Jamaica's Song: 'No Woman, No Cry'

In the government yard in Trenchtown...Bob Marley's indeible rhythm, optism, and call for social justice still echo here

A Jamaican from above...the beauty of this island is more than apparent, though the harsh realities of its poverty-stricken urban centers pervade through the natural essence. As with anywhere in the world, there are two sides to the coin that is Jamaica. © Adam Cole 2010

Bob Marley has produced a legacy and an identity for Jamaica as his own identity and music were transported to the world. Marley's tunes and message of those tunes can be heard throughout Jamaica. © Google image 

“Ya, mon.” “Rispec.” Theses phrases are a distinguishing mark that you are here, among a people of African descent who have come to be from a complex history interlinked into a unique web of culture, climate, and environment. Inhabiting a Caribbean island, one with palm trees galore, with white sandy beaches, the people here have often had to toil tirelessly in the splendor of this land instead of bask in its beauty. They’ve faced grave oppression, as once a nation of slaves; those circumstances in turn spurning a vibrant culture, as they built a unique unity in striving toward freedom. With independence in their midst now for more than half a century, the people are striving for a new type of respec and freedom, to emerge out of the strongholds of the International Monetary Fund and to clean up the drug-infused gang battles that plague its urban epicenter.

Sunshine streaming down, dance hall (high speed reggae) or old school reggae (of the Bob Marley style) playing in the midst of everyday life, the smell of jerk chicken on every corner, you are in Jamaica, that boasts island beauty unlike any other, yet also the social ills that stream throughout the world.

Jamaica was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1494 and then ruled over by the Spanish. Control over the island was taken over by the British in 1655; England made the island into a colony with a focus on exporting sugar. They brought in a massive amount of slaves from Africa to make that possible. Though the emphasis/importance on slaves to keep the colonial economy churning never quelled, social justice in Jamaica won a victory in 1834, when slavery was abolished. The people, as a whole, as a nation, took the victory to another level when in 1962 Jamaica had its independence.

Back to those interesting phrases…Jamaica is an English-language country, though the people speak a kind of laid-back English, which also takes snippets from the many different types of people groups that have influenced the nation. When Jamaicans get a talking, in their flow of speech, they’re usually uttering a type of vernacular called Patois. Patois is a combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese and African phrases which sounds more rhythmic then traditional English.

The country’s most renowned cultural icon, Bob Marley, displayed a lifestyle and type of music that is reflective of the spirit woven into the history. Even though he sang in the late 60s and 70s, his lyrics and the principles he stood for are something that carry truth to this day around the world. Marley and his band the Wailers helped spread the sound of Jamaica to the world, while sharing the social and political plight to the globe as well. His songs “No Woman no Cry,” “Stir it up,” and “Redemption Song,” still echo here…and sadly, so do the issues that he sang and fought against.

Marley’s “No Woman no Cry,” is especially indicative of what he believed—and what he lived. The song describes Trench Town, his hometown after he moved from the rural Jamaica to the city; the neighborhood in Kingston was once a squatter village dwelled by victims of a 1951 hurricane and then was re-developed into a housing project by the Jamaican government sometime after. Even though it was developed, conditions were still very poor and led way to a turf war such that political parties would empower gang leaders to both implement social services and maintain the political status quo. The lyrics of “No Woman, No Cry” are interpreted to be a song to his wife, Rita, and to the poor of Jamaica, to ‘not shed no tears,’ to take pleasure in the little things of life and to hold with optimism the future.

Hopes for a better future, more than three decades after the death of Marley, have not yet been fully realized. The spray of bullets is a nightly occurrence in the worst parts of Kingston, the country’s capital, as the turf wars for power wage on.

The path to progress in Jamaica is a path of peace, where the battle in politics fought in the ghettos of Kingston is brought to a truce. The motto of this nation is “Out of Many, One People.” Achieving that oneness is the key to the future for Jamaica. Signs of hope can be found in individual communities, where leaders, some of them civic servants, some of them pastors of churches, step up to intervene in the need. As has always been the case, Jamaicans want to help one another.

In all other areas of this island, no matter the economic condition, the beauty of Jamaica still reigns and people continue to live life with a smile. As the sun shines, so does the content of the people’s hearts.