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Fakin’ the Jamaican: The difference between accent and dialect

Last March I was fortunate enough to visit the island of Jamaica for vacation. I find myself using the word FORTUNATE quite a bit lately. I am FORTUNATE to be able to travel to the places that I do. For example, right now I am most FORTUNATE to be writing this entry from the sea view of Massouri on the Greek island of Kalymnos, as I wait in my hotel to get on a bus that will take us to the larger town of Pothia, where we will board a boat that will take us to the larger, more popular party destination of Kos. There we will continue to bask in our good FORTUNE, while sipping iced Greek Frappes, as we wait for yet another vessel to take us to Asia Minor, popularly known as Turkey. We will disembark at the enchanting town of Turgutreis where we will be fortunate enough to hop on a dolmus (small van) that will escort us to the even more quaint, tiny village of Gumusluk. At our final destination, we will be fortunate to relax on the Aegean coastline at our family home. INSHAALLAH! MASHAALLAH!

Interesting to me that the word fortune is so often associated with the term luck. Yes, I am quite lucky to have been born at the time that I was in the place that I was instead of other less fortunate times and places. All of my life I have wanted to travel the world, and these dreams continue to become my reality as I traverse leisurely through the 21st century.

A person changes with their reality. Experiences leave their mark on your opinion. On your expression. On your voice. On the things that you say and the things that you see.

I am often reminded of the biblical tale of the tower of Babel as I travel and am swarmed by the swirling of dialects, accents, and lexicons that spill out of the mouths of humans in their great attempts of communication and understanding.

A bit more primal than music, the sounds that emanate from our mouths tell a lot about who we are and where we come from. Changes in accents and dialects offer us a unique insight into the effect that mobility and diffusion has had on people’s abilities to communicate.

Just the other day, walking in and out of establishments in Massouri, my wife laughed at how I had begun saying “Hello” with a foreign accent as I entered the premises. It had gone unnoticed by me, but it was true. I was entering Greek restaurants and coffee shops and saying “hello” to the locals with a fake, unidentifiable foreign accent. Perhaps it was a naive attempt to make up for the fact that I had forgotten the Greek expression for hello (yasas) again and again, or perhaps it was a subconscious move to hide my Americanness, and pass myself off as some Eastern European or Italian tourist of some kind. Weird. For whatever reason, it happened, and while I am not sure of the intention, it reminded me of the recent trip I was fortunate enough to make with Curtis HerbivorePR to the country of Reggae’s origin, Jamaica.

The Jamaican accent is famously mimicked worldwide. Tell just about anyone that you are in a reggae band and you will illicit a malicious mocking rendition of “Ya Mon,” “IRIE” or some other often caricatured Jamaican phrase.

In fact, when you visit Jamaica, you will encounter the ever growing urge to start speaking in a Jamaican accent. It is quite addictive. And there we were, Curtis and I, on vacation, sounding like a bunch of fucking idiots walking around the island imitating the natives horribly. While the same happened to me years earlier in Ireland after a few beers, fakin’ the Jamaican accent is an issue that has irritated me thoroughly throughout my career attempting to play reggae music.

The eerie thing about combining the words “Jamaican” and “Vacation” is that unlike Ireland (which was also colonized), Jamaica is still very much a third world country whose post colonial realities bitterly greet you at every step you take. Jamaica is fucked up. Since their independence from Great Britain on August 6, 1962, the past 40 years have seen drastic environmental, socio-economic, and political disasters as a result of relying on tourism as the main source of GDP. In fact, most of the tourism business is owned by foreign parties, leaving mainly in-person service worker jobs for the Jamaican public as opposed to the structural ownership of the means of production.

Reggae music and the coral reef of Negril had put this young country on the map as a global vacation destination in the ’70s. Just a few decades later, the coral reef of Negril is almost gone, a ghostly shadow of the natural beauty that supported the blossoming Jamaican tourism business. The commercialization of reggae music by the tourism industry is another degradation of a cultural resource.

Equally troubling is the use of Jamaican accents and slang, printed on to T-shirts, stickers, and used in commercials promoting tourism on the island in a desperate act of self-exoticization.

Yes, I might be over dramatizing things here, but take a visit. Count how many times you will be asked for money. Ponder the depth and calculation that many Jamaicans will use in sizing you up to make sure that they are pitching their services to you in the hopes that you may become their premium customer. Reflect on the overwhelming variety of age, gender, class, talents, and attempts to make cash off of your touristing ass.

I remember a slow morning swim that I took. Getting out of the ocean, I had on only my swim shorts. No pockets. No bag. No cargo. I strutted down the empty beach. In the distance I could see the outline of a young Jamaican boy walking towards me.

“He’s not gonna ask me for money right?” I asked myself.

