The Leeds festival celebrating Jamaican culture and its impact 60 years after country became independent

With August 6, 1962, a new era dawned for Jamaica. As the Union Jack was lowered to make way for the country’s national flag to be hoisted for the first time, Jamaica marked the start of independence, after more than 300 years under British rule.

Four months earlier, Out of Many, One People had been chosen as its motto, inspired by the population’s multiracial roots.

Today, that motto is reflected in the name of a cultural festival being run by The Jamaica Society Leeds. The Out of Many festival celebrates 60 years of independence and aims to illuminate how the heritage of the small Caribbean island has impacted culture nationally, internationally and in the city of Leeds.

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Susan Pitter, festival director of Out of Many.

“I hope it will attract people to come along because it’s a great platform for those art forms but also to really learn something and to enjoy the Jamaican culture that we’re so proud of.”

Shaped over two years by countless conversations with collaborators and artists across the world, as well as with communities in Leeds, the festival builds on the society’s 2019 Eulogy Project, which focused on celebrating the lives, heritage and contributions of first-generation Jamaicans during the 1940s to 1960s.

Out of Many is also exploring the lives of second-generation West Indian communities in the 70s and 80s and brings together high-profile national and international artists alongside grass-roots community events.

The poet laureate of Jamaica, Olive Senior is an example of the former. She will be joined by UK poet laureate, Yorkshire-born Simon Armitage for the launch of Out of Many Lit in October – a five-day literature festival featuring local and international authors and poets of Jamaican and African and Caribbean heritage.

August 1962: A Jamaican schoolgirl in Kingston with the country's new flag during Jamaica's independence celebrations. Photo by George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images

On the independence day anniversary itself, there’ll be an evening charting Jamaican music history at Leeds Playhouse, featuring pioneering reggae DJ Dennis Alcapone.

“Hip hop, grime, Afrobeats, garage music, they are all rooted and have been influenced by Jamaican music and in particular reggae music,” Susan says. “That’s huge, just look at the global megastars who we celebrate from those genres. If you trace it all the way back, Jamaican culture has certainly influenced.”

Other festival highlights include an exhibition exploring the lives of the city’s second generation West Indians, telling “a powerful story of young black people hugely influenced by Jamaican culture, music and style, immersed in their parents’ Caribbean roots yet shaping an identity of their own”.

“It will look at the lives of second generation West Indians, my generation, coming of age in the late 70s and 80s,” Susan explains, “exploring their lives, the places they went to, the causes we were interested in, the music we listened to, the friendships we formed.”

Susan’s parents Hermerde and Enid, who met while working on the buses in Leeds, had both grown up in Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica, where money was tight and job prospects limited, and moved to England in the 1960s.

“One of the most important things they both instilled in us when we were growing up was that nobody is better than us but we are no better than anybody else,” Susan recalls. “They were very firm on fairness and kindness - and hard work as well. And what they really did show us is that we can be proud of our roots and our heritage.”

For Joe Williams, the founder of Heritage Corner, which conducts creative projects to tell stories of black history connected with Leeds, Out of Many is about recognising a rich history that contextualises the presence of generations of migrants from the West Indies in Britain.

After the Second World War, thousands of people came from the Caribbean to work in sectors including manufacturing, public transport and the NHS.

“People were invited to help rebuild Great Britain and provide themselves with an opportunity to improve their own lives,” Joe says. “After so many centuries of economic contribution from Jamaica, finally they were able to come to Britain and earn a decent week’s wage for a week’s work, perhaps for the first time in many generations.”

Joe will be running heritage trails as part of Out of Many, to tell the story of West Indians in Leeds. As well as visiting Jamaica House, the home of The Jamaica Society Leeds, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary, the tours will take in the homes of individuals who were active in supporting newly-arrived people.

“Some made their houses open and available to newcomers to give them a bit of time to find work and find their own accommodation,” Joe says.

“I am very closely linked to this story because I was born into a house on the site of what is now the University of Leeds and that house in the 1950s was actually a house for RAF World War Two veterans from the West Indies and Africa.

“In the 1950s, there were up to 20 of them listed as staying in that house. We were later informed they weren’t all there at the same time but it acted as an address they could use....I came along in the 1960s and my mother found refuge in that house.”

Joe’s heritage walks will be taking place in September, the destinations to be decided in partnership with a group of young people researching the stories of West Indians in Leeds.

The festival itself is already underway, having launched in May. At Leeds Art Gallery, an exhibition by London-based artist Charmaine Watkiss is exploring the wisdom, strength and resilience of Jamaican women across generations.

A series of festival events will be taking place right through to February next year, recognised as Reggae Month, with activity peaking from August to November. “What better way to round off the year than a wrap party in Reggae Month to say thank you to everybody who has contributed and taken part,” Susan says.

“I think it’s amazing we’re doing this in the run up to a year of culture with Leeds 2023, and at a time when Bradford is in the spotlight (after winning the bid to become UK City of Culture in 2025)...

“It’s great to recognise that Jamaican culture plays such an important role in the culture of West Yorkshire, of Yorkshire and of the country as well.”

The Jamaica Society Leeds received a £250,000 National Lottery Heritage Fund grant and an Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant of £100,000 for the Out of Many Festival.

For the festival programme, visit jamaicasocietyleeds.co.uk/out-of-many-festival