It took him just shy of a full year, but dancehall titan Beenie Man finally took a Bay Area stage in late July, rocking Berkeley's Shattuck Down Low for two straight nights despite the best efforts of infuriated gay-rights activists and a hilariously brazen con-man promoter.
You may recall that last year, the UK gay activist group OutRage declared PR war on Beenie Man and fellow dancehall stars Sizzla, Bounty Killa, Elephant Man, Vybez Kartel, Capleton, Buju Banton, and T.O.K., assailing their blatantly homophobic lyrical content (see "Beenie Manhunt," 9/15/04). OutRage charged that lyrics deriding and threatening homosexuals-- I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica/Come to execute all the gays, for instance -- contributed to an unsafe climate for Jamaica's gay and lesbian population, an on-the-DL community then reeling from the brutal June 2004 stabbing death of prominent gay activist Brian Williams, whose murder remains unsolved.
OutRage's media-assisted propaganda campaign, dubbed "Stop Murder Music," whipped its supporters into a zealous frenzy -- Beenie Man, for one, was compared to both Osama bin Laden and Hitler -- by dredging up inflammatory quotes from old or obscure songs, and insisting that the artists be investigated for attempted murder (!). This strategy proved highly effective, resulting in a flurry of canceled shows, among them Beenie's scheduled appearance at Miami's 2004 MTV Music Awards, his entire UK tour, and an SF date last September. The lost concert revenues cost dancehall artists $5 million in Britain alone.
This February, with considerably less fanfare, OutRage officially called off the campaign after a precedent-setting meeting with Jamaican government officials and reggae industry execs. The government is now considering "comprehensive hate crime legislation," says OutRage's Peter Tatchell, while the record labels have declared a moratorium on antigay lyrics on internationally released albums.
Tatchell insists that he resorted to an economic boycott only after a decade of unsuccessful political lobbying -- "Money talks when morality doesn't," he says. "Our campaign has generated the biggest debate in Jamaican history on the issue of gay human rights." Since then, he has moved on to other campaigns -- asserting that black Nationalist icon Malcolm X led "a secret gay life," for example. The fatwa appeared to be off.
But apparently, no one told Bay Area journalist Tim Kingston, who in early July sent out a widely forwarded e-mail calling for a mass protest of Beenie Man's pair of July SDL shows, based solely on the artist's tarnished image. "It's a relevant issue because I don't want to get hit," he explained, citing fears of an epidemic of gay-bashing in Berkeley. While admitting he hadn't actually heard any of the songs in question, Kingston (an occasional contributor to the Express) argued that antigay lyrics -- which he found online by Googling "Beenie Man homophobia" -- "don't contribute to social equanimity."
Also trumpeting the queer cause was Tina D'Elia, a program director at SF's Community United Against Violence -- the LBGT-friendly group had helped organize last year's successful SF protests against Beenie and fellow dancehall icon Capleton, whose headlining appearance at Reggae in the Park was cancelled. (Ironically, when C2tE called D'Elia's office, the hold music was Jimmy Cliff's "I Can See Clearly Now.") D'Elia admitted that she, too, hadn't actually heard any of the offensive songs, and when it was pointed out that gays account for less than 0.02 percent of Jamaica's murder victims (Amnesty International reports that the country has the third-highest per-capita murder rate in the world), she responded that because of the extreme secrecy surrounding homosexuality in Jamaica, there was no way to accurately document instances of assault or police brutality against gays and lesbians there.
Fair enough, but the same could be said about police brutality, period, in most Third World countries. Furthermore, while Amnesty International reports that police are suspected in the majority of antigay violence in Jamaica, there's no solid proof of a direct connection between dancehall lyrics and specific instances of gay-bashing, nor has any reggae artist ever been charged with murdering homosexuals. Still, the Community United Against Violence rep insists that homophobic lyrics constitute a "hate crime" in and of themselves. D'Elia, who identifies as a Latina lesbian, refuses to accept the vaguely worded apology issued last year by Beenie's label, Virgin, last year -- a tepid mea culpa that never specifically mentioned gays or lesbians. She thus demands that Beenie recant his past statements, donate to gay causes, and remove all the offending CDs from retail shelves (even though many of the songs in question were actually Jamaica-only singles that never saw overseas distribution). For that reason, she too sent out an e-mail blast alerting folks to July's Berkeley Beenie dates.
Ultimately, those shows still happened, but not without considerable trepidation.
Candida Martinez, Shattuck Down Low's publicist, reports that the venue received at least twenty irate e-mails and voicemails regarding Beenie Man. Some chastised politely, while others did not -- one communiqué "bothered to inform me about the anatomy of a gay male versus a hetero male," she recalls. Still, the ten-year PR vet (who says she has never encountered such a hailstorm of static in that time) maintains that "I welcome people's opinions. ... That is the beauty of democracy. However, I do feel strongly that their efforts could have been better placed."
In response, a day before Beenie's first show, the venue posted a disclaimer on its Web site signed by Martinez and club owner Daniel Cuckierman, asserting that Beenie "would not be performing songs that promote hate or intolerance of any kind." The letter added that "We believe the focus should be on appealing the law in Jamaica, where homosexuality is not only frowned upon, but illegal."
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