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 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 do 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 have 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 is 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 the 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 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 tend to 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.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Entrepreneurial Legacy of the Marcus Garvey Movement

(First published in the Business section of the Jamaica Monitor October 17, 2021) 

As we reflect on our heroes, I wish to reflect on some of the ideas of The Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey. I feel that we have betrayed much of Garvey’s legacy to this nation and the African diaspora for which he so tirelessly advocated. Nevertheless, his work will live on, if only because it speaks truth to so many people outside of the island of Jamaica, and that he inspired so many leaders on the African continent itself, to the point of these ideas being foundational to nations and by extension the African Union. But, beyond this, Marcus Garvey shared with us some timeless thoughts on the philosophy of wealth and the role of enterprise within the modern nation state. It is those ideas to which I draw your attention. 

Garvey’s ideas on entrepreneurship and cultural enterprise have relevance as tools of economic empowerment in the present, given the socio-cultural and economic history of Africa and its Diaspora. His approach was one that emphasized the importance of us participating at the highest levels in our own integration into a globally integrated capitalist economic structure on our own terms. Unfortunately, we have failed to direct the terms of our participation in this global structure. The price of this is high, and we see the laments daily, from as far back as 2010 The Jamaica Observer carried an article titled, “Jamaica losing its grip on Reggae – Culture Minister”. Talk about losing an industry. Garvey, alongside his program for social and political empowerment for the disenfranchised African people for whom he advocated was very clear that to address these needs, we, African people, would also need a consistent program of capital accumulation, because we exist in a capitalist economic structure. 

Source: National Library of Jamaica Collection

Ken Jones, in his book Marcus Garvey Said..., shared with us some gems from several writings and speeches of Marcus Garvey. These are helpful to give greater insight into the thinking behind the business achievements of the movement. 

In one 1919 speech to the African American community, Garvey said [I have changed Negro to African throughout], “If we are to rise as a great ... national force we must start business enterprises of our own; we must build ships and start trading with ourselves between America, the West Indies and Africa. We must put up factories in all great manufacturing centers of this country, to give employment to the thousands of men and women ... we must manufacture boots, clothing and those things that people need, not only our people in America, the West Indies and Africa, but the people of China ... India ... South and Central America, and even the white man. He has for hundreds of years made a market for his goods among Africans ... therefore, Africans have the same right to make a market among white people for his manufactured goods.” 

These are visions of big business. I contend that small business and a hustle are good, it's often where you start, but growing to a big business is the power to make the world you want to see. This is Garvey’s legacy of how to achieve agency and power for ourselves. So, forgive my disappointment that a knackered Garvey bust sits on the premises of the Small Business Association of Jamaica, while I wonder if his ideas guide the associations for Jamaican big business. 

Source: Sandra Crawford Photo, Google Maps

Garvey set his sights on addressing our lack of agency and power. At the peak of his movement, Garvey could boast the establishment of some economic institutions that served its membership and the wider community, namely: clothing factories, doll making factories, a hotel, a chain of grocery stores, their own trucking company, schools, restaurants, their own printing press, newspapers published in English, Spanish and French, a commercial shipping line, and office buildings and other real estate. These businesses employed thousands of people. Individual members were also among the business owing community or were inspired to start their own businesses because of this movement. From the perspective of the operation and encouragement of business enterprises therefore, there remains quite a bit of evidence to substantiate the economic emphasis of Garvey’s people-led development program. 

Garvey was never opposed to wealth itself, but rather he was opposed to the injustices that some wealth was used to uphold. On the subject, he wrote, “All wealth is good. God created all wealth and never created poverty… 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 combination of all these he must impress himself... upon the civilization of the world.” And, I think the following quote still rings true, “Be assured of this, that in the African’s rise to wealth will come the adjustment of most of the wrongs inflicted upon him.” I think that some of these Asian economies could teach us some lessons on this. 

Source: National Library of Jamaica Collection

I could be accused of reductionism here because it is true that Garvey was far more complicated than I have been able to detail, but I hope that I have communicated that it is undeniable that as a nation we must revisit some of the lessons of Garvey’s work and how we approach business and commerce. They are not just ends in themselves, but also a means to the end of establishing the nation’s global agency and power among nations and peoples. 

Admittedly, I question if there is need to highlight this aspect of Garvey’s work for a newer generation, packaged as “neo-Garveyite” ideas on business, education, technology, and development. At the core, I do not anticipate a change in the objectives, but I do see where there is need for a body of work that speaks specifically to this approach to development for our people in this age. Marcus Garvey was about human advancement, and it is my observation that so, too, are many of us. 

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.