Free speech, cultural sovereignty, and human rights clash in reggae dancehall homophobia debate
Here in New York City, gays in clubs win' up to wildly popular reggae dancehall lyrics like "Fire fi de man dem weh go ride man behind," much as older gays pray in churches that condemn homosexuality. A mere dozen or so protesters picketed the sold-out Hot 97 "On da Reggae Tip Live" at Hammerstein Ballroom last September. Why pay mind to the words when the riddim and the vibe sweet yuh so?
But on Sunday, January 29, JAMPACT, an NYC-based Jamaican American civic group, held a panel at St. Francis College composed of Dr. Gordon Shirley, Jamaica's ambassador to the U.S.; Rebecca Schleifer of Human Rights Watch; Jamaican gay activist Larry Chang; and others. Schleifer was asked to address and defend points in her recent report issued by HRW in which she found that widespread homophobia in Jamaica endangers the welfare not only of those at high risk for HIV/AIDS, but also of HIV/AIDS outreach health care workers. Three days later, Amnesty International's OUTfront! program and New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center hosted a panel discussion at LGBT's Manhattan headquarters with representatives from the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), as part of J-FLAG's campaign for support in holding Jamaican authorities accountable for failing to protect the human rights of their LGBT citizens. While dancehall homophobia has been fodder for international headlines lately, "at the Forum, J-FLAG made clear that reggae dancehall's homophobia merely fuels Jamaica's widespread cultural bias against homosexuality and bisexuality," says Alisa Wellek, of the LGBT center.
Following widespread cancellations of dancehall concerts, Sizzla was banned in November from entering the U.K., while he and seven other dancehall artists—Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel, T.O.K., Capleton, and Bounty Killer—were investigated by Scotland Yard after gay activists asserted that their homophobic song lyrics constitute incitement to actual murder. In the U.S., where free speech is less restricted, "Stop Murder Music" had shut down only 30 or so Beenie Man and Capleton dates this past summer and fall, mostly on the West Coast. Meanwhile, U.K. gay activist group OutRage! shifted its "Stop Murder Music" campaign higher up reggae's food chain to retail outlets and record labels like NYC-based reggae indie VP Records. After months of negotiations, gay activist groups, the labels, and promoters announced early this month that they'd reached an agreement, and that the "Stop Murder Music" campaign had been suspended.
Reggae may have started out as a poor man's party—a turntable, homemade speakers, and a public light source—but it's grown into Jamaica's survival dream, one shared by politicians, businessmen, and scrawny boys rocking toothbrush microphones. Now that the worldwide debate over what should be a universal right—to love and/or sex the adult of your choice—is focused on that live wire of an island, the dream is threatened, big-time...