Jamaica’s super brands: The immortals

Jamaica has super brands comprised of legendary stars: Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and Marcus Garvey. When the stars shine, Jamaica shines also; when they grow dim, Jamaica is no longer a country with world cultural recognition and acclaim. If we lose the magnetic power of these legends the Jamaican brand will lose a great deal of its lustre.

Brands survive on memory, recognition and awe, which create positive impacts.

Refer first to Usain Bolt, the world’s greatest sprinter of all time with nine gold medals won consecutively in three Olympic games, more than any other sprinter in history. Medium and long distance athletes have won several gold medals over a period of time but no athlete has come close to Bolt’s awesome track achievements.

This is also the case in respect of the sprint records which Bolt established: 9:58 seconds and 19:19 in the 100 and 200 metres respectively. No sprinter has ever come close to these amazing performances. In the last World Games, in August this past year, the athletes struggled to break 10:00 seconds in the 100 metres; the 200 metres showed the same dismal result of failing to break 20 seconds, a mighty long way from Bolt’s 19:19. The prevailing view is that Bolt’s records could stand for decades, establishing an almost unsurpassable reign.

When the existing records of many, many years were shattered by Bolt in the Olympic stadium in Beijing 2008, the jubilation of the spectators caused the suspension of the athletic programme of events for more than 15 minutes while the massive crowd cheered and sang, “Happy Birthday, Usain”, pouring out their joy. Never before had such an experience occurred at any such event.

Bolt went on to be selected Athlete of the Year time and time again, together with other accolades that have filled his storehouse of memories. When he established the first of his triple records he indicated that he wished to be recognised as a legend. This was premature, said the president of the International Olympics Association. He would have to do this three times in a row, it was felt. Well, Bolt did it three times consecutively to become the legend of athletics signalling it with his triumphant signature posture: “To the world”. Taken altogether, he was the athlete of the world.

Bob Marley’s brand has already been proven as an icon of enormous magnitude in Jamaica’s musical culture. Memories of Marley as a legend have survived for nearly 60 years from his emergence in the early 1960s. Even until today, 37 years after his death, his recordings are still making the charts in the top ten regularly, not with new songs, but with the compilations and remix of old hits which still mesmerise his fans and excite new generations.

Bob Marley covered the world with reggae, from the greatest countries to the smallest. It is rare for music to overcome cross-cultural gaps on such a scale, but that is what he did with Jamaican reggae music. There are many on planet Earth for whom the name and/or music of Bob Marley ring a bell, and Jamaica is one of those benefiting from all those chimes. Strangers are greeted with hugs and kisses as soon as they learn that they are in the company of Jamaicans who are kindred of Bob Marley (whether they are, or not) or familiar with the musical genre of reggae.

The music reaches the downtrodden seeking freedom and excites the spirit of the people who are lost for a musical message to champion their own souls. Perhaps no excitement will beat the storm of passion as when Bob sang War, on the occasion of the birth of the nation of Zimbabwe. The massive crowd outside the stadium which could not get in tore down the gates and fences to participate in his song of freedom.

This ecstatic demonstration gripped Jamaica too in 1978 when a special concert was staged on the return to Jamaica of Marley after a long overseas tour. It reached out to all classes and races of Jamaica who filled the National Stadium: sitting in seats and standing on grass when he raised the unofficial anthem of Jamaica, One Love, referring especially to warring political partisans to stop the madness of killings. This was his powerful message. The hardest heart melted; the 40,000 or more who overflowed the National Stadium felt the passion of “one love”. Such was the power of one man and his music. No one who was there that night as Bob sang and danced like a man possessed could ever forget his message of unity.

For his exceptional music and performances across the globe he was accorded the triumphant accolade of the BBC, at the birth of the 21st century, by the selection of One Love as the Song of the Century, and at the same time selection of his powerful album Exodus as the Album of the Century by the New York Times. He had reached the paramount position in world musical culture.

Both Bolt and Marley excited the world to the overflow of passion at the same period in our lives, enriching and empowering the Jamaican image with an exceptional cultural identity. What would we have been without them? Soon we will know!

Bolt is now retired and only his memories will live on. Marley continues to excite world memories even though reggae in Jamaica is being relegated to vintage music while in Europe, in particular, it continues to promote reggae artistes and feature at massive concerts of thousands of people who have adopted the music as their own. The beginning of the end of Jamaican dominance in musical world culture has come and maybe soon the country will begin to revert to its original image of a little island in the sun.

Jamaica has enjoyed for years the brands created by these two legendary super stars. It would be of great benefit to Jamaica if this continued. But we must be realistic.

