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.

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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