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Reggae’s Voice: The Accent of Difference


In February 2018 the new Netflix-BBC TV series Collateral debuted, its tense opening scenes unfolding to the throbbing beat of dancehall. No gyal can tell me ’bout my mudda, raps Stefflon Don in impeccable Patwa. She’s a grime artiste, ‘grime’ being the unequivocal outside child of dancehall in the UK.[1]

The following month, The New Yorker ran an online article on dancehall’s global avatars, ‘HoodCelebrityy and Dancehall’s New, Global Faces’, and later that month Jamaicans were transfixed by viral images of Beyoncé and Jay-Z riding a yeng yeng, or motorbike, through Trenchtown.[2] The couple were reportedly shooting a music video in Kingston. At this moment – when Jamaican music has established its global reach – it’s hard to imagine a time when Jamaican singers were obliged to sound anything but Jamaican.

Although today Reggae is one of the most distinctive global sounds, carrying Jamaican patwa/patois and culture worldwide – even registering internationally as the unofficial voice of the third world – it didn’t start out that way. For years Jamaicans were taught to be ashamed of Patwa and the accent that made it so distinctive. Convinced that this was the language and sound of the uneducated and unsophisticated, early Jamaican musicians tried their best to acquire foreign accents considered more suitable for crossing over. When and how did Jamaicans start singing in their own voice? What accounts for the radical change in cultural confidence that has occurred in Jamaican music?

Mikie Bennett, one of Jamaica’s top music producers, recalls his early days as a singer. Bennett began his career in the 1970s as a vocalist in the quartet Home T, who in 1980 had a hit with the song ‘Irons in the Fire’. The group later became known for covering popular standards, including versions of Bunny Wailer’s ‘Cool Runnings’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. They established their popularity with a live performance at the Reggae Sunsplash Show in 1984 and were the only vocal group to appear later that year on the Dancehall ’84 stage show in Kingston alongside Half Pint, Michael Palmer, Edi Fitzroy, Charlie Chaplin and Ini Kamoze.[3]

According to Bennett, the fact that Jamaicans were ashamed of their first language and the accent that makes it so memorable had special implications for Jamaican singers in the 60s and 70s. Music producers and managers stressed that when speaking to foreigners, singers had to use a more globally acceptable accent, preferably an American one. Studio One’s Coxsone Dodd, for example, would bring back American music and urge local singers to imitate the voices they heard on the 45s and LPs.

In the narrative which follows I have mostly preserved Mikie’s words[4]


This [shame around our language] caused serious insecurities and confusion among practicing, as well as would-be entertainers, as radio reinforced this with its bias towards foreign music. The message was, the more Jamaican you sounded the less chance you had of an international career.

Some singers would have liked to do a better imitation of their North American counterparts, but their accents were just too heavy and their limited formal education and exposure to public speaking made it hard for them. Many made efforts to correct their diction but still only managed to sound very Jamaican and in doing so created popular styles that were often copied by other less popular artists.

Breaking through and crossing over

In general people who ‘twang’[5] are those not confident in their ability to speak English, so they speak either Patwa or American—or actually collections of American phrases. Sometimes DJs adopt personas that speak in a pseudo-American accent as opposed to their real selves, which are expressed in Patwa. A good example of this is Patwa-speaking Rodney Price whose famous persona Bounty Killa speaks with an American-style twang.

There’s a vulnerability felt by many Patwa speakers in speaking English but to talk like a rapper—they’ve studied that and can reproduce it effortlessly. When educated, English-speaking Jamaicans migrate they feel less compelled to change their accent, although a lot of us find a comfortable pseudo-accent to use, not being used to speaking English to each other and only being exposed to the excessively formal parliamentary speech used by politicians and others.

As a member of the singing group, Home T, as late as the 1980s, I can confirm that our idols were outside Jamaica—popular American groups such as The Temptations, Four Tops, Earth, Wind & Fire. The highest compliment we could get was to be compared favourably with The Temptations. We genuinely thought that the less Jamaican we sounded the greater would be our chance of ‘breaking through and crossing over’.

