Mark Lee

About Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

The world laughed when it was published abroad that a Jamaican man had attempted to hijack a passenger plane from the island’s tourism capital of Montego Bay recently. “What? Why would he want to leave a herb smoking paradise to go to Cuba or to North American snow?” they suggested in their snicker.

It’s the way they see Caribbean culture: a happy frolicking, steel pan and reggae-playing people, who sometimes go crazy fighting over weed; but hijacking airplanes?! No way! it’s too complicated.

This past week culture was a main item on the agenda of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) level and among the Jamaican Diaspora in Canada. CARICOM’s Regional Cultural Committee (RCC), which groups national directors of culture, held its 20th annual meeting that among other things looked at financing culture with CARICOM’s Programme Manager for Culture and Community Development, Dr Hilary Brown, speaking of “redoubling its efforts to find resources to capitalize the CARICOM Foundation for Art and Culture, and for financing culture in general, to ensure a sustainable pool of resources for vitally needed cultural development in this region.”

In Toronto, the Jamaican Diaspora – Canada, Future Leaders component, met to discuss “the Business of Culture – Understanding the Business of our Arts, Mastering the Art of our Businesses”.

In Suriname, where the RCC met, Jamaica’s Culture Minister, Olivia Grange accepted an invitation by the CARICOM Secretariat, on the recommendation of the RCC to be Champion for Culture. As such she will be “responsible for advocating for the harmonization of national approaches in CARICOM Member States to legislation, incentives, and capacity building for the cultural sector with respect to cultural industries, cultural institutions and individual artists.”

A Regional Task Force on Cultural Industries was established in October 2008, with a mandate from the Council for Human and Social Development, and the Council for Trade and Economic Development, to develop a comprehensive Regional Development Strategy and Action Plan for the region’s cultural industries. The Task Force comprises persons with tremendous knowledge and experience from a wide cross-section of relevant sectors, namely ministries of culture, trade and finance; representatives of the various cultural industries, and representatives of regional organizations, including the OECS Secretariat, Caribbean Export, the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM), and the CARICOM Secretariat. The body also has representation from educational institutions and the private financial sector.

Grange outlined several measures that she felt the Task Force should consider in developing viable Caribbean cultural industries. She mentioned creating an enabling environment for cultural industries to flourish, and capacity building through education and training for artists and other key players within the industry.

“The creative industries have awesome potential,” she argued, and “the Caribbean has a vibrant culture which is an international brand and we must do everything to own and protect this brand.”

In this regard, Grange recommended the establishment of efficient and effective functional copyright regimes across the region. She remarked that the industry was not realizing its potential because appropriate structures were not in place to protect the rights of artists and to guarantee financing of the creative talents of Caribbean artists.

Acknowledging that the industry was perceived as fragmented and disorganized, Grange stressed that it was important for them to speak with one voice in soliciting the support from governments and other funding agencies.

The Toronto conference, that targeted 18-34 year-olds, was also preoccupied by the idea of protecting and “controlling” Jamaican cultural expressions. Audience participants proposed to the panel that comprised artists and promoters of cultural entertainment events, that ways be found to control things like Japanese producers capitalizing on reggae/dancehall music and the dances exported by Passa Passa sessions in West Kingston.

Guest speaker and panelist Denise, president Jones of Jones and Jones Productions, moderator Joel Gordon of VFORMATION Produictions, who has had a 20 year career in the North American film industry, proposed that the answer my not lie in trying to control culture but in seeking to manage it through ownership of businesses and, as underscored by panelist, dancer Khaleela McNight, taking ownership through acceptance of self.

Many questions arise as the issue of protection is discussed. If we start demanding payment every time someone tries to talk Jamaican it could be argued that Italians be paid when the rest of the world eats pizza. Culture can’t be controlled but aspects can be managed.

Next generation artists in Diaspora, will they see themselves as Jamaican or as being of the community into which they were born or nurtured – creating a hybrid creole culture that is equally legitimate as that of their two countries? As with concern that rap and hip-hop do not sufficiently acknowledge Jamaican influence, what is reggae/dancehall owed? Does Reggae owe something to jazz and calypso?

As intimated at the start of this piece, there may be a disconnect between how Caribbeans/Jamaicans see ourselves and how others see us and with that knowledge we may attempt to fashion an image more to our liking. This is an area where, at the macro level, CARICOM should focus its international and intra Caribbean efforts. Caribbean culture is a big slice of Jamaica and Rastafari as well as Trinidad and calypso/steel pan. How much of the population identify with this iconography?

There has been a lot of time for training and it’s a time for action. Many of us grew up hearing of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour shows in Kingston, that nurtured the generation of the Jimmy Cliffs and company; the Alpha boys band that gave us the Don Drummonds and other instrumentalists who created ska. Now we see  Britain’s Pop Idol that spawned American Idol and the secondary schools for the creative arts in countries like Canada and the USA that do what Opportunity Hour and Alpha did but where have these grown? Boys and Girls Athletics Champs is blazing a trail to be emulated. People now fly in from sporting centres of the world to watch Champs as they fly to the Penn Relays.

How much of these lessons is passed on as folk rather than in the formal educational system? Culture is not merely about the fine and entertainment arts. Science and technology are important elements of culture. It’s a safe bet that 90 per cent of the people recording music know nothing about digitizing technology nor do those concerned that their grandmothers’ periwinkle or cerise bush remedies are being used abroad in cancer treatment, know the biological name of the bushes or the active medicinal ingredients.

Barbados, for example, has evolved a vernacular architecture based on its chattel houses and gabled roofs. This has served both aesthetic and safety purposes as the roofs are an ideal buffer to strong winds in the tropical Caribbean.

For these reasons, we feel culture should be brought within the ambit of education in government ministerial portfolio. It’s all well and good to market the creative, artistic and historical aspects as heritage tourism but we can’t afford for culture to be defined by tourism. There are occasions where this may succeed, such as the Barbados Crop Over festival, resurrected by a Grenadian resident and subsequently embraced by the local populace as its own. But we can’t have Dominica’s Carib artifacts being mass produced in China’s factories for sale at cruise terminals and airports, nor should we encourage the global image of idle herb smoking dreadlocks strumming reggae under coconut trees. Many Rastafari do not smoke and most are productive members of society.

Culture within education recognises both the continuing creative and retentive/conservative nature of cross-generational development in the arts and sciences, which is what the Institute of Jamaica’s repository and libraries and Junior Centre are supposed to embody.

Finally, if jerk joints are to challenge McDonald’s, professionalism must be infused into so-called cultural industries. The subsistence approach and mendicant mentality, which contributes to value subtracted rather than added, must be discarded. I once worked in an organization which serviced one of the largest foreign exchange earning sectors in the region and there was a stark difference in the attitudes of the Anglophone vs Ducth and Francophone Caribbean. Send an invitation out to a training event on a subject that is of crucial importance to the profitability and survival of their industry and the first response of the non-English membership is: “How much?” The initial English-speaking Caribbean response is, “Who is sponsoring?” followed by “Will there be a subsistence allowance?”

Caribbean people need to take ourselves seriously and CARICOM and the micro players at home and abroad have begun to tackle the issues at the correct time because, according to UNESCO, which has initiated a Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, “Culture will surely become the driver of the economy in the XXIst century. Cultural diversity constitutes a global asset that the international community must capitalise on…”