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A Look Into Kingston
Andrew Weaderhorn

Kingston has been the home to many famous reggae artists. Why do so many artists come from Kingston?  Does it say something about the message of the music and or the conditions in Kingston that also encompasses trench town?


Background of Kingston

Kingston is located on the southern side of the island of Jamaica and is protected from the strong northeast trade winds by the vast Blue Mountain ranges. The city of Kingston stretches for more than 50 mi including 10-mi long harbor.  This makes for a diverse community of fisherman as well as street vendors and many unemployed people. 

Kingston is the largest and one of the most diverse cities in the English-speaking Caribbean.  More than half a million people populate Kingston of different decent ranging from African, Asian, European, and Middle Eastern roots.  The city's tremendous growth during the 20th century has produced severe overcrowding, persistent unemployment, and violent crime.  Poverty has devastated Jamaica's black majority and nowhere is this more apparent than in the ghettos of Kingston.  European colonialism set up a society of racial stratification and current residents of Kingston have to deal with historic tensions between the city's black and brown residents. 

Kingston of today is a direct result of the organized racial and cultural segregation that began more than 300 years ago, when Jamaica was a British colony.  Many of the social and political changes that have swept Jamaica since 1692 have occurred first in Kingston, often in reaction to organized political protests. The history of Kingston itself represents the legacy of slavery and the efforts by black and brown Jamaicans to find freedom and equality in a nation haunted by what's left of colonialism.

Kingston was founded in the summer of 1692, after a large earthquake destroyed the coastal city of Port Royal.  From the beginning Kingston was run by Jamaica's white elite, mostly sugar planters from England.  The city was created to serve the social and economic interests of white planters.  Residential segregation in the form of a color-class system, beginning in 1692, served to reinforce cultural separation.  (Henriques, 32) 

During the first half of the 18th century Kingston saw an influx of Jewish merchants, white sugar planters, African slaves, and a small amount of free blacks in the colored community.  Kingston served as a trading post for the Transatlantic Slave Trade and this was one of their main trades.  The African slaves were used to produce sugar in Jamaica and this sugar was then sent to New England.  These goods were then exchanged for more African slaves to grow the industry.  Slavery changed the social color of Kingston during the 18th century; the whites dominated Jamaica's legal and political organizations and originally pushed the growing black majority to the outskirts of town.

Laws like the Consolidated Slave Laws of 1792 regulated racial Interaction between the different colors.  This law restricted the where slaves could go as well as their right to assembly and the slaves were supposed to stay on their respective rural sugar plantations.   Colored Jamaicans were required to carry certificates of freedom that stems from British practices used in South Africa and since most of the officials were originally from Britain they used similar guidelines.  The whites firmly believed in the difference between originally free blacks and those who were freed from slavery.  This made it pretty tough on those who were freed from slavery who had less white in their blood and were considered the lowest of the classes. 

The strict laws and organizations made for a firm social ladder that privileged the city's white minority.  Tensions therefore developed between blacks and slaves living in the lower level of Kingston society.  At first most freed slaves tried to gain acceptance into white society by trying to copy white European culture.  These freed slaves favored people who looked more European in nature with attributes such as straight hair, light skin, and thin lips.  Kingston's social hierarchy however never allowed these freed slaves to gain full access to power.  Jews and white indentured servants stood above them. “By the end of the 18th century Kingston's policy of residential segregation had produced a cultural and social separation among the city's black, brown, and white residents.”  (Robinson, no page) 

Kingston underwent a series of dramatic changes during the 19th century.  By 1820 it was the largest and richest city in the British West Indies.  Whites were still the leaders of the legal and political organizations that assured their advantaged positions.  Kingston, just like the rest of white Jamaica, had grown to fear the runaway slaves called maroons who developed independent communities in more central Jamaica.  The fears turned into a reality when in 1831 a serious slave rebellion led by a black slave named Samuel Sharpe alongside over than 20,000 other slaves, broke out in the northwest parish of Saint James.  (Robinson, No Page)

The slavery in Jamaica ended in 1834 and dramatically changed Kingston's society. Contrary to the fears of many whites, liberation did not bring a flood of former slaves into the city.  Most of the blacks found few employment opportunities in Kingston and were essentially forced to remain as workers on sugar plantations.  These blacks were ancestors to today's peasant communities and this is what started the bad neighborhoods consisting of shacks made out of whatever the community members could find.  These towns were primarily located on the outskirts of Kingston. 