In those days Home T worked the hotel circuits on the North Coast. One day, after a very slick set showing off our mastery of the latest American chart toppers, we were asked by some young tourists where they could hear some real Jamaican music—where was reggae to be found they wanted to know. This brought us down to earth rather abruptly.

We decided to add a lot more Reggae songs to our repertoire but this did not find favour with the Hotel Entertainment Manager.  The society we all lived and grew in had firmly inculcated in us the belief that true culture lay elsewhere so that faithful imitation and simulation of foreign popular and high culture was the only way to prove ourselves.

Radio’s role

Radio did its part in prolonging and promoting our cultural insecurities. Jamaican popular culture in the 50s and 60s was dominated by the Friday-evening record shows produced by the various record labels and distribution houses that featured the latest local productions. These radio shows gave record shop owners an idea of the new material available from the various labels. On Saturdays fans flocked the record shops to snatch up the latest records and these would be played all week on the family stereo. What was heard in drawing rooms played a big part in what became popular. When new dances came out people spent all week practicing to get them right.

Between the 60s and the 70s, local music was treated like the poor cousin on radio with the ratio of ‘foreign music’ to local approximately 90 to 10. This increased marginally in the 80s, to 80 to 20 and only changed significantly with the arrival of IRIE FM in 1990. IRIE played nothing but Jamaican music and its overwhelming success forced other radio stations to increase the percentage of local music they carried.

Until this happened, however, not only did we import most of our music from overseas, but we also imported the hype and marketing that went along with it. Young girls would be noting down the lyrics of foreign songs in their lyrics books and helped to make teen idols out of foreign singers. The average American entertainer was seen as this sophisticated, super-cool individual who had found the secret formula to international stardom. He was someone to be imitated.

Although the music of Jamaica was going through some exciting times with massive local support of stars like Toots and the Maytals, The Heptones, Paragons, the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Ken Booth, Alton Ellis, and the Skatalites, Jamaicans were still being fed a steady diet of ‘foreign music’ on radio. For example, after playing local hits radio announcer Bunny Goodison – ‘The Musical Burner’ – would move on to what he called ‘Higher Heights’, music from Motown and the Philadelphia labels.

Top radio announcers such as Don Topping of Radio Jamaica Rediffusion (RJR) had unique accents, none of them local. Some even affected to have problems pronouncing titles of local songs (for example Winston Williams and ‘Rub-a-dub’), especially if they were in Patwa. Young, unexposed singers made it their mission to clone the vocal nuances of internationally acclaimed icons and it was customary to hear Jamaican singers being referred to on radio as the ‘Jamaican Smokey Robinson,’ the ‘Jamaican Tom Jones’ or some other popular foreign singer.

Sounding foreign vs sounding Rasta

So people were systematically encouraged towards such models and away from Patwa. Even Bob Marley tried to fit into this model unsuccessfully with songs like ‘Kinky Reggae’. Producers who, for the most part, were catering to a growing demand for local music were interested in foreign accents and acts that used English because they felt this would make the music cross over easier than something with an overtly ethnic feel.

So Home T with their ability to sing and sound ‘foreign’ were seen in some circles as a ‘class’ act. The problem was that we were trying to impress our audience rather than relate or connect with them in any meaningful way. Our lack of street support was blamed on the consumers’ unsophisticated taste rather than any shortcoming of the music we were producing.

Like most Jamaican youth we loved local music—it was the soundtrack of our lives, we enthusiastically danced to local hits at parties and we collected them as faithful fans—but when it came to our careers it was another matter. We didn’t want to be readily identified as Jamaicans. Sounding Jamaican at the time was not something to aim for. Unlike entertainers today we didn’t want to be identified with the ghetto or Rasta.

