Where comes to mind when you think of the world’s great cities?
For most people, London and New York would be two of the obvious candidates.
Often directly compared to each other, both are truly international, diverse metropolises. The only two cities characterized as Alpha++ by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, they are powerhouses leading the way globally in areas ranging from financial and legal services to nightlife.
Although only one of the cities truly never sleeps, there is a relentlessness about both that you just don’t find elsewhere.
As a native Londoner, New York immediately feels familiar, and as much as I hate to admit it, I love New York.
Even though, as an outsider, New York appears to embody many of the things I hate most about London; it is more disconnected, shallower, more expensive, more gimmicky, and more ruthless, for some reason, I just can’t get enough of it. I guess that ultimately, New York, to me, feels like London, except I haven’t lived there my whole life, so it feels new and exciting. One of the things I love most about New York, and that it shares with London is its large Jamaican population. New York is one of those places every Londoner of Jamaican descent has family at.
However, while contemporary New York feels like a city where the direct Jamaican influence is still powerful, London feels very different. The direct Jamaican influence on London appears to have waned dramatically in recent times.
Picture London in the 1990s in Harlesden, Brixton, Hackney, or any other area with a substantial Jamaican population. Along with the plantains and green bananas in the market and the patties and Guinness punch in the food shops, also noticeable would be the audible sound of Patois. From the man selling (and blasting out) the latest sound tapes to the bus driver in full uniform running jokes with his bredrins about the ‘bad-breed’ pickney who keep ringing the bell on his bus to the grandma that has stopped to talk to her friends to tell them how her foot dem ah ‘urt ‘er and how tings dem get so dear inna di shop as her grandchildren wait impatiently to get home to watch cartoons, the sound of patois was as common in the air in 1990s London as the stench of piss in the lift or the pungent smell of high grade outside big people dances.
Returning to the present, we all know that gentrification has ripped the heart out of London’s black communities, with areas that previously had large Jamaican populations being significantly affected. Walk around Brixton or Dalston, and you’re more likely to hear an expensively schooled Home Counties accent than you are to hear a Jamaican one. Walk past a house in Kensal Rise, and it is more likely to belong to a celebrity than to a Jamaican despite the fact that it is an area that previously had a large number of Jamaican homeowners.
Plus, it is not only the gentrifiers that have replaced the Jamaicans; newer immigrant communities have also moved into the areas previously populated by Jamaicans. In Harlesden in 2021, you’re much more likely to hear somebody speaking Somali or Polish than you are to hear somebody speaking in a strong Patois accent. So, you may ask, where have all the Jamaicans gone?
Based on a very unscientific methodology (my own experiences), it doesn’t feel that New York is experiencing the same dwindling of its Jamaican population as London. From when you first land at JFK (it may not be the same at LaGuardia or Newark), the sound of Patois is audible and unmistakable, whether coming from fellow travelers arriving or from airport staff. This gives New York an instant familiarity, and the authentic Jamaican-ness evokes a memory in me of what London used to be like. Strangely, unlike airport staff in most countries (including in Jamaica), I have found that the Jamaicans working at JFK are particularly helpful; almost as if our identities are immediately visible, leading them to go out of their way to make our experience as pleasant as possible out of some patriotic duty. It’s not just at the airport in New York where you see (or more precisely, hear) Jamaicans. Wherever you are in New York, whether it be in a restaurant, on a train, or at a sports venue, the sound of Patois is unmistakable.
My experiences in New York got me thinking. If my assumption is correct that New York’s Jamaican population is not declining in the way that London’s is, then why is this? Perhaps it’s just simple geography and proximity. The flight time from Jamaica to New York is approximately 4 hours, whereas it’s 9 hours from Jamaica to London. That means that Jamaicans get to and from New York a lot more quickly in comparison to London. There is also the time zone factor in that there is never more than an hour’s difference in time between Jamaica and New York, and for half the year, Jamaica and New York operate on the same time (Jamaica does not utilize US-style Daylight saving time, so the clock doesn’t change). In terms of flying time and time zone, Jamaica is closer to New York than Los Angeles is. Proximity would therefore go some way to explain the relative differences between London and New York and the cities’ respective experiences in relation to their Jamaican populations. Yet, that is unlikely to tell the whole story.
