How the Language of Jamaica Became Mainstream


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Eternity Martis (The Fader, 1 September 2016) writes about the trajectory of patois on the global stage concluding that “more than just slang—it’s a language of freedom.”

[. . .] Patois, as well as its hybridized diasporic slang, is a language used by fluent, native-speaking migrants, second and third-generation Jamaicans, along with non-Jamaicans across the US, Canada, the UK — even Japan. But its cultural prevalence can’t solely be attributed to migration: dancehall and reggae, musical genres thick with patois, have had a presence in the mainstream since as early as the ’70s, and continue, in waves, to engage the pop charts. In the last year alone, Jamaican musicians like Sean Paul, Spice, Popcaan, and Mavado have worked on high profile collaborations with pop artists.

Part of understanding Jamaican patois absorption into mass culture involves understanding its synthesis; and scholarship suggests it might not have even originated in Jamaica. Hubert Devonish is a linguistics professor at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. He told me that while no one can be sure, some linguists believe patois began as an Afro-English language, either in Saint Kitts or Barbados, the first permanent British colonies that were founded in 1624 and 1627, respectively. A true hybrid language was formed as a result of European and West African contact due to the transatlantic slave trade. [. . .] Between 1700 and 1834, West African slaves, including those already in Saint Kitts and Barbados, were sent to Jamaica to work on profitable sugar plantations. Colonizers and slave masters forced these people to speak English to prevent clandestine talk of slave rebellion or other communication in their native tongue. This mash-up of literal ‘broken’ English combined with fragments of West African languages became ‘pidgin’ — meaning it wasn’t a native language but rather, a mix of dialects. And as generations passed pidgin became a stabilized, natural language, thus forming the Jamaican creole that is referred to as ‘patwah or patois, meaning ‘rough speech’ in French.

En masse migration from Jamaica to the UK, US, and Canada began in swift succession, with the post-war Windrush of West Indian immigrants arriving to Britain in 1948. Jamaican music became popular overseas starting with ska and rocksteady in the ’50s and ’60s. Reggae emerged in the 1970s and Bob Marley was the genre’s central figure. White people liked Marley but they couldn’t understand him, and neither could journalists. In order to target that audience, Christopher Blackwell — founder of Island Records, responsible for Bob Marley and The Wailers’s mainstream success — added more rock n’ roll elements to Marley’s songs and, as his fame grew, the patois lyrics were swapped for Standard English.

But a new wave of Jamaican music emerged around then that was anti-Standard English: dancehall. “The general view of music aficionados in Jamaica was that [dancehall] would never sell internationally because nobody understood it,” Devonish said. “But because Jamaican culture had become so central to the world of international popular music, the continual use of the Jamaican language became all the rage.” [. . .]

Patois is more than just an island ting: it’s a language holding Jamaicans around the world together, and this is why its transformation into slang used casually by outsiders is troubling. Mainstream pop has found a way to capitalize on dancehall, a sound predicated on patois, without putting much effort into creating sustainable relationships with the Jamaican music industry or eradicating racist stereotypes about its origins. But patois is a language built through exploitation, death, and enslavement as much as it’s now a permanent symbol of community, healing, and resistance — and it should be spoken with the understanding that it’s a language of freedom.

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