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Various articles on music for The Village Voice

Jah Division

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

by Elena Oumano
February 15th, 2005

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.

(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.


"Homophobic utterances are among the quickest and easiest ways to get a 'forward' [cheers, lighters, and flaming torches]," says dancehall singer Tanya Stephens. "I have seen this industry go through so many phases of stupidity, I no longer even pay attention. It would seem as if it's a moral issue based on our religious heritage, but in the midst of all the 'batty man' burning, many guys handing down 'moral' judgments are openly discussing threesomes they happily partake in with two girls!"


Yet Jamaica can't be dismissed as a bunch of third-world yahoos impeding the march of the Enlightened to higher ground. Jamaicans are a unique people in unique circumstances, and it's in the details of their story that some deeper understanding of the global debate about homosexuality can be drawn.


We're talking about an island of nearly 4,500 square miles, holding 2.7 million descendants of Africans who drifted 4,000 miles from home, tuned into Miami and New Orleans radio as well as to Cuban airwaves, and created a musical culture that's become a central pillar in the world's continuing refusal of the neo-colonial Massa.


From the first days of slavery, communities of Maroons—escaped slaves and free blacks—fought back, first against the Spanish, then the British. From hiding places in mountain bush, Maroon guerrillas rolled on the ground and leaped in the air. One shooter seemed like several to British militia struggling single file up steep trails, terrorized by taunts, beating drums, the abeng horn's eerie call to arms, and the certainty of being picked off, one by one. By the mid 1700s, the colonial government was forced to treat with the Maroons, granting them freedom and a limited sovereignty they retain to this day.


The dancehall DJ is heir to Maroon resistance, making him not only a voice of the people, but also a taunting griot-warrior, and making the Jamaican dancehall more than a "forget your troubles and dance" party, more than even economic survival. Dancehall is a place of national myth, of rituals affirming triumph over the oppressor.


Slavery and colonialism are gone, but Jamaica's 1962 independence masked the economic abandonment of an absentee plantation worked past profitability. The queen gifted her former colony, though, bequeathing Jamaica her church, Bible, and buggery laws. That little-old-lady-in-the-Cotswolds mentality is more recent, and therefore, more vivid in the Jamaican consciousness than any dim genetic recollections of pre-colonial Africa. Even the Rastaman who rejects church as part of the Babylonian West is not immune. Folded into his message of black self-reliance (and for some, separatism) and an African utopia is good old-fashioned King Jamesian fire and brimstone for Babylonian abominations like homosexuality. Yet mounting academic research suggests that the West's legacy to Africa is homophobia, not homosexuality. Yes, Buju, Beenie, and Bounty—gays, lesbians, and bisexuals lived comfortably alongside heteros in many African tribes, long before the white man.


The U.S. hasn't served its neighbor well either. After undermining Jamaica's socialist economic policies in the '70s, then offering International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans with onerous terms that tanked that nation's economy, we unleashed a flood of X-rated images on Jamaica via satellite and cable TV. Suddenly, Jamaicans were witnessing gays revamping straights, Oprah freaking over the "down low," and HBO flinging the window open on all manner of sexual kinkiness. JA's newspapers used to report relatively mild tales of country virgins seduced by parish preachers. Now the tabloids are bursting with sex ads and accounts of bisexual and gay orgies, ghetto boys selling their bodies, unsuspecting women infected with HIV/AIDS by bisexual partners, and Christmas barrels sent home stuffed with foreign porn.


Jamaica's own leaders also have a lot to answer for. In the '70s, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) armed their respective voting blocs. One day, kids from Trench Town's First and Eighth streets were shooting marbles together; the next, they were aiming guns at each other across jagged glass-topped concrete walls. When Jamaica became a major stop along cocaine's route from South to North America, gang leaders spun out of the politicians' control and became drug posse dons. Kingston's downtown devolved into a series of bleak, end-of-the-world districts run by dons with loose alliances to ministers of parliament, like Rema, with its four-story "high rises" that allow gunmen to fire on enemies below and its blood-soaked field that ends where a rusted-out car chassis blocks the lane leading into enemy turf. A huge percentage of the young men in Kingston's inner city is unemployed, education is a luxury, and the per capita murder rate has skyrocketed to more than five times that of the U.S. Yet Kingston's ghettos have a raw glamour of their own, mostly from a mother lode of reggae musical talent—"more stars than Hollywood," says Bunny Wailer.


