Let’s get things straight (excuse the pun). I love dancehall and reggae music as much as the next boat-rowing clubber, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with all the lyrics. Like many other tolerant people across the world, I find the incitement to hatred and violence by anyone in the media completely abhorrent. However, I have found myself in clubs dancing along to openly homophobic artists such as Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Wayne Wonder and Bounty Killer. I have even been at an event at which a DJ has made explicitly homophobic comments, causing me to question my position on this issue.
Am I a hypocrite for detesting the message espoused by such artists whilst continuing to shake my behind to descriptions of mass slaughter? This was obviously the view of the Music of Black Origin Awards (MOBO) when they dropped Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel from the line up of the 2004 awards. In a statement to the BBC a spokesperson for the awards said “the last thing the MOBO wants to do is encourage prejudice”. Moreover artists Beenie Man and Sizzla have had concerts cancelled and been under investigation to assess whether their lyrics are in breach of Britain’s hate laws. These decisions have been seen as small victories by the gay and lesbian campaign group OutRage! who believe that lyrics like, “From dem a drink inna chi chi man bar /Blaze de fire mek we dun dem!!! (Dun dem!!)” in TOK’s ‘Chi Chi Man’ about burning homosexuals, will lead to an increase in attacks against gay people. J-Flag, the Jamaican gay rights movement also believes that the message of some dancehall artists contribute to homophobic acts in Jamaica and the U.K. For example, the prominent J-Flag activist Brian Williamson was killed in his own home in what police described as a violent burglary but is commonly believed to be a homophobic killing or “judgement attack”.
Few can deny that the murdering of another human being purely because of their sexual orientation is a horrific act. However, before dismissing these artists as barbaric or evil, the values they hold must be put in social context. In Jamaica sodomy is a criminal act punishable by imprisonment. This is largely due to the dominance of a fundamental Christian interpretation of the Bible which legitimates an openly homophobic culture. As one young Jamaican homosexual accounts in BBC Radio 1XTRA’s moving documentary “Gay in JA”, everyone in Jamaica listens to dancehall and goes to church; these are the educators. If both sources and the courts condemn homosexuality then how can tolerance hope to be fostered?
In light of this, it is perhaps ethnocentric of the liberal west to expect these artists to shed all the values and norms to which they’ve been socialised as soon as they land on our shores. I am not arguing that it is acceptable to promote the victimisation of a perceived deviant group, but I do question the validity of a blanket censorship of such views. Forcing unpalatable beliefs and ideologies underground can be more dangerous than allowing a free expression of views as there will be no one to challenge the basis of such prejudice. Moreover the idea of preserving one group’s civil rights by denying others of theirs is questionable to me. In many respects I agree with the sentiment of UK garage artist MC Shystie, who condemns the anti-gay lyrics of some dancehall artists but believes in the preservation of freedom of speech so long as people “don’t cross the line”. The only problem is where should the line be drawn? A careful balance must be struck between maintaining civic order and cohesion and freedom of speech and expression.
Conversely, the furore about homophobic lyrics may be over stated, in Britain in any case, as most non-Jamaicans will find it very difficult to even decipher the lyrics let alone take them to heart. The majority of people enjoy dancehall music for the beats and the rhythms rather than the lyrics. Furthermore, is it really reasonable to assume that dancehall fans are unable to dissociate the opinions of the more extreme artists from the dominant values of the society they reside in? It is arguable that discussion and engagement are a much better way of approaching homophobic opinions than censorship.
All this theorising and philosophising is all well and good but the real question remains. Will I be getting down on the dance-floor next time I hear an Elephant Man track? The answer is probably ‘yes’, as I do enjoy the music and can separate that from the specific beliefs of the artist – but I will be more selective about which dancehall artists I add to my CD collection.