In those days Rastas claimed Reggae as their vehicle. Their complete rejection of Babylon and colonialism was expressed particularly through their heavily accented Jamaican speech and their ‘dread talk’ which sent shivers down the spines of most Jamaican parents. If Christianity used English, for Rastafari the medium was Patwa, and their conscious perversion or subversion of the English language produced wonderful words such as Irie and Ital.

Although they were the most dedicated guardians of Jamaican culture, Rastafari and its dreadlocked practitioners were viewed with great disapproval and were repudiated by Jamaican society. Therefore groups such as Fab Five and Home T were at great pains to distance themselves from Rasta culture. There was even a story floating around that producer and record executive of Island Records Chris Blackwell had wanted to sign Fab Five but only if they would ‘locks’ their hair, which they refused to do. We could hardly have imagined that a day would come when Rastafari would move from the margins of Jamaican society to dominate Jamaican music.

Patwa promises, English excuses

There were of course areas of Jamaican life in which Patwa and sounding Jamaican had a certain value. Not everyone discounted locally-produced music. When politicians, for instance, wanted to identify with their constituencies or communicate in ‘real’ ways, the voice they used was Jamaican. Prime Minister Michael Manley realized very early on the power of Jamaican popular music and enlisted popular singers and their songs in his campaigns. Clancy Eccles’ ‘My Leader Born Ya’ was the theme song of the Manley campaign in 1976. Politicians make promises in Patwa, but offer excuses in English.

Chris Blackwell also recognized the value of local music; as a producer and promoter he allowed Marley to do his thing without interfering. Blackwell changed other ingredients, rockefying the music for instance, but he didn’t change Marley’s voice.

Blackwell also worked with acts such as Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals. In hindsight, perhaps what Blackwell saw in Toots and the others that he didn’t see in acts such as Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, and the other crooners was their potential to cross over internationally, not in spite of their ethnic sound, but because of it. So what many of us considered a negative, Blackwell viewed as a plus that could be exploited.

I started to change my mind about my voice as well as that of Home T’s just before I became a producer in the late 80s. While hanging around certain studios and participating in the excitement and buzz around certain artistes, I realized that Home T didn’t resonate with the street.

Street Cred

One instructive event was the splitting up of Inner Circle into Third World (uptown) and Inner Circle (street) in the 70s. The two groups pursued international careers from different directions. Bunny Rugs and Third World chose the path of English and perfect diction with songs such as ‘Now that We’ve Found Love’ and ‘96 degrees in the Shade’ while Inner Circle through Jacob Miller chose a more rootsy approach (‘Dreadlocks Don’t Live in a Tenement Yard’), becoming even more ‘yard’ after Miller’s untimely death, with the song ‘Bad Boys, Bad Boys’ which is the theme song for the popular American television series Cops.

The success of The Harder They Come, which became a cult film outside Jamaica, also had an impact. Not only was the dialogue completely unscripted and in adulterated Patwa, the soundtrack was a compilation of the most popular local songs at the time. It started to become obvious that the way to reach people was not only through radio but also through local musicians and sound systems.

All the signs of a healthy demand for local music were there but we ignored them. The early popularity of radio programmes like Life in Hopeful Village (1963-1976), featuring Louise Bennett and the inimitable Ranny Williams, were strong indicators of how much Jamaicans loved to hear themselves being themselves in popular media. It comes as no surprise that the most popular TV show in recent years has been the locally produced Royal Palm Estate which started in 1994, in spite of the many choices available on cable TV.

While we acknowledge the great and sometimes even superior technical talents of certain singers, we depend on other singers such as Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley to tell our stories back to us in our own voice, in that uncompromising style that uses all the secret codes of our past and present. These are the voices that inspired artists like Stevie Wonder (in Master Blaster Jammer), Lionel Richie (in All Night Long) and R Kelly (in many of his more recent hits). These icons of their genres have tried their best to imitate the accents of Jamaica in an effort to make their attempts at Reggae more authentic and to pay tribute to a style they find so compelling and appealing.