After the initial influx of Jamaicans of the Windrush generation to the UK in the late 1940s, 50s, and 60s, numbers no doubt slowed down in the early 70s as a result of stricter immigration controls and have continued to drop as members of the earlier generations either settled, returned home or died. Despite this, there was always a steady supply of able, ambitious, aspirational Jamaicans ready to try their luck in London and the UK in general. As was the case in the 1970s, part of the reason for the reduction in the number of Jamaicans in the UK appears to be due to government immigration policy. Although the hostile environment approach is most closely associated with the Tory party and Teresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary, it was actually the policies of Tony Blair’s New Labour government that probably had the most profound effect on Jamaicans when in 2003, Jamaica was made a visa national country. That changed the previous position under which Jamaican nationals were not required to obtain a visa before traveling to the UK, and as long as they were granted entry at the border, were permitted to stay in the UK for up to 6 months. The change meant that Jamaicans had to apply for and secure a visa before traveling to the UK. The purpose of the change was supposed to combat the number of Jamaican overstayers – i.e., those who entered the UK as visitors and then didn’t leave at the end of their 6 month period. Whilst overstayers were no doubt an issue, this hostile policy had a tremendous effect on the numbers of Jamaicans coming to the UK. It also shows how the actions of a few ‘bad apples’ can be used expediently to tarnish the reputation of an entire group of people. The policy has been applied more generally to bring suspicion upon Jamaicans as a whole, with many legitimate visa applications from those who simply want to travel to the UK for a holiday being unjustly refused (as I can testify from personal, familial experience).
As it has been made more difficult for Jamaicans to enter the country, simultaneously, recent events have thrown into stark focus the way that earlier generations of Jamaicans (and Caribbeans more generally) have been treated and failed by the UK authorities. Unless living under a rock, most people are generally familiar with the Windrush Scandal and the way that members of that generation of Jamaicans were treated. It seems strange to think of now, but in 1948 (when the SS Windrush arrived) and throughout the 50s and 60s, the pull of the ‘mother country’ was strong with its good jobs and streets paved with gold. However, the reality that the early Jamaicans found was very different. Rather than gold, the early Jamaican sojourners found streets full of racism and hostility. Instead of being welcomed into their mother country’s bosom, they found that this mother was not in the slightest bit maternal but did have some use for them doing the jobs the ‘native’ white British population deemed themselves too good for. Despite the hardships they faced, through force of will and spirit, hard work, thrift, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness, the early Jamaicans were generally speaking relatively successful, largely being able to own their homes and managing to eke out a half-decent standard of living despite the fact that they generally worked unskilled manual labor jobs (that they were often overqualified for). Contrast this with the experiences of their offspring. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the first generation of Jamaicans and Jamaican descendants schooled in the UK didn’t fare as successfully as their parents. As the first mass generation of black people schooled in the UK under the British education system, this generation had to bear the brunt of overtly racist teachers that saw them as lesser, had no faith or belief in their ability to learn, or respect for them as individuals or for their people as a whole. Clearly, having teachers who, as a result of your race, think that you will amount to nothing more than a menial worker takes a toll on a child’s self-esteem that can continue to have detrimental effects into adulthood. Having colonially educated parents with an unjustified (and irrational) faith in the system and whose immediate reaction to hearing a teacher criticise their child was to reach for the belt and lick first and ask questions later, if at all, also didn’t help. Some progress seems to have been made with later generations born and schooled in the UK with the Blair era reforms seeing increasing numbers attending university, and the fact that many of the first generation schooled in the UK went on to achieve degrees as mature students shows that they were perfectly capable; they just needed to rebuild the confidence that was systematically drained out of them, but regardless, there is still a long way to go.
