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A quick lightning flash illuminates a mass of African captives starving, suffering on a ship between home and hell. Slum dwellers roam the streets hoping only to live another day, wishing to be safe from hunger or bullets. Leather strips meet the strong back of one thought to be sub human, savage cries split the seas. A mother and daughter scavenge through rubbish hoping to find something of value to sell for food. But below the decks among the sick and dying, when the mood is right, voices join together in low, painful songs. And in the streets of poverty small radios, and hungry mouths sing songs of freedom.
The history of Jamaican people involves shocking images of pain and suffering. These images are rooted in Africa, and continue throughout history to the present day. The millions of slaves robbed from their homelands and put into bondage experienced agony and suffering that can be understood by only those who shared the experience.
The same slaves were forced to provide back breaking labor to meet the greedy demands of the rich and powerful. It was these early times of suffering that shaped the style and role of music in the lives of Jamaicans. Various forms of music have helped Jamaican people stand up and face the obstacles they have met. Music has heated the hearts and souls of those uprooted and tortured. It has been a way of expressing emotions, dreams, and of course complaints about life in pain. The people of Jamaica"listen to music not only for its own sake but as part of a unifying communal activity where threatening forces are described, emotions openly expressed and passions shared."(Wayne/O'Brien 3) In a sense, Jamaican people were born into a world of suffering because of slavery, and the vitality of music as a healing, uplifting part of life was born with them. The emotional effects that slavery has had on Jamaicans was heard in the music of that time and is still heard in the music of today.
Significant slave trading to Jamaica began in 1703, and by 1775, almost 500,000 slaves had been brought to Jamaica. (Brathwaite 151) More would come. Slave trade with Jamaica proved to be one of the most extensive slave trades of history. Slavery is commonly thought of in terms of cotton plantations in the southern United States, however, slavery itself has been used in many countries and was around long before the first slaves were brought to Jamaica. Slavery in Africa was instituted before the massive trans continental slave trade. Throughout the history of Africa there have been wars and disputes between many tribes and communities. Victorious tribes would often take members of the defeated tribes to be slaves or indentured servants. It wasn't until the 1400's when, according to historian Basil Davidson, Africans were captured and sold elsewhere. The first report of such action dates back to 1440 when the first recorded slave auction was held in Portugal. The feelings and morals of whites towards Africans involved superiority. Although there were a handful of individuals who felt that slavery was inhumane, the majority of Europeans felt that African captives"were fitted for enslavement because they lacked the capacities to know and use freedom: they belonged in truth to an inferior sort of humanity; in short, they were 'primitives' whom it was practically a mercy to baptize and enslave."(Turner 26 [Davidson 1992:22-23]) Thus, African slaves were thought of as animals, merchandise to be sold to extend the wealth of the already wealthy. The god-fearing men of these times felt it in their power to decide the value of human life and to measure human emotions and feelings. And so the slave trade gained acceptance and grew steadily.
Jamaica, in the 1400's was still pure and untouched by European civilization. Arawak populations flourished in the lush green hills and valleys of Jamaica. The Arawaks were peaceful people who lived off the land and survived growing maize, potatoes and arrowroot while smoking large amounts of tobacco. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, groups of migrating Carib Indians invaded many of the Arawak communities. The lives of these natives were already in a state of unrest when Europeans first arrived and changed their lives and culture permanently. Christopher Columbus led the first expedition to Jamaica in 1494 and was not received well by the natives. Eventually, after following expeditions, Columbus and other Spanish settlers began to establish small communities in Jamaica. The early Spanish colonies in Jamaica grew sugar and tobacco and had a few African and Arawak slaves. England quickly recognized the value of Jamaica and began to fight with the Spanish for control. In 1655 England sent 38 ships and 8,000 soldiers to stomp any Spanish claims to Jamaica. With this defeat, Spanish settlers left behind their colonies, and their slaves. When the Treaty of Madrid was signed by the English and Spanish, Jamaica was in limbo. Africans and Indians who had been freed by Spanish took to the hills and would eventually form Maroon colonies. The rest of Jamaica was in the hands of the English.
