Though it seems like Little Jamaica is perpetually changing one thing has always remained the same: its history of music culture.
In the 90s, the neighborhood was home to Kiddie Carnival, the Caribana parade for young children, where soca and reggae blanketed the streets as youth and their parents chipped down the road; throughout its existence, it was a regular stopping point for visiting artist to the city like Bob Marley and the Wailers; it was abundant with record stores, notably Trea-jah-Isle Records (which is still in operation), but inclusive of others like King Culture Records and Videos, Record Factory and Joe Gibbs Records which consequently transformed Toronto into one of the largest hubs of reggae music outside of Kingston, Jamaica; and with all of the music and culture sharing that took place, the neighbourhood was a key contributor to the globalization of reggae music. This rich history is even visualized in the colourful “Welcome to Little Jamaica,” a 1,200-square foot mural that sits just north of Reggae Lane created by artist Adrian Hayles. Created in 2015 as part of Toronto’s Laneway Project, the warm red, yellow, orange and brown installation depicts artists central to Canada’s then-developing rocksteady and reggae scene like the Skatalites’ Jackie “Donat Roy” Mittoo, Ernie Smith, the Cougars Leroy Sibbles and Jay Douglas, photographed for kind on the following page.
What currently remains of Little Jamaica is a shell of what was once a more vibrant and eclectic hub of Caribbean diasporic music and culture. It has since been robbed by an over ten-year transit renewal LRT project that has effectively pushed out long-time business owners and residents with their culture in tow. Despite it recently being dubbed a Heritage Conservation District—a designation that ensures protection and preservation under the Ontario Heritage Act—it has very clearly transformed into something that is sometimes unrecognizable, but as the Jamaican adage goes, “Every mikkle mek a mukkle,” meaning: all the small things add up to big things. With community organizers, its allies and organizations like Black Urbanism TO, Black Futures on Eglinton, and Black Business and Professional Association who have, with their work and initiatives, empowered the community to stay strong and resilient, how do we continue to expand the music history and legacies that hail from the neighbourhood or people who have connections with the space? Let’s take a look at the past.
When the music from Jamaica began to travel, and particularly with migrants who left the country between the 60s and 80s, the sonics were an amalgamation of the riddims being made in Jamaica with inflections from their new geographical location. Much of what the Toronto soundscape manifested into can be heard on the 2006 compilation project Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967 - 1974. Created by Vancouver-based Canadian music historian, journalist and DJ Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, the collection of records that form the project are a mosaic of sounds from Wayne McGhie, Lloyds Delpratt, The Cougars and other artists who were foundational in creating a new, unique and localized strains of the music from back home. Though you’d be hard pressed to find their names etched out in the Canadian songbook—they are undoubtedly legends through and through—their musical offerings were chronicled, amplified and celebrated by way of Jamaica to Toronto. An even tastier treat was offered in the months following its release, with some of the project’s featured artists, like Jay Douglas, the Mighty Pope, Jo-Jo Bennet, Lloyd Delpratt and others, taking the Harbourfront Centre stage to perform for a live audience on a sunny July evening.
So what is the future of Little Jamaica’s music history? You need not look any further than the music pioneers who continue to create music to add to the canon and the newer artists who have the same goals of allowing their heritage to take centre stage as they create records that teeter on the lines of preservation and innovation. The effervescent reggae innovator Jay Douglas, the energetic dancehall artist Eyesus, the genre-blending connoisseur Lexxicon, the veteran of the North Steele, the ever-soulful Chelsea Stewart, the multi JUNO-award winning Exco Levi, the lively and upbeat Triston Fivestar, the multitalented singer, songwriter, and producer Kirk Diamond, alongside the sensual Kim Kelly are on the fore of ensuring the music and culture that comes along with it is not forgotten and is firm in its Caribbean-Canadian roots.
Little Jamaica may take on a different form, but the music that it inspires will live on forever.
Read more about the artists of Little Jamaica: