I read on the Jamaican Observer a few days ago that Red Stripe is dropping its sponsorship with Reggae Sumfest. Every day since, I’m surprised that more dancehall/reggae-related blogs haven’t picked up on the news yet. This is Big News. Red Stripe has been sponsoring Sumfest since 2001, when the name of the show was officially changed to the Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest, and the two are pretty tightly linked in the public eye. Representatives from Red Stripe cite the specific reason of increasingly violent lyrics as the cause of the disengagement:

“Over the years, however, a very negative trend of glorifying violence has crept into some of the music, causing much consternation among well thinking Jamaicans and others at home and abroad. This has far-reaching and damaging implications for the industry and for the country as a whole,” read a statement issued by the company earlier today. (from the Observer article linked to above)

The news is unsettling. I’m not worried about Sumfest being canceled or anything: the biggest reggae festival in the world will almost certainly move past this, and the several thousand dollars withdrawn by Red Stripe will likely be replaced by another company swooping in to link their name to reggae. No, what is amiss is perhaps the motivations and the cultural implications of the move. (Warning! Long post!)

Dancehall’s ultra-violent and often homophobic lyrics have gotten it in trouble before. Many a touring Yardie with homophobic songs under his belt has had shows canceled abroad by gay-rights activists and others concerned with the legacy of “Boom Bye Bye,” and more recently iTunes Canada has pulled a number of songs from popular dancehall artists with lyrics describing anti-gay violence. This is all very understandable and, in my opinion, should be encouraged. Goodness knows Jamaica doesn’t need any more violence for anyone.

What troubles me is 1) that Red Stripe pulled their sponsorship from Sumfest, 2) that Red Stripe pulled their sponsorship from Sumfest, and 3) that Red Stripe pulled their sponsorship from Sumfest.

1) On each and every Red Stripe bokkle there is a motto that says something like: “For over 65 years, Red Stripe has captured the essence and spirit of the Jamaican people.” Clearly, it’s a brand that relies on making itself synonymous with the island. And okay, the original Red Stripe factory was at Pechon St. in downtown Kingston, but nowadays? The factory was moved to Hunt’s Bay 50 years ago, and in 1993 the company was purchased by Guinness. Hardly local anymore!

What the old factory looks like now.

(Sidenote: artist and really-cool-person Melinda Brown is currently trying to renovate the original Pechon St. factory into a really wild and happening community center for the impoverished downtown area. Plans include an iguana preservation, an after-school music program, a ritzy bar for rich traveling foreigners, and studios for local crafter/artists.)

Anyway, my problem with all of this is that Red Stripe has now turned into a company that is somewhat fetishizing the fun, idyllic image of Jamaican culture while glossing over the very real problems it left behind. When the timeline on their website mentions something about “beautiful Jamaicans dancing in the streets,” you have to wonder: what are you telling people Jamaica is? Of course, this is (was!) all sort of made okay by the fact that Red Stripe is one of the few companies operating in Jamaica with lots of money with which to sponsor local events. I guess it’s okay for Red Stripe to claim the image of Passa Passa if they are also one of the prime sponsorship sources behind the reggae scene–but what now that they’ve pulled their support? My guess is that the company will continue to exploit the reggae imagery, but now it looks a little more colonial, don’t? A commenter on the Observer post agrees:

“Better yet, promoters of dancehall events should not allow Red Stripe to be sold at their events. Put your money where your mouth is, I have a feeling Red Stripe only wants to appear concerned with the so-called violence and anti-social behavior that are products of dancehall music (and not products of environment) and are not willing to suffer any real economic loss to their company as a result of a decrease in sales.”

It’s also notable that Red Stripe did this as part of a coalition of companies operating in the Caribbean. This has such a colonialist feel to it–faraway company executives making moral judgments on a people that they’re not anywhere near.

2) The other commenters on the blog are actually mostly supportive of the move (and this may be a factor of self-selection, since I think most of the people who read the Observer online are ex-pats or Uptowners). One writes:

The Coalition of Corporate Sponsors should take this further and boycott radio shows that give a lot of these garbage music air time, and reward those who play patriotic and other “feel good” music. Can’t keep traveling down the road to self-destruction.

Yes, I like feel good music too, but let’s remember that the music being produced is at least partially a product of the environment these artists are in. No matter how much feel good music you play on the radio, Jamaica still has the 4th highest murder rate in the world, and Amnesty International recently published a report on the human rights atrocities there. While I wish this could be traced to something as simple as violent music, my experience is that it’s much more the other way around. Stopping the violent music is the easy way out for companies like Red Stripe, but that rage has got to go somewhere. Red Stripe has already announced that the funds pulled from Sumfest will probably go towards a sponsorship program with the national football (soccer!) team. Instead of acting the admonishing parent, shouldn’t Red Stripe be pouring its funds into something that will actually alleviate the poverty and crime on the ground? Lack of funding is one of the biggest problems for nonprofits working down there, and a few thousands dollars a year would go a huge way.

Here is my basic principle: Jamaican music should fit your mood, but not create a negative or destructive one. We as Jamaicans must select from a huge variety of good Jamaican music that is availably in Jamaica today and support those musicians and singers. Clearly one should make wise choices by choosing music that inspires and uplifts, not music that creates feelings of anger, anxiety, confusion or depression or is filled with inappropriate lyric.

I personal think that sponsorship like Red Stripe sponsorship would be better spent at a School like Alpha Boys’ School in Kingston Jamaica.

Yeah…okay. Because the problem with Jamaica is that the rich people aren’t rich enough.

3) Red Stripe’s move to pull all funding out of all live music events is interesting in light of the history of the island. It’s probably not a stretch to say that reggae put Jamaica on the map for a lot of Americans and Europeans, so Red Stripe–and all of Jamaica, really–owes a lot to this culture. And yet, there is nothing but take-and-run. In one of our last weeks in Kingston, Larisa, Kid K, and I went on tours to see the birthplaces and hangouts of reggae’s biggest legends. Many of the places were nightmarishly brun down, and no one is interested in giving back to preserve these sites or the communities from which so much creativity came. Sure, there are a couple of artists with a few ultra-violent songs, but pulling support from the whole live music scene–which is SUPER active in Kingston–is punishing a big, big barrel of perfectly fine apples. The iTunes music-pulling, the artist boycotts: these I can support because they’re not condemning the industry at large. I think I can say pretty confidently that reggae and dancehall have brought much, much more good to Jamaica than it has evil. Does Red Stripe disagree?

A commenter that doesn’t agree with the move makes an interesting point (note how this one is in patwa–just sayin’.):

but then i note that the colour of the reggae industry is changing…before, the fair skin was the producer cheating the creativity of the Ivan character from our movie…now, brownings and uptown see that being a singer is profitable and all push is behind them…bet u dat Red Stripe will bak the uptown offsprings who dress provocatively etc but decry a catchy rhyme…dang, how long ago was boom bye bye…but how recent was the last pictured gyrations , wid the bak it up, all under the guise of soca…

In other comments, she makes the point that Soca, with its excessive objectification of women, is “as chubbling to a society as is homophobia.” She makes a damn good point. Try as I am, I’m having a hard time viewing this through anything but a classist lens.

As I write this, the Reggae Sumfest website has still not been updated to reflect the news, nor has the Wikipedia article for Red Stripe been edited. The news still sits quietly in the blogosphere, except for a few forums that mention attempts for a boycott. Jamaica is a very small country, and maybe not that many people care about what is going on there as long as Sean Paul keeps pumping out great dance tunes. But I think this story has parallels all over the world, and we just don’t know about it.

(Very related and yet not at all: I watched a really great documentary yesterday about hip-hop in Senegal, and I was astounded by how politically conscious and non-misogynistic the lyrics were. What a different scenario from Jamaica!)