The launch of a new rum brand by actor Michael B. Jordan, originally called “J’Ouvert,” was met with immediate backlash and accusations of cultural appropriation over its name.
A series of social media posts on Instagram showed the “Black Panther” star celebrating the new brand over the weekend. Among the congratulatory posts featuring the rum were Instagram stories from Jordan’s girlfriend Lori Harvey.
The posts also included photos of a boxed set containing cigars, a bottle of rum, two bottles of Angostura Bitters and other ingredients that could be used to make a cocktail.
However, as the photos began to spread online, so did outrage from many in the Caribbean community who took offense at the use of the word J’Ouvert for a brand by someone who has no known Caribbean heritage.
J’Ouvert (pronounced joo-vay) is a central part of Carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago as well as other countries in the Caribbean. An Antillean French term derived from the word jour ouvert, meaning “open day” or “day break”, it is a deeply symbolic pre-dawn event that was introduced by formerly enslaved Africans after emancipation.
Today, the large early morning street celebration marks the start of Carnival not only in the Caribbean but throughout the diaspora and is of great cultural significance.
“It’s not about capitalism for us, it’s about liberation. It evokes a deep spiritual reaction within us. The word is sacred to Caribbean people,” said Caribbean American blogger and podcaster, Jamie Alleyne-Morris, popularly known as Jay Blessed.
Since the online backlash began, the social media pages and website for J’Ouvert rum have been made private, so Jordan’s exact role as part of the brand was not made clear. However, the celebratory photos and congratulatory messages to the superstar on the rum’s launch were enough to spark controversy.
Some believe that the anger is misplaced because Jordan reportedly has a Trinidadian business partner named Scott Robert Williams, with whom he already shares a business venture called ‘Las’ Lap’, a rum bar in New York City. Our attempts to reach Williams for comment were not successful.
However, in addition to claims of cultural appropriation, there are intellectual property concerns as well. A trademark application for the word J’Ouvert to be used in connection with alcoholic beverages filed via the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) was also shared to social media and only added to the outrage.
Many, including Jay Blessed, also pointed out that a portion of the filing states that “the wording J’Ouvert has no known meaning in a foreign language,” despite it being a longstanding coined cultural term with great historical value.
Blessed, a Trinidad & Tobago native, started a change.org petition calling for the trademark filing to be dismissed and for Jordan to count his new entrepreneurial venture as a loss. In just two days the petition has garnered over 11,000 signatures.
“It will be really hard for them to gain the trust of Caribbean people, if they don’t do something genuine. Something that is measurable and that is tangible to contribute to the preservation of the culture that they’re choosing to capitalize off,” she told ESSENCE.
The pending federal trademark application for the word “J’Ouvert” for use in connection with alcoholic beverages has Louis Ryan Shaffer listed as the trademark owner. It is not known whether he is connected to Jordan’s brand. Our attempts to reach Shaffer by email for comment were not returned.
Trademark attorney Ozelle Martin explained to ESSENCE that trademark rights are territorial, and, therefore, someone who owns rights to a United States federal trademark via trademark registration may not have rights to that particular trademark in other countries, unless they seek registration in each of those countries.
“It is also important to note that much of the outrage stems from the fact that persons believe that trademark registration gives someone the unlimited right to ‘own’ a word regardless of circumstance or context. This is a common misconception but fortunately, this is not how trademark registration works,” she said.
However, Martin, a U.S. based attorney raised on the island of St.Kitts says she does understand why Caribbean people are concerned by this filing for the word J’Ouvert, despite the registration for rights to be used only in connection with the sale of alcoholic beverages.
“There are always exceptions to laws. There are West Indians who host carnival related activities in the United States and they are concerned that they may encounter difficulty when trying to federally register brand names that contain the term ‘J’Ouvert’ for their various entertainment events or brands. In my view, their concerns could be valid,” she said.
The declaration that “J’Ouvert” has no known meaning in a foreign language came from an examining attorney at the USPTO, Martin pointed out. A transliteration (i.e. a translation of a word or phrase) was initially provided with the application, connecting “J’Ouvert” with its known Caribbean meaning. However, the USPTO attorney amended the application stating that the term has no English equivalent.
“As a West Indian, I understand why this part of the application would raise an eyebrow because it ignites a conversation on coined cultural terms in foreign languages and their significance in US trademark law,” Martin pointed out to ESSENCE.
Carla Parris, a Trinidad-based entertainment attorney and host of the web and TV series “The Business of Carnival” has long advocated for the Caribbean entertainment industry to prioritize brand protection and hopes that this situation will bring about change.
“I am hoping that the move to trademark ‘J’Ouvert’ will cause discourse amongst our governmental agencies and cultural organisations within the Caribbean diaspora on another area of IP law called Traditional Cultural Expressions and Traditional Knowledge (TCEs),” she said.
“My consistent theme to creative entrepreneurs and corporate agencies in the entertainment industry has been that passionate discourse about infringement without meaningful action amounts to wasted time and energy, in addition to money spent reactively on litigation rather than proactively on IP protection,” Parris added.
Early Wednesday morning, Jordan issued a statement via his Instagram stories.“I just want to say on behalf of myself and my partners, our intention was never to offend or hurt a culture (we love and respect) and hoped to celebrate and shine a positive light on,” he explained, noting that he’s spent the last few days learning and engaging in community conversations.
The actor also apologized, adding “I hear you & want to be clear that we are in the process of renaming. We sincerely apologize and look forward to introducing a brand we can all be proud of.”