There are more Jamaicans living outside Jamaica than in Jamaica. Jamaica itself can be seen as an export. The diaspora, the people who have left it, is concentrated in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Where is Jamaica? It is in Toronto, London, England?
I was born in Jamaica and grew up in Canada, while also living in England for two years. I can’t remember much of my years as a child in Jamaica. One of the few things that stands out is the first girl I had a crush on, a white girl in my kindergarten class. Jamaica is 90% black, but its motto is “Out of Many, One People.” Maybe her parents were from a long line of white Jamaicans, maybe going back to British or Spanish settlers. Or maybe she was a child of newer expats. Either way, she was just as Jamaican as I was.
I moved to Canada with my mom, while my dad stayed in Jamaica. With my dad I spoke mostly patois, the dialect that is ubiquitous in pop culture, from films to music. It is one of Jamaica’s most distinct features but is not an official language, and is rarely used in professional settings. My mom took on the task of getting me to speak only English. As I spent more time in Canadian schools my accent dimmed, before being gone completely by the time I was in Grade 3. Sometimes people say they pick up hints of it, but if I’m in Jamaica I am seen as nothing but a foreigner.
I visited Jamaica last summer and remember one of my dad’s friends asking “Is he a Yank?” as soon as I opened my mouth. My dad responded “He’s just a Jamaican who lives abroad.”
Jamaicans can have different ways of judging one another. For my dad’s friend, my accent was an important qualifier, just as important as speaking English. My dad didn’t view it that way. My connection to him was enough to make me Jamaican, no matter how many years I lived elsewhere and what other influences I picked up. I was linked by birth and by heritage.
I always felt more Jamaican in Canada, growing up in Scarborough, Pickering and Brampton. Most of Canada’s black population lives in the GTA, and most of that black population is either Jamaican or of Jamaican descent. I grew up hearing patois from my family and from numerous passerby on the street. Sometimes black friends were hard to find, depending on the area I lived in. When I did meet one, we would often bond over our shared ancestry and our love for the same foods, like rice and peas and oxtail. In this Jamaica my lack of an accent didn’t make me less Jamaican.
Brampton is the Canadian city that I’ve lived in the longest, stretching from 2007-2018. During this time I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa, returning to Brampton for summers. I went from a place where most of the black people I talked to spoke the same language and had common heritage, to one where many spoke French and had Haitian or African heritage. Until that point I realized I took the diaspora for granted, assuming that any Canadian city with a diverse population would be dominated by Jamaicans and Jamaican influences.
I had this assumption due to earlier experiences with Scarborough and London, England. In London, we lived in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, specifically near High Street Kensington. The area lacked racial diversity, but my school and the surrounding area didn’t. I heard Jamaica more from my classmates, passerby and British media.
In London, the influence of patois on the English accent has led to the development of “Multicultural London English (MLE).” It wasn’t called that when I lived there. I heard some people refer to it simply as a south-west London accent, referring to areas more heavily populated by minorities, particularly Jamaicans; areas such as Hackney, Brixton and Peckham. It was differentiated from the stereotypical “posh” English accent, formally known as “received pronunciation.”
It’s believed that MLE developed from the first generation of British-born Jamaicans in the 1970s and 1980s. This generation code-switched, switching between English and patois. Then their children started adding patois to their English, which was a trend taken up by black people as a whole. It is likely not a coincidence that some of London’s slang mirrors Toronto, — fam, yute, ting, bare, from time, dun kno — since both cities have large Jamaican populations. Despite the different countries and dialects, there was a common thread of a shared heritage. I might not have felt the link living in High Street Kensington, but when I was in Peckham or Brixton, London felt a sister city. Culture has no borders, and it can spread to people of all races in the satellite cities.
Being a member of the Jamaican diaspora, and being surrounded by other members of that diaspora, means always having a home. Whether you are in Scarborough, Brampton or across the world in London, England. The borders we’re taught to recognize become meaningless in a way. Borders become fluid as culture takes over.
Going from one diaspora hotspot to another, like Brixton to Toronto, can feel like moving from Kingston to Montego Bay. You will hear the language you grew up with. Maybe you only hear its influences or maybe you hear it and are reminded of your parents. You will see your food being eaten by the same people who cross the street to avoid you. You will hear music from “back home” sung by people who don’t understand the words. The music your parents hold dear will evolve and thrive on the radio, mixing with the music of your host country and creating something new.
Jamaica is a small country with a big footprint. Its diaspora leaves a mark on the countries they concentrate in, creating a mainstream culture that is replicated, even by people who may not like the people that brought that culture over. Culture travels and changes, molding itself to new hosts. The language, the accent, the music, the location; that can all change but the heritage brings unity. Out of Many, One People.