When the English gained control of Jamaica, they did not settle and colonize the island."Rather, it was used more as a huge agricultural factory island worked by an army of slaves taken from Africa for the purpose of growing sugar."(Davis/Simon 20-2 1) Europeans were originally introduced to sugar through trade with India. Christopher Columbus brought back sugar from his 1494 expedition, and the popularity of sugar grew dramatically in Europe. In 1640 England began the first large-scale cultivation of sugar which took place in Barbados, and the success of this cultivation was shocking. The English immediately realized its value and before long looked to the green lands of Jamaica with dollar signs in their eyes. Sugar production in Jamaica grew tremendously."In 1673 there were 57 sugar estates. Sixty-six years later, in 1740, there were 430 separate plantations. Sugar was the cocaine of its time."(Davis/Simon 2 1) The growth of the plantation industry fueled the greed of the English who looked towards slave labor as the most effective way to make money. Thus, the stage was set for the institution of slavery to expand dramatically.
The first Trans-Atlantic voyages were made on relatively small ships with less than 200 slaves on board. With the increase of demand these numbers continued to grow and the conditions of the middle passage got worse. In the early days of the Atlantic slave trade, English traders used direct force to obtain their valuable slaves. English trade forts were set up along what was called the"Slave Coast"and teams of"kidnappers"would take slaves from their villages using swords and guns. The English soon realized that this method of slave obtainment was rather dangerous and difficult."Before long, Europeans found it easier and more profitable to establish trading rather than hellicose relations on the coast."(Walvin 25) When the English themselves used force to take slaves, it created chaos in trading lands and other methods were soon looked to. Thus, the slave trade came to involve not only the European codes of slavery, but also the much older codes of African slavery as well.
Before long, a triangular system of trading evolved to satisfy plantation owners, English and African slave providers. Slaves were transported to Jamaica and sold to plantation owners who saw slaves as the most efficient and profitable source of labor.
The molasses, sugar, rum and other goods produced in Jamaica had high demand in England and were shipped there upon production. England sent textiles, guns and other manufactured goods to African kings and chiefs who would in turn get the English more slaves. With this trade circle, the plantation owners, English and powerful Africans were getting what they wanted, while millions of unfortunate Africans were sold into hell.
A discussion of the slave trade in terms of economy, business and need might explain how slavery was used, but it fails to illustrate in any detail the most important and awful aspect of slavery, the individual struggles. For these were the struggles that would play a major roll in shaping the lives and cultures of Jamaicans. From the moment of capture, slaves were forced to experience a life of pain and suffering that would be hard to compare to any other. The details of the life of a slave from beginning to end paint an unbelievable picture. These details serve to illustrate how deep the mental and cultural wounds actually were. And with an understanding of the suffering of slaves brought to Jamaica, it is easy to see how their music, culture and emotions were changed.
Slaves were captured from villages along the coast of Africa. Olaudah Equiano, one of the first Negroes to write in English about experiences in Africa and in slavery discusses the area of Africa from which many slaves were taken:"That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast about 3400 miles, from Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms." (Southern 4 [Equiano 1789]) Raids led by powerful tribes caught many by surprise, capturing men women and children. One account of such a kidnapping has been given by Olaudah Equiano who was captured and sold into slavery at the age of I I :"... commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might
come upon us; for they sometimes took these opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize."(Walvin 29) Equiano was captured one day while in his hut with his younger sister. He told how"two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both."He was forced to travel on foot to the coast stopping along the way to work for"foreign peoples". There are millions of stories similar to this one, millions of people uprooted and taken away. Perhaps the most dramatic and painful aspect of the slave trade was the experience of the middle passage. Malcom X recalls the tolls of the middle passage:
I know you don't realize the enormity, the horrors, of the so-called Christian white man's crime ... One hundred million of us black people! Your grandparents! Mine! Murdered by this white man. To get fifteen million of us here to make us his slaves, on the way he murdered one hundred million! I wish it was possible for me to show you the sea bottom in those days - the black bodies, the blood, the bones broken by boots and clubs! The pregnant black women who were thrown overboard if they got too sick! (Malcom X 1965:3 11 quoted in Turner 24/25)
This long, agonizing journey across the Atlantic Ocean took millions of lives and left scars in the memories of millions more. The middle passage began at slave ports along the African coast where slaves were organized and loaded onto large trading vessels. Because slaves were not considered human beings, they were packed in as tight as possible. More slaves on a ship meant more sales and profit, even if some were lost along the way to starvation and disease. On board the ships, slaves were shackled together two by two and sent underneath the deck to the slave holds. Reverend John Newton witnessed the conditions of slaves in their quarters and wrote:
