No room for Stuart Hall in Brand Jamaica?

Why is Stuart Hall seemingly persona non grata in Jamaica? Can there be a Brand Jamaica that excludes him? Why and for what?

There is a curious affinity in Jamaica for the idea of branding and a certain obsession with the notion of ‘nation branding’ (as noted in my previous post To Brand or Not to Brand Jamaica). In 2012 the country was startled by a release from the Jamaica Information Service announcing that a ‘national branding programme’ was to be implemented “to effectively communicate and reinforce the true essence of what it means to be Jamaican.” No one was quite sure what this meant.

Also in 2012 Jamaica’s participation in the London Olympics and the superb performance of its athletes there spurred much talk of ‘rebranding’ the country. Earlier that year the PNP, having recently won the last general election, looked forward to enjoying a spectacular track and field season at the Olympics with Jamaican athletes set to sweep the sprint events (the team won 12 medals in all, 4 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze, Usain Bolt alone winning 3 of the gold medals).

In 2012 the nation was also celebrating its 50th year of Independence and a new Director, Robert Bryan, was appointed to head the Jamaica 50 secretariat. The song commissioned by the previous government for the jubilee celebrations ‘Find the flag in your heart and wave it’ by veteran music producer Mikie Bennett was scrapped and a new one ‘Nation on a mission’ created. Branding seemed to be a central aspect of this ‘mission’.

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A grandiose project to celebrate the nation’s 50th anniversary at the 02 Arena in London during the Olympics was launched. According to Bryan “the plans would be a platform to rebrand Jamaica globally and it would be done in a way to capture world attention, delivering maximum impact of the brand worldwide and to attract international television coverage. Ultimately, he said, Jamaica hoped to convert the exposure to financial gains, including more visitors and greater publicity for Jamaica’s products.”

Three years later, sitting in IMF-straitened Jamaica progressively tightening our belts, its hard to see that the exorbitant ‘rebranding’ of 2012 achieved anything at all. Yet here we are talking about branding once again à la the Brand Jamaica symposium. See my previous post for more detail on this.

A recurrent view expressed at the Brand Jamaica conference was that the country urgently needed to move beyond the cliched image the Jamaica Tourist Board had managed to fix of the island being a fun destiNATION (my terminology) and little more.  As the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission, Cordel Green said in his paper:

Every person in the world who thinks Jamaica–must be disabused of the notion that outside the walls of all inclusives and tourist enclaves lie shacks and derlection. They must also know that we are considerably more than beaches, sun, rum and fun.

Our cultural heritage, history and intellectual pedigree are world class and this country has made an international footprint that bears no relation to her size, age and global ranking.

Hume Johnson, one of the main organizers of the conference also succinctly summed up the redemptive objective of the exercise:

Our aim is to advocate for a re-imagining and repositioning of the Jamaican brand, the creation of a more complex narrative beyond sun, sand and sea, one that projects a more positive and complete image of the country centred on its people, culture and heritage.”

The question at the heart of the Re-imagine Jamaica conference was how to produce this more nuanced, complex narrative about the country. After her presentation, keynote speaker Samantha North asked the audience what they would like to see included in Jamaican identity that might help shift or alter global perception of the country as a tourist playground with a violent, homophobic population. What were some of the assets Jamaica possessed that were little known by outsiders? That could be enlisted in the reconstituting and recuperation of its image?

The audience advanced a number of suggestions–Jamaica’s cuisine, its beauty queens, its intellectuals, its footballers dwelling in foreign climes such as Raheem Stirling. In terms of intellectuals Rex Nettleford was mentioned more than once and I brought up Stuart Hall, arguably the MOST outstanding intellectual Jamaica has produced whose influence globally, and on Britain in particular, easily puts him in any list of the top ten public intellectuals worldwide in the last four decades.

Stuart Hall wrote the textbook on representation and identity, how stereotypes are formed and how to dismantle them (see video above), his work is so highly cited (citation factor being the metric used in academia to measure scholarly worth) that on any given day a Google Scholar advanced search for his name returns approximately 54,000 results per 0.03 seconds to Rex Nettleford’s 2,000 (the highest of any locally based academic).  For comparison Orlando Patterson, another Jamaican intellectual superstar located in the diaspora, returns 51,000 results; Frantz Fanon about 36,600 results and Derek Walcott a measly 12,900 results.

