When Tony Blair stormed to power in 1997, the phrase ‘Cool Britannia’ was officially coined to describe a country that was on the up and up.
Pop stars, the Gallagher brothers, Paul Weller, and even the Spice Girls walked comfortably into No. 10 on the invite of Britain’s most popular Prime Minister since Thatcher. The Blair brand seemed unbreakable. But move forward a few years to broken promises and a falsified war, we have learned to see beyond the colourful wrapping and look much deeper. When a large advertiser, wishes to launch a new product onto the market they may call in a focus group, a group of people, between certain ages and backgrounds and ask them their views on certain brands, images, and products. This paid, group will help them determine what type of demographic may predominantly lean towards their product rather than the product of their competition.
The Maasai name has been put to various products in order to give these products an air of style, mysticism, and exotification. Louis Vuitton, Land Rover, Quad bikes, even phallus cream! The Maasai are saying that they have received very little in this cultural exchange and some members of the community are looking for remuneration and brand name, protection. This proud, nation of people, largely from Tanzania and Kenya’s Maasai Mara region has been the curio of many anthropologists for decades.
Cool photos of Africans barely clothed but beautifully adorned, smiling faces, living harmoniously amongst the seemingly, harsh, unrelenting backdrop of the hot Savannah. Their hospitable nature held people’s imagination and was often the image of Africa outside of the usual depiction of acute poverty and deprivation. Beautiful, fit strong, noble, vibrant, athletic majestic and resourceful, just some of the adjectives that have been used to link western brands with the objectification of the Maasai. But the signified is no longer happy with this lesson in semiotics. The Massai seem clear as to the power of their cultural brand and recognize their USP (unique selling point). As such the Maasai are asking for some dues as they hope to copyright their birthright.
Isaac ole Tialolo is Maasai and chair of the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative…
“People need to understand the culture of others and respect it. We all know that we have been exploited by people who just come around, take our pictures and benefit from it,” he says. “We have been exploited by so many things you cannot imagine”.
“It’s almost certainly the biggest cultural brand in the world,” argues Ron Layton, the founder and head of Light Years IP an NGO which specializes in securing intellectual property rights in developing countries – “about 80 companies around the world are currently using either the Maasai image or Maasai name”. The case continues.
Branding brings with it many connotations. To be branded brings with it historical images of slavery. To be branded is something the African has fought against for centuries. But now, ironically, we fight to have a brand on our chests, backs, and backsides, not realizing that many of these brands have been modelled by us but are rarely made for us to consume.
When Tommy Hilfiger created his collegic line back in the 80s and Abercrombie and Fitch were given a new lease of life and a burst of black chic by being worn by many in the Hip Hop fraternity, there was an initial outcry by CEOs and the shareholders of these white, middle-class fashion houses. An outcry, leaning on racism until they recognised the value in having their brand splashed all over MTV and into aspirational ‘urban’ homes by artists such as Snoop, The Fugees et al.
As tills rang out through America and the world, style vultures were clicking cameras at everything black and beautiful, trying to get the new, low jeans, Calvin Klein type of exposure that only a ‘yout’ from the hood’ could provide.
Former rapper turned business mogul, Russell Simmons recognized, early, the value of the African American dollar, the creator of Def Jam records and later co-founder of Phat Farm clothing line, crafted a billion dollar empire off the back of this black style economic.
Damon John of clothing line FUBU, a clothing company, at its height worth and estimated $350 million also targeting the African American with the tagline For You By You..although due to its slightly prohibitive cost margin, the brand was mainly worn by ‘hip’ white boys…For U…But only if U can afford it’.
The deceased, white American writer Norman Mailer spoke of George Foreman at the time of the famous Rumble in the Jungle,fight with Muhammad Ali, saying, “He was negritude.. a colossus…” Mailer, not understanding why Africans did not embrace Foreman, as he had “darker skin..sic (than Ali)”.
Negritude -A word describing a form of black identity, an attitude of thought and action developed by Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and the Guianan Léon Dumas in the 1930’s.
In the UK we have struggled to solidify a brand around our culture. What is a Black British brand, even the name Black British evokes a fractious debate within Britain’s Black community? There is little doubt that since the arrival of the diasporic African on the shores of the UK style, language, and intellectual landscape has changed forever. Many will feel that black culture has been packaged and sold back to us for decades with fashion, music, sports and now more increasingly creative media outlets carrying the stamp of Blackness. Now stealth ads encroach on our every click, as advertisers have long held the opinion that within cultures there are commonalities or perhaps even stereotypes. English – fish n chips, cockney – jellied eels, Ghanaians – fufu, Nigerians – moi moi, Jamaicans rice an peas.
But the Black-British-African? How could the Black-British-African brand his or her own culture in an arena of fragmentation? It is our problem in not being able to unilaterally define our own identity, which makes any cultural branding within our own community almost impossible. Divisive tactics continue to be perpetuated by mediators with spurious intentions and by those seemingly relaxed with the status quo. If we cannot describe ourselves in a way in which best describes our USP, then others will continue to dictate our identity for us.
There is a powerful culture of community aspiration and African centred empowerment but it is sometimes lost under the ‘white noise’, which often permeates our discourse. It is for us to define our culture and like our ancestors, brothers and sisters of the Savanna, who have fought the British, the Boer and now take on big corporations, we should recognize our Afrikan values and strive to embrace and protect them.