“I mean, you have to take a break from the hustle SOMETIME, right? 6 am seems like maybe work hasn’t started yet. Perhaps on this walk by he and I can just be equals. Two dudes, walking on the beach in the beautiful morning sun.”

As he got closer, my dreams of just a pass and wave diminished. I realized that I am simply an opportunity for this young man. If he DIDN’T ask me, he wouldn’t be doing his job. Hey, I just might be the guy who decides to give him $500 a month for the rest of his life. Or I might just give him a few bucks. Either way, if he doesn’t ask, he will never know. Seize the day. Sure enough:

“Do you have something for me?”

Clearly I had nothing. No pockets. No backpack. No cargo.

“No, I’m sorry brother, I do not”

However, if you are in Jamaica and you are not a local, you do have something for him. It is up to you to give it up though. I could have asked him to walk back to my hotel with me, where I could have gone into my room and come out with some change and then he could decide whether or not it was worth the walk. I, the tourist, have the power in the situation, and that is the important part. Or do I?

Make no mistake. The greater the struggle, the greater the advantage on the ground. That is a rule of capitalism, yes? I might be FORTUNATE enough to come from a more comfortable place in space, but that doesn’t imply greater overall knowledge. Jamaicans are an impressively aware and intelligent community. The pitfalls of capitalism have made the general population intensely street smart. It is my belief that most of the people you encounter in Negril are perceiving realities that you have never even thought about. You are being sized up and classified on several levels as you parade down the streets feeling like you own shit.

Don’t be mistaken: I love the island of Jamaica, the Jamaican people, and the hospitality and vibrations that they have to offer the world. If the constant hustling and desperation ruins your vacation, that is the fault of your own ignorance. While I am positive that the growing poverty and frustration felt by the population is actually killing the tourism industry, I still recommend Jamaica as a beautiful place to visit. Get to know the people. Find out a little bit about the world that you live in. This is still the island that brought us reggae, hip hop, and Usain Bolt. Despite the conditions of political-economy, greatness has manifested.

Jamaica is not all for broke. Great friends of mine have collaborated with Jamaicans in attempts to evolve the Jamaican tourist experience into a more socially conscious industry. While it is not perfect, it has established a greater balance of understanding to my social circle who visits Jamaica often.

Combining his love of culture, music, and community cooperation, my great friend Mark Dubbs has become one of my favorite people to experience Jamaica with. Not only does Mark like partying it up with the locals, he has also become increasingly involved with NEET, a Jamaican based program that is working to raise funds for education in Negril. Mark is a socially conscious traveler. He has great respect for the people that live in the lands that he travels to. A lover of languages, he has become fluent over the years in Jamaican Patois.  The faces of bewilderment seen in Jamaicans when he speaks back in the local dialect is classic.

At first I found it kind of hilarious. I thought it was funny that Mark took the time to speak a language that was essentially a derivative of English. In my understanding, it was not like learning to speak French for when you visited a French speaking country. I figured that anybody that Mark was speaking Patois to could also understand his English perfectly. However, my assumptions were false.

Mark works with Jamaican children. Children in Jamaica grow up speaking Patois for the most part.

Children only start speaking English as we know it when they arrive at school. Therefore, this pidgin language that evolved from English is a native language for many Jamaicans. It is considered a language of the lower classes and “bad English,” but there is quite a battle occurring presently to make it the official language of Jamaica. I didn’t realize this until l tried to communicate with a very young Jamaican child and realized that they could not understand my English. Mark fired off some Patois and they understood him immediately and smiled.

It was interesting to me that Mark learned Patois. Different from speaking in a Jamaican accent, Patois is creole language that is a direct consequence of slavery and colonialism. This is a huge reflection of power relations and history. Patois was the linguistic evolution that occurred as a result of Africans being moved from their homeland, denied use of their native tongue, and being forced into speaking and understanding English. What started as a mash up of English and West African languages has become its own language, with all of the beauty, euphemisms, and jargon that develop within a lexicon.

I asked a Jamaican man what he thought of Mark, and his knowledge of the language. He said that he was impressed, and that he appreciated that Mark took the time to learn it. It is definitely viewed as a sign of respect to the culture that I was ignorant to.

It was Mark who taught me the saying “Me bruk pocket mon,” which was patois for “I don’t have any money.” Not a literal reality, but close enough, and Jamaicans quickly understood it and stopped asking. Of course they would have also understood my English “I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY!,” but the patois phrase implied a level of respect that you might have for the culture and the history of the people. Perhaps you are a bit more aware than the next tourist and the Jamaican will move on and seize a more naive opportunity.

There is a huge difference between an accent and a dialect. Mimicking the Jamaican accent of English and learning the Patois dialect are two very different things. One is mockery and one is respect.

