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  • Matthew A. Williams

British-Jamaican Identity & Gospel Music

My parents were born in Jamaica and came to England back in the 1960s. My father was born in St Thomas, home of Baptist deacon and activist, Paul Bogle. My mother grew up in St Andrews and claims to have seen Bob Marley playing football as a little girl – I still need to see a picture to believe this! My relationship with the island of Jamaica is disjointed. Although I have been there, the majority of my cultural references come from a UK context. They were passed on through grandparents, parents, wider family, friends and my Pentecostal church upbringing. These references range from food to music and stories. I was one of only a handful of black students in my primary school. But somehow, my year three teacher was ‘in tune’ enough to include the Anansi stories and Jamaican folk songs like ‘Moonshine’ as part of our lessons. Although many of my peers will probably not remember – those lessons never left me; thank you, Mrs Welsh. I value the connections I have with my heritage, heavily filtered though they may be. Recently, there’s been a lot of conversation about gospel music in black British churches of the Windrush generation and its lack of cultural touchstone. It has struck me more than once that some critical elements are missing from public discussions. Especially concerning the Jamaican ‘sound’ aspect that might help push the conversation forward. So feel free to share with those who need it. Before I proceed, I apologise in advance to all my non-Jamaican islanders who may feel snubbed by this post. The history is too nuanced and detailed to bring the other Caribbean islands into the discussion in this post. Above all, I am not claiming to be an expert, simply a learner. My intention is simply to contribute knowledge to the discussion, rather than become involved in some of the more detailed conversations about decolonisation and the whitewashing of black sacred music in the U.K. That is a separate and healthy discussion. That being said, I want to highlight a few points that will help those who wish to re-examine and reconnect their Christian music experience with their Jamaican heritage. These points require further listening and research, as there is a lot more than I can say in one post. But as far as I know, no-one else is saying these things publicly here in the UK; so, I hope this helps just one person from my community! I presented some of this work at the Christian Congregational Music Conference in 2019. Here are four points: 1. The well-known love affair between the Caribbean islands and country and western music is not an accident. It has a strong but untold history connected to the early technology of radio in the Caribbean. But, the development of this preference stretches further back and requires an examination of the long link between black freed slave missionaries from the south of the USA and Jamaica (stretching back to the 1700s). 2. As a result of vital connections with the USA, gospel music in Jamaica has always been hybridised and I think this should be valued. This legacy of hybridity continues in black gospel music in the UK albeit in a fractured form (for various reasons). 3. Jamaica has a history of spirituals, completely distinct from the USA. The evidence is scant but requires attention. Anthropologists researched this in the 1920s, music scholars have written about it (and recorded some early examples) although it remains behind paywalls. But recently, some of this work has resurfaced in more accessible publications. 4. The connection between Jamaican Pentecostalism and Rastafarianism saturates the music. There is more to say on this (and others have) but I want to draw out one point. Coxsone-Dodd, the Jamaican record producer, owned Studio One records in the 1950s and 60s. Very few people acknowledge that he also had a gospel recording label called Tabernacle Records. Often, the same session musicians that played on his ska and reggae recordings played on his gospel records on a Sunday. Most notably, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Recordings are publicly available of Bob Marley singing Jamaican gospel music early in his career. The influence of gospel continued in reggae. One example is Peter Tosh’s ‘Arise Blackman, Arise’. The melody of this song is a reference to a well-known Pentecostal chorus. Old school Jamaican Pentecostals immediately recognise it as ‘Awake Zion Awake’! Simply put, from a Jamaican perspective alone, it bears repeating that black British gospel is a hybrid, creolised form. That is something to be valued. For those who wish to trace their Jamaican roots, I hope the points I have raised provide a helpful start. Cheers, Matthew P.S there is a lot of writing on this but the most accessible academic work is by Melvin Butler (specifically, Island Gospel Pentecostal Music and Identity in Jamaica and the United States) this can be purchased at your nearest bookseller.

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