Thursday, February 15, 2024

One Love: The Rastafari Encore

The Bob Marley: One Love movie offers me a thread to tie together some ideas I’ve had for some time now. The late professor Rex Nettleford once remarked that every Jamaican is a rasta, and that quote has stuck with me since I heard it. 

I watched the movie and I will say it was artfully done. I enjoyed it. There were definitely some emotional moments that tugged at your humanity, and I think this will become a classic. There were many moments of pride as a Jamaican, although at this point that shouldn’t be a thing, because Jamaica and Jamaicans have long had their share of the spotlight. I will not go here into the details of a film critique, but I will share this Deadline critique, ‘Bob Marley: One Love’ Review: Biopic Of The Reggae Icon Doesn’t Catch A Fire if you’re interested in a perspective. I find this critique harsh, but I share it because ultimately the writer latches on to a point worth mentioning.  They write, 

"The problem with One Love is that, just like the music industry, its makers still don’t quite know how to deal with Bob Marley, a genuine original, a true rebel poet, a Che Guevara on the downbeat. But his music still sounds amazing and his almost mythical stature has not diminished a jot in the last half century. One Love may not catch a fire, but if it keeps the flame alive, well, maybe that’ll be enough."

Truly, I think so many really have yet to understand Bob Marley, and can we really say we understand his commitment to rastafari and what motivated him? It is these things that we really do not know that ironically allow all who come to confidently profess what they know as their truth to be the one and only truth of Bob Marley and rastafari. At no point does this film profess to be an authoritative account of all the facts of Marley's life or his participation in the development of Jamaica's music industry. The film portrays to the audience some developments that took place in Bob's life between 1976 and 1978, with flashbacks and a few other liberties with time to capture relevant contextual moments outside this period of focus. I don't believe it is fair to ask that one film deal with matters not necessary for that film's story. For that, I'd advocate that other films be made. Therefore, on one level we do need to step back and accept this work as entertainment delivered within a cultural milieu that allows for audience empowerment and change. At the time of this writing the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes for this film is 95% positive which I imagine signifies something about how the film is being received by its audience. 

Kingsley Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch carried the story well so I have no complaints about them, and I think the Jamaican supporting cast represented, so I am pleased. I think this movie has raised the stakes again for Jamaica, and for rastafari. Rastafari’s message through Bob, the messenger, lives on. Rastafari, Marcus Garvey, and Africa were given their respect and prominence, and I expect that the world will become even more curious about the role of Jamaica in global music culture, entertainment, and African and African diaspora aesthetics and politics. This movie is no small development.

As I reflect deeper on the movie and its significance I am drawn closer to the conclusion that the film in effect positions Bob Marley as our muse, with rastafari being Bob’s own personal muse, thereby positioning rastafari as the actual star of the film, and the connecting thread - Ras Tafari is the father that welcomes all.  I think this film will once more center rastafari and its ethos and force a new set of questions in this era that dig deeper into what is rastafari, what's its purpose, and how does it fit within the contemporary world of spirituality, hyper-capitalism, and the world of entertainment and commerce? And, what is its role going forward with the rise of Africa culturally and economically? This is one of the conversations that Bob Marley: One Love the movie will place us in, front and center. There will remain bickering about who was represented and who was not, as we saw before the film was even seen by those caught up in these arguments, but if you remain stuck in this noise, then you will have missed a larger message and the significance of this moment.  

On the question of spirituality, when one delves into rastafari reasoning and philosophy which has as its core the defense of truth, human rights, and justice, and captured in the very Jamaican phrase “one love”, we discover a wealth of ancient knowledge paralleling the wisdom of older eastern civilizations. We now throw around terms such as “sustainable development”, but we shouldn’t fail to recognize that sustainable development was the base of rastafari before sustainable development was a thing. Jamaica’s 2003 culture policy noted in its preamble that Rastafari was the only new religion to emerge in the 20th century. One could argue over the use of the term religion, and I would not propose to defend it, but what I would defend is that as a developed spiritual system, it is one crafted in the crucible of modernity in Jamaica uniquely for our modern times. Rastafari is a Jamaican transcendental philosophy and spiritual system gifted to the world. I don’t think Jamaicans quite grasp what this means. Increasingly, as I learn more about scientific discoveries in our universe and those within the human body none other than the field of quantum physics shows up to confirm truths that I have heard rastafari intuitively utter again and again in my lifetime. Rastafari speaks to the (brain in our) heart and our common humanity, and it acknowledges that all creation is pure energy of which we as (physically manifested) beings are all a part. This is the direction of mankind’s understanding of what we call god, nature, and the spirit, and rastafari has always been there as a unique expression of humanity’s direction. There is little doubt in my mind that this is one of the major reasons for rastafari’s appeal to the heart of humanity.

On the question of hyper-capitalism, business, and commerce, I posited in 2020 in the post titled, Entertainment Demands a Bold Transformative Economic Agendathat had Bob Marley been alive then he would likely be one of the wealthiest among us, sitting on a perch somewhere at the commanding heights of our local economy, because Bob 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. Had Bob not died when he did, how differently would the world have looked at rastafari as a big business player and a real powerbroker? Being a participant in big business and commerce is not something we can simply dismiss, and the film forces you to consider what this means. In the film, this is no longer imagined, but we get to see glimpses of this. The film's message of not lamenting a lack of resources should not be lost on this generation, because as we saw when presented with an excuse about the lack of infrastructure to do what needs to be done, Bob's response was, let's build it. Excuses, therefore, are unacceptable. This is both agency and empowerment and a gift of the film's power.

