Sunday, November 21, 2021

Entertainment and the Business of Race and Class

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor on November 14, 2021)

On 25 October 2021, former PM Bruce Golding on his program Jamaica Live on Bridge 99FM focused on the business of Jamaican music as his topic of discussion. I found his program very entertaining and informative. It was not new material as I have grown quite used to this topic. In my view, the arguments have not advanced much over the years, as I think the challenge is not knowing what to do, but rather how do we get what we know needs doing done. It is clear to me that creativity and product creation are not as challenging a set of problems to navigate for Jamaicans as are those of employing the tools of business strategy, management, marketing, and finance.

Image Source: Rene Asmussen, Jamaica Monitor

In tackling the challenge of the insufficient economic returns from Jamaica’s music, one of the points raised a few times by different guests, was our failure as a nation to deal effectively with the negative economic impacts of race and class. Each time this was raised the former PM’s reaction questioned whether this was indeed a factor in our inability to effectively monetize our music and its culture. To his credit, he alluded to the fact that the younger generation of capitalists does not necessarily harbor all those prejudices of old. As my reader, you should recognize that this is a back-handed admission of a prejudice problem. To say that the younger generation is not as prejudiced as that of the old is to acknowledge that the older generation, and the structures that they constructed, inhabited, and maintained contained some level of prejudice.

The dilemma of race and class, and its inherent prejudices, unfortunately, cannot be removed from a discussion of the past and the future of Jamaica’s entertainment business, and I believe some of the panelists illustrated this point. Whereas it is true that in Jamaica the African majority has managed to successfully overthrow the system of slavery that ruled, problems determined by the overarching issue of race persist, and it affects capital and access to it. It also affects access to training and appropriate knowledge, and of course, it impacts trust and the lack thereof.

Our Caribbean societies are reeling from the problems brought on by racism and anti-blackness as a phenomenon that emerged from the encounter with Western European powers and their culture. But, it appears to me that many of these effects seem invisible to a number of Jamaicans in Jamaica when compared to the level of visibility these microaggressions and expressions of racism get in the United States. I find it strange that Jamaicans looking on at the United States see these effects in the US, yet they seem blind to similar microaggressions and expressions in Jamaica. The question I have in this regard is, why? Why is it so difficult for Jamaicans to see the anti-Black racism within their space? Is there a question to be asked of the hegemony about the level of cultural accommodation and co-opting that have taken place that in effect blinds African Jamaicans to the ways in which the hegemony retains power and the ability to dictate anti-black values and attitudes among the ordinary masses without resistance?

I was intrigued by a few quotes I read in Carolyn McCalla’s 2010 thesis titled, “A We Dis?!: The Contestation of Jamaica’s Post-Independence Identity in the Jamaica Festival Song Competition”. Borrowing from the work of Deborah Thomas in her book, Modern Blackness, she pulls on an appropriate example to show how Jamaica displays its anti-Black values and attitudes, which are cloaked in the notion of respectability; values such as temperance, collective work, thrift, community uplift, respect for the leadership of the educated middle classes and Christian living. In contrast, those in the popular music culture, the not-so-respectable poor and working classes, value the accumulation of things, the celebration of the self, conspicuous consumption, public denunciation of political leadership while affirming alternative leadership figures, and the absence of religious ideology. This signifies the essence of our problem because if you are not respectable, and you do not have access to the training or knowledge accessible to polite society to make you respectable, you are likely not bankable, and therefore not investable as far as Jamaican capital is concerned.

It was the late Professor Charles W. Mills in writing about race and class in the Caribbean who argued that the region is a “racially structured class society.” Mills suggests that class is the fundamental categorical determinant in our society. He wrote, “The legacy of slavery was a social structure where race and class were coterminous. Blacks were slaves, whites were slavemasters, while a brown-skinned mulatto group occupied an ambiguous intermediate position between them. Unsurprisingly, then, the dominant ideological framework the prism through which people understood the world was racial in character.” If we accept his analysis, then it is no small wonder that Caribbean societies have remained racially structured class societies since very little effort has been made to address the effects of slavery and institutionalized racism, except of course efforts of cultural accommodation and co-opting to keep the whites and brown-skinned mulatto groups at the top of the hierarchy of Caribbean society. So, whites and mulattoes speak Jamaican Patwa, but cannot bring themselves to formalize it as a language. Blacks can work in the homes and be nannies to their children, but access to serious capital for Black businesses might require half a limb, or simply not be up for consideration. So, structurally Blacks are shut out of advancing in certain areas of the economy, particularly those areas that give them access to real social and economic power.

