7 Ways we can support and develop culture

Posted on September 27, 2020

Culture is a natural resource that we have an unlimited supply of in the Caribbean. The influence of Jamaican music can be seen throughout the pop charts. Trinidad Carnival is touted as the greatest show on earth, primarily because anyone can participate in it. I’d add that event planners like myself go out of our way to add our touch of greatness every year. As a West Indian, I am proud of my culture but I recently asked myself how can this pride translate into actions during my new normal?

Republic Day celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago coupled with the latest social media cultural uproar about someone disrespecting our culture lead me here. In this article, I share the results of my own self searching where I learnt way more than I expected.

What is Culture?

Culture in this article refers to the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Culture is the acquired pair of glasses we see life through.

Why should we care about Culture?

According to UNESCO, culture is not just a ‘nice to have’ but it is a powerful contributor to economic development, social stability and environmental protection.

What happened with White Chocolate?

Quick Story Time with Ken. Skip this section if you already know.
A group called four 8 had a round table discussion focused on Black Lives Matter and how we can move forward. Multiple ethnicities were represented in round table. “Representing” the West Indies we had Josh Butler, better known as White Chocolate.

White Chocolate lived in St Lucia for two years and adopted the culture as his own. As such he began travelling the world with a St Lucian flag dancing his way into stardom. In response to White Chocolate’s claim to be a dancer Busayo Twins asked “what if so many people did this that kids in St Lucia get confused as to what is their culture and start thinking it came from you. Would you [White Chocolate] step aside?” White Chocolate said ‘yeah’ but he branded dancing in a way and turned it into a profession. He also said he has been paving a way for black people to come after him. He later corrected this to he is paving the way for people to do what he did. These statement resulted in a huge online backlash with many influencers and dancers condemning his actions and calling for a boycott of any events that invited him.

As individuals and brands we must know and understand culture as we can ‘innocently’ face the wrath of the internet so I am here to educate.

1. Avoid Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation refers to lifting cultural aspects from underrepresented groups of people, and not only offering nothing in return, but expecting their gratitude for the promotion. Adopting and sharing of one’s culture is encouraged, the issue is how and why this happens. According to Andray Domise in his article, How to Talk about Cultural Appropriation there are ways to protect yourself from unwittingly appropriating another’s culture.

  1. Research the culture. To do any of the things listed below you need information.
  2. Avoid the Sacred – Stay away from religious symbols and anything held as sacred by another group or culture.
  3. Involve individuals who are from a particular culture when thinking about adopting a culture.
  4. Pay homage – Speak with respect, knowledge and insight about another’s culture
  5. Look beyond stereotypes – Our opinion on another’s culture is formed by the sum of all of the information we’ve absorbed about this culture to date. Which means without us actually seeing for ourself or digging deeper we may be prejudiced toward a certain viewpoint.

2. Avoid Tokenism

This refers to diversity without a commitment to inclusivity. It gives the appearance of equality without actually achieving it which is effectively a lie. Maybe a business or organisation may not serve all demographics of people and wants to make a change. The way would be to revisit their core principles and adjust their products and or services to fit the needs of new demographics. Some businesses skip this step and invite someone as a ‘token’ just to appear diverse makes matters worst. This can be seen in photoshoots or group pictures. So ask yourself, does your brand or business reflect what is depicted in your photoshoot or is this just a show?

To avoid tokenism do the following:

  1. Review your goal and purpose and make it inclusion and not the desire to appear to be inclusive
  2. Actively listen and include the viewpoints.

3. Recognise Culture Changes and that is ok.

If culture refers to our ideas, customs and social behavior it is inevitable that as these change and develop our culture will change. Often times there is a debate about cultural preservation and new ‘culture’ damaging old culture. To know where we are and how we got here, it is key to understand, appreciate and preserve yesterday’s culture. To do this at the expense of or while shunning the new culture is equally as bad as ignoring traditional culture.

Many festivals, events and traditions are usually stumped when their patronage drops and the complain is usually ‘these youths don’t care about culture’. Maybe it is that youths care about their own culture and are reluctant to embrace what is existing as it does not fit their own struggles and stories. For example our Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago was established out of a time of struggle with slaves mocking slave masters. Dressing as fancy sailors and parading next to Dame Lorraine who poked fun at the “rich plantation” owners and their physical infirmities. Over time the depiction of Dame Lorraine and Fancy Sailor has changed. Our Carnival itself has changed and the people who participate have all changed.

Channelling this change into patented products and exportable goods and services is key to keeping our culture sustainable allowing artists to create indefinitely. Dean Akin, owner of Tribe Carnival shared that “the uniqueness of Trinidad Carnival comes from the fact that masqueraders have a choice between “playing ah mas” in traditional costume or in the protected street fete experience that he offers”

COVID 19 has affected us all and will push us into a new era of change. To keep our culture alive we must approach it with an open mind, support those creating new traditions as well as preserving our heritage.

4. Learn

Ignorance is NOT an excuse. If we live in the Caribbean but we have missed Social Studies, now is a good time to brush up. 2020 is a time of heightened sensitivity so not knowing or understanding one’s culture is no excuse if you disrespect it. Each individual and business risks their job, brand and livelihood if they remain ignorant to the current cultural climate.