Reggae may be a testament to the transforming powers of a conscious underclass, but the day-to-day ghetto grind testifies to countless ills bred by poverty and post-traumatic slavery and colonialism disorder. Young men unable to make a living and raise families suffer from a fragile sense of masculinity. With no outlet for all that cyclonic energy, what's left but church, territorial warfare, and/or controlling women with your big bamboo? Homosexual sex doesn't fit this picture; it becomes yet another way to rob the black man of his manhood.


Dancehall and its artists come from this place of dispossession and loss, not from the palm-shaded civility of Kingston's gated uptown communities. And young ghetto girls and boys are prey to those uptown top rankings. "A lot of guys come into the ghetto and influence little boys with clothes and shoes and them things, then molest them," says Beenie Man, who claims his lyrics target child abusers only. "I man nah response fi who you want, as long as him a big man. It's all about the youth." Beenie Man was born and raised in Craig Town. Elephant Man and Bounty Killer come from Seaview Gardens, Buju from Barbican, Sizzla from August Town, and so on.

Buju Banton, whose early-'90s song "Boom Bye Bye" ignited the fury
(photo: courtesy of Buju Banton)
Beenie Man's argument may be disingenuous, but the dancehall fraternity answers to forces far more powerful than record labels, Human Rights Watch, and a gay entertainment lobby combined. That fraternity is so spooked by potential fallout at home that some "out" each other as a preemptive strategy. But onstage homophobic tirades and self-inoculation don't always work. Beenie Man is a prime target both of gay activists and his peers. After a mid-'90s appearance on The RuPaul Show, rumors questioning Beenie Man's sexuality whipped around Planet Reggae and persist to this day. Even PJ the PM is not immune. During the 2002 election, opposition JLP leader Edward Seaga adopted T.O.K.'s "Chi Chi Man" as his campaign theme song and strongly implied in speeches that the prime minister is gay. Like PJ, who felt compelled to state publicly that Jamaica's buggery law will not be repealed, dancehall's eight are stuck between the rock of OutRage! and the much harder place of their constituency.


Some Jamaicans opine that the island's usual tolerance for all manner of outré self-expression was beginning to extend to the island's homosexuals before OutRage! forced its hand. Angelo Ellerbee, an NYC African American publicist who's worked over the decades with Bounty Killer, Shabba Ranks, and others, is openly gay and always states "at the door that this is who I am; you can buy or not." They've always bought. Gays work and party with members of the Dancehall Eight—no problem, mon.


But no one's stepping out of reggae's closet yet. "Jus' 'low one" has yet to extend to open cruising, drag queens and kings parading down Jamaica's streets, or even simple statements of identity. Women who "act like lesbians" risk rape, and gay men risk blackmail, especially by the police. One Kingston attorney says his client roster always includes at least one man faced with that dilemma.


Yet when you consider that England only abolished its buggery laws in 1967 and the American Psychiatric Association deleted homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders a mere six years later, it's a wonder this tiny and youthful nation with its own tremendous cultural energy doesn't implode from all the self-righteous outside pressure.


Dancehall's eight will not—cannot—apologize, despite a collective income loss, according to OutRage!, of over $9 million, and the agreement isn't asking them to. In a country that boasts of more churches per capita than any other, few artists can do more than reflect their culture. But biblical citations re homosexuality aren't washing with OutRage!, particularly since dancehall overlooks the Bible's Mosaic law permitting slavery. And it doesn't help to explain that sound bwoys have been threatening to "murder" each other with music at mobile disco clashes ever since Coxsonne Dodd's set first took on Duke Reid's.


Sizzla's arrest under Jamaica's Town and Country Act for "using bad words" during his performance at Jamaica East Fest on Christmas is not the first: Lady Saw and Bounty Killer were arrested under the act several years ago. The government's sudden renewed interest in dancehall could be a sign that it's about to clamp down on any performer whose words threaten to kill off the reggae dancehall cash cow.


"They've won," says VP Records consultant Maxine Stowe, of "Stop Murder Music." Stowe would like to see more summits between gay activists and Jamaicans, especially since the current agreement is fragile. The U.K.'s Guardian wrote on February 5 that the reggae industry has "agreed to ban future material that could be seen as inciting violence against gays and lesbians."

But VP Records CEO Randy Chin says, "This agreement is not about censorship. To interpret it as such distorts the intent and substance of the agreement. It's about consensus, cooperation, and working together on resolving issues as they come up. We've acknowledged there's issues with some songs, but reggae is bigger than that. Neither side has an interest in continuing the 'Stop Murder Music' campaign."