The poor creatures, thus cramped, are likewise in irons for the most part which makes it difficult for them to turn or move or attempt to rise or to lie down without hurting themselves or each other. Every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found of the living and the dead fastened together. (quoted in Reimers/Unger 20)
There were regulations under British law as to how many slaves could be on one ship. The Brookes was a ship weighing 320 tons, and by the law of 1788 it was seen fit to carry 454 slaves on board. This would permit, for every male slave, a space six feet long by sixteen inches wide and two feet high. Women and children were permitted similar space accordingly. The amount of room granted to each slave has often been compared to the amount of room in a coffin. The Brookes was filled to the brim on every voyage and its owners often disregarded the British packing law, loading up to 600 slaves at a time. (Walvin 42) The terrible overcrowding of the slave ships made the conditions of existence on these ships close to impossible. Disease spread among the slaves as they lived, slept and died practically on top of one another. For sanitary purposes, slaves were provided with buckets put out along the deck of the hold. These buckets were far too small and spread out to provide adequate sanitary conditions for the slaves on board. In attempts to try and get to the buckets, sometimes located far from their holdings, slaves had to"tumble over their companions, in consequence of their being shackled."(Walvin 49) Often times these buckets were not used at all. The stench and heat of the holds was often unbearable as described by Olaudah Equiano:
I was soon put down under the decks and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. (quoted in Walvin 48)
The conditions in the slave holds were even worse during stormy weather when portholes and doors had to be shut. Doctor Falconbridge served on one of the ships traveling across the Atlantic to Jamaica and shared accounts of the conditions of slaves:
Some wet and blowing weather having occasioned the port-hoes to be shut and the grating to be covered, fluxes and fevers among the Negroes ensued. While they were in this situation, I frequently went down among them till at length their rooms became so extremely hot as to be only bearable for a very short time. But the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is, the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughterhouse ... Numbers of the slaves having fainted they were carried upon deck where several of them died and the rest with great difficulty were restored. It had nearly proven fatal to me also ... by only continuing among them for about a quarter of an hour, I was so overcome with the heat, stench and foul air that I nearly fainted; and it was only with assistance that I could get on deck. The consequence was that I soon after fell sick of the same disorder from which I did not recover for several months. (Reimers/Unger 28-29)
In treating and establishing slave conditions on board ships, the traders' only concern was to keep the slaves alive. They were fed just enough food to survive, the meals consisting of horse beans mashed and mixed to a pulp or boiled yams and rice. The food was served without plates or utensils; slaves simply put out their hands and received a handful of the messy food. These filthy eating conditions enabled further spread of sickness and disease. In addition to the little food served to the slaves the only other measures taken by traders to keep the slaves healthy involved forced singing and dancing. 'Music was provided by a slave thumping on a broken drum or an upturned kettle ... While sailors paraded the deck each with a cat-o'-nine-tails in his right hand, the men slaves 'Jumped in their irons until their ankles were bleeding flesh."(Reimers/Unger 26) Traders believed dancing was valuable in exercising and keeping the slaves alive. Suicide was among the most common problems faced by slave traders. Many of the slaves forced into bondage did not want to deal with the suffering. Strong religious beliefs strengthened their convictions that if they were to die, they would be set free from the torture they were experiencing. Some slaves starved themselves while other managed to find cloth or rope with which to hang themselves. On some ships, the captain would cut off the heads of those who had committed suicide, showing the others that they would go to the afterlife without a head. On one of the voyages of the Brookes, a slave tried to cut his throat on the first night of the journey. The surgeon on board, Thomas Totter, stitched the wound up the following morning."...but on the following night the man not only tore out the sutures but tried to cut his throat on the other side. From the ragged edges of the wound and the blood on his fingers, he seemed to have used his nails as the only available instrument."(Reimers/Unger 30) Refusing to eat was another method of committing suicide. Many slaves would withstand whippings and beatings without giving in and eating. Dr. Falconbridge describes this situation:
Upon the Negroes refusing to take food, I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, put on a shovel and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them. And this has been accompanied with threats of forcing them to swallow the coals if they persisted in refusing to eat. (Reimers/Unger 30)
Disease was another problem for those who transported slaves. Some of the diseases carried by Africans were dengue, yellow fever, blackwater fever, and malaria. These diseases affected whites more than the slaves. However, scurvy, smallpox and"the bloody flux"took the lives of thousands. On one of the voyages of I he Young Hero, 132 slaves died from the flux. Similarly, on The Nightingale, 150 slaves were tossed overboard after being killed by fevers and flux. In addition to the viruses and bacteria on board the ships, there was another illness that were not easily explained by doctors. Some ship surgeons witnessed deaths caused mysteriously. Such cases were thought to have been caused by shock or major depression.
