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.