For almost the next three decades, most people in Jamaica experienced considerable hardships as the island's economy collapsed.  Wealthy whites went back to Europe and thousands of blacks and freed slaves of various ancestry immigrated to places such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Panama, and Cuba.  Those blacks that stayed in Kingston turned to selling homegrown produce in the small-scale markets that crowded the sides of streets.  Even though the economic crisis hit the wealthy as well as the poor, government policies in the 1860s targeted the poor and made a difficult situation even worse. 

This continued persecution led to further frustration, which appeared in 1865 when the black activist Paul Bogle organized a substantial demonstration in Morant Bay to protest the government's policies.  Blacks in Kingston participated in most of the events and after a violent police crackdown the Jamaicans rioted.  After the riots, the British Parliament decided to make Jamaica a crown colony.   A crown colony means that Jamaica would be under the direct rule of the British Crown.  This transformation also took away some of the power from the hands of the island's whites.  This was the start of a major change for Kingston’s people.  (Robinson, No page)

Lighter skin people did the best during the crown colony period, and many could afford to move into some of Kingston's nicer neighborhoods.  Kingston's black majority however continued to find themselves blocked out of the city's economy.  Poor schools and widespread unemployment left most of the blacks at a serious disadvantage.  For example, in 1871, 60 percent of the city's population were illiterate, most of whom were black.  (Robinson, No Page)

Kingston began to make an economic comeback in 1872, when it became the capital of Jamaica. Manufacturing provided jobs for some of the city's black residents, and the immigration of merchants from East India, China, and Syria boosted the city's recovery. Although a major earthquake in 1907 slowed development, Kingston continued to grow.

During the 1920s and 1930s Marcus Garvey headed a Black Nationalist movement that brought attention to the world of the poor conditions facing black workers.  During the rise of Garveyism Kingston became the front line for black nationalists, black religious organizations such as the Rastafarians, trade unions, and political activists.  Their activities eventually led to universal adult suffrage in 1944.  This placed Jamaica on the path to independence and induced the formation of two major political parties in Kingston.  The two parties were the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP).  (Abrahams, 164)

The JLP and PNP competed throughout the 1940s and 1950s for the support of Jamaica's black, working-class majority.  Michael Manley and Alexander Bustamante emerged as two black politicians who spoke for the island's black and brown population.   During this time Kingston acted as an example of the negative impact of white colonial rule, and for continued to place pressure on the British Crown for independence.  The Jamaican’s succeeded in 1962 when Jamaica was allowed full independence from Great Britain.

After independence, Kingston there was a great deal of competition between the supporters of the PNP and those of the JLP.  Party supporters who lived in and controlled political clubs divided downtown Kingston.  In the elections of 1976 and 1980, hundreds of Jamaicans died during vicious political altercations in the political clubs of Kingston.  Even though there was a great deal of violence, Jamaica was able to gain the benefits and the main principles of democracy.  Kingston has come to represent a current capital complete with organizational centers and an improved work force of civil servants.  (news.bbc.com, no page)

            Kingston today still remains racially segregated, and substantial numbers of its residents are still dirt poor.  Kingston continually deals with unemployment, crime, and overcrowding, as we have seen in such movies a The Harder They Come and Third World Cop.  The next session will look closer into one of the ghettos in Kingston: Trench Town. 

Trench Town

Trench Town is a small area in the West Kingston ghetto community of Jamaica’s capital.  Trench Town just like other ghetto areas has basically been abandoned and avoided by both the public and private parts of Kingston’s society.  It has been isolated and controlled by the inhabitants consisting of police and gang violence.

Trench Town has been a town of violence, where the people live in fear and despair that goes along with ghetto life.  Trench Town is also recognized and respected worldwide as providing the Roots of Reggae Music.  The messages of Reggae are Unity, One love and the inhabitants as well as Reggae artists incorporate this message to combat their rough lives. 