The Jamaican accent has become a point of controversy in the reggae world outside of Jamaica. What does it really mean when someone who is not from Jamaica uses a Jamaican accent in their reggae music? Is it disrespectful?

I was blown away on my visit to Ghana when I came across two of my younger Ghanaian rasta friends recording themselves into a tape recorder trying to sound more Jamaican. They were huge fans of the dancehall greats Capleton and Sizzla, and they were repeating phrases from the album segues over and over again, critiquing each other about how Jamaican they could sound. It was mind blowing, because the reason the Jamaican accent they were attempting to mimic exists is because of slavery and the forced movements of their ancestors. If anything, I was sure the Jamaicans would have rather sounded like THEM, but that was another mystical moment that validates the power of reggae fame and pop music. An unintentional result of the one-drop rhythm.

I have spoken to many people about “fakin’ the Jamaican” accent. I have spoken to non-Jamaican reggae singers who feel that they need to mimic the accent because they are singing reggae music. Others feel completely the opposite, and site the commonly referenced Rasta philosophy of “know yourself,” part of which is singing with the accent of your homeland. I have heard others say that Bob Marley himself was difficult to understand when he spoke, but that he made an attempt to sing clearly in plain English so that he could be understood by a non-Jamaican audience. In fact it has been said that Bob Marley spoke thick Patois to western journalists to confuse them and to appear as more of a mystic to western audiences. There is the idea that Patois exists also as a code for Jamaicans to be able to speak to each other and not be understood by whites. However, on top of that explanation for Patois, it has been pointed out that the idea that Patois exists merely as a resistance language, is to deny its existence as a real language of the everyday people who use it in their lives, such as the young Jamaican children that Mark works with. This in itself is an imperial move that fails to recognize the beauty and complexity of the language that is Jamaican Patois.

I have also heard in some late night campfire conversations, that some believe the English language is an inharmonious language in comparison to African languages which are harmonious. Some believe that ages ago harmonious languages were spoken by all humans and it unlocked certain neurological pathways that gave people a more divine existence, and that an evil dominating group of whites invented inharmonious languages such as German and English to keep people from this divine harmony, and that the tones spoken by Jamaicans in their patois is an effort to connect sonically back to the harmonious language of their ancestors. I have no citation for these ideas. Just something I heard along the way.

In reggae music though, we come across a deeper evolution of the Jamaican patois dialect. The additions that Rastas have made on Jamaican Creole that are heard in reggae music are overtly tied to word charges and power reversals. This has been documented to be done purposefully, in an effort to reverse the effects of the proclaimed brainwashing that happens under the English language. Understand is switched to “Overstand.” Oppressor becomes “Downpressor” and so on. There is a fascinating language trail to follow, and I have found some pretty incredible studies done by students from UVM concerning the Rastafari developments in Jamaican Patois. These reads are highly educational and were well researched and I can’t even begin to do justice to the depth of the subject in this small blog. Big ups to the scholars.

In the past, I have been highly critical of non-Jamaican bands that employ Jamaican accents in their music. I have gone on and on about it with friends about how offensive I find it. However, in my older age, I am trying not to judge. While my band is not guilty of this, I am done with the days of calling out others who might be. Like all things, it is about intention. What is your intention with these accents? Who is making a fool out of whom? I will leave it up to anyone except me to judge such things. In fact, we can all be a little guilty of ignorance (and intolerance) regarding one thing or another as we maneuver within this world of creativity.

We are aware in the United States of this mimicking. It has been said before that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but I don’t think that globalization has been given enough credit. Accents and dialects imply a power hierarchy that is directly tied to the history of colonial oppression. Far from being unhampered by mobility and access, globalization is a phenomenon that is thoroughly embedded within pre existing structures of power, marked by economic, racial, gendered, and ethic stratifications.

So while Curtis and I were walking around Jamaica, I caught him genuinely engaging with the locals in honest conversation. Being on a trip to their country, he found it appropriate to ask “Have you ever been to America? Do you ever want to go?” These seemingly innocent questions turned awkward quickly. Curtis was unaware of just how difficult it is for a poor Jamaican to get a visa, let alone the money, to simply visit America on this fantasy idea of a “vacation.” It is an easy thing for Americans to be ignorant of. We are FORTUNATE to be allowed to visit just about anywhere in the world, no questions asked.