Patterson and Hall are in a category with other global intellectual giants such as Amartya Sen, Edward Said, Richard Rorty and Slavoj Zizek, the latter lower at 44,000 than either Patterson or Hall. While Patterson is known to Jamaicans Stuart Hall is so unheard of that the main newspaper here  wrote an editorial after his death in February 2014 lamenting the lack of awareness in Jamaica of who this towering intellectual was.

Isn’t it time to end this abysmal ignorance and claim Hall once and for all for Brand Jamaica? The point of mentioning citation rates is merely to say that Stuart Hall has far more name recognition globally than any local intellectual and in any national reputation-building exercise his name would go much further than many others. People pay top dollar to have outstanding, well-known individuals associated with their ‘brands’, just look at the companies lining up to enlist Usain Bolt. My point is Jamaica could benefit from associating itself with a figure such as Stuart Hall. And he comes free because in a sense having been born and brought up here he belongs to Jamaica and the country can rightfully lay claim to him. Who better than Hall to complexify Jamaica’s identity/image along with the many other stellar intellectuals who live in the diaspora? He’s not the only one. How many know about Sylvia Wynter, another remarkable intellectual globally recognized and celebrated and one of the few female intellectuals from Jamaica/Caribbean operating at the level she does?

There’s a curious territoriality that comes into play when it comes to academia and intellection. An idea that to acknowledge Jamaican intellectuals who live abroad somehow implies disloyalty to the ones who ‘paid their dues’ by staying at home. This is a myopic view in my opinion. To claim Stuart Hall as the son of Jamaica that he was and the world-class intellectual that he became is hardly to disregard Rex Nettleford or his peers. It isn’t an either-or situation. Let’s suppose for a moment that Jamaica was putting together a team for an intellectual tournament–a world cup of groundbreaking scholarship–wouldn’t it be silly not to reach, in addition to Nettleford and company, for a Hall, a Patterson and a Wynter, whose experience abroad has forced them to be more competitive and therefore more exceptional and unbeatable than those who stayed at home and didn’t have the same opportunities?

Why is it ok for the national football team, the Reggae Boyz, to be composed of diaspora-based players who barely know the national anthem but not the intellectual equivalent of that team? Why should an intellectual team representing Jamaica be represented only by those ‘born and bred in Jamaica’?

For make no mistake, just as in football, there is a cost to restricting oneself to local or regional boundaries in the name of ‘paying dues’. Scholars and intellectuals whose work circulates globally and  internationally such as those mentioned above are Jamaican/Caribbean by birth but their ambit is global–that is they think and write as if addressing the world not merely the region or the nation they happen to come from. Most or all of them are/were oppositional voices who confronted the establishment when necessary but crucially such was Hall’s genius, his gift for communicating, that “his ideas traveled seamlessly to a broader world”.

Scholars such as Rex Nettleford, Norman Girvan, Barry Chevannes and many others (who are favoured as what I term ‘fi wi intellectuals’ or ‘our intellectuals’) were more committed to solving national and regional problems and in declaring epistemic independence by founding indigenous modes of scholarship. Unfortunately this obsession with battling ‘epistemological colonialism’ has led to a situation described as a crisis-of-mission for social sciences at the University of the West Indies, one where ‘theory’ was demonized as being Eurocentric and practically expelled from the academy while indigenous knowledge-building became paramount though increasingly this became restricted to statistical data-gathering and report writing.

These two groups are not at all mutually exclusive. There were moments when the national and regional scholars’ work addressed wider audiences but in general some of the most promising scholarly minds fell prey to what has been described as “the politicization of the social sciences in Latin America” where “Social science is part of public and political life in close relationship to power and to power struggles.” Many became advisers to Prime Ministers, or served as cabinet ministers and members of parliament while teaching at the University. Others were seduced by ‘the twilight world of consultancy’– contract research–for large agencies such as the Ford Foundation. These conditions fostered conformism and accommodation with the needs of the establishment rather than confrontation or dissent.

