Living in Jamaica Today

Jamaicans are modern people, and their life is not that different from that in the United States. They dress much like Americans, wearing Nikes, T-shirts, and jeans; watch television; listen to music; and go to movies. British influence is evident in sports and education. Today, popular culture, although uniquely Jamaican, is more often developed on the American model. Jamaica is not by any standard a rich country, and quality of life is low for many of the country's people.


Family life is central to most Jamaicans, although formal marriage is less common than in many other countries. Three generations may share a house. Many women have jobs, particularly in households in which men are absent; grandmothers normally take charge of preschool children.Wealthy Jamaicans employ domestic help.


Cricket, fast food, and Hollywood action movies are imported traits of Jamaica's contemporary popular culture. The country, however, has given birth to many homegrown expressions of pop culture. In fact, Jamaican music, in particular, has become popular throughout much of the world. Jamaica's popular music has achieved widespread fame mainly through the emergence and spread of reggae. Reggae evolved from traditional Jamaican musical forms called mento (popular before the 1940s), ska (music of the 1950s), and rocksteady (named for its slow, steady beat). It was influenced by popular music developments in the United States, such as rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

Many reggae artists of the late 1960s and 1970s earned international fame for their original compositions, recordings, and performances. The best known of the island's artists was the late Bob Marley. He and his group, the Wailers, more than any other artist, was responsible for the “export” of reggae and its worldwide popularity. In recognition of his cultural contributions, Marley received Jamaica's Order of Merit, one of the country's highest national honors. He also was inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other reggae greats include Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Toots Hibbert, Jacob Miller, and Bunny Wailer. Recent Grammy Award winners in the reggae category include Jamaican artists such as the Melody Makers, Black Uhuru, Shabba Ranks, and Shaggy “Mr. Boombastic.”

Jamaican popular music has continued to evolve. Dancehall, a type of postreggae music, has become the leading sound in Jamaican clubs and a major pop music export. In the late 1980s, “dancehall” became the new craze, complete with its own fashions of hairstyles and dress. Dancehall combines elements of reggae, disco, and rap. Soca (social calypso) is a mixture of American soul and calypso. It is especially popular during Carnival, a large springtime festival involving parades, costumes, and parties.


Cricket and football (soccer) are the most popular sports in Jamaica. The British introduced cricket to Jamaica during the nineteenth century. The sport grew quickly in popularity.A number of West Indies cricket team captains have come from Jamaica.

In 1998, Jamaica's national soccer team, the Reggae Boyz, became the first team from the English-speaking Caribbean to qualify for World Cup finals. Jamaican athletes have excelled at track and field in Olympic competition, winning many medals.

The country's women's netball and field hockey teams consistently have ranked among the world's best. In 1988, Jamaica even sent a bobsled team to the Calgary Winter Olympics! This team is the subject of the Walt Disney movie, Cool Runnings. Recreation comes in many forms, from a day at the beach to an afternoon at a cricket match to an evening at the church or community center. A short list of recreational activities includes table tennis, field hockey, tennis, boxing, track and field, hiking, swimming, sailing, diving, and windsurfing. Horse racing is also popular. Dominoes are a favorite indoor game, played in rum bars and cafes. Music is everywhere. Leisure hours are often spent listening outside of rum bars to music coming from stereo systems. Young Jamaicans especially love to dance, and there are many discos, community centers, and clubs. Jamaicans also enjoy watching television and videos, listening to sports broadcasts, and going to movies. Children enjoy playing electronic games and basketball, which has become increasingly popular.


Jamaicans observe ten public holidays each year. They are New Year's Day, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Labor Day, Emancipation Day, Independence Day, Heroes Day, Christmas, and Boxing Day.

Labour Day (May 23) originally celebrated the trade union movement. Since 1972, it has been a day for community service. Jamaicans join together in repairing roads, painting schools, planting trees and decorative shrubbery, and other tasks. Independence Day (the first Monday in August) is entirely given over to celebrations marking Jamaica's independence from Britain.