In reality Trench Town can be a dangerous place but it is also a community.  The community and its leaders believe in social change and responsibility.  The power of reasoning and constructive action is highly valued.  Unfortunately for the younger generation, crime has seemed in the short term to be the only way to survive and achieve any material gains.  The leaders of the community seem determined to change this as well as the Police as we have seen in Third World Cop.


As you can see from the pictures, Trench Town  is an impoverished town that was built around a former garbage dump in the early 1950’s  The country folk used whatever they could find to build their homes and mostly worked on sugar plantations like most of the peasants of Kingston. 


Trench Town produces so many Reggae artists because of the nature of the ghetto.  The only thing that musicians of Trench town own is their music.  The music is a way of sending out messages, entertainment, and a way to finance their way out of the ghetto into a better life.  Reggae tells the stories of their life as well as things they would like changed.  When Peter Tosh sang “Legalize It” he spoke about the hypocrisy around the use of ganja.  The people of the ghetto are arrested for smoking ganja but judges and politicians smoke it too.  Bob Marley advocated political peace that would improve the living conditions of almost all Jamaicans.  Music is a powerful weapon and since the people of the ghetto are essentially powerless they must use other forms of fighting.     


Some Famous Reggae Artists of Trench Town

Trench Town is the home to many accomplished and world famous individuals.  Most of the movies we watched in class have featured artists of Trench Town.   Here are a few famous and influential reggae artists.

Joe Higgs is known as "The Father of Reggae" (1940 - 1999) .  Joe Higgs was greatly influential in the birth of the SKA, rock steady, and reggae forms of Jamaican music.  He is broadly respected as a composer, arranger and performer and most of all as a teacher. Among those he trained were Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

Alton Ellis was from Trench Town and one of Jamaica's first singers.  He is well known as vocalist, keyboard player, producer and songwriter.  After gaining enormous popularity as a SKA singer, it was Ellis who is credited for introducing the much slower rhythm rock steady. 

Bob Marley was born in Nine Miles, St. Ann.  Bob moved to Trench Town as a child with his mother. They lived at 19 Second Street. Like many of the residents, Bob spent a lot of time at 8 First Street, the Culture Yard.  Bob Marley is probably the most recognized Reggae artist in the world.  .  (bobmarley.com/life/trenchtown, no page)

Peter Tosh was born In Grange Hill, Western Jamaica.  At the age of 15 he moved to Trench Town.  He lived in a little shack he built on West Road, on the corner of Fourth Street.  In Trench Town he met Bob Marley and they helped form the Wailers. After Tosh left the Wailers, his music became more radical and took an even stronger political stance.  His message was popular with the Jamaican people but the authorities felt otherwise.  In 1975, after being busted for possession of ganja, Tosh was brutally beaten by police officers. The incident agitated his political radicalism.


Bunny Wailer born in Nine Miles, St. Ann, Jamaica where he attended school with his closest friend Bob Marley.  After being separated for several years, two boys met again in Trench Town, where together with Peter Tosh they formed The Wailers. Bunny left Wailers in 1976.

These were just a few of the many artists from Trench Town


Songs about Trench Town and Kingston

Bob Marley who was a citizen of Trench Town has written many songs about political issues in Jamaica as well as life in Trench Town.  A particular song that talks about Trench Town is Trench Town Rock.  I will go through the lyrics and talk about what I think bob was talking about.  Remember that this is a personal take on the songs and may not be right. 

Bob Marley: Trench Town Rock

One good thing about music, when it hits you fell no pain
So hit me with music, hit me with music
Hit me with music, hit me with music now
I got to say trench town rock
I say don't watch that

When they are listening to music nothing else in the world really matters, it is their form of escape.  So bring on the music so we can escape from this ghetto. 

Trench town rock, big fish or sprat
Trench town rock, you reap what you sow
Trench town rock, and everyone know now
Trench town rock, don't turn your back
Trench town rock, give the slum a try
Trench town rock, never let the children cry
Trench town rock, cause you got to tell JAH, JAH

You have to take care of your people and be responsible for your actions in the community. 

You grooving Kingston 12, grooving, Kingston 12
Grooving woe, woe, it's Kingston 12
Grooving it's Kingston 12
No want you fe galang so,
No want you fe galang soYou want come cold I up
But you can't come cold I upCause I'm grooving, yes I'm grooving

Kingston may be poor but we know how to get our groove on and that is important. 