Ultimately, then, the racist ideology that determined class at the beginnings of African enslavement over 500 years ago persists in form and in institutions that operate in modern-day Caribbean societies. This explains why African culture occupies the lowest level of the class hierarchy followed above by mulattos with Europeans and their culture occupying the highest level of our regional class hierarchy. I suggest that this explains to a large degree why we have failed to effectively monetize our music and our culture to date. I agree with Mr. Golding that the younger generation is not as steeped in prejudice as those of old, but to believe that the prejudices have vanished would be extremely naïve. One love! 

Kam-Au Amen has several years of combined industry experience across the areas of business management, brand licensing, media production, and eCommerce. 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, November 7, 2021

Our Business Theory Matters

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor October 31, 2021) 

I am writing this as a reflection on The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by tech investor and serial entrepreneur Eric Reis. The book was initially published in 2011, and it subsequently spawned what is known as the lean movement. Grounded in consumer feedback, the Lean Startup Method advocates an iterative experimental development of products and services to guard against the inefficient use of capital while it guides innovators and founders to a profitable business model. As The Wharton School associate professor of management Ethan Mollick wrote in a Harvard Business Review piece in 2019 “The Lean Startup approach was an instant hit in Silicon Valley, as startups embraced this new experimental ethos.” He also noted that it quickly became a mainstay of startup accelerators and entrepreneurship classes everywhere. As always, my thinking after encountering these books is what are the lessons and how can they apply to the current Jamaican business context, and how does it feed into what Prime Minister Mia Mottley calls the Atlantic Destiny. I see this, particularly in the broad span of entertainment - which includes media and technology - cultural and creative enterprises. Have we included any element of this operating in our business models? 

Image Source: Rodnae Productions, Jamaica Monitor

The Lean Startup, as articulated by Reis, is meant to be a scientific approach to creating and managing startups. It takes its inspiration from the manufacturing methods pioneered by the Toyota Motor Company of Japan, which used those methods to rise to supremacy in the global auto market. Often referred to as the Toyota Production System, these methods have been studied by academics and entrepreneurs whose goals are to find ways of improving production, improving sales, and increasing profits. Lean Manufacturing, as we now know these innovations today, has given birth to the idea of lean thinking, and now Reis’s novel application to the context of the startup. Ideas, then, as Reis demonstrates, are adaptable, and it is for us to decide how we will adapt them. 

The argument Reis makes in his book for the Lean Startup Method is compelling, and who knows if any Jamaican startups have in recent times entertained these ideas. The thrust of the method gives a lot of credence to engaging with your customer, finding out what they want, and giving it to them as they want it. Given the experience in the US and specific experiments in Italy on the application of the method, it appears that the Lean Startup Method does improve the rates of startup success. Not all is perfect, however, and Mollick in his piece titled, “What the Lean Startup Method Gets Right and Wrong” helps us by pointing out two potential weaknesses with the method. The first is that it may stymie truly novel innovations because customers often dislike truly innovative ideas at first, and the second is the method does not allow you to ask, “what is your hypothesis about the world based on your unique knowledge and beliefs?” What is it about your idea that makes you special? Mollick asks, therefore, how do we hold on to the good aspects of the method and let go of the bad? 

Image Source: Luis Daniel Fonseca

This discussion is one on business strategy, and strategy is a key determinant in Jamaica’s success in the global marketplace. It is in this context therefore that Mollick’s second point crosses with a theme in some of my earlier writings in this medium where I argue for a theory that guides our own business practice. We ought to have the exploration of a set of ideas that guide how we navigate this global context. I am of the view that given our own historical circumstances that the evolution of a theory of business in our space should not be left to chance. 

In his article, Mollick points us to a 2018 Harvard Business Review piece titled, “Strategy for Startups” by Joshua Gans, Erin L. Scott, and Scott Stern that draws on corporate strategy research to make the case that founders should start with a “strategy - a theory about why your company is going to win”, which then informs the choices the founders make in building their business. As Mollick suggests, this is an expansion upon the Lean Method, which he thinks has the potential to better the success rate of evidence-based startups. This I hope is our objective in Jamaica as well, to better the success rate of our new businesses. My question, therefore, is should we not also consider what is our theory around our own business practices? 

As we seek to encourage the creation and expansion of innovative entertainment, cultural and creative businesses, what processes, or methods can we adapt to lead us along the route of successful commercialization? Do we just wing it - “just do it” as Nike says - or are we going to devise, or perhaps uncover given some of our entertainment business successes, a replicable and efficient method that works for us? The Lean Method has been taken on in many countries, and could it be that the method could be improved with our own insights and used in helping some of our newer entertainment, culture, and creative entrepreneurs succeed. I leave it to our academics, our think tanks, and business associations to engage these issues. One love!

Kam-Au Amen has several years of combined industry experience across the areas of business management, brand licensing, media production, and eCommerce. 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.