One Love is not just a movie, it is a platform, a new platform presented to rastafari, Jamaica, and the Jamaican people yet again. On this platform can ride new initiatives for our spiritual culture, the Jamaican language, music, food, fashion, sound technology, our broad entertainment offerings, and their strands of Jamaican commercial offerings. What we choose to do with this platform at this time will depend upon our capacity to focus on what matters and our ability to have confidence in ourselves and our identity, and then to skillfully maneuver in the worlds of global commerce and politics. None but ourselves can or will save us.

Some years ago when branding became a buzz Jamaica adopted the notion of Brand Jamaica. If Brand Jamaica comprises all Jamaicans, and if as professor Nettleford suggested that every Jamaican is a rasta, perhaps one could argue that rastafari is a premier expression of Brand Jamaica, not its only representation lest I be misunderstood, but a premier representation.

Big respect and congratulations to the Marley family. Given the minefield of issues that surround this subject, I think they have pulled off something really remarkable. This should start a movement to tell all these globally impacting stories now buried in the Jamaican experience. They among others have a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world that perhaps rastafari is necessary for the healing of the nations. The stone that the builder refuses will become the head cornerstone. As Mutabruka has been known to say, "wat a ting, iin!"

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Creativity and Capital

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor November 28, 2021) 

I recently made my way through the book Significant Zero: Heroes, Villains, and the Fight for Art and Soul in Video Games. It was published in 2017 by Walt Williams a video game writer and executive of over ten years. He is experienced in creating Triple A (AAA) games, which are multimillion-dollar blockbuster games. Williams is candid and hardly holds anything back in the book, sharing the good and the bad, while giving the reader an insight into his rise in this industry in the US. This book is helpful if you are trying to understand the business side of the industry. I found several of his introspective analyses throughout the book extremely insightful and thought-provoking. If you are like me and you maintain a broad interest in the expansion of the Jamaican entertainment industry, I recommend this book to help in thinking of possibilities. 

Image Source: Getty Images

In the book, Walt makes the unequivocal declaration that video games are art, digital art, and I agree with him, few forms of art could be more contemporary. Tangentially, related to this digital field of art and entertainment is esports – another multimillion-dollar industry expression of digital culture – both of which are potentially available for exploration by us. Whereas video game development is not something that we have given emphasis to in Jamaica, I have very little doubt that we have the stories and the cultural material that could make entertaining brand Jamaica games. Having said this, the truth is, these fields are capital intensive, and so the reality is our ambitions for these sectors will of necessity be measured in the first instance until we can figure out our game for sourcing capital. 

It is on one of the discussions about funding and capital in Williams’ book that I want to reflect. Walt outlines for us the relationship between a video game developer and a video game publisher. Typically, game developers rely on video game publishers for funding the north of US$10m game development budgets - the largest game development budget reported to date is for Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) at US$174m. In these instances, the publisher is the entity that pulls the purse strings because they front the cost of development and promotion in exchange for the financial returns on the back end. This is not an unusual arrangement across entertainment sectors, and so what this gives rise to is something that I have heard raised many times in my over twenty years of working with creatives – can art for money possibly be as good as art for art’s sake. 

Significant Zero by Walt Willams

It is essentially an assumption that art and creativity on one hand are mutually exclusive to capital, and that those who possess capital cannot also possess genuine creativity and can contribute to good art. This I am sure will be an ongoing debate, but those who are up to learning how to employ their art in making money will be the winners of now. Of course, this means a willingness to share, if needs be, in the creative control, which I suspect is the challenge many artists have. But, sharing in the creative control does not automatically mean that your art will become bad art, unless the artist really thinks that those who possess money cannot possibly know what good art is, and that the financier does not wish for the artist to succeed. This is a sinister disposition, but in my experience it holds true. We somehow still believe that capital is creatively bereft, while artists are perfect stewards of their own talent. 

If Jamaican creatives want to expand their reach and utilize their art across a wider range of entertainment sectors then there has to be a greater effort in moving them to greater levels of collaboration and trust for capital, because it is those with the capital who have the resources to empower the creatives to reach levels they usually won’t accomplish slogging away by themselves. Buying into this may require an ideological shift, to go corporate, and to aggressively pursue the goal of making money by making art. Williams assures us that there is nothing wrong with that, and uses words in reference to video game development which I think are useful to include here for their relevance. He writes, “Greed and artistic intent are not mutually exclusive, …we all have bills to pay, creating marketable games with broad appeal does not make you a greedy [capitalist]. The reverse is also true, creating pure vision-driven games does not exclude you from being a money-grubbing credit-hogging [detestable person]. If developers aren't necessarily pure of heart, then we can't assume publishers are devoid of it.” In other words, if artists and creatives aren’t necessarily pure of heart, then we can’t assume financiers and capitalists are lacking a well-meaning or a sincere heart. 

My point, therefore, is we need to revisit some of the assumptions we have about capital and the nature of the relationships we should encourage creatives to cultivate with capital in the contemporary period. For us, Garveyite praxis was an early nudge in the modern era that capital would be essential to economic success, and our creatives cannot afford to ignore that message now. The nature of art has expanded beyond the traditional into the capital-intensive digital space where if brand Jamaica is to maintain a presence on Jamaica’s own terms then the way Jamaicans think about the business of art, culture, and entertainment will need an update. 

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 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.