Sunday, May 23, 2021

Reasoning Dancehall and Entertainment’s Refusal

(First published in the Diaspora section of the Jamaica Monitor May 16, 2021)

I was so moved by an article that appeared in the Jamaica Monitor on Sunday, May 5, 2021 that I felt I should chime in on what I think is an interesting start to a conversation. The article was titled, “Jamaican dancehall: The stone the builder refuse[s]”, by Richard Hugh Blackford. I’ll start where Richard ends, which is posing the question, “how can we capitalize on this resource developed largely by people that too many of us would want to identify with only for as long as some of the recordings they make spins on a turntable?” This is a searing indictment on the Jamaican society, and he demonstrates in the article how divided we are by along class lines, by recalling how for years Jamaican music was excluded by polite society and denied air play in the land of its creation. 

Image Source: Graphic Artist Sean Iya Henry (Instagram)

There are many studies that have been done in academia, and by state and international agencies, that are aimed at devising development and export strategies that are supposed to help in catapulting Jamaica’s entertainment, culture, and creative output into the international arena, and return to us great economic rewards. Yet, the great economic returns have not materialized for us. But there is one individual who we know serves as an exception, Bob Marley, and that his estate at the very least sees some “great” economic returns. Since 2012, Marley has consistently been ranked by Forbes Magazine in the top six of the world’s highest-paid dead celebrities, grossing an average US$20M each year. This past May 11, 2021 my social media timeline was filled with tributes to his memory on the 40th year of his passing. No less than the BBC made a tribute to him. His legacy is what impact and relevance looks like. We could discuss how Bob Marley’s brand is able to command that kind of earning 40 years after his death, but in my view that would not address the question Blackford posed. Rather, I suggest that the answer to his question lies in politics, and I will show why. 

In the book Why Nations Fail, authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that nations fail because of politics, that it is the politics of states that determine the institutions that exist and survive within that polity. They explore the division of institutions, inclusive versus extractive institutions, that make up the modern community of states and demonstrate how they function to empower and enrich large majorities of citizens, or the opposite of weakening and keeping in poverty large majorities of citizens, ensuring that the wealth generated within the state benefits only a small elite. This happens, they argue, because of the nature of the institutions the state supports due to the power of various groups in the society, so then, inclusive political institutions will often lead to inclusive economic institutions, while extractive political institutions will generate extractive economic institutions, and relationships, in a vicious circle that perpetuates itself and ensures that those who labor under the extractive institutions will never get out, unless of course, the politics changes to eventually foster inclusive institutions, and its own virtuous circle. It is a simple theory that dismisses arguments that nations fail and economies like ours do badly and remain poor because of geography, culture, or ignorance of economic management. 

Publisher: Crown Business, New York, 2012

Using the case of Britain and the circumstances that led to the Industrial Revolution, the authors show how beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215 that set in motion the process of gradually weakening the monarchy, and over time, granting more power to a plurality of groups within the society, that that plurality enabled the slow growth of inclusive (and measured in the first instances) political institutions that only grew in power on the basis of the creative destruction and innovation that they fostered, which are both necessary for the sustainability of inclusive institutions. All this is important to make the point that in Jamaica our institutions, both political and economic, are extractive in nature even if they act inclusive and representational, because real power, which rests with an economic elite, is not interested in the empowerment of these economically marginalized groups, the creators of reggae and dancehall, as Blackford points out in his article. And, why should they be? Acemoglu and Robinson will tell you that there is nothing surprising about this, that it is a fact of history that elites have always been concerned about their own power, and change that weakens their power is not something they readily embrace. Creative destruction and innovation, they show, are often resisted by elites. Elites have always been forced to change, and that is the example of Britain. The institutional changes that brought us this modern capitalist world were products of struggle. 

Therefore, we who are members of the entertainment, creative and culture sectors in Jamaican society should not expect that Jamaica’s political and economic institutions will give entertainment what is demands. It is not going to happen. I am of the view that members in these sectors must think seriously about how they will build capital. In this context, capital accumulation is equally a political act, because one of your greatest levers is the wealth you control. So, musicians, filmmakers, performers, managers, event promoters, media owners, attractions and theme park operators, wagering and gaming services, and others, must seek to leverage wealth, and equally seek to have political representation from among themselves. An active role in political institution building is a prerequisite for economic institution building, and it is the state that provides the framework to ensure the viability of these institutions. 

It is one of the saddest political miscalculations that the Rastafari movement in Jamaica separated itself from political representation, engaging from a distance. I reckon that even if it separated itself from either of the two major political parties on its mission for political representation, it would have benefited from having institutions that actively engaged the state to force more inclusive institutions. It is not lost on me that Bob Marley as an individual, as a Rasta, and as a musician, was aware of the immense political power he had, and attempted to use it to force change for more inclusivity via his peace concert, that too is political engagement, and it is important. 

Video Source: Jab Jab Official (Instagram)

If we are serious about the business of entertainment and the economic development of Jamaica, then we will need to “bell the cat” so to speak. There are many numbers that are passed around as to what the entertainment, culture and creative sectors of Jamaica may be worth, and even Blackford includes a number in his article, but those numbers will remain in dispute for a while, because it depends on who is counting and what sectors they choose to include. Yet, there is no question in my mind that to attract the kinds of investment needed to produce the billions we claim to be possible that the state must be forced to incentivize these investments. And, it is going to be through the active political engagement of industry players who stand to profit from these developments who must contest those elites who now command the state to do their bidding to the exclusion of entertainment, culture and creative enterprises. 

I am one of those Jamaicans who is saddened that Bob Marley passed when he did, because I strongly doubt that our economy would have been organized in the way it is presently. I am of the view that had he been alive today he would likely be one of the wealthiest among us, sitting on a perch somewhere at the commanding heights of our local economy, because, as we know, he had invested in his own studio, record manufacturing and music distribution businesses well before the millionaire turned billionaire entertainer-entrepreneur of today was in vogue. And he was acutely aware of the nexus between money, politics, and power, and he had the aptitude to navigate it. 

Image Source: Sound System Festival (Instagram)

If you are a member of the entertainment, culture and creative sector who is serious about generating wealth and development in a democratic and inclusive society that fosters inclusive economic institutions it would be a smart move to encourage more entertainers turned investors like Marley, particularly as Jamaica struggles to source foreign capital for growth and investment. A vibrant entertainment, culture and creative industry needs a broad coalition of “industrialists”, to borrow an old term, that is, traders, manufacturers, businesspersons, investors, and commercially minded activists to make an industry; an industry that demands and forces change in our political and economic intuitions. But this will not be an easy feat or quick event, rather, it is a process that takes years, and perhaps generations, and hopefully the contingency of history bestows some luck along the way. 

Acemoglu and Robinson tell us that extractive institutions do not generate sustained economic growth for two reasons, first, the lack of an economic incentive to do so, and second, the resistance by the elites who will not tolerate creative destruction, that they think will undermine their power within the state. Both of those political factors will have to be overcome if a transformation to inclusive political institutions is to happen, local and international strategy papers notwithstanding. The answer to Blackford’s question of “how” is political engagement.

Kam-Au Amen has several years of combined industry experience across the areas of business management, brand licensing, media production, and eCommerce. He is a researcher of African and Caribbean entertainment and cultural enterprise management, and is a former Deputy Director of Culture in the Ministry of Culture, Jamaica. He has also served a member of the Entertainment Advisory Board. He is the conceptualizer and first coordinator of the pioneering BA in Entertainment and Cultural Enterprise Management at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.