The "Lions" that inspire the recent single released by Skip Marley, grandson of the legendary protest singer and self-described "sufferah" Bob Marley, can be found on what was once the flag of Ethiopia. In Rastafari ideology, the Lion of Judah was Emperor Haile Selassie I, the foretold messiah who would save Africans and the diaspora from the excesses of the colonial powers.
Kendall Jenner — Marley's partner on a new Pepsi advertisement featuring "Lions" that hit the web yesterday and was swiftly pulled today — has her own connection to Africa: She's the face of fashion line Mango's Tribal Spirit collection, a line "inspired by the African savannah with an ethnic air." According to Forbes, she made $17 million from modeling deals like this in 2016.
This juxtaposition is at the heart of the controversy surrounding the new Pepsi commercial, which features Jenner – a Kardashian – the first family of American entrepreneurial celebrity. In the clip, Jenner leaves behind her modeling shoot and blond wig, breaking ranks on a vague protest march by handing a handsome white police officer a Pepsi and singlehandedly solving racially motivated police brutality, at least for the moment. It's the kind of milquetoast multiculturalism that only exists in ad-exec boardrooms.
The critiques of the commercial are obvious. It's gallingly tone-deaf — a disrespect to the real injustices that drive people to the streets to argue that their black lives matter. It co-opts the image of Ieshia Evans, the 35-year-old nurse whose dignity and calm as she was arrested this past summer during a protest crystallized racial conflict in America for many. And it aligns the Number 44 company on the Fortune 500 with protests that took root protesting Wall Street, and the massive inequities of the global capitalist system.
We are in a moment when protest is being recognized as a collective social activity that fills the void left by sharp declines in things like union membership, church attendance, and bowling league participation. With one out of every 100 Americans to have reportedly participated in Women’s March, per Quartz, protest is part of our contemporary vernacular.
Given that, this Pepsi advertisement is very much in line with how advertising works — what's in the zeitgeist is where the ad buys go. McDonald's and Burger King began targeting ads towards African Americans in the post-Civil Rights 1970s; Coca-Cola won accolades for featuring a gay couple three years ago. The Fearless Girl statue inspired plenty of glowing thinkpieces—at least until she was revealed to be a prop installed by a fund, State Street, with more than $2.45 trillion in assets under management.
While it's somewhat commendable that these types of advertisements acknowledge the existence of the people they portray, they do so with the caveat that they are now consumers. "We see you," Pepsi is telling protesters enraged by a system that endangers and ignores them. "And have you tried our new zero-calorie Pepsi Max? It's outstanding!"
That is how capitalism takes protest and blunts its potential. When political action is subsumed by the mainstream, we lose track of its target and purpose. We see this when Republican politicians blindly use Bruce Springsteen's Vietnam-protest anthem "Born in the USA" in their campaign stops. We see it when Speaker of the House and "young, prickish, over-coiffed, anal-retentive deficit Robespierre" says he's a fan of Rage Against the Machine. "Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades," Tom Morello once wrote. It's a cognitive dissonance where music's universal appeal sometimes prompts us to overlook its sometimes-specific political agenda.
And inevitably, music winds up caught in the middle of a battle between capital and protest. While protesters trot out old warhorses like "We Shall Overcome" and "Respect," the idea of a protest song in 2017 — when the mainstream music business is so wrapped up with large-scale corporate culture — is complicated. Writing a song like "Lions" and then selling it to a multi-billion-dollar company is both a way to tap into the cultural moment and a way to marginalize the critiques people who might've inspired you in the first place.
The Pepsi advertisement tagline — Live bolder. Live louder. Live for Now — is particularly outrageous given the circumstances at play. Philando Castile cannot buy a Pepsi. Sandra Bland cannot buy a Pepsi. Trayvon Martin was carrying a soft drink when he was murdered in cold blood by George Zimmerman. The advertisement was mercifully pulled. "Clearly we missed the mark," Pepsi said in a public apology after yanking the commercial. But that does not eliminate the blindness that led to its creation in the first place. How are people supposed to "live for now" when they can’t breathe?
Another of Skip Marley’s grandfather's most significant metaphors was the "Babylon System," a Rastafari reference to the decadent civilization of the ancient Middle East that was used to critique modern global empires, where capital accumulation was prioritized over the suffering of slaves and the global poor. "Babylon system is the vampire," he sang. "Sucking the blood of the sufferers." As the cop sucked down his Pepsi and Kendall smirked, I could only wonder how it tasted.
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