I don’t need to belabour the fact that the future of the athletic super brand established by Jamaica lies in the hands of the present set of young athletes and those to come. As far as retaining this brand is concerned, it may be a question of whether Bolt continues to present a public image of inspiration to maintain the image of his greatness, and the overspill to Jamaica’s benefit.

The role of Usain Bolt in the triumphant Jamaica athletic teams was masterfully accompanied by the strong performances of other team members like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell Brown, who held up their ends with many gold medals. The female athletes can still be lifted by Elaine Thompson if she doesn’t burn herself out in the Diamond League as she did before this last World Games. But there is a big gap on the male side in individual performances, although thankfully relieved by exceptional record performances of the Jamaican relay teams.

Who else has played the role of super legend?

While the images Marley and Bolt are universal, the image of the great Marcus Mosiah Garvey is immortal. In this divided land, his inspirational spirit is still alive after 100 years .

Garvey, like Bolt and Marley, was from humble beginnings. He began to vent his feelings of the downtrodden African race of people worldwide with unmatched eloquence which enriched people in the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, Europe and North America, attracting four million followers at a time when communication, as we know it now, did not exist: little amplification of sound from platforms to reach thousands who gathered to hear him; little radio broadcasting crossing international borders; no television to entice people to listen. Yet he was treated almost as the messiah of his time to save black people.

Listen to his words from my autobiography as he denounced black subjugation.

“It was not just a case,” said Garvey, “of freedom, acceptance, tolerance or political rights, or of simple social justice. It was a case of having to flush out 100 years of misconceptions and errors.

“The total product was wrong because the initial formula, equation or prescription were wrong; the conclusions were incorrect because the assumptions were faulty. There could be no compromise.

“The new world had been built on a belief in the second class character of the people of Africa: that they were a cheaper model made by God, a second-rate product devised from inferior materials and therefore not expected to give first class performance, a less-carefully designed instrument created specifically for menial work requiring little thought or skills.

“And because every agency of education and communication in the new world tended to be tainted by this belief in inequality, the people of African descent themselves received a distorted image of their own humanity, directly or implied, in books, pictures, lectures, sermons and on social occasions, whether in school, at home, at the workplace, or in places of recreation and worship.”

Being thus conditioned, there was a natural desire on the part of aspiring people of African descent to attempt to conform to the system of inequality. By adopting its mores, even when these were at odds with their own physical appearance, they hoped for some degree of acceptance. But Marcus Garvey would have none of that.

Having a clear insight into this dilemma, Marcus Garvey focused his campaign not only on the oppressive system and those who ran it, but on the so-called victims as well:

“You will be victims as long as you believe that you are less than others. No matter how respected the fount of information may be, if it tells you that you are less, it is lying to you. Cast it out; flush out every vestige, suggestion or insinuation that your colour is a badge of inferiority,” he counselled.

“Don’t seek for acceptance at the expense of your self-respect, your soul. Why hammer at gates where you are not wanted? Build your own mansions, enterprises, nations and governments. Build them so powerfully that the world will have no choice but to acknowledge them and take them seriously. Take this beam out of your eyes, rid your system of it, and purge it from the mother’s milk upon which your children are fed; do not tolerate, countenance, accommodate or acknowledge it.

“What are titles but names that give distinction or honour to some thing or person? What are uniforms but clothing designed by human beings to give special force and meaning to an individual or group and to capture the imagination? What are symbols but signs and objects which human beings invest with a special significance to evoke feelings of awe, loyalty and respect? There is no need to bow to these things when they are part of systems which reduce your humanity to second-or-third rate. Create your own titles, symbols, uniforms, ceremonies and rituals, based on those things which uplift, ennoble, refresh and dignify your humanity and which glorify your achievements.”

This powerful message, and others, laid the foundation for Garvey’s greatness. Unfortunately, when he was returned to Jamaica from the United States in 1928 he founded a political party to challenge the privileged and powerful racial class bias. The party failed and Garvey left Jamaica with a broken heart in 1937 to reside in London where he died in 1940.

But the true spirit of Garvey lives as a towering source of inspiration for downtrodden black people, giving greater strength to his mission. In 1974 I was invited to assist in returning Garvey’s body to Jamaica. I accepted with deep reverence and, on return, he was made Jamaica’s first national hero by the Government.

There are other legends who have helped to build Jamaica’s image but mostly in a local sphere. None other have trod the world with performances and messages creating a universal coverage remembered worldwide. This is why Garvey, Marley and Bolt are not only legends but immortals in life and death.

It is for certain that no other nation but Jamaica, except among the large and powerful, has created a national brand of universal strength as the three immortals of Jamaica: Garvey, Marley and Bolt. This exists nowhere else in the world. It must make us feel very proud to be Jamaicans.