I had only been familiar with the awkwardness of the question because of my trip to Ghana, where just about everybody had asked me, “WILL YOU TAKE ME TO AMERICA?!” I was asked this question multiple times a day. Strange women would ask to marry me in order for me to take them to this place called America, where life would immediately be better and opportunity would be dropped at their feet. In order for them to secure passage, they would need a legitimate invitation from an American citizen or organization, a plane ticket, and enough money in the bank to convince the Ghanaian government in cahoots with US immigration, that they would come back to Ghana when their “vacation” was finished, and that they would not vanish into this imagined “land of opportunity.” Even if they met all of those requirements, their visa application could still be denied with the fickle flick of a stamp.

You find out just how FORTUNATE  you are when you visit a third world country. Growing up in the third world is just half the battle. Physically leaving the country is a legal nightmare in most places. You are literally trapped.

Who were the only ones in Ghana who didn’t want to “visit” America? Every Rasta that I spoke with. When the question came up, they emphatically stated, “why would I want to go to America? I live in Zion. People are trying to come here!” This pride that they had for their homeland was unfortunately rare. Rare and beautiful. True nationalism.

A part of the Ghanaian rasta’s respect for their “Zion” was marked by the reworking of the oppressors language, taught to them by the Jamaican rastas. Shades of linguistic and tonal resistance under a globalization saturated with language inequality.

“Where you from?” asked the Greek waiter at the only Cafe in Pothia, Greece, that was playing reggae music.

He was sporting a gigantic Mexican sombrero atop his huge mane of thick black curls.

“He is from America, and I am from Turkey” explained my beautiful wife (Mashaallah!)

“Your accent is PERFECT” he said with his strong Greek accent.

He acknowledged that upon hearing her speak, he would never have known that she was Turkish, and that in fact she looked Greek.

I praised the cafe for playing roots reggae music. It was the first time I had heard it in Greece. A nice departure from the ’80s American pop and Greek contemporary music that we had heard throughout our honeymoon on the island.

“Reggae is the best music in the world!” I said.

“Yes. I also love it. In fact, I am a DJ and kids these days do not like this music. They all want electronic music. When I play this, they go to the next club” he said disappointedly. “I think they did not grow up with it.”

“That is a shame” I said.

Looking at the time, we realized that we needed to rush to our boat. On the next island of Kos, we would have to pass through customs before we got on our vessel to Turkey. Even though Turkey is 15 minutes away, it is an international border, and to be taken seriously considering the automatic weapons and bulletproof vests visible on the guards.

The man who had promised to sell us our boat tickets had vanished. The boat was boarding. A panic started to set in that we might be stuck on this island for another evening instead of returning home.  The boat was to depart at 6pm. At 5:55pm, the ticket seller calmly returned. He assured us that the boat couldn’t leave until he gave them the manifest. We purchased our tickets, and went into the customs building. The door to the outside was locked. We banged on it and waited. Banged some more. No response. 5:59pm.

We ran back to the ticket seller who had promised us entrance to the boat. He was not a government worker. Simply a ticket agent for a boat company.

“Come with me” he said. “Don’t Stress” and he showed us the manifest in his hands that he was to deliver to the boat captain.

He then proceeded to lead us around to the entrance to Greece, where tourists from various nations were standing in line to go through customs. He shouted in a torrent Greek to the guards with their automatic weapons and bullet proof vests, waiving our US passports in the air. The only word intelligible to us was


Everyone in the line glared. However, the guard took our passports with a sigh, making everyone else wait, as he perfunctorily stamped them. We were escorted by a pissed off police woman in a bullet proof vest to the boat. AMERIKANI indeed. We stepped onto the boat where everyone else had been waiting to leave and took our seats, feeling both FORTUNATE for and embarrassed by our privilege. Through and through, the Bob Marley lyric always sticks:

“So don’t you forget no way…who you are, and where you stand in the struggle” – Bob Marley So Much Things To Say

-Sehmaj Surreal

Curtis-James-crazy-JA_400photo: @macklerstudios

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Bass player and songwriter for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, James feels, plays and lives the music. Lucky for us he also has the knack for remembering what happened and writing it down in his own voice.

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10 years ago

Very Well-written article. Very insightful and sincere, good job.

10 years ago

Very informative and enjoyable read.

10 years ago

Awesome read.. Super interesting and well written. Loved it!
Thanks for this article.

mark donadio
10 years ago

Excellent article, and thought provoking. I have been to Jamaica many times over the years. I came to the unfortunate conclusion the last time I visited that I will likely not be going back. Thanks to a sell out several decades ago to the World Bank with a now intolerable debt repayment, Jamaica is an ever increasing economic death spiral. It is more and more rough. You see it in the culture and the people about the island – they are more desperate, much less happy, even hungrier. The island is becoming dangerous in many parts and the common civility… Read more »

10 years ago

Wonderful article James. Very enlightening! Thank you for sharing this knowledge and experiences with us!
Blessings and love!

8 years ago

This is a really good article. Very interesting and very true, in fact, eye opening for many.

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