Dancehall. Jamaica’s Soft Power Diplomacy.

Jamaica has enjoyed a long history with a robust political system.

From the days of the nation’s independence, Jamaica created what largely became a two party system and governed itself under that system successfully enough to not slip backwards into dictatorship rule or external control. Since Jamaica first gained independence then, political leadership on both sides helped to shape the nation’s identity internally and externally according to the policies and ideas they implemented and those identities in turn, gave the world a working concept of what Jamaica was. As the world accelerates into a hyper dynamic digital age and transitions from a much more traditional era however, a by product of that acceleration is the fact that there is no more ‘internal identity’ structure since nothing is hidden from the public and/or international purview. Digital media has created a platform for instantaneous global communication and that communication is no longer confined by the boundaries of physical distribution. What once took days or weeks now transpires in seconds and the sheer volume and speed of those communications means that ideas and identities are formed and solidified rapidly or formed and reformed so quickly that people’s perspectives about you can also change just as quickly.

When the world shifted from its reliance on printed and broadcast materials and moved into the social media age, Jamaica’s cultural footprint and calling card went from being something largely defined and shaped by our celebrities’ identities and activities overseas to a full scale megaphone blast of information into the global ether; information that was good, bad and otherwise but which in a net effect, allowed the world to now be informed about a Jamaica they possibly hadn’t known about before. It can be argued that one of the dichotomies about Jamaica is that both its imprint and impact upon the world is in inverse proportion to its size. For a relatively small country, it has had am amazing impact upon the world via its musicians, athletes, business professionals and this culture that’s so resonant with so many that it’s almost a celebrity of its own accord. While their total influence had long painted a picture of relaxed Caribbean cool, other information now presented a much different picture. Full blown arguments in Parliament, elected political ministers in tears after being mercilessly berated while Parliamentary proceedings are in session, police shootings of alleged criminals in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses, people living in culverts and galleys in order to escape physical persecution and possibly death and more than enough other eye opening scenarios that onlookers are now perplexed. Is this the real Jamaica? Is the ‘One Love’ identity really just a thin facade that covers a nation whose scars and ills and issues still run so deep, with no signs of healing? Of course, every nation on Earth has its good and bad parts and unless one advocates censorship, both aspects will be seen by any observer but to the extent that those who are expected to act better, should do so.

In the midst of this maelstrom and this explosion of unsettling content emanating from Jamaica, a not so quiet, brash, chest thumping, egotistical, bright, bold, arrogant and decidedly attention grabbing element of Jamaica’s culture has itself, been responsible for carrying the flag far and wide, planting it pre-social media in countries and territories where Jamaica may not even have had strongly defined diplomatic or cultural ties. While many have debated whether or not this element should even be considered a de facto emissary and representative of the culture because of its often expletive laden, sexually suggestive and lascivious content, the facts are undeniable; dancehall, the music, the phenomenon, the style and its powerful presence has exported the culture and attracted a massive global audience unrivaled by any other Jamaican art form. What’s truly eye opening about this movement however, is the associated fact that the DJ’s, sound system owners and handlers have themselves become Ambassadors, meeting those who come to their events, educating them about Jamaican culture and the lifestyle and influencing them to become so enamored with the island that they become irrevocably and inextricably linked to it. STONE LOVE, a sound system which was the brainchild of founder Winston ‘Wee-Pow’ Powell and which has gone on to become the perennial ‘champion sound’ of Jamaica is a prime example. With multiple DJ’s and enough equipment to fill a mansion sized house, STONE LOVE often has various DJ’s hosting various events in multiple locations simultaneously. Innovating this from the original format of ‘a sound’ only being able to be in one place at a time, Wee-Pow expanded the footprint of his sound system and its revenue generating capacity. Taking this to its extreme, STONE LOVE could be found playing in Argentina for example, while also playing at a dance in Jamaica while also playing in two to three states in the United States. No surprise then, that the DJ’s themselves became artful cultural chameleons, using their already prodigious entertainment and people skills to relate to people of different languages, cultures and socio-economic levels and in so doing, galvanized them into a worldwide fan base. This ‘soft power’ diplomacy has probably attracted, educated and engendered more ‘Jamaica friendly’ people than any other single effort other than Tourism marketing and that has taken millions of dollars to achieve.

Why then, does it seem that the political braintrust seems to have either missed or overtly avoided any sort of strategic affiliation with dancehall and its ability to be a socio-cultural ambassador for the island? Like many things apparently, the touch points of interest and resonance with today’s Millennial and evolved Gen X generations aren’t known to those who are held captive by outdated ways of thinking and communication. While traditional PR ‘experts’ and strategists advising Government officials have probably been suggesting that any alliance between Government and dancehall could lead to disaster and a PR nightmare, what they haven’t analyzed are ways in which the Government could have such an affiliation in ways that are beneficial. One cannot or should not after all, ignore the fact that a genre of your nation’s musical culture has and continues to generate millions of fans worldwide, influence everything from fashion to advertising/marketing campaigns and sets precedent in everything from colloquial language to cultural adaptions in other countries.

Some years ago, luxury+innovation brand agency CIRQUS6 offered a disruptive new idea; why not create an official coalition between the Government and dancehall owners? Why not create a coalition that calls for a governing Council body representing dancehall owners to partner with the Government and use that partnership to innovate platforms to facilitate initiatives like international fundraising (eg: by having the Council voluntarily donate a percentage of their foreign exchange revenue towards domestic philanthropic endeavors), cultural exchange (eg: by having recording superstars agree to do visits at schools and colleges to meet with and provide pep talks to Jamaican or Caribbean students and student organizations) or even utilizing their expertise to use music as a cultural exchange mechanism? Suffice it to say the concept never made it past the doors of the nation’s PR agency but we would suggest that it’s an example of the kind of thinking that needs to be employed.

In the interim, these Dancehall Diplomats will continue to execute their unofficial global diplomacy, winning converts and spreading the ‘One Love’ message with each and every session they play for.


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Ru-El Burford

Brand architect, 'soft power' strategist and strong advocate of brand evolution by way of disruptive innovation, Ru-El typifies today's generation of thought leaders. Both creative and analytical, Ru-El was founder and CEO of The Quantum Group, one of the top African American owned marketing/advertising agencies in the U.S. as well as an award winning fashion blogger and noted speaker on the application of innovation and technology in various industries. Currently, he helms the branding boutique agency Cirqus6 while also advising a number of start-up ventures and non-profit philanthropies.

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