Acknowledging the immense pressure on public universities to solve national and regional problems Don Marshall (head of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, Cave Hill) warned some years ago about the inherent danger in such a capitulation: “It can lead to academics abrogating their intellectual responsibilities by giving identity to the immediate realms of the policy process. The consequence is one that not so much brings an appropriate education to public affairs as infiltrates the academy with the unreflective imperatives of state bureaucracies.”

Marshall identified a second but related problem: the entrenchment of a liberal-positivist leftwing intellectual tradition in the Caribbean unwilling to question, or perhaps unaware of, its own ontological assumptions in an increasingly conservative and pragmatic social environment. This has led inevitably to “a virtual discouragement of dissenting approaches.”

Stuart Hall whose name is synonymous with the groundbreaking field of cultural studies was never part of the nation-building processes in Jamaica having migrated at the age of 19 to attend Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. But can Jamaica afford to avert its gaze from such a distinguished son? Should it? In so many ways Hall was the very model of the kind of scholar you would have expected the Caribbean academy to produce in the fullness of its postcolonial moment. Rather than detain Hall and other outward-looking, globally-minded thinkers in the diaspora, surely it’s equally important to cultivate an academic community capable of communicating with scholars abroad and bringing up-to-date knowledge to bear on local problems? Surely epistemic diversity is just as important as epistemic sovereignty?

Before I digress too far from the subject of this post–that is Stuart Hall and Brand Jamaica–let me rein in the argument I’m trying to make by invoking what acclaimed film director John Akomfrah said about the British-Jamaican cultural theorist. “Stuart Hall was kind of a rock star for us. For many of my generation in the 70s…he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. His very iconic presence on this most public of platforms suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’.”

In Britain Stuart was integrally involved in combating the stereotyping of black migrants by the lily white English establishment, literally inserting the black in the Union Jack. He did so most of all by vigorously amplifying the narrative of what it means to be Jamaican/Caribbean by embodying the black public intellectual par excellence. Let’s claim him–for he would burnish Jamaica’s image and identity no less brightly than Usain Bolt does every time he runs a race.

Of course before we can do so we have to get to know Stuart Hall. I post two clips from his memorial service last November–one immediately above from the documentary he made on the Caribbean in the 70s–Redemption Song–and the second Jamaican theorist David Scott’s tribute to him. Scott’s remarks are interesting also for his discussion of ‘Brown’ Jamaica. The third (at the top of this post) is a clip of Hall talking about representation and the media in a lecture given at the University of Westminster in London in the 70s (it ends abruptly but continues in Part 2 of 4 available freely on YouTube). His ideas animated the world, radicalized the study of the humanities and social sciences globally and continue to be relevant today.

Still, as another Jamaican intellectual in the diaspora, Columbia University’s David Scott, noted at the memorial service held in Hall’s honour in London last November (for the full text please see video):

…Jamaica scarcely recognized Stuart, maybe no one should be surprised by this. He certainly wasn’t. Because he understood that part of what makes Jamaica enviably, unsettlingly Jamaica, part of what draws from us a grudging admiration, is precisely its scornfully prideful soul, its insouciant  indifference even to its own, its willful, sometimes self-destructive, don’t care attitude… its proverbial ethic of not begging anyone a glass of ice water. Stuart i think would have been the first to salute the defiant principle of this moral posture as an invaluable inheritance from the bitter past, it was in a very special way his inheritance too, in fact in that instinct for independent-mindedness, for finding his own way, his own idiom of dissent and refusal, in his way of being done, finished with exhausted phases of his life, we recognize something familiar, something that made him, to paraphrase CLR James, of Jamaica, Jamaican.

One thing I do know is that the Jamaica Scott describes here–the scornfully prideful, insouciantly indifferent, self-destructive country–is one that no amount of shallow ‘rebranding’ can redeem. It would be a hard sell. Part of the exercise of building a new identity for Jamaica will have to involve a radical shift in attitude and world-view. There is no one more equipped to help with this than Stuart Hall–he may be gone but he has left behind archives of new knowledge that students all over the world eagerly consume. We should too. His work on representation, the power of the image, stereotypes and how to dismantle them are directly related to the discussions on branding. But the most important thing about Stuart Hall as a symbol of what Jamaican intellection can and should be is the example he sets for Caribbean youth of a  Jamaican operating at the top of his game not in athletics, not in music but in the virtually impenetrable world of high theory.

