Sunday, July 18, 2021

Jamaica the Cultural Superstate: In Search of Business Leaders

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor July 11, 2021) 

The philosophical framework I take to my writing and my work is Garveyite philosophy, the ideas and ideals espoused by Marcus Garvey. I have challenged myself to demonstrate the relevance of this philosophical perspective to the contemporary business context. The breadth of Garvey’s own writings and the manifest achievements of his movement make his ideas a rich source upon which I can draw. 

On May 14, 2021, Smithsonian professor, Kenneth Bilby, delivered the sixth annual Faculty of Humanities and Education, University of the West Indies, Mona Distinguished Lecture titled “Jamaican Music at Home and Abroad: Keeping the Circuits Grounded.” 

Source: Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI, Mona, Jamaica

Professor Bilby underscored the global impact and reach of Jamaica’s music and culture. To hear him say that reggae was sung in over 200 languages was a shocking metric. Further, he shared that there are over 4,000 performers, excluding Jamaicans, for whom reggae is their primary genre or a major part of their repertoire. 

Attending Rototom Reggae Festival in Spain in 2018 was a major eye-opener as in the near 250,000 crowd there were hardly any Black folks and scarcely any Jamaicans apart from the performers. Rototom’s media kit statistics touts this number, in addition to pointing out that for the eight days there were attendees from over 80 countries. So, in all this, it was a disappointment to me that no Jamaican government entity was represented. We should target these spaces to market Jamaica. My hope is that in short order our strategies will change in our approach to these avenues. 

Source: Personal Collection, Rototom Sunsplash 2018

While the historical reality may be that our tourism did not begin with the objective of showcasing and integrating our people and our culture into the vacation experience, there is no reason for that ideological approach to be continued. Just visit one of these reggae festivals outside of Jamaica and you quickly realize where the real money earner lies in our tourism offering. I am among the first to admit to the beauty of the land, but the land is immaterial to the reggae festival goer in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia or Oceania. The Jamaican culture and the experience are all they are paying for, and Jamaica is benefitting next to nothing from those funds. Do we know those 200 languages in which reggae is sung? Do we care? How many of those 4,000 performers and their fans make it to Jamaica for a reggae experience? Do we even want them here? These are the questions to be answered. 

The 2003 culture policy titled “Towards Jamaica the Cultural Superstate” might be described as hubris, bombastic, and perhaps even unrealistic, but it was attempting to communicate something to an establishment that desperately needed to hear of the opportunities that lay outside for Jamaica in the wider world. I am disappointed that the objectives of the policy failed to energize the Jamaican business and entrepreneurial community in a way that would encourage them to get involved in the production of events that would attract the kind of global reggae consumers willing to pay for the kinds of watered-down (“mimicked”) Jamaican experiences they get outside of Jamaica that they so desperately want from inside Jamaica. 

My lament, and perhaps my mission, given that I see that those who have the resources and the power to enable that transformation at home just do not understand the wealth at their feet, is to share this perspective that what we have is enough, who we are is enough, to earn us what we need, if only we fully believed in ourselves. If it sounds familiar it is because you already know it, if you are Jamaican, you have heard words to this effect, “if you have no confidence in self you are twice defeated in the race of life, with confidence you have won before you have even begun”. These are the words of Marcus Garvey, whose ideas I maintain are seminal for contemporary globally impacting Jamaican businesses to follow in the footsteps of our music, food, and Rastafari cultural sensibilities. Garvey is also noted as saying, “the African must become wealthy; he must become a master of finance, a captain of industry, a director of science and art, an exponent of literature; he must develop a concrete philosophy, and with a combination of all these he must impress himself... upon the civilization of the world.” We have begun an enterprise-building process that new business and culture leaders, a new conscious capital understanding leadership, must emerge to complete. 

Source: Personal Collection, Rototom Sunsplash 2018

I think Jamaica’s business and economic opportunities lay within Jamaica’s entertainment, culture, and creative sectors. My particular interest is to get conscious, preferably Garveyite entrepreneurs, engaged in the process of economic expansion and institution building within our polity that can facilitate this kind of economic expansion. It is possible that it will take less of a focus on government policy in the initial stages, and to, instead, focus on direct business building and matters of sustainability within the businesses themselves. It is the kind of expansion the studios never really did or managed to achieve. 

VP Records stands as an exception. The company moved from Kingston to New York and remains a player in the distribution of our music. But even VP is a small player in relative terms. The truth is we should have had several more VPs, based in Jamaica with branches internationally. Jamaica should have been playing an active role in the emergence of afrobeats and other music and culture businesses out of Africa, but we never really embraced this Garveyite vision. 