"Even slaves who were well fed, treated with kindness, and kept under relatively sanitary conditions would often die one after another for no apparent reason; they simply had no wish to live ... To separate an individual from [their] complex system of interrelationships and suddenly place him, naked and friendless, in a completely hostile environment was in some respects a greater shock than any amount of physical brutality."(Reimers/Unger 30/3 1)
When"fixed melancholy", diseases, suicide or other threats to the well being of the cargo presented themselves, traders tried their best to minimize the loss. There were other issues that caused problems and pain on board the slave ships. Because of the ship's dependence on trade winds to make the journey, calm seas would often delay arrival for weeks on end. When ships did not catch the winds, they were forced to stay out to sea longer, thus using up their supplies prematurely. Sometimes slaves would be thrown overboard if there were no provisions to keep them alive. The most famous case which illustrating jettisoned slaves occurred on The Zong. At the start of The Zong's voyage from England to Jamaica, it held 440 slaves and 17 crewmembers. During the slow passage, a sickness fell over the ship and over 60 slaves and 7 crewmembers died. Upon nearing Jamaica, the captain called his crew together to discuss the amount of fresh water on board. There would not be enough fresh water to keep everyone alive, and the captain proposed throwing some of the slaves overboard. He reasoned that if slaves died of thirst, they would not be insured under British law, but of they were drowned, their deaths would be compensated. So the captain ordered the crew to pick 133 sick or weak slaves to be thrown overboard. 97 slaves were thrown overboard before a heavy rain brought fresh water to the ship. The captain continued with his plan, however, and last 36 slaves were forced into the ocean. (Reimers/Unger 35) Such wicked acts were not uncommon on slave ships. Greed and profit combined with disregard for slave life led to horrible conditions and suffering of slaves.
After the middle passage, slaves were brought to seaports where they would be sold, auctioned or delivered to plantation owners who had previously ordered them. If they were unhealthy upon arrival, they would be held in camps where they were"fattened up"to be sold. By the time slaves were brought to a plantation, they had almost nothing. Almost all slaves were separated from their family and friends. Many slaves, upon arriving and being sold, were not even amongst members of their own tribe. They had no clothes of their own, no possessions, and what little bit of sanity they could maintain. They looked forward only to years of back breaking labor and pain. Workers were forced to work from dawn until late afternoon with only short breaks to eat. Men, women and children were given different tasks to carry out, and each plantation had its own set of rules and schedules. The first tasks of slaves on plantations was to clear areas for fields and planting which proved to be painful labor. Planting involved a lot of digging and toiling under the hot Jamaican sun. Slaves carried baskets of manure on their heads, which weighed up to 80 lb. Cutting and Harvesting was perhaps the most difficult task. 20 tons of sugar cane produced only one ton of sugar, and the cut cane was heavy and awkward to carry. When the harvests were through, the slaves' work was not done. The off time was spent working on plantation maintenance:
... making good the damage to fields, roads and buildings, to care for the plantations' animals. All this was in addition to whatever work they needed to do around their own plots and homes in the little time (and daylight) left to them at the end of the working day or on Sundays. (Walvin 98)
Plantation life, although much better than the conditions of the middle passage, was no less inhumane and terrible. Slave masters and plantation owners regarded their slaves as machines whose purpose was to produce. Slaves that resisted the power of the slave master were immediately punished with severe measures. Runaway slaves were hunted down and if captured, whipped and sometimes killed to show the other slaves how serious they were. Because the majority of early Jamaicans could not read or write, most of the accounts and individual horrors of these people have not been documented. There are however, some details, which display the suffering and cruelty of the slave days. One witness told the House of Commons Inquiry of 1790/1:
