Jah Division

Free speech, cultural sovereignty, and human rights clash in reggae dancehall homophobia debate

Here in New York City, gays in clubs win' up to wildly popular reggae dancehall lyrics like "Fire fi de man dem weh go ride man behind," much as older gays pray in churches that condemn homosexuality. A mere dozen or so protesters picketed the sold-out Hot 97 "On da Reggae Tip Live" at Hammerstein Ballroom last September. Why pay mind to the words when the riddim and the vibe sweet yuh so?

But on Sunday, January 29, JAMPACT, an NYC-based Jamaican American civic group, held a panel at St. Francis College composed of Dr. Gordon Shirley, Jamaica's ambassador to the U.S.; Rebecca Schleifer of Human Rights Watch; Jamaican gay activist Larry Chang; and others. Schleifer was asked to address and defend points in her recent report issued by HRW in which she found that widespread homophobia in Jamaica endangers the welfare not only of those at high risk for HIV/AIDS, but also of HIV/AIDS outreach health care workers. Three days later, Amnesty International's OUTfront! program and New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center hosted a panel discussion at LGBT's Manhattan headquarters with representatives from the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), as part of J-FLAG's campaign for support in holding Jamaican authorities accountable for failing to protect the human rights of their LGBT citizens. While dancehall homophobia has been fodder for international headlines lately, "at the Forum, J-FLAG made clear that reggae dancehall's homophobia merely fuels Jamaica's widespread cultural bias against homosexuality and bisexuality," says Alisa Wellek, of the LGBT center.

Following widespread cancellations of dancehall concerts, Sizzla was banned in November from entering the U.K., while he and seven other dancehall artists—Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel, T.O.K., Capleton, and Bounty Killer—were investigated by Scotland Yard after gay activists asserted that their homophobic song lyrics constitute incitement to actual murder. In the U.S., where free speech is less restricted, "Stop Murder Music" had shut down only 30 or so Beenie Man and Capleton dates this past summer and fall, mostly on the West Coast. Meanwhile, U.K. gay activist group OutRage! shifted its "Stop Murder Music" campaign higher up reggae's food chain to retail outlets and record labels like NYC-based reggae indie VP Records. After months of negotiations, gay activist groups, the labels, and promoters announced early this month that they'd reached an agreement, and that the "Stop Murder Music" campaign had been suspended.

Elephant Man
photo: courtesy of Elephant Man
Elephant Man

(photo: courtesy of Capleton)
Reggae may have started out as a poor man's party—a turntable, homemade speakers, and a public light source—but it's grown into Jamaica's survival dream, one shared by politicians, businessmen, and scrawny boys rocking toothbrush microphones. Now that the worldwide debate over what should be a universal right—to love and/or sex the adult of your choice—is focused on that live wire of an island, the dream is threatened, big-time.

New Yorkers—even those who get Jamaican patwah—may dismiss the batty man/chi chi lyrical craze as senseless babble over wicked beats, "but they don't understand what those words mean for us here," says Dr. Nesha Haniff, a volunteer physician with Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS). What those words mean for Jamaica's gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and those trying to help them is detailed in a 79-page report issued November 16 by Human Rights Watch. Titled "Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica's HIV/AIDS Epidemic," it roundly condemns Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, a law mandating up to 10 years hard labour for buggery, the national health ministry, the police force, churches, and the average Jamaican on the street for homophobia so endemic that efforts to control Jamaica's HIV/AIDS epidemic are dramatically compromised. Dancehall is not exempted. The report concludes with sample homophobic song lyrics—in patwah and English translation.

Jamaican scholar Carolyn Cooper, author of Sound Clash, describes the JA dancehall as a place of clashes "for sound systems contending for mastery," and "more broadly . . . [as] a trenchant metaphor for the hostile interfacing of warring zones in Jamaican society." This controversy speaks to an even harder three-way clash—between free speech, cultural sovereignty, and human rights. Should an artist's voice ever be censored? And when is it OK to violate a nation's boundaries, literally or culturally?

Immediately following the one-two punch of "Stop Murder Music" and HRW's report, Jamaica's usually fractious society linked arms—churchman with Rastaman, policeman with ruffneck. Together as one, the nation informed the world, at least in its "outside voice," "First yuh must clean up yuh own backyard before yuh come clean up a next man own, and fi dem backyard more dirty than our own."

That outrage is less surprising than how long it took for dancehall's shit to hit the fan . . . again. The early-'90s furor ignited by Buju Banton's "Boom Bye Bye" had fueled reggae's long-standing (and mostly justified) paranoia by adding "gays who control the international entertainment industry" to the enemies list. Big men a foreign telling we what to do? Come, make we wheel and come again!

Beenie Man
(photo: courtesy of Beenie Man)
Jamaica is playing the neo-colonialism, figurative-expression, and religious-belief cards, but they're no match for universal rights—especially since OutRage! launched "Stop Murder Music" only after a plea for help from J-FLAG, an organization with a necessarily secret membership and HQ.
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