According to podcaster Yorie Taylor, during the round table discussion White Chocolate was unable to educate the table on the significance of Carnival and the dancing that he does because he could not. He did not take the time to learn enough about it. As a result of this it felt deeply disrespectful that he had a platform to shed light on our culture and this opportunity was wasted.

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My personal breakdown

A post shared by YORIE TAYLOR | ENTREPRENEUR (@yorietaylor) on

5. Activate in your own way.

Maybe you prefer to protest. Maybe not. Each of us have to choose what is best for us to activate in our world. Sometimes we may be quick to speak out when there is discrimination but what about speaking out when individuals are making waves and representing our culture. It is up to us to decide what gets our attention and who we put on a pedestal. Brands need to do better and look deeper for authentic cultural ‘engines’, creators who are making waves in their own way and would make us proud.

@thecurveexperience ‘s said most band launches don’t feature people that look like her. So maybe activating may be to support a band that has taken the time to have different body types for their launch. These exist people who do represent well for our culture and all we have to do is recognise. Consider Ronnie and Carro, a Mas Band out of Trinidad and Tobago who had a virtual band launch in 2019, long before COVID. They also had a diverse set of band leaders, masqueraders and models.

Ronnie and Carro’s 2020 presentation.

6. Contribute to a healthy company culture

It may seem, if you are not involved in the arts, that this talk of culture is far removed from your daily lives. However, most of us are employers and employees and as such as contribute to a culture of our own. Our workplace culture.

Employers, it starts with us.
  1. Hire carefully and look for qualifications and a good fit for your work style. Starting at the interview, share your company values and ensure everyone knows it throughout the work experience.
  2. Do your part to educate your employees as these will represent you. An example of this was the social media backlash that Dianne’s Tea Shop got from the posting of an All Lives Matter picture allegedly by a member of staff. Focus on creating a sense of belonging and not just ‘inclusion’.
  3. Develop and maintain traditions. Although I hosted many events in 2019, one of my most memorable was the company dinner and Gala I had for my event committee. Usually on event night we will be busy in our respective roles. On this night, we exchanged gifts and danced the night away.
  4. Communicate Properly. As an employer, I often get lost in the work and don’t take the time to have that one on one conversation with each employee. In my event company, employees are usually seasonal so that makes it more challenging. I’ve found however that a light conversation over lunch goes a long way into understanding each employee and fostering a healthy company culture.
  5. Don’t String Employees along. Sometimes, enthusiasm and good will are not enough to get the job done. If the employee is the wrong fit but really needs a job it does them more harm than good to keep them on your staff. Let them go and avoid false hope of ‘change’ in the future.
Employees, it happens with you.
  1. Ask questions about the overall company goals and see how these can align with your goals.
  2. Be intentional about being a team player. The healthier the work environment the less stressful each task will be so put the effort and you will reap the rewards.
  3. Life up your team by sharing any learning opportunity or relationship building opportunity. Employees suggest the best activities for employees, as you will know what you like for yourself and maybe others may want the same thing.
  4. Think Globally. Many times employees who want to be the employer or business owner but forget that if the company grows or goes global, they will be the new manager! Every big business needs managers and this could be you. Contributing to your company culture will help your boss and the business owner but it may also help you in the future more than you may think.

7. Understand Culture in the context of the Caribbean

We the people

Every brand posts their celebratory message on Independence day. Every Caribbean expat has a flag of their native country somewhere in their room. Patriotism is not just possessing a flag or posting artwork, but includes the ability to defend our culture. Like how Soka Tribe has been defending dance and Soca music for many years. Or how @Knowyourcaribbean shares our Caribbean history everyday for us to learn.

Brands

Consider the events you attend and who you empower. Balance the popularity with substance as authenticity is more influential than follower count.

Cultural Ambassadors

Storytime with Ken 2.0
I invited 10 ‘influencers’ to my Carnival Fete, Tropical LUAU Carnival this year. Our fete had grown into a staple cultural extravaganza complete with a unique taste of T&T and a truly Tropical ambience that is rare. Attendees fondly refer to Carnival Thursday as Tropical Thursday and felt we needed to share this. The only guest who actually attended, outside of the three I knew personally, was White Chocolate. What social media did not say, is that in growing his popularity he made it his business to attend a variety of events and be visible. We need this same energy from our home grown influencers. Look outside of your friend group and support those brands that have been putting our culture on an international stage.

The Government

Contrary to popular belief, the Caribbean Governments do make an earnest effort to support and foster the growth and expansion of culture. Ultimately we must look deeper into the resources at our disposal as many creatives who complain about lack of support do not know about the grants and opportunities available. Have you read the National Policy on Culture and the Arts for 2019-2024? This documents how we can benefit from our indigenous cultural products among other things.

Me Personally

In April 2020 I felt, optimistically, that restrictions would have been less strict today. Our retail culture is drastically shifting forever and I’ve found it difficult to offer the same services I always have because the world is not the same. As such I’ve decided to do my part and relaunch my production company Define Studios as The Caribbean’s first innovation agency later this year. I hope to do my part to support and export our culture.

Harnessing the power of the creative sector is key to surviving the new normal. As natural resources are harder to come by we can use our human resources and thrive together as one West Indian people.


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