The Trouble with Culture

Part rant, part retrospective, part pissed off-ness for my friend…

The trouble with culture is that it belongs to all of us, yet to no one person—-simultaneously. There are those who may say Ellie Mannette and Rudolph Charles (God res’ de dead) are responsible for the innovation of our beloved pan, does that make Mr. Mannette and Mr. Charles the sole bearers of the culture of pan? No, it doesn’t and as a Trinbagonian, it belongs to the collective registry of all that is part and parcel of our cultural landscape. You can possess it—but you cannot actually own it. But what happened after word got out that the Japanese tried to patent the steelpan shows that whether you can or can’t actually own vestiges of culture, it does matter who tries to do so however.

Sometimes Trinis like to bemoan the alleged carnivalesque nature of our work ethic and you frequently hear other Trinis complaining that it is hard to get anything done properly with our fellow country folk and things along those lines. You hear it all the time and I am not going to dig into that issue/perception right now but the fact is that there are plenty of enterprising sons and daughters of the soil, all over the place, both IN and OUT of our islands, making their mark in a variety of areas. Some are doing so through creatively re-appropriating and re-inventing cultural idioms and images. They’re making art, t-shirts, jewelry, sculpture, music and so on. Which is fine. Good.

Which leads me to wonder, when one is aiming to employ and economize off of a uniquely Trinibagonian aesthetic, does said individual owe anything to the inspiration of their art? Any responsibility to that culture? What about the people therein? If so, how and in what ways? Who is to say what that is? One of the ways to do so is to respect your other countryfolk. Respect their money and respect their interest in your product. They would have after all, more of a vested interest in some of your images than say, people half-way across the world who don’t. (Not that they can’t either but it’s not the same).

Ultimately, I wonder, what is to be the legacy of what you are doing? To just make money? To create a vision about what it means to be from this place called Trinidad and Tobago and make a statement about it—-whatever that is. On your own terms, re-imagining what that means for yourself and the greater cultural landscape at large. Because when you are putting products out there, the people who buy them with a critical eye, will be (and should be) interested in that. Yes, it can just look good too. No, it doesn’t always have to be that complex but I am hopeful that it might because I happen to value complexity.

So there is a clothing company called Coskel University which is partly owned and spearheaded by a Trinidadian. Coskel makes a wide array of women’s, men’s and children’s apparel. Many of their designs employ some vision of a uniquely Trinbagonian aesthetic and their designs are influenced and inspired by the music, culture, flora and fauna of Trinidad and Tobago. Their designs, their Kaiso icons t-shirt series are amazing. David Rudder on a tee is a yay! for me. I even own one of their coat-of-arms university tanks (pre John Legend and pre-stiffing my friend out of money!).

But I question the goal behind their vision the more that I see and hear. A press release statement issued last year, announced the company’s partnership with John Legend’s tour. In the same press release, the company’s statements on the vision of Coskel asserts, “if our product is marketed properly and is stylish the quality will speak for itself and reach the masses even if they are unaware of the culture itself.” Hmmm. Which somehow got me to thinking of that silly Skippy peanut butter ad with the elephant with dreads, wearing a Rasta tam, replete with a bad, pseudo-reggae jingle. If we don’t contextualize our own cultural images, when we put them out there, clearly no one else is going to do it for us. People will do want they want with it anyway! I don’t claim to know how it should be done, I’m just suggesting that if Coskel is selling shirts with Black Stalin and “beat pan” on it, how then, is it okay if people are “unaware of the culture itself?” It has to be two-fold I think, especially when you are capitalizing off a culture. I can’t tell someone what to do with their art, but I can certainly ponder what this means for the ways in which I subsequently view and/or choose to support their product.

On to my friend. A friend of mine, who co-owns and co-runs a small business in East Trinidad, selling all things Caribbean (clothing, accessories, handbags, natural soaps etc.) had placed an order with Coskel, that to this day, hasn’t been fulfilled. There is an outstanding balance of 250 USD still to resolved and the goods, yet to be delivered. Furthermore, to go into all the ins-and-outs of this situation: the e-mails back and forth, the tireless wrangling for what was sent—how many times allegedly by Coskel and the fact that they never ever reached my friend, could be a whole other blog of its own. The fact of the matter is that money was received for goods that have never materialized. NO refund and no product has been forthcoming til this day. And based on what I have heard, gleaned and peeped in e-mail transmissions and the like, I can’t help but see their dealings with this small business venture in Trinidad, as indicative of their broader product culture. I bet if this was some large-scale retailer in Asia courting them, the outcome of this scenario would be very different. Plain talk.

Extend to them, the same courtesies and opportunities and presumably prompt service, that you do to foreigners. In between the global expansion and while you are slapping the national coat of arms on a shirt, how do you not see the relevance in selling your product in said homeland and investing in doing so. Or to quote Sizzla Kalonji, “dance ah yard—before yuh dance abroad.” To my knowledge Coskel has been courted by a certain Syrian-Lebanese enterprise in Trinidad (a deal which didn’t materialize for whatever reason) but the brand has yet to set up any kind of showroom and be regularly stocked anywhere in Trinidad or Tobago, least of all by my friends for whom the order and the money is still outstanding to.

