Chris Blackwell has done some math. He says there are 2,500 people in the world for every one Jamaican. “I just divided it,” he says with a smile, “and when you look at that ratio and all this country has done, it’s amazing.” We are having breakfast at Strawberry Hill, one of his storied properties, this one endlessly high in the mountains above Kingston. What Blackwell doesn’t say is the impact he himself has had on thrusting this lush island onto the global consciousness. When he was 22, in 1959, he opened Island Records in Kingston and would of course go on to give the world one of its most roaring voices: Bob Marley. His own influence is not short of astounding, but the day after Jamaica celebrated a remarkable half-century of Independence, he wants to expound upon the people. “Nothing here is a flash in the pan,” he says, “it’s lasted for 50 years.”
Across the island, Blackwell owns several boutique hotels and markets more under the umbrella of his company, Island Outpost. When asked about the music-rooted mystique he lends the brand, and his own enviable island lifestyle, he looks perplexed and finds something he likes in the table’s breadbasket. But once the conversation turns back to Jamaicans and their unrivaled, innate abilities, the anecdotes flow.
“Jamaicans are very industrious,” he explains, “sometimes you see a job happening, like digging a trench—and there might be four people working and only one actually digging. One is moving the dirt in a wheelbarrow, one is telling jokes and keeping the vibe going…you know how it goes. And you’d think the digger would complain, but they’re a team—and he just loves to work.”
In his 75 years, Blackwell has worked hard to show a lot of people this land—from giving the world a soundtrack to life here, to literally inviting people down. His hotels serve as a unique vehicle to get people involved in the culture. A recent success story is with Win and Régine from Arcade Fire. “Bono recommended Goldeneye to them and they came and stayed,” he explains, “Win went to play basketball in town every day and they got to know people in the community. Now they’re recording their next album in Jamaica. They will come back because they started to understand the language—well, not the language, but you know what I mean,” he says and smiles again. Blackwell says he doesn’t know what makes Goldeneye, his crown-jewel property, so special, but he wishes there could be 100 more like it.
His mission is to do away with the island’s negative connotations, and it’s not easy: “A bad rep is hard to shake and a good one you can lose in minute. It’s not like I can send out a press release to say Jamaica is safe and great.” Although the reality is, he probably could. We finish the French Press of Blue Mountain coffee, and he tells me to make myself at home.
Digging Jamaica? Visit the 100m Shop and get your jerk-reggae-patois-sunshine fix. (Sunscreen recommended.)