When I graduated from college in 1993, I had two sets of marketable skills – computer-based graphic design, and West African drumming. I spent the year after graduation living in Ghana, sharpening my drumming and xylophone skills and trying to decide if I was brave enough to try to move to New York City and try to make a living as a backup musician, an anonymous musician making star musicians sound better as they entertained an audience.
I (wisely) became a geek instead. And I now find myself as a backing musician of a sort in a geeky academic “benefit concert” in Kingston, Jamaica.
This takes a moment or two to explain. Be patient.
Charlie Nesson, founder of the Berkman Center, has a deep and abiding passion for Jamaica. He’s been coming to the island nation for almost a decade, trying to figure out ways the Internet could help the nation’s development. He met a young social entrepreneur, Kevin Wallen, who runs an extraordinary project called SSET – Student and Staff Expressing Truth – within the Jamaican corrections system. The program provides access to computers and media tools to inmates – students – so that they can both express themselves and create media that can have a life within and outside the prison walls, through a radio station that connects Kingston’s prisons and, eventually, through the Internet.
If Charlie were a musician, he’d play benefit concerts for whoever would listen, passing the hat and raising money for the SSET project. But he’s a Harvard professor instead, and his benefit concert is called “Cyber Strategy for Carribean Business Leaders”. It’s a day long seminar in a hotel in Kingston, sponsored by communications companies and banks in Jamaica. Charlie’s the opening act; the headliner is Harvard Business School professor, John Deighton. John Palfrey, director of the Berkman Center, is the closing act – we’re hoping the audience will hold up cigarette lighters during his talk. And I’m playing rhythym guitar, helping Palfrey lead the audience through a technical explanation of how Google works and creating a blog with Charlie, live and on stage.
Which explains what I’m doing sitting in a conference room in Kingston, surrounded by telecoms employees, prison wardens, recently released former inmates, high school principals and a couple of somewhat confused Harvard professors. Big companies like Cable and Wireless are paying to listen to Charlie, JP and John speak, and all that money is going to the SSET progam. It’s an interesting mix, but it’s working so far, as Charlie’s now showing off the Jamaica page of Global Voices to a group that’s very excited to see Jamaica having a presence to the wider world, online.
Hanging out last night with some of the people associated with SSET – notably my friend Tafawa Thompson – we got to talking about the notion of Jamaica “punching above its weight” in cultural terms. Jamaica’s a small nation, by almost any metric – 2.7 million people, slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. But almost everyone in the world has an impression of Jamaica – accurate or not – connected to Bob Marley, Red Stripe beer, reggae, ragga, dancehall… In the sense of “nation brand”, Jamaica’s got an extraordinarily strong one.
Tafawa told me a great story last night. He was recently in South Korea and discovered that Korean youths in the night clubs were sporting Bob Marley t-shirts. When they heard him speak, he was surrounded by fawning clubgoers who wanted to meet the Jamaican guy… Why did all these Koreans know about Jamaica – or think they did? And I wondered, who was making those Bob Marley t-shirts, and did any of the money from those shirts make it back to Jamaica?
How does a strong nation brand serve as an economic asset to a nation like Jamaica? How does the fact that everyone knows something about Jamaica – or thinks they do – help Jamaicans make money?