National Heroes Day (Queen's birthday), the third Monday in October, recognizes the people who have made an impact on Jamaica. For most Jamaicans, Christmas is the biggest family event of the year. The day is celebrated by attending church services, exchanging gifts with family members, and gathering for a large meal. During the week between Christmas and New Year's, Jamaicans enjoy visiting the homes of friends and relatives. Other than religious and national holidays, Jamaicans have a number of historic and cultural celebrations. On January 6, the Maroons (offsprings of escaped slaves) gather to celebrate the Accompong Maroon Festival. This event honors Kojo, who led the Maroons to a temporary victory over the British during the war of 1729 to 1739.

Throughout the Caribbean (and elsewhere), February is carnival month. In Kingston, the University of the West Indies hosts a two-week celebration each year. Events include calypso competitions, fashion shows, and all-night dances. Each spring, the country holds its own Jamaica Carnival, which begins on Easter and lasts for a week.Carnival is a combination of pageantry, spectacle, revelry, and calypso type (soca) music. In August, Jamaica Festival coincides with celebrations of Emancipation Day and Independence Day. The festival features competitions in all the major arts, as well as food preparation. People also enjoy beach parties and calypso, reggae, and soca music. Several different ethnic groups hold their own celebrations. Some events include the Chinese New Year, the Hindu Diwali festival, and the Muslim observance of Hosay.


Jamaican literature includes a diverse variety of folklore, essays, short stories, novels, and poetry. Much of the island's literary tradition developed following independence in 1962. A literary festival is held annually and includes competitions in writing poetry, short stories, and essays. Numerous Jamaican writers have received international awards in recognition of their work. They include Velma Pollard, author of Karl and Other Stories (1993), and the poet Kwame Dawes, author of Progeny of Air (1994). In the 1970s, a new art form called “dub poetry” emerged. In this genre, poems are often set to heavy reggae bass and drums.


The Jamaican art movement started in the 1920s and 1930s. It developed in close association with the Jamaican nationalist anticolonial movement.West African cultural traditions, which came along with the slave population, were actively repressed during the plantation period and its aftermath. In consequence, modern Jamaican art did not develop out of a continuous cultural tradition; instead, it evolved out of the conscious decision of a few pioneer artists, such as sculptress Edna Manley, to reject imposed colonial cultural identity. Although Jamaican art has changed tremendously since those pioneer days, this concern is still central to the work of contemporary Jamaican artists. The most common themes in Jamaica art are slavery, black consciousness, spirituality, the family, and nationalism. Other artists and art forms range from a tradition of wood carvers who sell their folk art wares along the highways, to internationally known sculptors and painters.


Jamaica has lively theater and dance, mostly with a local flavor. Most theater is in Kingston. Plays often incorporate dance and include a message, sometimes concentrating on the plight of the poor or commentary on the slave era. Many performances, whether comedy, tragedy, or political satire, are bawdy, upbeat affairs. Most of the plays feature Jamaican patois. Jamaican pantomime is a distinctive art form completely different from British pantomime. Folklore is prominent and there is often audience participation. It is also characterized by song, dance, and satirical jabs at the political scene.

Jamaican dance covers classical, African, and contemporary forms. The acclaimed National Dance Theatre Company is based out of Kingston's Little Theater. The troupe, founded in 1962, is famed for its elaborate, colorful costumes and African themes.


The word, whether written, spoken, or sung, is an integral part of Jamaican self-expression and creativity. The island's media befits a nation twice its size: There are three major daily newspapers, a dozen radio stations, and three national television stations.American television is received by a multitude of satellite dishes. Jamaica's extensive radio network broadcasts the news but most of all spreads Jamaican musical sounds throughout the island. Just as in the United States, cell phones abound.


How high is the standard of living in Jamaica? Many Jamaicans do not think of Jamaica as a poor country, citing abundant natural resources and high literacy rates. Other Jamaicans see the high unemployment rate, lack of economic opportunity, poorly maintained roads, and deteriorating housing as clear signs of poverty. Whatever the opinion, Jamaica scores well in some categories of standard of living indicators. By certain other measures it fares badly. Favorable indicators are high adult literacy, age structure of the population, life expectancy at birth, and availability of electricity, water, and sewage disposal. A high crime rate, widespread poverty, and chronic unemployment are the downside.