JBC Radio’s (Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation) Mikey Dread at the Controls, was a precursor to Mutabaruka and unapologetically used Patwa on the air. In general JBC Radio was more liberal than RJR (Radio Jamaica). Yet in Jamaica it would be the nineties before a radio station such as IRIE FM could come into existence as a result of unmet demand for local music. There is still little commercial support of local music, but when Byron Lee brought soca to Jamaica there weren’t enough hands to accept the multitude of sponsors who suddenly appeared.

As a songwriter and record producer, it wasn’t until my financial situation put me back on the buses of Kingston that I fully understood what it meant to relate to an audience rather than impress them with how much smarter than them I was.

I realized that if I could reach this audience I could reach the world. The rappers say it best when they say ‘we gotta just keep it real’. Rap has become one of the biggest income-earning genres, mainly because they have been unapologetic about expressing themselves in the language of the street and by doing so they have managed to cross all ethnic, linguistic, and political barriers. The audience always prefers to hear their own story, the real story. Reggae would have been much more successful if our models had been Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff, who were seen at the time as Patwa-speaking, ganja-smoking embarrassments to the nation, rather than the ground-breaking pioneers of Jamaican culture and global superstars that they were.


The story Mikie Bennett tells of the struggle to decolonize Jamaican sound, unimaginable when you hear Jamaican music – reggae – today and the language it has used to capture the world, is one that needs to be known more widely. In this article we’ve used the term ‘reggae’ as a synonym or umbrella term for Jamaican pop music, including the current dominant genre –dancehall.

If there’s one constant in all of this, it is the distaste with which elites and tastemakers in Jamaica view dancehall the loud, unapologetic repository of Patwa music today – treating it as something to be tolerated rather than celebrated. Self-appointed gatekeepers regularly announce its demise, only to have this exemplar of vernacular creativity repeatedly bust out of the coffin in which they try to bury it.[6]

In the last few years, for example, dancehall has entered the universe of dance moves and choreography in Spain, Poland, Japan, Italy, Russia, the USA, and all over Eastern Europe, with women paying good money to learn the latest moves. As scholar of dancehall and popular culture Carolyn Cooper has noted, dancehall’s body language and overtly sexual grammar have proved liberating for many women – but that is another story, one about the decolonization of and unbridling of bodies, as well as voices. The joyful, aggressive movements of dancehall signal a flagrant semiotics of ungovernability, bodies breaking loose from the repressive regimes of respectability and sexuality thrust on them.

The global flows of Jamaican music are directly linked to the raw energy and vitality of the language of its practitioners – Patwa, a language it was once believed would inhibit the export of Jamaican music and culture. This deeply held belief has led to the fundamental ‘contra-diction’ of contemporary Jamaican society with its discriminatory policies against local speech – the spoken, the oral and in effect, against vernacular creativity.

Bennett’s story is a paradigmatic example of the power relations undergirding the current fissures in Jamaican society, and the ensuing confusion as elites try to maintain their grip on power by wielding the English language as a weapon of mass discipline. At the dawn of the 21st century, Jamaicans stand paralyzed at a linguistic intersection: should they follow the yellow brick road of vernacular creativity or the stultifying bridle path of bureaucratic, official language that has, thus far, led nowhere? If the balance of power doesn’t shift from one privileging a ‘read-only’ culture increasingly out of step with new technologies, to valorization and adoption of the vernacular ‘re-mix culture’ exemplified by Jamaica’s music, language and popular culture, the future is likely to remain as grim as the present.

[1] Birmingham-born, Jamaican-descended Stefflon Don’s moniker is a play on her given name, Stephanie.

[2]  Beyoncé and Jay Z Are On the Run and Riding a Motorcycle in Jamaica.


[4] Lightly edited for ease of reading.

[5] Jamaican twanging or attempting to speak as Americans do, may not be recognizable as an American accent to Americans, but in the Jamaican context it registers as American-inflected.

[6] Reggae is Dead, Who Killed Jah Music?

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