I say one good thing, one good thing
When it hits you feel no pain
One good thing about music
When it hits you feel no pain
So hit me with music
Hit me with music now
Hit me with music, hit me with music
Look at that, Trench Town rock
I say don't watch that, Trench Town rock
If you big fish or sprat, Trench Town rock
You reap what you sow, Trench Town rock
And everyone know now, Trench Town rock
Don't turn your back, Trench Town rock
Give the slum a try, Trench Town rock
Never let the children cry, Trench Town rock
Cause you got to tell JAH, JAH why
Grooving, grooving, grooving, grooving

A little re-cap and some town spirit.  It is good to be proud of where you come from and Marley reinforces the idea of loyalty.  Music is what they have to feel good and as bad as things are they can still groove. 

Bob Marley ­Trench Town

Up a cane river to wash my dread
Upon a rock I rest my head
There I vision through the seas of oppression
Don't make my life a prison

This talks about the life of oppression that the people of Trench Town experience. 

We come from Trench Town, Trench Town
Most of them come from Trench Town
We free the people with music, sweet music
Can we free the people with music
Can we free our people with music, with music
With music, oh music

Most of the Rastafarians come from Trench Town.  They plan to free the people of with music. 

Whoa my head, in desolate places we'll find our bread
And everyone see what's taking place
Whoa-yo another page in history

It is a struggle for people in Trench Town to find or afford each meal

We come from Trench Town, come from Trench Town
We come from Trench Town
Lord we free the people with music
We free the people with music, sweet music
We free our people with music
With music, oh music, oh music

Music is their tool to freedom and they are proud to be from Trench Town

They say it's hard to speak
They feel so strong to say we're weak
But through the eyes the love of our people
Whoa-a they got to repay

They feel so strongly about the cause but they can’t really do anything to get ahead.  They love each other and insist on succeeding. 

We come from Trench Town
We come from Trench Town, Trench, Trench Town
They say can anything good come out of Trench Town?
That's what they say, Trench Town
Say we're the underpriveleged people
So they keep us in chains
Pay pay pay tribute to Trench Town, Trench Town
We come from Trench Town, not because we come from Trench Town
Just because we come from Trench Town

Others look down on them because of where they come from and they can’t get out of Trench Town because they are From Trench Town.  Nothing good comes out of Trench Town but what they are preaching about is inherently good; peace. 



Peter Tosh

Legalize it


Legalize it - don't criticize it
Legalize it and I will advertise it


Some call it tampee
Some call it the weed
Some call it Marijuana
Some of them call it Ganja


Legalize it - don't criticize it
Legalize it and I will advertise it


Singer smoke it
And players of instruments too
Legalize it, yeah, yeah
That's the best thing you can do
Doctors smoke it
Nurses smoke it
Judges smoke it
Even the lawyers too


Legalize it - don't criticize it
Legalize it and I will advertise it


It's good for the flu
It's good for asthma
Good for tuberculosis
Even umara composis


Legalize it - don't criticize it
Legalize it and I will advertise it


Bird eat it
And they love it
Fowls eat it
Goats love to play with it


This song is quite self explanatory and points out the hypocrisy surrounding the use of ganja.  He used the power of song to express many other political inequalities. 


Concluding Thoughts

The background of Kingston including political and social oppression made for a society of desperate people.  Desperate people turn to drastic measures to better their situations.  Different form of rebellions, such as, violence doesn’t always work.  Music has been a way for citizens of the ghetto to cope with their lives as well as advocate for peace.  Music as a peaceful means of demonstration gets the word out about their hardships as well as a means for socialization.  The Citizens of Trench Town are loyal to their city and made political progress through music.  Who would have thought that the music of a poor country from a small town using crappy instruments would touch the lives of so many people?

Abrahams, Peter. Jamaica. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.England. 1958 pp 125-185


Henriques, Fernando. Family and colour in Jamaica. Eyre & Spottiswoode.England. 1953. pp 33-41


Verrill,A.Hyatt. Jamaica of Today. Dodd,Mead and company. New York. 1931. pp79-108