From todays Guardian:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayre ... 75,00.html
Pride and prejudice
Their gigs have been cancelled all over the world and their names withdrawn from awards. But Jamaica's dancehall stars refuse to apologise for - or even stop singing - songs that encourage the murder of gay people. Alexis Petridis travels to the Caribbean and discovers a culture that can't see a problem, let alone a solution
Friday December 10, 2004
Looking at their offices, it is difficult to believe that Supreme Promotions is the company behind Sting, Jamaica's most celebrated music festival. Supreme is situated above an extremely insalubrious-looking beauty parlour. The reception area most closely resembles a cab office. A host of men sit on mismatched plastic chairs, watching a small television. They seem a bit sullen, but there's always the chance they have been stunned into silence by the decor. Amid the bright orange stippling and wonkily-painted friezes, an open door reveals a tiny office, crammed with people, some of whom are having a loud argument, some of whom are singing and playing acoustic guitars and one of whom is attempting to make a telephone call. It looks like bedlam to me, but my host, a voluble man called Dennis Howard, clearly sees nothing out of the ordinary. "Some real talent in there," he nods, by way of explanation.
Like everyone else I meet in the Jamaican music industry, Howard is a "generalist". His job description lasts about 10 minutes and takes in everything from television producer to artist manager to record producer to journalist. He is famous both as a DJ on Irie FM and as a publicist called upon to defend Sting in the Jamaican press when last year's festival ended in a riot. In the aftermath, the Jamaica Observer accused dancehall artists of marketing "degenerative perversity".
Yet even the post-Sting press furore has been dwarfed by the controversy surrounding Jamaican dancehall and homophobia, something Howard claims he has been warning artists about "for years". People have known about and protested against dancehall artists' homophobic lyrics since the early 1990s, when Buju Banton had a Jamaican hit with Boom Bye-Bye, a song advocating shooting and burning homosexuals. In the past six months, however, the protest against homophobic dancehall has gained momentum.
No one seems entirely sure why the campaign of letter-writing and event picketing, headed by UK pressure group OutRage!, has suddenly started yielding results, but you can only gawp at its new-found effectiveness. Since July, 30 US concerts by Beenie Man have been cancelled, as have seven US concerts by Capleton, a Scandanavian tour and four other European dates by Buju Banton, two UK tours and a San Francisco show by Sizzla, two European dates by Bounty Killer and a Reggae in the Park festival scheduled to be held at Wembley Arena.
OutRage's Peter Tatchell says that the campaign has, thus far, "probably cost the singers, promoters and venues in the region of £5m". In addition, Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel had their nominations for Mobo Awards withdrawn, the Urban Music Awards' Best Reggae Act category was cancelled and Beenie Man was questioned by police on arrival at Heathrow Airport. In a matter of weeks, Peter Tatchell has become Jamaica's most unlikely household name.
While you cannot deny the Stop Murder Music campaign's accomplishments in Europe and America, it has been rather less effective in Jamaica. The day after Beenie Man's UK label Virgin cobbled together a statement purporting to offer "sincerest apologies" from the singer, Clyde MacKenzie, from Beenie Man's management company Shocking Vibes, told Radio Jamaica that it was not a specific apology to gay people, that it was initiated by Virgin Records and that Beenie Man reserved his right to continue criticising the "homosexual lifestyle". Two weeks later, according to the Jamaica Observer, Beenie Man denied that he had apologised, then performed several anti-gay songs at aconcert at James Bond Beach in Oracabessa. Similarly, Bounty Killer and Sizzla have refused to apologise.
In October, a group of companies known for sponsoring events in Jamaica issued a statement expressing "concern about the content and tone" of dancehall and agreeing "to develop a code of conduct" for artists, but a spokesman for Jamaica's lesbian and gay rights group J-Flag says no one has contacted their organisation to discuss it further. The spokesman talks to me only on the grounds that I do not publish his name; J-Flag decline to publish their address on their website "due to the potential for violent retributions" in a society where gay sex is still illegal. "One would think that if you were going to create such a code of conduct, it really should be done in collaboration with human rights organisations, such as J-Flag, but so far, we haven't been contacted at all."
The disparity between the Stop Murder Music's success in the UK and in Jamaica seems worth investigating - after all, the ultimate aim of the campaign is to improve the quality of life for gay and lesbian Jamaicans - which is why I'm in the offices of Supreme Promotions, listening to Dennis Howard explain why dancehall is so given to homophobia. It is, he says, all about artists getting a response from the audience called "a forward" during live shows.