Literacy in Jamaica is high, 85 percent for the total population (89.1 percent for females and 80.8 percent rate for males).

Age Structure

Age structure pyramids give a lot of information about population growth, wealth, and health of countries. Poor countries will often have large numbers of children compared to numbers of working-age adults and older people. It is said that a country cannot develop until it has effectively controlled its population growth. This is seen in the age structure groupings with a decrease in size of the dependent population.

For Jamaica, the age groupings for 2003 are estimated to be 0–14 years: 28.6 percent (395,074 male; 376,870 female) 15–64 years: 64.5 percent (870,486 male; 869,431 female) 65 years and older: 6.8 percent (82,022 male; 101,984 female) In the 0–14 years category, Jamaica stands at 117 of 223 nations in world, which is excellent for a developing country. This ranking is evidence of the success of an energetic program of family planning in effect since the early 1970s.


Life expectancy at birth for the total population in Jamaica (2003 estimate) is 76 (74 years for males and 78 years for females). This ranks Jamaica sixty-third among 223 countries in the world, a relatively high rating. Troublesome diseases include cancer, stroke, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. Homicide is the fifth leading cause of death in Jamaica, after disease.


Jamaica's murder rate of just over 40 per 100,000 (2002) ranks among the world's highest. Much of the violence is attributed to inner-city gangs linked to drug and gun trafficking. The remainder falls into the categories of domestic murder, revenge killing, and politically motivated clashes. A disproportionately high percentage of murders (67 percent of homicides) took place in the Kingston/St. Andrew Metropolitan Area and in St. Catherine. Combined, these two arenas account for less than 40 percent of the country's 2.6 million people. Jamaica's urban violence strikes fear in the people, is a drag on the economy, and threatens the tourist industry, especially in and around Kingston.

Poverty and Unemployment

Jamaica has two societies, one rich and the other quite poor. In 2002, it was estimated that approximately one-third of all Jamaicans had incomes below the poverty line. (Consumption is used as a proxy for income, because of the difficulties associated with getting reliable income information.) The incidence of poverty on the island continues to be highest in rural Jamaica.

The wealthiest 20 percent of the population accounts for about 46 percent of national consumption, whereas the poorest 20 percent of the population accounts for only about 6 percent of all consumed goods and services. A chronically high unemployment rate, averaging around 15 percent (and an even greater rate of underemployment), continues to plague many island families. Such conditions are an expression of a depressed economy.

Electricity, Water, and Sewage

Jamaica is almost entirely electrified. Even most rural homes have power. About 84 percent of all Jamaicans have access to a reliable supply of clean water. Sewage systems are less well developed. The parishes with large urban centers, including Kingston/St. Andrew, St. Catherine (Portmore and Spanish Town), and St. James (Montego Bay) have generally better services than smaller towns and rural areas. In St. Andrew, approximately 70 percent of households have a piped water supply, whereas 40 percent of households lack their own sanitary facilities. In Kingston, however, approximately half of households lack piped water and 60 percent lack their own sanitary facilities. This is an extremely high figure for the country's major urban center.


Measured by U.S. standards, most Jamaicans suffer from extensive poverty, and the country itself is classified as being “less developed.” Even within the Caribbean region, the country ranks next to last in terms of per capita gross national income, or purchasing power parity. Only Haiti is poorer. Does poverty always translate into a poor quality of life? Not necessarily. Many Jamaicans consider themselves well off when family and friends and the ability to provide the necessities of daily life are the measures of life quality.

One problem common to the Caribbean region is its close proximity to the affluent United States and Canada. This juxtaposition of poverty and wealth magnifies the statistical data and makes life more difficult for people who are able to see, envy, and want what their neighbors have. Nonetheless, most Jamaicans remain upbeat and optimistic about the future of their tropical land.