Beenie Manhunt 

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

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To be sure, Jamaican artists make an easy target for gay activists. The homophobia in some cases is undeniable, even if it has to be translated for non-patois-speaking folks. But from a political and economic standpoint, there may be other reasons for trying to stamp out Jamaican artists' careers this way. Black music forms like reggae and rap have all but taken over the UK, and the possibility of a vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture emerging from its urban ghettos has to be seen as anathema to the more conservative factions of Jamaica's onetime colonial master, be they gay or straight.

Indeed, The Economist recently reported that reggae's market share in England has doubled in the last year, and it's evident that Jamaican artists currently enjoy a much higher international profile -- at the time the controversy erupted, Beenie Man had four Top Twenty singles in the UK, while in the United States last year, Sean Paul knocked 50 Cent off the top slot on the Billboard charts. Dancehall reggae is growing exponentially in popularity, and with a trailerload of up-and-coming stars waiting in the wings -- such as Ce'Cile and Bushman, both slated to appear at Beenie Man's ill-fated SF concert -- Western pop culture could be facing a Jamaican musical onslaught like never before.

At this point, it seems unlikely that the commercial momentum of dancehall music -- which has crossed over into both the urban and pop markets -- will fade overnight, even if Capleton or Beenie Man are prevented from ever appearing onstage or making records again. A more likely outcome is that the political and social content of the music will be affected, and that labels will shy away from backing artists who express controversial viewpoints, even if they don't fall under the category of obvious hate speech. Already, a schism exists between "slack" (sexually explicit) and "conscious" dancehall (a category into which, ironically, several of the targeted artists fall), and any type of attempt to muzzle dancehall's lyrical expression could have a chilling effect on the entire genre.

There's a lesson to be learned here from the censorship troubles faced by hip-hop a decade ago, when its mainstream appeal and economic clout was just starting to become apparent -- much as with dancehall today. Censoring "offensive" lyrics by Jamaican artists could result in the same kind of dumbing-down and mainstream filtration that saturated rap music following the PMRC/Christian Coalition machinations of the '90s. As the controversy escalates, Beenie Man could easily become the Professor Griff (and Capleton the Ice-T) of his era, vilified through a well-orchestrated media campaign, while the real cause of the injustice goes unchecked.

At the very least, there's a danger in any predominantly white organization attempting to characterize a predominantly black culture according to its own agenda. OutRage's inflammatory press releases, for instance, detail instance after instance of lyrical "homophobic hate crimes" by Jamaican artists, but fail to mention that most of the songs are several years old.

OutRage's strategy seems to be to force the Jamaican government into action by blockading what is in effect an export commodity. But why not go after the officials who have turned a blind eye to violence against gays and demand change on a legislative level? Instead, OutRage's campaign has dehumanized dancehall artists, and by forcing the cancellation of shows, has imposed de facto economic sanctions on an already poor nation tragically ravaged by violence -- only a small portion of which is directed at gays.

Furthermore, there are plenty of Jamaican artists who express no antigay sentiments whatsoever in their music, and homophobic statements are just a small part of the overall lyrical content of any one of the more controversial artists. Reducing these artists to one epithet -- gay-basher -- is both inherently racist and revisionary.

According to LaGrone, Beenie Man is known more for advocating gay-bashing than anything else. Yet the artist has also decried black-on-black crime and police brutality ("Murderer") and praised oft-forgotten freedom fighters ("Steve Biko"). Likewise, Capleton is known for pro-peace songs ("Jah Jah City"), while Buju has recorded antigun tunes ("Mr. Nine") as well as nonsexist anthems ("Only Man"). Even Elephant Man has a political side -- he commented on 9/11 on the single "The Bombing," for instance. The point here is that all of these artists (not to mention Jamaican culture itself) are the product of a very complex set of factors, not the least of which is Jamaica's history as a processing center for African slaves and a colony under British rule, which may be the reason its denizens are overly sensitive about being emasculated.

Ask yourself: When does lyrical content become a hate crime, and when does it become a First Amendment issue? Where is the line, and who is drawing it? Interestingly, the protests against dancehall artists have all come from the white gay community, which, LaGrone points out, isn't always so enlightened when it comes to racial issues. So, in our zeal to identify and stamp out homophobia, are we overlooking racism?

"The subject goes deeper than Beenie Man's lyrics," admits LaGrone, who adds, "I don't think white gays in general are concerned about racial issues." He also points out that the black media, by and large, isn't overly concerned with gay issues either, notwithstanding the recent Essence story on the author E. Lynn Harris about straight-identified black men who sleep with other men behind their wives' or girlfriends' backs. Okay, so racism is bad, and homophobia is bad. Still, "Two wrongs don't make a right," LeGrone says. "It is not just about censorship, it's about accountability."

On that note, a record-label executive who has worked closely with all of the controversial artists targeted by OutRage! says a response by the Jamaican artist community is forthcoming. "It's such a hot topic now, it's a turning point in dancehall," he says. Because of what he calls the "international focus" on dancehall, artists are beginning to realize that they can't just make music solely indicative of Jamaican social mores anymore -- they have a responsibility to a much wider audience. "Artists don't want to see people killed. Everyone is taking this very seriously," he says, noting that artists, label executives, producers, promoters, and even members of the Jamaican government are currently holding what could be precedent-setting discussions on this issue. If that's the case, maybe it's time to bid "boom bye bye" to homophobic lyrics -- and erase racism while we're at it.

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