Jamaica does sell well

Jamaica does sell well

Kanye West and this business of culture

Thursday, October 24, 2019

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I hope the most valuable lessons from the Kanye West visit to Jamaica last week have not been lost in all the hue and cry. But I fear that it has again escaped most of us.

It is undeniable that Jamaica is a strong competitor in mass culture and music culture globally. Even without the strength of economic resources, and with a population and physical size that sits like a dot in the huge mass of the USA, Jamaica is right up there at the pinnacle of the global imagination when it comes to having eyes and ears on our culture and music. We hear time and time again how the Jamaican cultural footprint is strong, how our music and sport icons are globally renowned, and how “wi likkle but wi tallawah”. Yes, Jamaica's global cultural capital is off the charts. But certainly there is more to this than just beautiful speaking? So let's talk about the Kanye moment.

Kanye West is an African American. The highly capitalist US society knows how to make money. West and his family are in the business of making money from culture, whether it be from hip hop, television reality shows with attendant branded products, or from his new move into religion. Recent reports show that in July 2019 Kanye had applied to the US Patent and Trademark Office for exclusive ownership of 'Sunday Service' to be emblazoned on all types of clothing and footwear. The application has now been rejected as someone has already registered the name for use.

It is clear that Kanye's Sunday Service, while playing to the strong religious sentiments of many African Americans and black people worldwide, remains connected to his strong entrepreneurial focus. This thing is a business.

Many people who do not follow popular culture would never have heard of Kanye West's Sunday Service before last week's discussions that trended on Jamaica's social media feeds, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, beginning two days before the actual event. Jamaicans love controversy and what could be more controversial than a non-Jamaican, with a controversial statement about slavery being a choice, staging a free gospel concert at Emancipation Park, of all places? And, on the eve of national heroes' weekend celebrations of all the times and dates in the entire year?

Nothing sells like controversy. And, when it is mixed with religion – and a dash of Jamaican politics – it is a marketer's dream come true. So we come to the first lesson that many seem to have missed.

There is a thing called 'Jamaican Twitter, Jamaican Facebook and Jamaican Instagram'. If you are able to catch their fancy, they will market you and your products into instant success. The best way to capture the imagination of these Jamaican free marketers is with a dash of controversy. The more controversy, the better. Jamaicans will stage major clashes online; and 'send you in' to Dear Dream and Pinkwall for even more intense discussion. And, they will meme and caricature you into fame and fortune. This was clear with Spice's 'Black Hypocrisy' publicity stunt in 2018. The intense and overwhelming social media (and traditional media) hue and cry resulted in Black Hypocrisy trending as number 1 on the Billboard Reggae Chart upon release of her mixtape Captured in November 2018. That was a deliberate marketing move. The recent #RihannaIsJamaican social media frenzy, whether deliberate or accidental, came complete with attendant memes, and edited photographs of Rihanna in every single type of Jamaican situation possible. Those images and discussions are still trickling. And the entire episode will certainly ensure that her upcoming reggae album is received as a Jamaican product.

It matters not if you are a Jamaican national, but once you capture their imagination in the right way, Jamaican Facebook, Jamaican Twitter and Jamaican Instagram will trend you instantaneously. I am underscoring this point to refute notions that Kanye West and his visit trended Jamaica. No! Jamaicans in Jamaica and all over the world in its various diasporas, along with the lovers of Jamaican culture and Jamaican wannabes wherever they are, trended Kanye West and his Sunday Service. In just two days they provided advance marketing in the global arena for his Sunday Service without being paid a single, red Jamaican cent.

The second lesson is a reminder that this thing is a business. Whether it be hip hop, reality show, or religion, there are intangible and tangible products being marketed by capitalist entrepreneurs like West. Kanye West is in this business to make money. He is very much doing it for the love and the likes, and everything else that can accrue.

Before the staging of the show I spent time trying to figure out what the hook was. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Capitalists give nothing away for free. I thought it must be connected to a big tax write-off, a part of their approved public relations budget, or it is a vehicle for something bigger to accrue to them.

Kanye West's new film Jesus is King dropped on Saturday, October 19, the day after his marketing and public relations effort with the staging of his Sunday Service in Jamaica. His patent request for Sunday Service to be used on clothing and footwear was still pending at that time. And he used the opportunity to appropriate Jamaican symbols to sell branded clothing online for good, nice US dollars a pop. Minister of Culture and Entertainment Olivia “Babsy” Grange had to issue a request to have these items bearing Jamaican symbols pulled from Kanye's online marketing platform.

With the advance marketing in place, many were primed and waiting to watch the live stream of Sunday Service in Jamaica. The instantaneous appeal of the online stream of that two-hour concert showcasing Kanye and his team in similar branded products, and he simultaneous showcasing of these Jamaican branded items online must have resulted in a tidy sum. Jamaica does sell well.

Indeed, it seems that in all the excitement at being considered for a “free concert” by an American, Jamaica and Jamaicans forgot the massive cache of cultural capital that resides in this country and in the body of every single Jamaican, wherever they are. Like a massive wellspring running downstream to be washed away into the Caribbean Sea, we continue to miss the mark.

Jamaica has long been branded globally. Jamaica has been trending globally for decades, long before the advent of the Internet and social media. No one markets Jamaica. Jamaica is! Red, green and gold are global signifiers of a specific form of Jamaicaness. Black, gold and green are also specific signifiers of Jamaican identity. Jerk chicken means something globally. The expletive BC imputes Jamaican identity. Ganja and Jamaica are intertwined, even while we are lagging behind in its monetisation. We are the sprint factory of the world. And I could go on.

Kanye West's Sunday Service had its first international staging in Jamaica for many reasons, including those already stated. As a global renowned cultural mecca, a country oversupplied with churches per square mile with a strong religious ethos, and its ever-ready team-no-sleep of free, online marketers, Jamaica is a marketer's dream. A true paradise. We have it all. And, with our love for all things foreign, we are always open to foreigners who come bearing gifts.

What we do not have is the full appreciation of our global cultural reach. Neither do we have a clear vision as to how to transform more aspects of our culture into tangible and intangible products. Perhaps if we spent less time focussing on the negatives of our contemporary culture we could see more clearly. Then we could begin to create, market, and monetise far more products that are oriented around the brand that is Jamaica than the few that our artistes, musicians, dancers, sportsmen and women, our tourism practitioners, and a few other creative groups already provide. We could begin to hustle off the brand that is Jamaica, just as Kanye did. One day, one day...

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com.

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