This does not mean that the brand is “limited by [its] Trinidadian culture” (from the Oct 31st 2008, John Legend and Band to wear Coskel University Clothing press release statement) but serving Trini retailers large OR small, locates the brand squarely there, literally and figuratively, much in the way that the brand is “defined by its cultural references.” There is nothing wrong with that. For instance, you can go to Jamaica and encounter lots and lots of people wearing the brand Cooyah. We can also find it on the streets of Port-of-Spain just as much.

You would be hard pressed to find the same amount of Coskel anywhere in TnT, at any time, because there’s nowhere to get it easily. It’s mind boggling that a world-expanding Trinbago-inspired brand, with a base in Brooklyn, New York could be so hard to access in Trinidad and Tobago. Similarly, the company’s website touts Coskel as a response to “Caribbean-themed apparel…from the Bob [Marley] or beaches viewpoint” (in the company profile) yet the company has no kind of recognizable presence within Trinidad and Tobago, on par with what they have set-up elsewhere.

Personally, as I have assessed everything, I would rather buy any new funky tank tops or t-shirt digs from local artists like Tanya Williams (among others) and other lines that show a real interest in locating their Trini specific products in Trinidad, about as much as they are intent on making a splash in the rest of the world. Not just Trini, but I would quicker support any West Indian cultural product or other product that does so. Which is also why I buy fair trade shea butter from an African booth in the flea market. West African women (and their communities) who cultivate karite have as much a right to benefit from the reach and popularity of shea butter around the world as anyone else.

Finally, Coskel can ultimately do what they want, where they want, with their own product. But the ways in which they fail to integrate the Trinbagonian market in any way is slightly problematic because of the way in which the Japanese aesthetic (the other half of the Coskel duo) is not as prominent as the other, nor is the product entirely marketed as such. Their products are marketed and located admittedly within a Trinbagonian aesthetic. Naturally, there is more money to be made elsewhere and one’s culture is only exoticized and fetishized outside the homeland, not in it. But there are several generations of Trinbagonians right now, reclaiming some kind of Trinbagonian aesthetic and placing a high value on it, just as they do with other Western brands. Which is a good thing.

Somehow Coskel is already in the works of a distribution deal, factory and store in China (which may or may not be up and running already). And they are big in de dance in Japan. Good fuh allyuh. But they still are yet to fulfill their order in Trinidad or grant my friends the money and/or goods that has been supposedly coming to them for the longest while. 2007 was  when my friend last tussled over this and they haven’t heard anything from Coskel since then. Or seen a refund. I won’t be surprised if one day, I see Coskel on the racks at Wal-Mart stores worldwide (hopefully by then, people will be able to distinguish between Stalin the dictator and Stalin the great calypsonian) but in the meantime, before that happens, I hope they find the time to give my friends their blasted money!

In Trinidad? Check out the D’Caribbean Culture Shack for all things Caribbean and Caribbean oriented [except Coskel apparently] Give them a call at  @ 377-9869/748-1927. Find them on facebook groups and fan pages and see what’s new in stock!

D' Caribbean Culture Shack
D’ Caribbean Culture Shack

 Citing for Coskel’s press release statement:

 ok, on a related side-note to ALL ah dis. This comment was left below on my “about” page. Why not as a comment under here? *shrug* Didn’t see the comment link, didn’t care to….who knows. Either way I really didn’t want us going into a whole diatribe about this THERE cause that’s not the place to. So after several days of irking me from the “about” page, I just copied them from there, deleted the posts and reproduced them for anyone concerned about where the[ir] comment/s went.

person David Hubert says on:

May 18, 2009 at 2:24 pm

I read your article about “The problem with culture” and wile I understand your point of view, I wholeheartedly disagree. More so much of your information is incorrect feel free to drop me an email I will be more than happy to discus your views in further detail, or even have a phone convo about the subject

Then I said this on:

May 18, 2009 at 4:23 pm

hmmm…what is incorrect specifically? the fact that coskel did receive money from my friend’s business [which i know for a fact that they did], that they in turn didn’t receive the goods? [which i know for a fact that they didn’t and there’s an e-mail trail to prove both]. the fact that coskel ISN’T as engaged in the trinbagonian market on the same scale as they are elsewhere—cause if they are, it must be way under the radar cause no one i know of, seems to know that. the fact that i am musing about cultural capitalism and the ways in which people may or may not engage in that practice? musings, last i checked are more or less substantiated [or unsubstantiated] opinions and renderings.

if i’m wrong about the product culture of coskel then it’s only because i am locating my view based on what i have seen [and heard and know and read] of their practices thus far: in regard to a friend vs. their global [asian] expansions etc. when i KNOW otherwise–i’ll FEEL otherwise.

if you disagree with specific points about what i have written, i’d rather if you posted as a comment to THAT blog and take the discussion there, respond as a comment under “the trouble with culture” and i’ll be happy to address your concerns there. otherwise: phone conversations and e-mails are really not warranted or necessary. if you happen to be connected to coskel—i am hardly the person that you need to be e-mailing or talking to on the phone.

Then Lin had her say:

May 18, 2009 at 5:03 pm

Who are you Mr David Hubert as far as what is written in this blog everything is on point nothing is incorrect and if you want to challenge me talk to our lawyers.

Drama fuh yuh mama y’all. <— My final assessment.


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