I think Bob Marley saw it; his business moves suggest this. He was beginning to understand what was emerging. Is this also a factor in the mystique that surrounds him? Philosophy and ideology do not earn you cash, but it is foolish to think you will successfully build or keep what you earn without one that guides you along that path. 

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.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The J’ouvert Bacchanal

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor June 27, 2021) 

This past week my social media timeline got hit a few times with the story coming out of Trinidad and Tobago of Michael B Jordan, of the Black Panther film fame, and his recent “ownership” of the trademark “J’Ouvert”, an ownership acquired, at least in the United States of America by virtue of its registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Jordan has been accused of cultural appropriation. I looked at the registration myself, and excluding attorney fees, ownership of the name in the single class for which he is said to apply in September 2020, it likely cost him $350 USD for a standard registration. Barring any objections that require further legal intervention, his financial obligations to the US government as far as acquiring and maintaining the name he hoped to build into an alcohol brand would have been negligible, possibly $525 USD payable in the next ten years. It doesn’t seem like a bad investment considering what he could earn from it. Isn’t it amazing how inexpensively one could lose “ownership” of a part of one’s heritage? Some of my Trinbagonian friends are upset, and I understand completely.

Source: Screenshot Michael B Jordan's Girlfriend, Instagram Stories 

As a result of public outcry, not least of which from Nicky Minaj herself, the poor unlucky soul as I imagine one former colleague professor of mine saying, get ketch, and Jordan by Wednesday morning had issued an apology and stated that he will no longer be using this name in this fashion. Jordan is indeed unlucky, because from the information I have seen on the registration of “J’ouvert” on the website of the USPTO, there have been at least five such registrations for use in commerce, from as early as February 2006. The listings use the term “J’ouvert” or “Jouvert”. Perhaps to the pleasure of my Trinbagonian friends three of them are now listed as dead, meaning they were once in use in commerce but for some reason the owners have abandoned their use.

Of all the registrants only one was from the Caribbean, and that entity gives a Barbados address, and they used their registration to brand air fresheners. The other trademark registrants including Jordan’s registration hail from Florida, New York, California and Texas. Some of these owners may, in fact, have been from the Caribbean, I am not able to tell from the information given, but they represent an interesting business mix to apply the brand “J’ouvert”. Their businesses included an entertainment event, audiovisual recordings and digital media, and restaurant and bar services in addition to those I mentioned above. So, from all indications Jordan’s high profile meant that he was just the poor unlucky soul who would ketch hell for doing what others have done and got away with undetected. And, there is no question that him being an American is a factor for the claim of cultural appropriation.

Source: Michael B Jordan, Instagram

One might ask then, why are these types of trademark applications happening outside of the countries of origin? Why is it taking diaspora residents or foreigners to recognize and seize upon some of these commercial opportunities that our cultures in the Caribbean possess? This week it was Trinidad and Tobago, but those of us from Jamaica are also familiar with this story. I wonder how many of these trademark applications have been attempted in the Caribbean, and if the applications were made, would they have been granted? I won’t attempt to answer these questions here since I’m not a lawyer, and I do not wish to be seen as giving legal advice. I have a fair idea of where this discussion could go, and I think the whole situation opens the space for conversations we should be having about the future of our cultures, from a business perspective, here in the Caribbean.

In my view there are two fronts on which we could approach situations like these, on the offensive and on the defensive. I have no doubt that we ought to be putting out products and services branded with names that matter to us, while we also proactively protect against the exploitation of names and brands that are sacred to our cultural spaces. Entertainment and sport attorney, Carla Parris, executive producer of “The Business of Carnival”, offered us some sound insight that might be useful in helping to prevent another case of this kind of cultural exploitation, since Jordan has at this point promised that he will not go forward with the name “J’Ouvert”. First, she argues that we proactively object to these applications on the grounds of cultural appropriation and cites examples, and second, she argues for greater discussion on the area of “Traditional Cultural Expressions and Traditional Knowledge (TCEs)” within the Caribbean. No doubt these are discussions that cannot happen soon enough, we all need to know more.

Source: Carla Parris, Facebook

Carla Parris has some very good advice for businesses in the Caribbean that I would commend to business owners here in Jamaica. She suggests that before you market your goods and services you conduct an intellectual property (IP) audit and seek the services of a qualified IP attorney if you need the help. Take heed. When you compare the financial outlay I mentioned above to what you may be called to lay out in defense of a brand under challenge, you may be pleasantly surprised.

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.