Contrast the experiences of Jamaicans in London and the UK compared to those in the USA. As Jamaicans of the Windrush generation were leaving for the UK, simultaneously, their brothers and sisters (literally) were leaving for the USA, and overwhelmingly, New York or Florida. Similar to their UK breth(and sist)ren, early Jamaican immigrants to America worked diligently and with commitment to improve their lot. However, along with later arrivals coming in the 80s and 90s and their children, rather than solely being seen as criminals, yardie gangsters, absent fathers, and general malcontents, Jamaicans in the US still enjoy the reputation of being hardworking and focussed, with the stereotype of somebody with multiple jobs ‘working like a Jamaican’. No doubt, part of the motive for the relative embracing of Jamaicans in the US was as a stick to (verbally) beat the existing black community (i.e., African Americans) and contrasting and pitting them against the newer arrived black model minority. Nonetheless, just as there is no smoke without fire, there is definitely truth to the hard-working Jamaican adage.
The first mass generation of Jamaicans (and Jamaican descendants) schooled in the US is also likely to have faced a very different experience to their UK counterparts. Logic suggests that they must have faced discrimination much in the same way that Southern-born and children of Southern parentage who migrated during the Great Migration experienced discrimination in Northern schools from those unfamiliar with their particular cultural traits (which also included Northern black people in the Southern context). Nonetheless, simply the fact that they were taught by teachers who at least had experience with and were used to teaching black pupils meant they are unlikely to have faced discrimination on the same level as their Jamaican-British cousins. As a result, the self-esteem of Jamaican-American pupils is unlikely to have been completely destroyed in the same way that the self-esteem of first-generation Jamaican-British pupils was crushed by the British education system.
The potential life prospects and opportunities for their children once they leave education is also likely to be a factor contributing to Jamaicans increasingly choosing to migrate to the USA and usually New York, over London/the UK. Even though Jamaican-Brits would be regarded as firmly integrated into British society, there is a level in the society that they have not been able to permeate. Contrast this with Jamaicans in the USA who don’t seem to have come against the same glass ceiling, and it is easy to see why Jamaicans would feel that they would have substantially better life prospects in the USA compared to the UK. Although I may not share their political beliefs, examples such as Kamala Harris and Colin Powell show that those of Jamaican descent can hold the highest political offices in USA, whereas examples such as Harry Belafonte and Dr. Don Shirley (of Green Book fame) demonstrate how those of Jamaican descent can also excel in more creative industries. I appreciate that strictly speaking, the examples are not directly comparable in that they are not all the descendants of post-war migrants in the way that most Jamaican-Brits would be, but the point is still relevant. More generally, although I appreciate that the numbers and history mean that the situations are very different, overall, black people in the USA have been able to reach a level far above black people in the UK. Whilst Barack Obama is obviously the most prominent example, there are notable Black Americans in fields as diverse as the judiciary, academia, medicine, business, and entertainment. Contrast that with the treatment of prominent black people in the spotlight in the UK, such as Diane Abbott, Raheem Sterling, and Meghan Markle, and it’s no wonder why Jamaicans are preferring to migrate to the USA. This actually mirrors the trend of Black British actors such as David Harewood, David Oyelowo, Daniel Kaluuya, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste who have relocated to the USA to further their careers due to the lack of opportunities for black actors in the UK. Even when creatives have achieved prominence in the UK after stints in the US, such as Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, it is highly unlikely that they would have achieved such prominence without their experience in the US, and even more unlikely that they would have ever been able to gain equivalent opportunities in the UK to those they received in the US. With that in mind, why would Jamaicans leave their home to migrate to a country where not only do black people appear to have limited opportunities but where there appears to be a concerted effort against them. Ironically, one of the few areas where Jamaican-Brits have seemingly managed to outperform their Jamaican-American peers is in the sporting arena. Whilst there have been notable Jamaican-American track and field athletes such as Jamaican-born Sanya Richards-Ross, relatively speaking, Jamaican-Americans have not had great success in the four core American sports of basketball, baseball, American football, and ice hockey. The most successful Jamaican sportsperson in that regard is probably Jamaican-born NBA hall-of-famer Patrick Ewing. The UK, on the other hand, has a long history of Jamaican-Brits excelling at sports, with names such as Lennox Lewis, Linford Christie and Raheem Sterling as standout examples. Whilst I would love to brag that the reason for the disparity is simply because Jamaican-Brits are more talented at sports than Jamaican-Americans, I expect that this is not the case. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the limited expectations that Britain has for Jamaican-Brits means that they are pushed towards sports as it is one of the few areas where they are seen as being able to excel. This is not to say that I believe that American society views things differently, it is simply that they have an African American population that can be pushed towards sports. Although, perhaps I am giving American society too much credit for its ability to distinguish between different types of black people. In any event, the fact that there are readily available examples of successful Jamaican-Americans in areas other than sports means that Jamaican-Americans can aspire to be successful outside of sports (to be clear, there is nothing wrong with aspiring to achieve sporting success, it just shouldn’t be the only avenue open for success).
