Sunday, September 5, 2021

Ajax, Bob Marley, Rastafari and Jamaica’s Apparel Business

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor August 29, 2021)

On August 20, 2021 BBC Sport carried a story headlined “Bob Marley and the Tailors – Ajax release Three Little Birds inspired kit”. The story is about one of the Dutch football club’s 2021-22 season jerseys. To quote the story, it says, “The shirt incorporates the colours of the Jamaican flag and features three little birds stitched onto the back - an obvious nod to the Marley track of the same name.” 

Source: Ajax Football Club

If you have seen an image of this stitch we will not dwell on the fact that the colours used are actually red, gold and green, and not the black, green and gold that are the colours of the Jamaican flag. Notwithanding, I want to direct your attention to the association in the international mind. It is this association, and perception, that is the real space in which our outward looking businesses must function, and we can either use it to our advantage or lose such opportunities. 

Source: Ajax Football Club

Jamaica’s popular Rastafari cultural expression has opened and shaped a world for us that we can either step into, or as we have seen in so many other instances, allow it to be taken over by devotees elsewhere who have advanced the message of one love, the faith in Jah, the ital food, the dress, the community, the commerce and the liviti in ways that marvel Jamaicans when they travel and encounter their own culture in these foreign lands.

A question then is why can’t this same effect be realized at home, in Jamaica? Who are the people engaging with the elements of Jamaican culture abroad, and why can’t we have them engage in this way on the island where more Jamaicans could benefit? What are the mechanisms that are at play? How can we recreate them? In one sense, I know that there is not a shortage of people who are willing and able to help, but that a significant part of the challenge is figuring out how to get out of our own way. On the surface of it I can say that we are burdened with old racist and classist ideas that simply cannot serve us in this dispensation. More specifically, when considering this sporting example, I am asking with our sporting tradition, when will we have our own sporting brand? 

Source: Adidas

We have served Nike, Adidas and Puma well, and they have helped us too, but it is time for our own, because there is a global market there that wants the apparel that we can organize to deliver. And, if we can organize the investors and a team to do it and the brand is not willing to embrace our Rastafari heritage, then I am willing to go out on a limb and say it will be dead on arrival, or soon thereafter. 

The lukewarm embrace of our Jamaican identity has been the approach of corporate and monied Jamaica, because we have been schooled for decades to learn that everything about that identity, us and our person is wrong, beginning with our language and speech, our hair, our aesthetic, and our values. Nevertheless, it has been slowly changing because more and more Jamaican businesses are discovering that a measured embrace of Jamaicaness is a way to unlock value – money. I am optimistic, and I feel it will continue to shift along that trajectory as we begin to discover more and more where the real gold in our economy lays. If you ever wondered what the late Professor Rex Nettleford meant when he said that every Jamaican is a Rasta, mine is a new interpretation for you. It is in fact who we are, and it is the way the world sees us. The group Morgan Heritage sang for us, “yu doan affi dred to bi Rasta” so if you find that you don’t have locks then there is no need to worry, just learn to embrace it, because it is not going away.

One thing this whole episode says to me is we need to reimagine our athletic and sporting apparel and think differently about its role in our global involvement. In the same manner that we represent at the sporting table we should think differently about an involvement in the apparel businesses over the long-term. After all, the plan I expect is to be in this sporting spotlight for generations. Having established this then, Jamaica’s apparel must have life in the market before, during and after sporting events. The question that preoccupies me is not if this can be achieved, but how can this be achieved? Additionally, this Ajax football club development has raised in my mind questions about how we in Jamaica engage fans, both local and international. Are we actively cultivating them? Are we producing merchandise and content to satisfy their needs, both those they have and those they do not yet know that they have? 

This brings me to the point that triggered me to write this commentary in the first place. BBC Sport’s Facebook account shared the link to their story saying, “It caused their website to crash [exploding head emoji] 🤯.” Do we appreciate what it means when demand for what you offer brings about a website crash? Jamaica’s Bob Marley, the Rastafarian, dead since 1981, and who still grosses an average income of USD$20m each year brought about a website crash of this “Dutch super-power” football team. Maybe we should think twice about what we have been doing since 1981. Let that sink in.

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 as 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.