One evening one of them [house slaves] had either broken a plate, or split a cup of tea, which raised his [the plantation owner's] passion so much, that he took a hammer and a tenpenny nail, and nailed one of her ears to a bullet-tree post ... We went to bed and left her standing there; in the morning we found she was gone, having torn the head of the nail through her ear. As soon as the Doctor knew, he dispatched a man, who brought her again, and when I came to breakfast ... I found he had given her a very severe whipping. His fury did not stop here; he had taken a pair of large scissors, and clipt both her ears off close to her head, and she was set picking seeds out of cotton, amongst three or four more that had been emaciated by his cruelties till they were fit for nothing else. (Brathwaite 156)
In addition to such cruelties, rape was common on slave plantations. The plantation owners and slave masters looked at women slaves as theirs to have their way with. One specific planter Thomas Thistlewood was notorious in his sexual aggressions towards women slaves."He took his slaves wherever he found them, in the fields, in the various plantation buildings, but most of all in his own house ... In his home he ruled supreme, and any woman working there was likely to find herself pressed into sexual service for her master's pleasure."(Walvin 132) Slaves were not only used for labor, but for the sick pleasures of their owners. Many slaves encountered situations like these in which they were dehumanized and degraded.
Slaves were given small plots of land to set up makeshift huts. These small slave communities on the plantations provided a place where the culture of African people could be shared and developed once again. Slave owners were strict about the social activities of slaves, but they could not stop the social interactions that would occur among the slaves. There was often much activity among the slaves when they were not hard at work. Some of the beliefs, languages, traditions and ideas of these people began to emerge out from under the pain and suffering of being taken for bondage. Among the important aspects of the social life of these communities was music.
Music has always been an important part of the lives of the Jamaican people, with roots in their African culture. Richard Jobson, an English captain, traveled throughout Africa in 1620 and 1621. During his travels, Jobson observed the importance of music in the lives of the African people:"There is without a doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principal persons [that is, the kings and chiefs] do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when wee come to see them, their musicke will seldom be wanting."(Southern 4 [Jobson]) African slave, Equiano speaks of his people:"We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians and poets. Thus every great event... is celebrated in public dances which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion."(Southern 5) Harvests, hunts, battles, religious ceremonies, rites associated with birth, initiation, marriage, healing and death were among the many occasions at which music and dancing was performed. One of the most important ceremonial uses of music occurred when tribal leaders traveled to the home of the tribal king or chief to pay homage. On these occasions some of the most extravagant musical displays were witnessed. Music was also an important part of everyday life among the Africans in the form of work songs and even social-commentary. Music was often used as a way of communicating and expressing emotions.
African music had many distinct traits involving rhythm, vocals and instruments used. There was (and still is) a wide variety of instruments used in African ceremonies. String instruments made of gourds or sticks were common, while the most commonly used instrument was the drum. Africans made drums of all shapes and sizes to create a variety of different sounds and pitches. Many people believe that the drum is as vital to music as the heartbeat is to human life. It is the beat and tempo, the sound that drives the music. When groups of musicians played at ceremonies or festivals, the rhythms produced by the drums played in unison brought the community closer. African drumming has influenced Rastafarian drumming and even some of the more popular music of Jamaica.
