Beenie Manhunt 

Can we confront dancehall's homophobia without lapsing into racism as well?

Long derided as "chi chi men," gays furious about Jamaican artists' homophobic lyrics have launched a tactical counter-offensive that could impact the entire dancehall music industry, and possibly Jamaica's notoriously gay-bashing culture itself.

Firmly in the crosshairs is Beenie Man, the veteran dancehall don who has enjoyed a long, fruitful career marked with international success and hit tunes including "Who Am I," "Wicked Slam," "Girls Dem Sugar," and "Dude." Beenie Man's current hit, "Damn," has caused consternation in England for lyrics like Execute all the gays. The resulting anti-hate-speech backlash campaign, spearheaded by UK-based gay rights organization OutRage!, has stopped Beenie Man's career momentum cold. His entire UK tour was scrapped, as well as his planned appearance at MTV's recent VMA awards in Miami, not to mention his headlining gig at the Jamaica Gold Summer Fest concert scheduled for earlier this month in San Francisco.

But Beenie isn't the only Jamaican artist feeling the heat. The controversy has revived a demon that has plagued Buju Banton for much of his career, ever since he recorded the infamous antigay anthem "Boom Bye Bye" at the age of eighteen, back in 1992. Buju long ago apologized, and has since concentrated on making music with "conscious" lyrics that don't specifically address homosexuality. Yet other popular dancehall reggae artists like Capleton and T.O.K. have been fairly outspoken and persistent in their jabs at gays, while Sizzla once declared, Chi chi man could never sit on Rastaman's throne.

Changing such a deep-rooted antigay bent among Jamaicans will clearly not be an easy task. In early August, Beenie Man's record label, Virgin, issued an apology for his lyrics, but Beenie himself has yet to say he's sorry. In fact, he reiterated his homophobic stance during two August performances in Jamaica. According to The Jamaica Observer, "Beenie Man, who was celebrating his birthday, took time to point out that he did not apologize for his gay-bashing lyrics, and went on to perform some of his antigay tunes."

How to explain such idiotic behavior on the artist's behalf? Perhaps Beenie Man has never gotten over being accused of advocating pro-gay lyrics. Back in 1998, there was much debate over the couplet How can I ever sleep with a fella?/In a rush, pass me the keys to mi clutch from "Who Am I (Zim Zimma)." Although Beenie clearly intended to reaffirm his heterosexuality, the lyric was interpreted otherwise by some. Yet it's hard to have much sympathy for the dude, even if his hate stems from feelings of persecution and extreme peer pressure. Beenie's stupidity has only fanned the flames of gay activists' anger, and vindicates their claims that Jamaican artists are promoting "murder music." Protests by Florida's gay community were responsible for canceling Beenie Man's VMA appearance, and the outrage is just beginning.

At this point a dubious apology is not enough, says SF-based writer and black gay activist Kheven Lee LaGrone, who identifies as a "same-gender-loving cultural critic." LaGrone calls Beenie Man the "poster boy for violent, senseless homophobia," and rather dramatically compares his mentality to neo-Nazism. But LaGrone also notes that Jamaica's leading gay activist was recently savagely murdered, suffering multiple stab wounds that speak to the violence hateful lyrics can incite. Homosexuality is still illegal in that country, which lends credence to LaGrone's assertion that "Jamaican gays are not in a position to fight back."

Still, it's interesting to note that Beenie Man has played San Francisco -- which LaGrone calls the "white gay mecca" -- several times without incident, stirring neither gay-bashing posses nor placard-waving protesters. His aborted September 4 show, though, was a different story. Two days prior to the date, C2tE spoke to one of the promoters, who asked not to be identified and seemed a little shaken, confirming that the concert "wasn't gonna happen," adding that he'd heard of planned protests -- by whom, he wouldn't say.

However, another reggae show at the Independent the same night by roots revivalists Morgan Heritage went off without a hitch. The group made no mention of the Beenie Man situation, although it's fair to assume the superstar's plight was common knowledge. That silence suggests currently touring Jamaican artists are mindful that the antigay backlash could affect them, too, regardless of their personal opinions.

At this point, Beenie Man's twenty-year career is in jeopardy, and he may not be alone -- OutRage has issued a statement calling for the removal of antigay artists from September 18's New Jersey Reggae Fest. The outrage continues abroad: In England, a major reggae concert scheduled at Wembley Arena was recently canceled after pressure from gay groups, while Elephant Man and Vybez Cartel's nominations for the MOBO (Music of Black Origin) awards have cast a cloud of controversy over the upcoming awards show, scheduled for September 30 in London. OutRage demanded that the BBC refuse to air the MOBOS unless the controversial Jamaicans were prevented from performing. On September 7, the two were dropped from the nominations list.

Closer to home, rumors are already circulating that protests are planned for October's Reggae in the Park concert in SF, headlined by Capleton. On September 8, a coalition of local gay rights organizations, led by the SF-based Community United Against Violence, issued a press release condemning him for lyrics like Batty boy haffi dead, gunshot 'pon dem and dismissing his subsequent assertion that his lyrics "were never meant to be taken literally." Capleton claims he no longer performs those songs in concert, and has issued a statement saying, "It bothers me deeply to hear that some of my past lyrics ... have been interpreted as offensive to gay and lesbian communities." But gay activists aren't satisfied.

"Capleton needs to demonstrate accountability with action, not just words," says CUAV's Tina D'Elia, who suggests reggae's homophobes could redeem themselves by participating in public awareness campaigns, community forums, or educational work that sends a strong message to dancehall fans that antigay violence will no longer be tolerated. Ultimately, gay activists want to see Jamaica repeal its "anti-buggery" law, which they claim allows police to commit brutal acts of violence against gays. Yet until that happens, artists like Capleton and Beenie Man will continue to be public scapegoats for what amounts to government-approved hate crimes.

In his zeal for justice, OutRage spokesman Peter Tatchell went so far as to coin the term "reggae bigots" -- which seems oxymoronic, given that reggae has long been a music that has attacked racial inequity. In fact, referencing racism makes sense in this controversy, but not in the way OutRage intends.

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