Contradictions in Jamaican Culture: Religion and Dancehall

**This is the first in a multi-part series on Jamaican culture. Having lived here for nearly seven months, I can speak to some of the contradictions I’ve observed. This is obviously based on my opinion and is not meant to paint an entire people with the same brush**

As soon as I found out that I’d been invited to PC Jamaica, I immediately dove into everything I could read about Jamaica and Jamaican culture. A dearth of PCV blogs warned me that I’d be harassed on the street, that the amount of rice eaten here can pack on the pounds and that Jamaica is extremely religious. Having been at site for nearly 5 months, I can say that all of those things are absolutely true. I’m harassed routinely and have learned how to deal with it (with varying degrees of success), I walk a lot and avoid rice and have lost weight, and the religious nature of the culture has blown me away.

There are a wide variety of denominations in Jamaica, all Christian. I actually have not met a Jamaican that is something other than Christian, except Rastafari (that’s a whole blog post unto itself). The Anglican church is still a pretty big denomination, what with Jamaica being a former British colony. There is a lovely Anglican church in Brown’s Town that I go to when I can, and I would say that it is a middle/upper class kind of church. Hamilton Brown, a wealthy Irishman who owned Minard Estate and whom Brown’s Town is named for, is buried there. St. Mark’s supports St. Hilda’s Diocesean School here in Brown’s Town, a renown girl’s boarding school in Jamaica. Many Jamaicans regard Anglican services as “boring” and “quiet.” The Methodist and Baptist churches are also pretty popular, both of their buildings (in Brown’s Town) are historical and have deep cultural roots in Jamaica. There is also a Catholic church, but it is not one of the more popular denominations.

After those four denominations, things get murky. You’ve got your Seventh Day Adventists (sabbath is Saturday for them), your Penecostals (Church of God or Church of God of Prophecy or some variant), Tabernacle, and United Church (combination of Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ and something else. There’s one in Runaway Bay that I’ve been meaning to check out.). Most of these church services are LOUD and DRAMATIC. The preachers are often women, which I find interesting. The don’t really have planned sermons, they’re just speaking from…something. Not often coherent, they can ramble on and on and the services are HOURS long. There is constant music playing and it is something of a performance, a concert. 

Depending on the community, preachers are often the most respected members of the town and hold a lot of power (political or social capital, take your pick). Piss off the preacher, you’re not going to make much headway in the town. In really small communities, your every move it observed. Several volunteers can’t drink in their communities, lest they offend someone. Some volunteers have to be careful who they have stay over and for how long. Meetings always always start with a devotion and a song. Gospel music blares in taxis and buses and on the street. Homosexual people are constantly derided, and often fear for their lives. This is all a result of the (extremely conservative) religious nature of the country. 

And here’s the contradiction: unquestionably the most popular music is dancehall. As the name implies, the beat makes for good dancing, but if you listen to the lyrics…it’ll make you blush. Cheating on a spouse/significant other is glorified, sexual acts are spelled out explicitly, and well. They’re just filthy. (youtube the videos at your own risk) Young people (“yutes”) look up to dancehall artists and idolize them. They live out their songs. They have baby mamas in 5 communities, they don’t marry, they’re unemployed, they don’t contribute in a meaningful way. They’re not stupid or incapable by any means, they just haven’t been taught any better. They make ends meet in a variety of enterprising ways, from being a ‘ducta man on buses to selling pirated CDs on the road. To their credit, some dancehall artists have recognized their influence and are trying to use it for good.

It is hard to quantify or identify exactly how to two concepts, religion and dancehall culture, are related, but the contradicting nature is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Jamaica. I want to emphasize again, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here. There are idling yute who are very active in their community. There are religious people who listen to dancehall and don’t take the lyrics as a mandate. These observations are just that–observations. It is not meant to be the last word on Jamaican culture, which is as varied as any.

On an unrelated note, I’m coming home for a likkle bit! I’m flying in October 4-13, hitting up a family wedding and eating as much American food as I can find. I plan to do a lot of shopping and visiting in Kentucky and Virginia. I’ll be speaking at First Christian Church- Hopkinsville on Wednesday evening, so stop by and say hi if you get a chance! 


About Elizabeth Riley

It's the wonders I'm after, even if I have to bleed for them.
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