It’s always interesting to be ‘inside’ a news story. Jamaicans have been thrust into a very peculiar position for a very long time: they had an international image that seemed much bigger than their country’s physical and population size seemed to warrant. To use the boxing parlance, the country punched well over its weight. But, that would not have surprised many Jamaicans, who live with the notion that “Wi little but wi Tallawah”, meaning we are a small nation but with strong-willed people; we are determined and refuse to be restrained by boundaries. The world has had to accept that this nation regularly does ‘exceptional’ things. The corollary is that the country has had to accept that it’s in the spotlight much more than would seem normal.

The true meaning of words fascinates me. The phrase ‘brand Jamaica’ has been tossed around freely in recent weeks. The definition of ‘brand’ has several connotations, positive and negative, and Jamaica is tasting several of them:

  • quality or to designate ownership
  • characteristic or distinctive kind
  • a mark put on criminals with a hot iron
  • a mark of disgrace
So when the term is used, which definition is coming into play? It may, unwittingly, not be the one the user intended.
The notion of being a proud Jamaican is not new. It has been there for decades, but was perhaps more muted in international eyes before the country gained independence in 1962. It got a huge push during the 1970s with the international success of Bob Marley; his music helped make reggae acceptable and accessible to a very wide population. It was put to the test also in the 1970s, when Michael Manley became Prime Minister and implemented a series of social democratic policies, which started to pitch the country in a direction which some feared but others hailed, and ‘took on America’ in the process. His slogans, such as “Better must come” and “Giving power to the people”, struck a chord of fear or made people jubilant.
Jamaica’s image as a violent country took hold in the wake of Manley’s tenure, as guns and politics became more common a pairing than ‘guns and butter’ or ‘guns and roses’. That the tourism industry was able to flourish with that branding on it is worthy of some serious study. Crime didn’t go away, however, no matter how hard some tried, and Jamaica gained the dubious accolade of ‘murder capital of the world‘ in 2005. That’s one gold medal that would happily be dumped into the sea.
The image got a big international boost with the qualification of the national soccer team for the 1998 World Cup: The ‘Reggae Boyz’ even had the glory of beating Japan–no powerhouse, but no slouch, either. Jamaica began to regain its place as ‘the no problem state’.
The image got a mighty boost when Jamaican athletes did so well in the 2008 Olympics and was pushed further upwards with the continuation of that success at the 2012 Olympics.jamaica_olympics Phrases including words such as ‘dominance’ did not seem out-of-place in the athletics context, but would still have had a shock element, when you put the impact in the context of the barely 3 million national population. No doubt, that boost was fired by the performance of one man, Usain Bolt, but most would accept that he had a very able supporting cast and others are in the wings pushing to take the torch further. Older Jamaicans probably smiled as they remembered track exploits of old, and the names of Wint and McKenley, Quarrie and Miller, Merlene Ottey (still sprinting in her 50s at top-level for her new home, Slovenia!). For this, this would seem like business as usual–a tradition was being continued. The world started to take note of ‘Champs’. TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, radio, and any other media would be abuzz at the mere mention of Jamaican track stars. “Jamaica to the world!”
That notion of pride took a hefty lick as the drama unfolded in Tivoli Gardens in 2010 when the government tried to capture a well-known drug kingpin know as ‘Dudus’ (Christopher Coke), who had been indicted by the US in 2009. It seemed that all hell broke loose. Images of military-style operations and the horrific death toll in the neighbourhood filled TV screens worldwide. The then Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, had tried initially to block extradition, but eventually moved to acquiesce, and paid the ‘ultimate price’ for his judgement and decisions as he departed the stage no longer PM. Last year the world became more acquainted with the term ‘Dudus’ and learnt about Christopher Coke once he was sentenced by US courts. To be a proud Jamaican at that time was HARD.
But, the spotlight burns as well as shines. ‘Brand Jamaica’ is taking it on the chin again–to extend the boxing metaphor. This time, the vaunted heroes are facing the possibility of turning into villains as the dreaded ‘doping scandal’ looms over the heads of several of the top athletes, most noted of which are Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell, both noted for their public humility as well as their running prowess. The chill could be sensed as people thought “No! Not them!”
When you are ‘one of the people’ you carry the fame and shame of the people. I remember travelling in the wake of the recent Olympic triumphs and the looks that sometimes came when people saw my Jamaican passport. “Bolt!” might have been all that an official said, but its implication was clear, sort of “Great to meet you, too”. I was shocked in the wake of the 2008 Games when I met someone (an American, I add) who had not heard about Usain Bolt, and that person was not a hermit. It helped remind me of perspective, and I gladly took the opportunity to do some quick tutoring about Jamaica: each one, teach one.
I don’t know how mature Jamaica has become, approaching 51 years of independent age. But, the public and media reaction in Jamaica to the shine being taken off the image tells me that the country has grown up. Yes, there are those who want to take a totally defensive ‘the world is against us’ attitude, but my sense is that most people believe that the doping incidents are isolated, possibly accidental or careless, but not systemic or systematic. Defensive arguments locally have had a lot of reasonableness about them. I have not seen many reports from abroad that are out to trash the country and its athletes: maybe, the world needs ‘Jack’ to be the good ‘giant killer’.
Did I mention Red Stripe or Appleton or Wray and Nephew? Did I mention ‘jerk’? What about Negril.and Blue Mountain coffee? Brands and branding.

It’s good that a nation has more to hold onto than one or very few dimensions of its character. We may not have many people, but those we have often do very well, and we’re not surprised. We are not a nation of saints, and our sins and sinners do not do us proud, but we will not be defined by them. We may not have much to offer the world but what we have we’ll gladly share and you’ll often find that it’s really very good.