African music was in many senses complex despite the lack of organization of notes, keys and measures. African musicians played and sang using only experience and practice. They were exceptionally good at improvising over a traditional melody and often times would completely hide the melody in intricate improvisations. African music also involved a lot of changes in pitch and tone. Musicians and especially singers performed with loose adherence to scales or pitch regulations. They used the entire spectrum of notes, and rarely jumped cleanly from one note to another. Much of the singing involved more freedom to produce a wide variety of sounds. One of the features of African music, which is still used today, is a characteristic known as"call and response". In many performances, a lead singer will sing the leading lines while a chorus will alternate a refrain. The refrain was often a commentary on the leading line.
Perhaps the most important aspect of African music is the importance of the voice. The power of the human voice alone in chanting and singing has always been recognized in African music and can be seen in its musical grandchildren. In most African ceremonies, the musical rhythms and patterns were often similar and somewhat simple, but the vocals were the important piece of the musical experience. Singing and chanting can be the most effective ways of expressing emotions, beliefs, stories or dreams. The importance of the voice is seen especially during times of slavery, when Africans were ripped away from their native drums and other instruments. The only aspect of African music that was not taken away completely was the vocal aspect. The drums and instruments made by slaves in Jamaica often resembled those of Africa, but were not quite the same.
Slavery affected the music of African slaves in Jamaica from the very beginning. Often times, slaves could be heard singing songs of emotional distress while on slave ships. They sang songs of the horrors around them and songs yearning to go back to their homes. As slave communities grew on plantations, and the slave culture developed, music was performed more and more, and regained importance in the lives of slaves. Some of the first forms of musical expression among slaves were work songs or"digging songs". Plantation workers made up and sang these songs while working in the hot sun. They served to entertain, but more importantly to pass the time and ease the pain of hard labor. One song describes the wish to go"home":"If we want to go in a Ebo/ Me can't go there!/ Since dem tief me from a Guinea/ Me can't go there!"(Walvin 160) Similarly, the following song describes a yearning for the master, Mr. Linky, to"knock off work for the day":"Tell Mister Linky me want go, hm! W..."Other songs
described simple pains of life:"Wednesday morning before day, Wednesday morning before day, Wednesday morning before day, me ma'am, me feel me head a hurt me."(Jekyll 160,167) It is difficult to imagine the actual sound of such songs, however the simplicity and ideas are easily seen. Eventually, song and music among slaves grew in importance. As slaves began to make instruments and form closer community ties, more music was performed. Music could be heard coming from the small slave communities during all hours of the night, with chanting, drumming and dancing. Slave owners began to suspect that drumming and singing were used to communicate ideas of rebellion, so attempts to regulate these activities were made. These attempts, for the most part, failed. In early slave times, the only occasions on which slaves were left completely alone were funerals. Thus, deaths among the slave communities were not only a chance to remember the dead, but also a chance to go wild with music and song. One report of such a ceremony explained how the slaves:
... dance to the sound of their beloved music, and the singing of their favourite African yell ... As the slaves plunged into the accelerating excitement of the dance, ad the noise and confusion grew, a spectator would require only a slight aid from fancy to transport him to the savage wilds of Africa. (Black Ivory p. 161)
The people of Jamaica and their music have developed and evolved in many different ways since the days of slavery, but the overall experience of slavery is rooted deep within Jamaican people and these roots continue to affect the music of Jamaican people. From mento, ska, rocksteady and ragga through roots reggae, dance hall and dub, the ideas and emotions derived from slave times are still mixed in with Jamaican music. Social commentary is one such theme that has been and is still used in the music of Jamaica. From the early digging songs of slaves singing of simple pains and pleasures of life to the dancehall rhythms of today there are many lyrics devoted to social commentary. The living conditions of the artists and their people, small and large-scale political topics, violence and hunger are just a few examples of the realities talked about in the music. Linton Kwesi Johnson talks a lot about conditions and treatment of blacks and in one particular song called"Sonny's Lettah", he tells a story of police brutality on the streets:"... out jump tree policemen/de whole a dem carryin baton/dem walk straight up to me and Jim/one adem hold on to Jim/ ... Jim tell him fi leggo a him/for him nah do nottin/ ... Dem thump him in him belly and it turn to jelly..."The Jamaican artists who perform such lyrics are singing through experience and the details included in the songs are as factual and real as any history book or newspaper. Mutabaruka, one of the pioneers of dub poetry (dealing with the realities of life in poetry form), speaks of the pains of reality:"You ask me if I have ever gone to prison/ been to prison?/ Your world of murderers and thieves/ of hatred and death/ and you ask me if I have ever been to prison?/ I answer. 'Yes. I'm still there/ trying to escape."'
