“Economics 3: Verse 15 And it was written in those days, If thy nine to five doth not cover thy bills, thou betta be a hustla” – Dingo
Jamaica is a country wracked by debt so huge that it is threatening to squeeze the life blood out of its people. The recent announcement of new tax measures by Jamaica’s current Minister of Finance, has re-iterated a simple truth that has remained for the last three decades of the country: our politicians have no idea how to get us out of our worsening debt situation in which they have placed us. The current medicine is the same that is applied each year, levy more taxes. One would think as the plan continues to fail that they would try a new tactic. Alas, no such luck. But what they really need to do, is listen to Damian Marley and set up shop, that is, find the things we are good at, support it and allow the country to earn from it.
It’s often said that much of Jamaica’s economic trouble comes from the fact that our people are lazy and more interested in engaging in opportunism to make a quick buck rather than earning by the sweat of our brow. Interestingly, this assertion is often made by people ensconced in air-conditioned offices and thereby liberated from the stench and unsightliness of sweat. While there are lazy Jamaicans, that’s a given, every country has its share of lazy people, it’s in the social contract, Jamaicans are an industrious people. But this industriousness is often mislabeled and sometimes misdirected.
Case in point is Damian Marley’s latest single ‘Set Up Shop’. I’m particularly interested in the song because the entrepreneurship it describes is often ignored or at best viewed as two steps above wutlessness (which in Jamaica applies more active energy to the state of worthlessness). They are often seen as mere hustlers.
If you check the dictionary (and by that I mean the Oxford Dictionary), it will define hustling as aggressive or illicit selling. But for those who make their living on the periphery of society especially those below the economic borderline, hustling and illicit are often two very different things. So while sometimes a hustle might ‘scale’ the wrong side of the legal fence most hustlers merely engage in an informal income stream which can range anywhere from buying and selling to trading in your skills outside of office hours. Much of our entrepreneurial spirit is manifested as hustling or opportunism. The people who realize that opportunities don’t always knock, so sometimes you have to sneak into the house through the back door to get at it.
In fairness, Set Up Shop isn’t original in tackling this topic. It’s already made an appearance in Marley’s own repertoire and more recently Specialist’s ‘Street Hustle’ was also a notable variant on the same theme. The visual paradoxes that are included in the video of Set Up Shop by its director Winston ‘Tyson’ May-hew certainly add to the song’s social commentary.
I’m immediately struck by the opening image of the Rastaman (Marley) in a field, reading a newspaper behind a traditional office desk. (Now, I advise that you take a moment to look at the headlines plastered over the Star Newspaper that Junior Gong is reading. The main headline says “Woman Boxes Thief With Blackberry’.) But that gripping headline aside, what this image immediately speaks to is the growth potential of Jamaica’s entertainment sector if it is treated as a real business. It’s not accidental that the DJ sings in a field of burning cane. Jamaica needs to move beyond its agrarian economics, and explore industries where we have a greater competitive advantage.
Jamaica has generally been unable (and by unable I mean we have never applied concerted and consistent effort) to transform hustling into sustainable entrepreneurship. Chinese and Syrian/Arabic Jamaicans have successfully done this. Jamaica’s major boardrooms are littered with people whose forefathers started out peddling cloth or some other item, on foot, then by cart until eventually they set up shop.
Even so, Jamaica has a very high rate of start-ups. Much of this takes place at the informal level. This speaks to the constant attempts by ordinary Jamaicans to take lemons and make sky juice. This willingness to ignore or work around the system is probably the major reason that despite thinking that the new slate of taxes will mean greater hardship, there are no planned protests. In the main, Jamaicans expected no other result. We have become inured to a system which is automatically stacked against you, so unless you can cut and go through, climb over, dig under or otherwise circumvent the system, you are doomed to sufferation. It is this knowledge which underlies the phrase “no problem”, which when said by a Jamaican is filled with the irony left out of the t-shirt based slogan. We’re not unaware of the problem, we know it exists, but to focus on it is to admit defeat, is to die. So instead we laugh, dance or sing it off. We move on because the alternative is unacceptable.
And this brings us to the areas in which we should be setting up our greatest shop. Our creative industries. While Marley pays tribute to numerous other careers in ‘Set Up Shop’, the ever-present one is his own. The entertainment industry, be it music, fashion, or film bears immense potential for generating income and getting Jamaica out of its economic woes. But the road toward fulfilling this remains arduous and daunting as the government continues to proffer lip service and little else. The potential of reaping real rewards from setting up these creative industries have been reiterated time and again. However, rather than explore this, again we simply raise taxes, because it may not have worked last time, but surely, this time it will.