By: Basil Wilson
Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and architect of that country’s successful development strategy, has argued that culture is development. That begs the question, to what extent has Jamaica’s indigenous culture been a factor in the developmental process or to what extent has culture thwarted the developmental process?
Even in a small country of 2.8 million like Jamaica, an analysis of the impact of culture cannot be too simplistic. One has to understand the connection between class and culture, the special differentiation of culture and the changing nature of culture. Jamaica’s culture today is not what it was in the pre-colonial times, it is not what it was immediately after independence and it is not what it was in the early years of independence.
As much as culture is a moving target, there are aspects of culture that are essential to preserve. In the independence festivities, there will be manifestations of African retentions in the form of drumming, dance and traditional folk music. Rex Nettleford and the National Dance Theatre did a marvelous job in ensuring that Kumina drumming was not lost to time. The Maroons have also been instrumental in preserving the artistic nature of African retentions. Much of those artistic expressions should be used to enrich the educational curriculum throughout Jamaica.
There is the tendency to romanticize the pre-colonial era when Jamaican society was less urban, more rural and less violent. In the post World War 11 period, the crime of murders was a rarity. “Whoppy” King and Rhygin became legends because their transgressions were considered atypical. The society was still highly personalized and the extended family was essentially intact. There was a healthy connection between rural and urban. Nonetheless, life was hard and often short but far from brutal.
One of the glorious aspects of the years leading up to independence was the mushrooming of musical creativity. The Jamaican beat came into being. The music borrowed from American rhythm and blues, from mento, from Rastafari drumming and subsequently forged its own genre that eventually enriched the music of the world. An illustration of this worldwide impact is a recent visit by Tarrus Riley to Costa Rica when the performer was amazed at how his audience knew every word of his lyrics. Marley’s music in death has had a greater and more extensive world impact then when he was alive. The documentary by Kevin McDonald is a testimony not only to Marley but the creative impact of those who make up the reggae world.
The music provides great insight into the changing nature of the culture. The decline of the Rastafarian influence left a vacuum that was filled by an urban sub-culture that had lost its way. Certain aspects of dance hall harnessed the worst in our culture. All sense of decency was lost. Lewdness reigned supreme. Sexuality was debased and the lyrics and the thought process was quite damaging to an up and coming generation.
There are many computing cultures in contemporary Jamaica. Our national motto is out of many, one people but in any modern society, out of many people there will be many cultures, many different ways of life.
The Jamaican middle class in the years leading up to independence and in the early independence period set the cultural norms. Much emphasis was placed on education. Learning was essential to achieve upward mobility in the society. Family intactness was vital. Children were not born out of wedlock. Frugality was the norm and the purchase of a home was a prized aspiration. Religious values and the church shaped the coveted way of life.
As was stated earlier, culture does not stand still and in capitalist society in the late twentieth century and in the present, the seeming juggernaut of materialism was soon reflected in the culture. Traditional norms began to dissolve. Unchecked materialism in a society with limited upward mobility can readily produce a dog-eat-dog culture. The social order becomes more brittle as predators of all stripes are unleashed under the pretense of survival.
One of the cultural changes that has taken place in Jamaica’s cultural life beginning in the late 1960s was the irreverence for human life. In some circles, in some sub-cultures, the taking of human life was indistinguishable from crushing a caterpillar. An illustration of this new ruthlessness is the recent assassination of witnesses in August Town who were allegedly poised to identify individuals who were involved in a murder in 2006. Two potential witnesses lost their lives in the morning and reprisal killings followed that evening. As the homicide rate has mounted and taken Jamaica to one of the higher homicide rates in the world, the institutionalization of that sub-culture of violence is the cause of the wanton killing in our midst.
Often in our discourse and our deliberations, the presumption is made that the weaponization is responsible for this unprecedented depravity as articulated by Biko Agustino, et al, in an article published in Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2008. But the violent propensity runs deeper and is far more widespread than the access to assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols.
Health care providers in Jamaica put together a database, The Jamaica Information Surveillance System, which is an analysis of patients who sought attention in Jamaica’s 22 hospitals. The violent epidemic was not just those admitted for gunshot wounds. Of those admitted or treated at hospitals in 2006, 39 percent were wounded by sharp objects, 32 percent by blunt objects, and 18 percent by body force. Seventy-six percent of these incidents were an outgrowth of fighting. Thus this propensity for war takes us beyond inner city communities and encompasses the entire island. That lack of couthness is part of the minefield that has been laid down before and after independence.
As we look backward to propel forward, the examination of cultural maladies is indispensable for the remaking of the society. This is where leadership on the part of ministers of government and ministers of the Gospel must come together in a common cause. Chronic rambunctiousness is an impediment to the developmental process. Those cultural kinks cannot be straightened out overnight but the effort to mobilize the society around couthness and decency should be part and parcel of the independence festivities.
Culture is critical to the developmental process and there are aspects of contemporary Jamaican culture that have thwarted social and economic progress. Jamaica’s culture in the last 50 years has become increasingly violent. It is necessary to work towards the cultivation of a more peaceful culture, one in which disputes can be settled without hospitalization or the taking of life. There is the need to cultivate a culture that is more committed to intellectual inquiry and to the application of science. There is much work to be done after the morning of the celebrations.