The following is an excerpt from Brand Jamaica edited by Hume Johnson and Kamille Gentles-Peart (December 2019).
Between Fame and Infamy: The Dialetical Tension in Jamaica’s Nation Brand
Jamaica’s “Claim to Fame”—An Overview
Despite its inescapable status as a former colony of Great Britain, shaped by centuries of slavery, violence, and plunder, Jamaica has made an indelible mark on the global arena through a massively successful troika of brands—reggae music, sports, and destination tourism. Since the 1960s and 1970s Jamaica’s rising popularity and esteem in the world has been premised on the ballooning success of the nation’s vibrant music culture, featuring forms such as ska and rocksteady but particularly its indigenous reggae, which was then the world’s newest music genre. Jamaica is known as a musical force, having the highest per capita musical composition of any country in the world (Mussche 2008, 31). The list of reggae’s megastars is extensive, but Bob Marley is undeniably the genre’s greatest celebrity icon and ambassador. Through Marley’s timeless music and powerful messages of peace and love, Jamaica found itself a significant player in the global movement for equality, peace, and justice. As a lyrical art form and cultural expression, reggae has had a penetrating local and global impact as a vehicle for sociopolitical commentary, critiquing oppressive political systems and engaging listeners about issues of identity, love and relationships, perseverance, and hope.
Consistently addressing issues such as poverty, justice, and education as well as a resistance to Babylon (the social and political structures of the state), Marley transcended culture and language and cultivated a strong social consciousness especially among the younger generation (Mussche 2008). Songs such as “One Love” and “War” resonated with oppressed peoples on every continent and inspired a desire to fight for and protect their fundamental human rights. The expression One Love itself became a widely understood expression of love and respect for all peoples regardless of race, creed, or color. This was Jamaica’s gift to the world and the beginning of the nation’s symbolic presence on the world stage in the modern period.1 In 2000, global media recognized Jamaica’s significant contribution to world culture. The British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, for example, named Bob Marley’s “One Love” as the song of the millennium. This is while the popular U.S. newsmagazine, Time, in a piece entitled “The Best of the Century,” listed Marley’s 1977 album Exodus as the best album of the twentieth century, asserting that “the album is a political and cultural nexus drawing inspiration from the Third World, then giving voice to it the world over” (Jamaica Gleaner 2007).
Emerging alongside the rise of Bob Marley as global superstar were Jamaica’s indigenous cultural practices, such as the lifestyle and ideology of Rastafari, which—thanks to Marley—had begun to take on a fad-like following across the world. Developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, Rastafarianism espouses racial pride and identity as well as repatriation of blacks to Africa, the home of their ancestors. Rastas base their philosophy on the teachings of Jamaican black activist and national hero Marcus Garvey, who advanced a Pan- African philosophy of black pride, empowerment, and black racial identity—which became known as Garveyism. Marcus Garvey became one of the most influential leaders emerging from Jamaica during the 1920s and 1930s; he defined Pan-Africanism not just for the Harlem Renaissance but for the whole world. His philosophy had a huge influence on the global civil rights movements, particularly on the views of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, and provided an important inspiration to the Rastafari movement and other activist movements around the world (Mussche 2008).
The followers of Rastafari, which now number in the thousands worldwide, sport the distinctive dreadlocks hairstyle (as a resistance to Babylon), observe various rites and customs such as the smoking of weed (marijuana, or ganja) as a religious sacrament, and revere the late emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, who they see as the Black Messiah; they also sport the signature colors of red, green, and gold, which represent the Ethiopian national colors. Rastafari is intrinsically tied to the expansion of reggae internationally, as many of Jamaica’s reggae artistes adopted a Rastafarian aesthetic and philosophy and are seen to be largely responsible for popularizing and contributing to the expansion of Rasta culture globally. Rastafari, in other words, played a critical role in situating Jamaican culture in the international arena. It is this symbolic culture that essentially concretized Jamaica’s sense of place in the world.
It is the Jamaican people, however, who ought to be given credit for Jamaica’s global fame and strong brand name.2 A significant example of this is the modern athletic revolution being led by legendary Jamaican sprinters such as Usain Bolt (considered the fastest man in the world) and compatriots Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson, and, before them, Merlene Ottey and Herb McKenley and his compatriots Arthur Wint and Donald Quarrie. Breaking record after record, Jamaican athletes have set new bars of achievement in world athletics. Known as the “sprint factory,” Jamaica has given the world new sprinting techniques and coaching tactics and in the process helped to transform track and field from a fading sport to the most popular event at the Olympic Games.3 Other outstanding citizens in fashion, the arts, film, and food technology as well as tech-savvy entrepreneurs and intellectuals are promoting Jamaica abroad through their notable achievements. Cultural studies scholar Donna Hope, for example, writes extensively on the critical contribution of “dancehall culture” (dance, fashion, and lifestyle) in the internationalization of Jamaican culture (Hope 2006). In addition, Jamaica’s local language, patois, which has, for a long time been fighting for recognition, found space in Volkswagen’s 2013 Super Bowl commercial and in a plethora of Hollywood films, including the 1990 flick Marked for Death, starring Steven Seagal; the popular Cool Runnings in 1993; Meet Joe Black (1998), starring Brad Pitt; and in the 2017 Marvel series Luke Cage. Jamaican export products are also strong signifiers of its “claim to fame.” Blue Mountain Coffee (one of the most expensive and sought after coffees in the world), Appleton Jamaica Rum, patties (meat pies), Red Stripe Beer, jerk, and the grapefruit drink Ting are fully established around the world, contributing to the nation’s presence and strong symbolic culture. If this was not enough, white sand beaches, lavish all- inclusive resorts, and a tropical climate have catapulted Jamaica into one of the world’s premier destination tourism brands, attracting on average some 3.5 million tourists annually—including stopover and cruise ship passengers (Caribbean360 2016; Jamaica Tourist Board 2015).4
Yet the discourse about Jamaica is not always positive. Accompanying Jamaica’s largely positive public international image is the development of what may be called a “rival brand” image. Since the early 1960s (when the island gained independence from Great Britain) and 1970s, Jamaica’s emergence as a progressive nation—legislating new political and social rights to its poor, improving education, and actively participating in the global civil rights and social justice movements—has also been attended by international media coverage of the country’s internal political civil war, featuring intense warfare between opposing gangs loyal to the country’s two main political parties (the People’s National Party [PNP] and the Jamaica Labor Party [JLP]), mushrooming crime, inflation, unemployment, and impoverishment. Today this negative image persists. Regular reports in the global media of Jamaica featuring gang warfare, upsurges in violent crime, corruption, and economic instability lead to troubling perceptions of the country as unsafe—a dangerous paradise, so to speak. Overall, the result has been a contradictory and problematic public image of Jamaica, with severe consequences for investment, tourism promotion, and the nation’s economic and social progress.
1. No formal research has yet to trace Jamaica’s internationalization as a nation brand. But anecdotal claims could be made about Jamaica’s early entry on the world stage on the back of Jamaican national hero and civil rights activist Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a Pan-Africanist organization that was very active in the 1920s; the successes of Jamaica’s sprint legends George Headley, Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, and Donald Quarrie in the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games; Jamaica’s hosting of the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston; as well as the nation’s mythical role in the James Bond franchise—as many as twelve novels were written by author Ian Fleming at his vacation home in Jamaica, GoldenEye.
2. While I argue for the centrality of the Jamaican people in the formal branding and imagining of the nation, I acknowledge the role of the media, as well as other agencies and structures that condition how they become known to the world, because these have a significant impact on the resulting nation brand. For example, Usain Bolt is an iconic aspect of Brand Jamaica because of his superlatively strong personal brand and self-identity, yet his image and the way the world interprets him are filtered through his sponsor, Puma, which manages his image and how global media elects to frame the athlete.
3. Jamaica’s historic participation in the bobsleigh competition at the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada, in 1988, although hailing from a country where snow does not exist, also positioned the nation as an example of courage, confidence, and triumph over adversity for many people around the world. The inspired participation and performance of the bobsled team at the Winter Olympics became the subject of the popular Disney Film Cool Runnings. Many other nations with tropical climates, among them Nigeria, have since participated in the Winter Games, drawing inspiration from Jamaica. At the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, the Jamaica bobsled team was the center of international media attention for the enduring glory it brings to the games (Olympic .org 2014).
4. The Dominican Republic, Cuba, and St. Lucia are strong competitors in the tourism market for Jamaica, with St. Lucia recording the highest percentage of visitor growth in 2017.