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OK to laugh with Jamaica in VW ad?

Byline: Clive McFarlane


Some people, they tell me, have a problem with Volkswagen creating a Super Bowl commercial in which a White Minnesotan mimics Jamaican accent and lingo in trying to get his office colleagues to cultivate a positive outlook on life.

Some, I understand, likened the commercial to "blackface with voices," referring to the days when blacks were dramatized by white people with blackened faces. Some, I also understand, straight out call the commercial racist.

Having grown up in Jamaica, I find these responses somewhat puzzling.

It is true that I left the island in my late teens and, while I have been back occasionally on vacations, I must admit that the Jamaica I knew growing up is not the Jamaica that exists today.

As such, I might not be the right Jamaican to tell those criticizing the commercial to just simmer down and breathe easy.

There is nothing racist or demeaning about the commercial.

The problem here, it would seem, is that too many people are claiming to "understand" Jamaicans, when, as the Rastafarian would say, they should be trying to "overstand," a word which better describes one's journey toward enlightenment.

Now, in terms of the commercial, you must overstand that the "blackface with voices" analogy is out of place. Jamaican society, as its motto "Out of Many One People" suggests, embraces an array of ethnicities including West Africans, Europeans, Chinese, Indians and Middle Easterners, all of whom speak with a "Jamaican accent" and with various variations of the country's spoken dialect, which we call patois.

Hence it is not shocking for Jamaicans to hear a white person speaking patois.

I also find the inference that VW is stereotyping Jamaicans by suggesting that they are always upbeat to be an overreach in cultural sensitivity.

Jamaica does have its share of poverty, corruption and violence, but there is also no denying that there is a predilection by most Jamaicans to look on the bright side of life, an outlook which the Jamaican tourist industry for years has wisely used to sell the country to foreigners.

It is not surprising then that in wake of this particular controversy, Wykeham McNeill, Jamaica's minister of tourism and entertainment, was one of the first to support the VW commercial.

"I think this is a very creative commercial which truly taps into the tremendous mass appeal that brand Jamaica and its hospitable people have globally," he said.

The skeptics among us might say that Mr. McNeill, whose job it is to grow the tourist industry, is speaking as a financial manager, not as a cultural icon. There are also those who will say that the sunny outlook portrayed by Jamaicans might be because of the island's production (those who indulge say) of the best sinsemilla in the world.

Still, I think there is a lot more to it than that.

When the white Minnesotan in the commercial tells his office colleagues "No worries man, everything will be all right," and "Don't be no cloud on a sunny day," and "Julia, turn the frown the other way around," he was tapping into a philosophy that Jamaicans from all walks of life embrace.

The great Bob Marley was a huge proponent of this philosophical approach to life. Most of us are familiar with his songs such as "Lively up Yourself," "No Woman No Cry," "Don't Worry about a Thing," but one of my favorites is "Jah Live," the song Bob wrote to silence a challenge to his Rastafarian lifestyle.

That challenge, of course, came on the death of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who was considered "Earth's rightful ruler," by Rastafarians.

But within days of the announcement of Haile Selassie dying, Bob wrote and released "Jah Live."

"Fools say in their heart/Rasta your God is dead," Bob sang.

"But I and I know Jah, Jah dread/It will be dreader dread

"Jah Live children yeah/Jah, Jah Live children yeah."

I cannot speak authoritatively on the genesis of Jamaicans' lightness of being, but I suspect living on a 4,244 square mile land mass that is completely surrounded by water can force a person facing adversity to consider it a priority to live meaningfully rather than to run and hide.

Of course, I mean no where to run for most of the population, because as Buju Banton, sings, "Who can afford to run will run (emigrate), but what about those who can't. They will have to stay."

And if you have to stay, you might as well "lively up yourself and don't be no drag," and if you have to work like the white Minnesotan turn Jamaican in the commercial, you might as well make the best of that, too.


Contact Clive McFarlane via email at
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:5JAMA
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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