Another common theme in Jamaican music rooted in the days of slavery is coping with suffering. Bob Marley sings:"Lord I gotta keep on movin"' and sings a great deal about positive vibrations, hope and strength in dealing with the pains of life. The will to keep on living when skies are gray and oppression is heavy is often discussed in the music of Jamaican people. There is an amazing sense of hope among many Jamaican singers and performers who truly believe that in the end, good will prevail and evil will be conquered. Toots and the Maytals sing a song entitled"Pressure Drop"in which the evil members of society are warned:"Pressure drop, oh pressure, oh yea pressure gonna drop on you!"The desire to play music and sing and the will to keep hope and faith in times of suffering fueled each other. Jamaicans played music to keep their spirits high, and their hope for better days made them sing with even more inspiration.
Often, in Jamaican music, the theme of remembering slavery is talked about. There are many Jamaican musicians of today who wish to remember slavery in order to learn from it and to draw hope from the example it has set. The days of slavery are often compared to the suffering in Jamaica that goes on today. Burning Spear has written a song entitled"Slavery Days"in which the line"Do you remember the days of slavery?"is repeated. Bob Marley and the Wailers wrote a song entitled 400 years which discusses how slavery is still existing in different forms today:"400 years ... and it's the same, the same philosophy."Many Jamaican musicians recognize the importance of their ancestors' experiences and draw strength from them still.
There is often a call to action in the music of Jamaica. Singers like Bob Marley urge the people to"Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights."The music of Jamaica often discusses the strength of unity and the power of numbers. Bob Marley sings: We gonna chase those crazy baldheads, chase them crazy, chase those crazy baldheads out of town!"Baldhead is a Jamaican term referring to the oppressors of society. Such calls to action contribute to the hope in the music of Jamaica.
In continuing this discussion, other forms of music can be recognized as being fueled by the African slave experience. Blues music has its roots in the Southern U.S. and is a real form of musical expression. Singin' the blues involved letting your emotions be heard by and audience and openly expressing ones feelings. Some blues songs are directly related to many of the Negro spirituals heard on cotton and tobacco plantations in the south. Even in modern blues one can see how the depths of the music have been shaped and influenced by the slave experience.
Hip-Hop is a similar form of music, which has evolved more recently, and is often considered a cousin to reggae, Hip Hop culture thrives in many of the inner cities where descendants of slaves have come to live. Hip Hop shares similar characteristics with Reggae in that its beats are firm and make people want to move, while the lyrics tend to stick with the themes of commentary and reality. In addition, Hip-Hop is often a commentary on social life and problems in the inner cities. There are, in Hip-Hop, elements of strength and confidence not found in most other forms of music. Hip Hop artists look back upon the struggles of their people and relate them to their own struggles. Often in Hip-Hop music there is positivity and hope as in Reggae music.
The struggles of Africans who were taken from their homes and sold into slavery will never be forgotten because of their roots in the lives of those descended from slaves. The impact that slavery has had on Black people, specifically in Jamaica, can be seen in the music of yesterday and today. Africans in Jamaica and other parts of the world continue to look towards music as a source of inspiration, a vent for emotions, a form of commentary, and an organizational cry for unity, hope and resistance to oppression.
It might be interesting to contemplate the other aspects of African people in Jamaica and elsewhere that have been affected permanently by the struggles of slavery. Perhaps it has imbedded in its peoples' character a way of living and coping that is stronger than others. Maybe the ongoing struggle of Africans from slave times, times of racism and discrimination, poverty, oppression and fights for freedom has made the will and spirit of Black people among the strongest known to man. If it is true, that the days of slavery has ignited a flame inside black people, then one might wonder if this flame will exist eternally in the hearts of black people. Perhaps this flame will always push them forward in times of struggles, with their heads high, their eyes set solid, and their music filling the air.
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