"If you are a DJ, a performer in dancehall, you cannot just go onstage and they applaud you, it's not that kind of concert. During the performance, you have to get a forward, which is people holding up their hand or lighters and cheering. They know they'll get a response by talking about a set of things, some of them commendable. It is not homosexuality alone. It is abortion, police informers, paedophiles, rapists, bowcat (which is oral sex). So if the performance is not going well, they say: 'Hold up yuh hand if yuh nuh like battyman, hold up yuh hand if yuh nuh suck ****, yuh nuh bowcat.' I'm not defending them, because although I'm one of dancehall's biggest supporters, I've been one of their biggest critics, but they're not literally saying kill a battyboy or step on the chi chi man, you understand? It's metaphorical. They have been saying 'informer fi dead', 'bowcat fi dead' for a long time, but they don't literally mean it. It's annoying what the DJs are doing because they are just pandering to the crowd and it's uncreative, but you can't take it in the same context as when someone in your culture does it."
The reasoning behind the homophobic lyrics is unlikely to find much favour with OutRage! Howard says that he has advised artists to "censor" themselves because Jamaica has always been tolerant of homosexuality and the dancehall DJs lyrics give a false impression. "Yes, there is homophobia here, but coupled with that homophobia is a tolerance. We are one of the most tolerant societies in the world. In every community, there are identified homosexuals that are tolerated. There is an anti-gay stance in Jamaica, but it has never been seriously violent. I'm not going to tell you it hasn't been violent, but not so as people die.
"I think a lot of this hysteria and paranoia is being fed by organisations like J-Flag, in their zeal to assert themselves and assert homosexuality in Jamaica, and also the fear that they are persecuted, which they are. But nobody don't kill them. Homosexual deaths in this country are perpetuated by homosexuals. There are famous cases in this country where people are murdered by their lovers. They are heinous and vicious, they cut up people, stab them up, cut them up and throw them all over the place, but nobody talks about that."
Howard dismisses last month's grim report from the US-based Human Rights Watch - which found that violent acts against homosexuals "ranging from beatings to brutal armed attacks to murder" are commonplace, that police harass and physically abuse homosexuals and that "pervasive and virulent homophobia" is contributing to the island's Aids epidemic - as the work of "a ridiculous gay rights group talking all kinds of crap".
Howard's arguments seem a fairly representative example of mainstream Jamaican public opinion. Homophobia seems utterly entrenched in the island's culture, thanks to a combination of the same kind of swaggering machismo that informs hip-hop, and, more seriously, religion. Jamaica has more churches per capita than anywhere else on earth, most of them preaching a brand of Christianity that would seem pretty familiar to your average US Bible-belt fundamentalist. As a side order, there's Rastafarianism, particularly the hard-line bobo ashanti variety adopted by current reggae stars including Sizzla and Capleton. As well as believing in racial segregation, bobo Rastas go in for a fire-and-brimstone reading of the Old Testament that makes Jamaican Christianity look liberal.
Over four days in Kingston, I hear every justification of homophobia imaginable, everything from semantic quibbling ("We can't be homophobic," one person tells me, "because phobia means fear and we aren't afraid of them") to the belief that the Stop Murder Music campaign is a kind of racist post-colonial plot. I'm told over and over again that Jamaica is a tolerant society and that homosexual murders, including the fatal stabbing of Jamaica's leading gay rights activist Brian Williamson in June, were not hate crimes, but the result of lovers' tiffs.
What I never hear is any suggestion that the Stop Murder Music campaign has done anything to change Jamaican views about homosexuality. "Various people have spoken up against human rights abuses of gay people," says J-Flag's spokesman, "but virtually everyone who has spoken up has qualified it by saying, 'Well, I don't like gay people myself, but I don't feel they should be discriminated against in any way.' Do I see that as a step forward? Definitely." According to a producer and artist called Yogie, "I don't think the man on the street cares too much. As much as music is an important part of the culture, the price of flour is more important than music or what artists say."
Of all the people I meet, Yogie is the most dismissive of the Stop Murder Music campaign's effect on the Jamaican record business. He laughs at the idea that the country's music industry might be in crisis. Although his own releases have nothing in common either musically or lyrically with dancehall - they sound like a charming update of the romantic sub-genre lover's rock - he represents the reggae underground, artists who are stars in Jamaica but virtually unknown outside the island. He says that most reggae artists make a living in Jamaica alone, touring and voicing "specials" - tracks commissioned for exclusive use at Jamaican dances - and are at best unconcerned, at worst actively provoked by the campaign.
"Artists are affected if they have a corporate company involved. You take an artist out of that and he doesn't care. He can stay right here and make more money on his computer. Artists might care if England was their food basket, but it's not like most artists go to England a lot - perhaps three times a year or less. And Europe's not the only market for reggae. There's Africa, Japan, South America. There's Middle Eastern countries that listen and support reggae. And in the Middle East, they support a lot of the views being expressed here."
The Jamaican record business has always been something of a law unto itself. You can see its refusal to conform to the standards of other countries' music industries in everything from the chaos of the Supreme Promotions offices to the reggae tradition of "versioning" - releasing endless strings of records with the same backing track. It has spent 40 years making stars out of the sort of people who wouldn't get past a record company's security guards in any other country and turning records that would never get a chance anywhere else in the world into hits. Why should the Jamaican music industry start caring about what anyone outside Jamaica thinks about their music or their morality now?