To Brand or Not to Brand Jamaica…

Some remarks on the recently held Brand Jamaica Symposium, the first of a series of three posts looking at predicaments facing Jamaica and Jamaicans.

Hume Johnson, Moji Anderson and Erin McLeod
Hume Johnson, Moji Anderson and Erin McLeod
In the middle of July there was a good little conference on re-imagining Jamaica organized by two academics from the Jamaican diaspora, Hume Johnson (Assistant Professor of Public Relations, Roger Williams University, USA) and Kamille Gentles-Peart (Associate Professor, Roger Williams University, USA). Held on the campus of the University of the West Indies, Mona, the conference rose above the rather mercantile ambitions suggested by its subtitle, “Brand Jamaica Symposium 2015”.

The conference call for papers was by no means crudely reductive allowing space for a broad range  of responses. According to chair Hume Johnson:

It is important to begin a process of taking stock of the quality of the nation’s global brand and image, both the areas which are positive and can be leveraged for our economic benefit and political and social advantage as well as the aspects that threaten our good name.

Our aim is to advocate for a re-imagining and repositioning of the Jamaican brand, the creation of a more complex narrative beyond sun, sand and sea, one that projects a more positive and complete image of the country centred on its people, culture and heritage.

For many of us the discourse of branding is problematic, doubly so when it’s related to countries like Jamaica with its history of slavery, of human beings treated as property whose abject ‘thinghood’ was burnt into their flesh with branding irons—probably one of the earliest articulations of the branding discourse–to literally mark on the bodies of slaves the symbols or logos of the plantation owner they belonged to. The very first paper, “Back to the Brand: Inequality and Alienation through ‘Brand Jamaica’” amply critiqued the concept, signaling presenters Moji Anderson and Erin McLeod’s profound disagreement with the idea of ‘nation branding.’

It’s a matter of some irony that despite this history of inhumane servitude the nation state of Jamaica would develop in the 21st century into a country that fetishizes brands and branding. Only a few days before the conference an economist named Dennis Jones noted the Jamaican predilection for logos and corporate branding.

I was especially struck today by a picture of two top executives [JPS] wearing business suits with the company logo embroidered on them–not just the snazzy polo shirts, or the neat cotton shirts with the brand on the pocket or lapel or collar.

Grace Kennedy and their top executive, Don Wehby, often hit the eye with their branded clothes.

I gladly admit to knowing nothing about why this [love for branding] is so strong in Jamaica. It goes even to public service agencies, like government ministries. So, it’s deep in our economic culture.

A rather horrifying thought is that perhaps thinghood is so deeply rooted in our culture that we gravitate effortlessly towards the corporate and corporatization. The phenomenon of uniforms in Jamaican offices is also worth noting. There seems to be an ardent desire for incorporation, a longing to belong, to have a rightful place, and then having been incorporated, to brandish that affiliation for everyone to see. Are we invisible unless we have a logo to claim? Is this why some Jamaicans are anxious to brand their country and re-tool its image away from the stereotypes it currently conjures in the minds of non-Jamaicans?

The commodity fetish (a la Anne McClintock) is an inevitable feature of the ‘commodity culture’ we inhabit. However it’s one thing for the wo/man on the street to be subsumed by the mercantilist ethos of our times but should our policy-makers, politicians, technocrats and academics not adopt a more nuanced view of things?

Samantha North, the place specialist who gave the keynote lecture is herself wary of the term ‘nation branding’. “Personally I don’t even like to use the term ‘brand’ but it is sort of entrenched in the industry now …I think identity is a better word, more descriptive and I hope that it can come into our lexicon,” said North in a radio interview after the conference. On Twitter she expanded further: “The term #nationbrand trivialises the entire thing & gives a false idea of our true aims. This is NOT about marketing.  Perhaps a new term is needed, as I mentioned last night in my keynote. Identity is a good one. #BrandJamaica = Jamaican identity.”

