Curbing Homophobia in Reggae

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Michael Kim / Corbis

Reggae star Buju Banton performs at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City

Reggae was once associated with politically conscious lyrics, Rastafarians and the palm-fringed shores of its native Jamaica. But forget Bob Marley and Peter Tosh singing about peace and love; these days some of reggae's biggest acts are just as likely to be advocating the killing of homosexuals in their music.

And that has advocates like Britain's leading gay rights veteran Peter Tatchell up in arms. A few years ago, along with Jamaican groups, Tatchell launched the Stop Murder Music campaign, aimed at bringing the genre to heel. Tatchell has recently succeeded in convincing some of the most notoriously homophobic figures in reggae and dancehall music to stop singing violently anti-gay lyrics like Jamaica-based artist Capleton's hit "More Prophet": "Shoulda know seh Capleton bun battyman [burn gays]/ Dem same fire apply to di lesbian/ All boogaman [gays] and sodomites fi get killed."

Buju Banton — whose smash hit from the 1990s "Boom Bye Bye" also advocates the shooting and burning of gay men — last week signed the "reggae compassionate act" after a three-year campaign by Stop Murder Music. Banton, a Grammy-nominated artist who broke Bob Marley's record of most number one singles in a year on the Jamaican charts, pledged to "respect" the rights of gays to live without fear of violence.

He is the latest in a series of high-profile artists, including Beenie Man and Sizzla, to sign the declaration after worldwide protests from gay rights groups resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of concerts and sponsorship deals, costing the artists an estimated US$5 million. The news about Banton was welcomed by gay rights groups in Jamaica, where attacks on gay people are common and sodomy laws left over from Britain's colonial-era still prohibit gay sex.

Since "Boom Bye Bye" was released in the early 1990s there has been a corresponding rise in homophobic violence in the Caribbean, although it's difficult to tell which came first — the music or the violence. According to Jamaican gay rights group J-Flag — which refuses to give out its address in the capital, Kingston, "due to the potential for violent retributions" — the rise in homophobic violence culminated in reports of crowds lynching suspected homosexuals after concerts.

"It's a big positive step forward to get four of the top reggae artist to condemn anti-gay violence," says Tatchell, whose group was initially derided as racist when they began picketing reggae concerts in the U.K. and abroad. "We are not against reggae or dancehall — the genre is great — but we object to the small number of artists using music to incite violence."

But some music insiders argue that compassion was hardly the motivation. Mark Richards, known as DJ Kemist from reggae label Xtremix records, says: "I can see why [Banton's] done it. He doesn't want to jeopardize his whole career over just a few songs. But it doesn't mean it's going to change any of his opinions."

Other commentators say Tatchell has missed the point entirely. They argue that reggae artists don't create homophobia, but merely reflect the realities on the ground. "In Jamaica we grew up in a homophobic society and the Bible is what we go by," explains Vincent Nap, a Britain-based reggae artist. "You can't expect us to turn around like our religion doesn't matter."

"Blaming musicians for homophobia is like blaming gangsta rappers for gang violence," says Dorian Lynskey on the London-based Guardian newspaper's popular music blog. "They don't help matters, but they didn't create the problem, nor do they have the power to solve it."

For Nap and other reggae purists, most of the homophobia has been generated by dancehall music — the genre's aggressive offspring — and is not considered to be a true example of the reggae ideals of peace and mutual tolerance.

"Explicitly, you could say there is a problem [of homophobia] in reggae and dancehall, but it's in every type of music to a certain extent," says Stuart Baker, owner of the Sounds of the Universe reggae record shop London and the record-label Soul Jazz. "It is part of dancehall, but it doesn't define it... [Stop Murder Music] are justified in protesting their corner."

For Tatchell though, the struggle is not over. Stop Murder Music have their sights on four other big reggae acts who have a big international audience and are still considered to be homophobic: Elephant Man, TOK, Vybz Kartel and Bounty Killa. "The struggle for lesbian and gay human rights," he says, "is a universal one."