To sum up, what is described above, clearly, the reasons why Jamaicans appear to be shunning migrating to London in favor of New York are complex and multi-faceted. The most obvious reason is that the UK’s immigration policies have made it increasingly difficult for Jamaicans to get into the country. Not only is a visa required to enter the country, but anybody in the country without leave to remain will face serious difficulties in accessing services such as banking and healthcare. Further, in relation to housing and employment, landlords and employers can face fines or even imprisonment in some circumstances for renting to or employing people who do not have leave to remain in the UK. Moreover, recent government flights attempting to deport Jamaicans, including some who have been in the UK since childhood, demonstrates to Jamaicans that may be considering migrating to the UK that the UK is a place hostile to their interests. In addition, the result of the Brexit referendum where immigration was seen to be the key issue is unlikely to have portrayed the UK as a welcoming destination to Jamaicans, even though some people have suggested that leaving the EU will open up the UK to increased immigration from Commonwealth states.
Despite all this, the UK’s policies and attitude towards Jamaicans can only be part of the reason why Jamaicans appear to be favoring New York ahead of London. It is not as if Donald Trump’s rhetoric and behavior towards immigrants is any more welcoming. It also cannot solely be because traditional Jamaican areas in London have been gentrified and Jamaicans priced out, because Brooklyn, for example, is every bit as gentrified as Brixton, and accommodation costs are generally higher in New York than London. Maybe my entire premise about the declining numbers of Jamaicans in London is incorrect, and it is just that I am encountering less of them as I strut around in my oblivious middle-class bubble. There is probably some validity in all of the potential reasons suggested above. There is also a further potential reason that would require much further exploration beyond this piece but which I will briefly mention. Essentially it goes something like this. Jamaican culture and identity have remained stronger in New York than they have in London. This is because as there was a pre-existing black culture in New York when Jamaicans arrived, the new Jamaican arrivals had to work harder and had to be more focussed and determined to maintain their culture in New York in order to distinguish themselves from the pre-existing black culture. However, as there was no predominant pre-existing black culture when Jamaicans arrived in London and the UK, Jamaicans essentially had a monopoly, and as a result, Jamaican culture essentially became Black British culture. However, as the number of people coming directly from Jamaica has declined, and as Black British culture has evolved and taken influences from newer arrivals who bring their own cultural traits, and as those carrying Black British culture forward have had less direct exposure to actual Jamaicans, Black British culture has become detached from its Jamaican roots and is now not in any way authentically Jamaican. What is left is an almost bastardized version of Jamaican culture encompassing elements, but which is in no way authentic. This appears to contrast to New York, where authentic Jamaican culture still appears to be going strong. Whatever the reasons for why the Jamaican population of London has decreased, the days of the 1990s feel like an eternity ago, and we will soon reach a point where the sound of authentic Patois in London is a novelty. On that sobering note, likkle more!