpret some of the other lyrics, but not being that familiar with the language, I may have missed some points. I chose all of the lyrics because they illustrate what I said in my paper. They prove that despite economic difficulty, oppression, and troubles faced by Rastafarians, Jamaicans and people everywhere; there is awareness, happiness, and hope expressed in Reggae music.


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