Sunday, August 14, 2011

Brand Jamaica and the Politics of Protest

Today one of the Jamaican papers carried an article titled, "The Smallest World Cultural Power" in reference to Jamaica's impact on the world. This is quite a common fare these days and parallels the title of the cultural policy, Towards Jamaica the Cultural Superstate, that outlines an approach to have Jamaica benefit economically from the influence it wields globally. What might not be evident to the ordinary Jamaican is that in many respects these documents rely on the associations the Jamaica brand conjures, which among other things is that of protest; speaking out for truth and rights, and also standing up in defense of them. Jamaica can't, therefore, divorce itself from these associations because it might be convenient to do so, rather, offering clarification of what values of protest the brand represents would be more strategic. However, I recognize that this may be asking too much within the current construct.

This global influence is far from merely being a figment of the imagination in the minds of a few Jamaicans. Some are not at all surprised that in the midst of the recent four days of rioting in the UK the Jamaican culture would have been singled out as a culprit. Charles HE Campbell in another of today's papers cites the bewilderment of a French promoter that Jamaica's contemporary music has stepped away from the "glorious tradition of promoting progressive world causes". There will be a price to be paid for that stepping away later, but for now many do associate Jamaica and its culture with progressive protest. This is not a bad thing. However, it gets worse when we cross the line into thuggery. It appears then that the lines are being blurred and the Jamaican authorities have a responsibility to clear it up. Surely, mention in the context of the razing and looting in Britain is not the most complimentary, but thankfully the emerging accounts go a far way in contextualizing Jamaica's influence upon these events (see Of Riot Rastamouse). When the truth is told Jamaica cannot bear the blame for the mayhem that ensued.

Unfortunately, it did not help that these riots occurred smack in the middle of the Jamaican independence celebrations in the UK, a period where the flag and other patriotic symbols were being proudly displayed in some of the affected communities. The article "Who Are These Rioters? Jamaican Brits Give Their Take On UK Riots" provides a perspective. It is by no means definitive but their first-hand accounts mean something.

Among the many media accounts and discussions that I have read or seen is the discussion captioned "England riots: 'The whites have become black' says David Starkey" on BBC's Newsnight aired on August 12, 2011. I have included the discussion below.

Among the outrageous points made by historian David Starkey I found it intriguing that he sought to introduce and blame what he describes as a "wholly false" Jamaican patwa as the language of the "black culture" that is responsible for the mayhem. He was clearly mistaken and very imprecise in his expressions as he attempted to describe what was happening in Britain. Lots more may be inferred from all he has said. Suffice to say that listening to him was a painful experience. His entire approach was unfortunate. He is a dangerous man.

At this juncture, I don't believe the solution is a simple one. There are a number of threads to sort through and it will require nuanced understandings of the intersections of cultures from Africa, Britain, and the Caribbean. It will also require an appreciation of the histories and the economic legacies that endure from these relationships. It is always disappointing to me when privileged persons who you would expect to have an appreciation of these factors don't. Nevertheless, life must move forward. With this in mind, I thought it useful to share a link to a March 2011 interview with the brilliant Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall who spoke to Laurie Taylor on the program Thinking Allowed. The interview provides a useful framework from which one may get a more nuanced insight into some of the issues that might be informing the context of the UK at present. Use this link to listen to their discussion of culture, politics, race, and nation.  

We are in the moment of a backlash, in live and living color. How it is negotiated will impact the Jamaica brand.

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