Despite the negatives associated with the concept of branding the conference itself produced a number of spirited panels and discussions. From the simplistic appeal of the President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association for self-censorship (in effect complaining that Jamaicans had tweeted too much about the Chik-V outbreak here last year scaring tourists away in the process—one couldn’t help wondering–would she rather they had come here and succumbed to the epidemic? How would that have enhanced Jamaica’s image?) to the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission, Cordel Green’s observation that there is nothing at Jamaica’s airports to announce to tourists their arrival in Reggae country to Anna Perkins’ paper on the economic costs of homophobia the conference was rich and diverse.  Alana Osbourne, a PhD. Student from the University of Amsterdam spoke on Aestheticizing Poverty and Violence in Trench Town, Jamaica. For a full list of speakers and topics go here.

Investment guru, Michael McMorris discussing foriegn direct investment and whether Jamaican can get it right.
Investment guru, Michael McMorris discussing foriegn direct investment and whether Jamaican can get it right.

Not only was there plenty of food for thought, there was also food and drink on the house at this well-organized and free-to-the-public event. Unsurprisingly audiences were robust and participated vigorously in the debates and discussions some of which is captured in the tweets presented at the end of this post. The consensus was that as North said, quoting Obama, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.” Jamaica has a serious image problem which cannot simply be erased or reversed by a few well-funded public relations campaigns.

Jamaica’s negatives—its crime, its violence, its homophobia, its lack of economic growth–are liabilities that will have to be eliminated or reduced before Jamaica’s many assets can be effectively leveraged, or used to burnish its image.

The Re-imagine Jamaica conference was put on in partnership with the University of the West Indies’ Centre for Leadership and Governance (CLG), a good collaboration between the diaspora and yard.

This post is the first in an interconnected series I want to write. Hopefully the next one will be available tomorrow. That’s the plan anyway 🙂

#brandjamaica symposium. Listening to Moji Anderson &@touchofallright: Brand Jamaica continues the commodification#blackbodies @anniepaul
@touchofallright and Moji Anderson: #branjamaica: living our lives thru the eyes of others @anniepaul
Hume Johnson talks about traditional identity of Jamaica as being imported and then reproduced not emerging from the people.#brandjamaica
Hume Johnson our people can no longer be at the periphery in articulating our identity they must be at the center. #brandjamaica
@cordelgreen – There is nothing on arrival in Jamaica that suggests that #Jamaica is reggae country #BrandJamaicaSymposium#reimagineJamaica
Head of Jamaica Hotel & Tourism Assn suggested J’cans shouldn’t express criticism of the govt or society on social media. Yup. That’s right.
-brandishes hands wildly- ‘You are all brand ambassadors! YOU are#BrandJamaica! BE THE BRAND! FEEL THE BRAND!’  https://twitter.com/touchofallright/status/621724207194333189 …
This concept of #brandjamaica is THE most comical thing in the world to me
Alana Osbourne talking: aestheticizing poverty and violence in#trenchtown #jamaica currently at #BrandJamaicaSymposium2015
#BrandJamaica is a sham. Top hotels run by Spanish who outsource labour. Coffee owned by Japan, Grace Foods produced and packages outside
LMAO let’s not forget them complaining about how theres a brain drain w/o offering us options to live in a dignified manner??#BrandJamaica
Jamaica is just a large timeshare and Jamaicans exist in the helpers quarters to serve when needed. #BrandJamaica
RT @nnboogie #BrandJamaica is a country that almost killed Bob Marley over a friggin peace concert but now blast his music at the airport
@BigBlackBarry marketing #brandjamaica not our savior. we need to produce/market world class products & services. #whatworks
Real change necessary, not enough to put lipstick on pig was one of Samantha North’s messages #ReimagineJamaica #BrandJamaica

Lol one minute they're turning their nose up at dancehall, next min they want to capitalise on it #BrandJamaica http://t.co/3ps7LCBXMm

Lol one minute they’re turning their nose up at dancehall, next min they want to capitalise on it #BrandJamaica pic.twitter.com/3ps7LCBXMm
The responses to #BrandJamaica support what I’ve thought for some time: that the term ‘brand’ is totally misleading.
The term #nationbrand trivialises the entire thing & gives a false idea of our true aims. This is NOT about marketing. #BrandJamaica
Perhaps a new term is needed, as I mentioned last night in my keynote. Identity is a good one. #BrandJamaica = Jamaican identity.