Like punk or early rock'n'roll, reggae has always thrived on its outlaw status, even within Jamaican society: the country's all-reggae radio station Irie FM was only founded in 1990. For Jamaica's vast rump of underground artists, the Stop Murder Music campaign is merely something else to react against. "Based on some of the issues, there have been new songs recorded, songs of defiance," says Howard." 'We're not bowing, we're not apologising', that kind of thing. What happens in the underground should stay in the underground, because the underground will never change. They will talk about battyman until them blue."
For MacKenzie, however, the situation is different. Beenie Man was not an underground Jamaican artist, but a star who earned the bulk of his living overseas. He had duetted with Janet Jackson and was teetering on the brink of a global breakthrough before the business of his lyrics about executing all the gays and hanging lesbians became a hot topic. As he sits in a hotel's poolside bar, MacKenzie chooses his words carefully, as befits the manager of an international artist, but his views on Jamaican homophobia are essentially the same as everyone else I meet. Jamaica, he says, is "particularly tolerant towards people who are not heterosexual". The Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports about gay men and women being beaten and murdered are "raw propaganda that has no basis in fact".
The Stop Murder Music campaign has had an effect in Jamaica, but not perhaps the one OutRage are looking for. There has been a backlash against it, a hardening of anti-gay attitudes. Previously critical of dancehall artists, the church has now bonded with them. MacKenzie says he finds the incitements to homophobic violence in dancehall lyrics "reprehensible from a personal standpoint", but it's "done in a very jocose way, not with any intent to damage or harm. When you move these expressions from one culture to another some of what it might deem to say may seem quite alarming. Because of that, we have had some real problems."
Perhaps the biggest of these problems is the matter of artists apologising for the anti-gay sentiments in their songs. According to the OutRage! website, it is a prerequisite for ending their campaign. According to MacKenzie, it isn't going to happen. There is a widespread belief in Kingston that when the argument about dancehall homophobia first erupted in the early 1990s, Shabba Ranks, then the biggest star in reggae, made conciliatory overtures to pro-gay pressure groups and thus ended his career overnight. Faced with a choice between success in a fickle global market, or maintaining a fanbase at home, most reggae stars would apparently opt for the latter, believing that international success stems from success in Jamaica.
"I think that almost all artists are of the opinion that an apology would have a negative impact on their careers in Jamaica," says MacKenzie. "Whether that is so, I'm not entirely sure. I think that Jamaican people might be more understanding of the international context in which the thing has been done. That said, I think the whole prospect of being accused of bowing is something that every artist is mindful of."
The result, in Jamaica at least, is stalemate. The underground dancehall artists don't care. The biggest stars are unwilling to change for fear of damaging their careers at home. In any case, they genuinely think they have the moral upper hand. "They can't ask me to apologise," said Sizzla recently. "They've got to apologise to God because they break God's law." Back in London, I speak to Tatchell. He mentions that OutRage! and the Black Gay Men's Advisory Committee have had "constructive and hopeful dialogue with leading diplomatic and trade officials at the Jamaican High Commission".
Tatchell says the Stop Murder Music campaign has succeeded in provoking debate in Jamaica, but concedes that, in the short term at least, the debate may have made life more difficult for the country's gay population. "There was a very similar effect produced by the black civil rights movement in the deep South. It provoked a backlash, the number of church burnings and lynchings went up. It was a tragic but necessary process to go through in order to vanquish white racism." He points out that the campaign has succeeded, at least, in stopping "these artists gaining a toehold in Britain and the US and spreading their vile homophobic poison across the world", but it could achieve more. "If we did succeed in ending all the incitements to violence in dancehall music, it wouldn't solve all the problems, but it would help reduce the popularisation of calls to kill gays and lesbians." At the moment, that seems like a very big if.
07.11.2004: 'Murder music' stars dropped
07.11.2004: Mary Riddell: The roots of prejudice
08.09.2004: Mobo drops gay hate acts
03.11.2004: Barman's murder brings call to ban homophobic singer
31.08.2004: Peter Tatchell: It isn't racist to target Beenie Man
26.08.2004: Joseph Harker: Hands off the Mobos
28.08.2004: Mobo voters to decide on 'anti-gay' stars
25.08.2004: White voices, black music and American accents
17.08.2004: Beenie Man could face charges for 'homophobic' lyrics
04.08.2004: Jamaican star apologises for 'hurtful' lyrics
25.06.2004: Beenie Man concert axed over homophobia fears
15.01.2004: Jamaican chart topper hurt in car accident
26.06.2004: Chilling call to murder as music attacks gays
01.08.2004: Beenie Man, Back to Basics
Beenie Man's official site
Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays