"So wat we a get outa it?" That's the question I was asked by a rather sceptical man who sells in Papine Market. He seemed to think that VW of America, Inc owed Jamaicans something for the viral Super Bowl ad which has got two million more hits since last Sunday. Well over 12 million in all!
"How yu mean?" I asked. "We can't stop people from trying to talk like us!" The man just kiss im teeth. Obviously, I was a big eedyat.
The more I thought about the vendor's penetrating question, I realised that it wasn't limited to the specific case of the VW ad. He was actually raising the much broader issue of whether or not Jamaicans can, in fact, benefit from the global appeal of our culture. Who defines Brand Jamaica? Who 'owns' the brand? And how can this brand be best exploited in the interest of the masses of the Jamaican people?
There's a big difference between brand identity and brand image. Identity is who we really are; image is how others see us. One of the big problems with Brand Jamaica is that many of the people who claim the power to define the brand do not appear to know what is the essence of Jamaican identity. And if they do, they apparently do not like what they see. So they attempt to construct an alternative image that suits their own needs.
On the other hand, the very people who embody Brand Jamaica, like that market vendor, are usually left out of the process of defining and marketing the brand. They are not entitled to interrogate the 'experts'. All the same, Jamaica's distinctive identity is not 'uptown'; it's 'downtown'. And, at the risk of offending our minority racial groups which do not wish to be seen as 'minority', it's obvious that Brand Jamaica is the black majority.
Even though some of us consistently refuse to see ourselves as we actually are, non-Jamaicans find it relatively easy to immediately recognise some of the key components of our identity: for example, our distinctive language. And some of them make a big effort to try to learn it. They want to be in the know.
I recently telephoned a European embassy about the launch of the 'Global Reggae' book I edited, which takes place next Sunday at 6 p.m. at PULS8. The diplomat I spoke to said he'd been planning to contact me. Several of his colleagues want to take a course in 'Patwa'. I couldn't resist saying 'Jamaican'. And I put him in contact with Professor Hubert Devonish, who heads the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies.
How do we see Jamaican? It's not even a language. It's nothing but a 'corrupt', 'broken' version of English, with absolutely no social status. After all, "Is black people mek it up." You can bet your last devalued dollar that if Europeans had created Patwa, it would now be accepted as a 'proper-proper' language.
I think it's a great idea for everybody in the whole world to learn Jamaican. It's a global language of athletic prowess, musical genius, dutty winery, business acumen and innovation in so many other fields. The real problem is the counterfeiting of Jamaican products in global markets; and the exploitation of the name 'Jamaica'.
'Trying a ting'
The Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) has been valiantly negotiating for the recognition of 'nation branding as a development tool'. In a major report to the World Intellectual Property Office, a very strong case was made for protecting Brand Jamaica. The report documents "the extent of use of Jamaica's country name in trademarks that are registered by persons or entities which have no association with Jamaica in relation to goods and services which do not originate in Jamaica".
A classic example is the 'Jamaica energy drink' which was actually made in Croatia. Turning Jamaica's superlative Olympic performance into a marketable commodity, Croatians just decided to 'try a ting'. And talking of 'ting', remember how hard it was for the Ting soft drink to enter the US market. It was argued that Ting was too similar to Tang, the US fruit-flavoured drink. I can't recall all the details of the case but I do remember being asked to write a statement confirming that 'ting' was a Jamaican word.
Thanks to the expertise of JIPO, the bogus 'Jamaica energy drink' was yanked from the shelves. We haven't been so lucky with the "all-natural Jamaican-style ginger ale" which has not a shred of Jamaican ginger in its ingredients. Well, the label does say 'style'. It doesn't claim to be the real thing. So the product is still on the market.
I was quite disappointed to find out that, in a not-so-surprising twist, Sandals has had to pull its 'Germaican' spoof of the VW ad. Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International, told me that the Partridge Family, copyright holders of 'Come On Get Happy', were insisting on payment of a "sizeable sum" for its use.
I suppose if Adam had anticipated that his version of the ad would have become so visible, he wouldn't have used the copyrighted song. He would have taken a leaf out of the uncopyrightable proverbial book of Dr Michael Abrahams, who uses a basic riddim as the soundtrack for his own wicked version of the ad.
We're a 'brand-name' nation. But if we really intend to get anything out of the high visibility of our culture, we will have to consolidate our efforts. JIPO, the JTB, JAMPRO and all of us in Papine and other markets and sectors just have to come on and get really serious about it.
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.