In the U.S. and U.K. at least, "Jus' 'low one" ("just allow a man"—live and let live) got the last word. Dancehall's eight have been handed a way out of this mess. Sizzla once asked if he could "make it in America." Yes, he and the other artists in question can: but only if they leave the "inside voice" at home.


Elena Oumano is working on a book about dancehall culture.


More by Elena Oumano
Love and Haiti
Wyclef Jean sends a swirling Creole valentine and relief to his homeland


Gates of Zion
Mixing up the medicine and thinking about the government
Is It Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan


Mighty-Mite Rude-Bwoy Gal Explodes Gender Boundaries
Tanya Stephens, Gangsta Blues


Stick to You Like Glue
Shaggy's Lucky Day; Sean Paul's Dutty Rock


From The Village Voice, September 2004: on
Is It Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan

Eyes wide shut against pluming ganja smoke, the spliffn’ rastaman and Dylan both elevate cantankerousness with a spiritual bent, but the closing track of “Is It Rolling Bob, a reggae remix of “I and I,” featuring Dylan’s original vocals, proves no one does him better. Still, this collection of tropical warriors challenges World Bank-ravaged Jamaica’s status quo--an even more bruised context than disgruntled middle Amerika for Dylanesque ironies and disjointed juxtapositions...if the roots rebels get them. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” takes the piss out of an unrecognizably sweet Michael Rose, Black Uhuru’s soldierly front man and reggae’s most intimidating locksman, and Beres Hammond smoothes all the neat pleats and twists of “Just Like A Woman.” Others bring their own convictions to Dylan’s vision rather than enshrine it. Toots’s old-time soul fortifies “Maggie’s Farm” with an anti-Massa meditation, and Sizzla’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” turns Bleecker Street pyschedelia into Heart of Darkness nightmare. For “The Times They Are A-Changing,”Apple Gabriel’s breaking vocals transpose Dylan’s dust bowl twang from prophecy to threat. But Dominica’s Nasio Fontaine, stands proudest alongside the Master and Jah, on the high ground of “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

--Elena Oumano

From The Village Voice, August 2004: on Tanya Stephens, “Gangsta Blues”
Reggae seems mostly man’s work, unless you count harmony sweetening, which I don’t. Blame apron strings tied to Jamaica’s shaky economics, the Church and Rastafari’s shared dictums on woman-as-rib decorum, and the fact that few females can pull off the macho edginess and refusal of all but penis work that underlies even lighthearted dancehall raunch. Lady Saw is a feisty exception, but bound as she is by her batty rider, I can’t imagine Saw unleashing a heartfelt, “I hate you so much right now!”

I don’t have to imagine that or any other raw sentiment from Tanya Stephens. Gangsta Blues, the third CD from the diminutive but deep-voiced powerhouse--takes reggae “way back” to its creative source, as the title track promises, at the same time opening up and rocking dancehall hard with the strength of Tanya’s literate mind. Recorded in Jamaica following her 3 year sentence of voicing alt-rock in Sweden, Blues is all about the liberating brain flash that brought the dancehall queen back: If it’s all blues, why can’t it be all dancehall? Ain’t everyt’ing everyt’ing?

Take “Other Cheek,” an achingly personalized primer on Jamaica’s social, economic, and political ills. Forgoing the easy slogans and demonizing of politicians that win knee-jerk audience calls “to bu’n fiah,” Tanya gently backs Jamaica’s P.M. into her corner with a husky, rub-a-dub-styled vocal that breathes an urgent litany of suffering. And P.J. Patterson must take pause at the vocalized pain of “Sound of My Tears”--all the more gut-twisting for the breaking toughness of Tanya’s rude bwoy persona. She zooms in on vivid details and ratchets up the honesty level, like in “Can’t Breathe,” a scorned woman’s atomic bomb of rage and despair. Emotional intricacies and cathartic productions elevate the “Ricky Lake” plots of “Gangsta Gal,” “Little White Lie,” and “It’s a Pity” into revelatory heartache. And when it comes to poom-poom ‘n wood themes evoking Tanya’s 90’s naughtiness masterpieces (“Yuh Nuh Ready (Fe It Yet),” “Draw Fe Mi Finger,” and “Big Ninja Bike”), Gangsta’s “Tek Him Back” and “Boom Wuk” speak x-rated witticisms that will wind up on rude gals’ outgoing cellie messages. Reggae connoisseur Wyclef was added to “This is Love” at the last minute. But Tanya’s one Jamaican who doesn’t need a leg up to American R&B/rap charts. From the moment she opens her mouth, Gangsta grabs hold and won’t let go.
--Elena Oumano