Considerations of cultural appropriation

Nicki Minaj - Sureash Cholai
Nicki Minaj - Sureash Cholai


CULTURAL appropriation: The adoption of elements of a particular culture that is not one’s own.

Earlier this week, Michael B Jordan made international headlines for the launch of his new rum, J’Ouvert. The actor received backlash for what many called his cultural appropriation of the TT festival to promote his product and has since apologised while also promising to change the name.

The apology allows us to let bygones be bygones. However, before we move on it would be useful to examine the impact it has had on us. Instead of dwelling on the extent to which TT can claim sole ownership of J’Ouvert – an historical debate that is not the point of this article – I’m focusing on the case of J’Ouvert rum as the latest experience of our intellectual and cultural property under threat.

Jordan’s J’Ouvert rum bears shades of the US steel pan patent fiasco that occurred in 2001 when Americans George Whitmyre and Harvey Price acquired a patent on the manufacture of steel pans through hydroforming – a metal fabricating process using high-pressure hydraulic fluid to create lightweight yet strong shapes. The patent, once listed online at Google Patents, has since expired.

We learned a lesson from the Whitmyre and Price case. In 2013, TT was granted a patent for the G-Pan, the invention of now-UWI campus principal Dr Brian Copeland.

The recent form of cultural appropriation involving Jordan calls on us once again to take stock of aspects of our culture that have been, and perhaps will always be, under threat.

While Jordan’s remorse helps to lower the temperature surrounding his act of cultural appropriation, the very act itself calls into question the need to safeguard aspects of our cultural identity. Additionally, Jordan has indirectly drawn attention to our vulnerabilities.

I’m not just referring to vulnerabilities around cultural property rights but also, perhaps more importantly, the vulnerabilities that are rooted in our colonial past.

Appropriation is akin to theft. The Caribbean region and its people have been subjected to centuries of theft: land, products and people. Our current mentality has been shaped by these experiences of having our possessions taken from us, leaving us particularly sensitive and vulnerable to when modern-day theft, in the form of cultural appropriation, takes place.

Overcoming these vulnerabilities of being inferior, marginalised and Third World is an individual, societal and national responsibility that requires changes in the significance we ascribe to aspects of our culture and to what extent we put laws in place to preserve it. In this regard, our Intellectual Property Office must be equally attuned to all aspects related to our national culture, not just Carnival.

Cultural appropriation will always cause outrage, particularly for “small” nations with a history of being exploited. It is what we do with this outrage that will ensure the frequency with which it continues to happen.

The aftermath of Jordan’s announcement of J’Ouvert rum ignited condemnation that went viral. Through social media, it was the younger generations who publicised the dangerous precedent set by an American adopting the name of the popular TT celebration for his product. TT-born rapper Nicki Minaj’s involvement in advising Jordan to rethink the name of his rum gave further publicity to the act of cultural appropriation.

The social media backlash that eventually put pressure on Jordan to rename his rum points to our younger generation’s attentiveness to when our culture is under threat. Outrage, however, can only go so far. Apart from “making a scene” out of J’Ouvert rum, we need to ensure by way of trademarking and copyrighting that future infringements on our cultural identity are reduced.

It is up to us, therefore, to be proactive in protecting our culture rather than be reactive – as seen in the case of J’Ouvert rum. The outrage levelled at Jordan should be redirected to our innate creativity. If we are claiming J’Ouvert as our own, then we must be prepared to defend it by way of not just outrage but by putting in the work to secure legal ownership.

Jordan’s apology has attracted the attention of international news media including CNN and the BBC. Additionally, Google’s trending searches lists Jordan as the fourth most trending topic for June 23. I’m by no means encouraging Jordan’s act of cultural appropriation but the international attention it has garnered can be used to our advantage by way of marketing our cultural heritage.

The adage “necessity is the mother of innovation” could not be more applicable here. The need to safeguard our cultural traditions should compel us to be innovative because the next international celebrity to appropriate our culture might not be as apologetic as Jordan.


"Considerations of cultural appropriation"

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