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The island was originally inhabited by Taino Native Americans from South America, who settled in 1,000 BCE and named it Xamayca, which translates to “a land of wood and water.”
In 1494, Christopher Columbus landed and declared the island Spanish territory. Renaming it Santiago, they proceeded to exterminate most of the Taino and subsequently brought the first African slaves to the island in 1517.
Pirate attacks were frequent during the last hundred years of Spanish occupation, which culminated in a buccaneer raid coordinated by English forces in 1657. This marked the beginning of over 300 years of rule by the Crown.
Sugar plantations operated by black slaves dominated the economic landscape, and by 1800 blacks outnumbered whites nearly 20 to 1. This resulted in numerous uprisings, and finally the abolition of slavery in 1838.
As the 19th century wore on, sugar production became less important for the British and seeds of independence sprouted, with an islander middle class developing and legislative elections beginning in 1880s. However, the rapidly growing United States began asserting its dominance over the Americas with the Monroe Doctrine and its corollaries. This foreshadowed the increasing role of the US in Jamaican affairs that would emerge in the 20th century.
Homegrown political parties emerged in the 1940s and, in 1961, Jamaicans voted for formal independence from the UK. This marked a sharp turn in Jamaica’s relationship with the industrialized nations, with the island turning away from Britain and toward the US. Jamaica offered the US cheap labor, exploitable markets, and convenient locales for military bases. It also offered rich raw goods such as bauxite (aluminum ore), and served as an exotic tourist destination.
As a result of this economic imperialism, Jamaicans were heavily exposed to American pop culture. The military bases at Sandy Gully and Vernon Fields brought personnel sporting rhythm and blues records, while Jamaican migrant farm workers returned from the States with records and stereo equipment. In addition, radio and television stations in Miami broadcast a constant stream of American programming to the island.
In 1978, Michael Manley of the socialist People’s National Party was elected Prime Minister. He attempted reforms to liberate financially enslaved Jamaican workers through a major expansion of public spending (e.g. health care and education), credit programs for small farmers to purchase land, and the nationalization of key industries.
The nationalization caused the withdrawal of aluminum companies, while Manley’s overall socialist scheme prompted the US-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund to direct investment away from Jamaica. Amidst terrible global economic conditions, the economy was crippled and crime rose.
Subsequent US involvement, purportedly by the CIA in the 1970s and certainly by the crack economy of the 1980s (of which Jamaica was a stopover point between South America and the US), led to dangerous conditions for the already destitute working class.
The aforementioned situation compelled many islanders to leave. The 1965 Hart Cellar Act, along with post-independence restrictions from Britain, made the US the prime destination for Jamaican emigrants. In 1967, over 10,000 entered the country, including, notably, Bob Marley. In ’70, over 15,000 entered; in ’79, the figure rose to 19,000. In the decade that followed, over 213,000 people—9% of the island’s population—immigrated to the United States.
Reggae music was a way for Jamaicans to express their feelings of being exiled people, as migration was a constant theme in music by Jamaican artists.
Massive exodus to the United States was met with great ambivalence by Jamaicans and Jamaican Americans.
Many musicians like The Meditations and Paulette Williams noticed not only the great numbers of people leaving Jamaica, but the fact that this was basically extinguishing the entire population of musicians and skilled workers in Jamaica
The exodus has resulted in a serious "brain drain" and an acute shortage of professionals, such as skilled workers, technicians, doctors, lawyers, and managers, in essential services in Jamaica.
The products of American culture industries brought to Jamaica new desires and expectations for the United States through music, movies, later television, and examples set by tourists.
In a sense, Jamaican immigrants have already been “internationalized” before arriving in New York because of their exposure to American products and their feeling of responsibility to bring them back home to Jamaica.
The enticement of American products lead to this feeling of unfulfilled desires.
In songs like “Country Boy” by the Heptunes, artists sing about leaving the country and feeling a sense of responsibility to be successful upon reaching the city. Lyrics from Louise Bennett’s poem “Noh Lickle Twang” criticize those who return to Jamaica with nothing.
The name and musical content of the Dancehall/ Hip Hop duo Born Jamericans is telling about the mindset of second-generation Jamaican Americans.
This second generation has grown up in the United States since the 1960’s and the groups signifies a mixing of Jamaican and American music.
Stressing the term Jamericans in their group name, however, signifies a still common attitude of “foreignness”. The born Jamericans are understanding their American identity in relation to their Jamaican identity.
“ The man, Delroy Edwards, a Jamaican national who lived in Brooklyn, glowered as the jury foreman said ''guilty'' to 42 counts that included 17 assaults, a kidnapping and a maiming. But before delivering the verdict, the foreman notified the judge that members of the jury were concerned for their safety.”
“ Prosecutors said Mr. Edwards was the first dealer to sell crack, the smokable cocaine derivative, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1985. A spokesman for the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Robert Strang, said that a number of Jamaican groups were active in crack distribution in Brooklyn but that Mr. Edwards's operation was among the largest and best organized.”
“ Mr. Edwards - who the authorities said had been nicknamed Uzi because he sometimes concealed an Uzi submachine gun under a trench coat - faces possible life imprisonment when he is sentenced.”
“ During the trial, the Federal prosecutors, John Gleeson and Jonny J. Frank, depicted the defendant as a ''coldhearted, brutal, vicious killer'' who dealt harshly with rival drug dealers, employees he suspected of stealing from him, and, sometimes, innocent people ''who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”
Media response to Jamaican drug gangs were extremely radicalized.
The presence of Jamaican drug dealers lead to the media’s portrayal of their immigration as an attack.
Employed stories that depicted Jamaicans as destroying American women. Blamed Jamaican participation in the drug trade on their country of origins. Quickly changed the American outlook on Jamaican immigrants from understanding them to be “good” immigrants to being “bad” immigrants.
Common media images of Jamaicans today are heavily based on the consumption of marijuana .
Bob Marley who was born in Kingston, was the first Third World artist who achieved world-wide recognition. Bob Marley and many other Rasta singers were embraced by the Hippie movement in the United States. Many Jamaican artists called for the legalization of cannabis in their reggae songs and were avid consumers of marijuana.
Messages in the texts of Reggae music often could not be seen independently of Rastafarian religious beliefs. One of the most famous beliefs among Rastafarians is that it is necessary to smoke marijuana, which to them, was not only a drug, but a religious herb.
However, only about 5 percent of the Jamaican population is Rastafarian.