Saturday, June 24, 2006

Summer Caravan III: The Refugee All Stars

Another evening of good vibes in the summer in NYC. I made it to the Summerstage Performance of the Refugee All Stars, a six-member, multi-piece reggae and highlife band that was formed out of the refugee camps during the years of civil war in Sierra Leone and have now returned home. Summerstage also screened The Refugee All Stars, a documentary about the Refugee All Stars by two talented filmmakers, Zachary Niles and Chris Velan. The great lawn was packed with people - large groups, families with kids, couples - of just about every color and shade. I met up with a few friends from Filmaid. FilmAid is helping to uplift, educate and entertain refugee communities throughout the world through the power of film. Elisabeth Silkes, FilmAid's Executive Director, who'd made an appearance at Human Rights Watch's screening the night before, told me that the crowd had been packed at Walter Reade as well.

The story of the All Stars is compelling, their music infectious. The band has toured from San Francisco to Japan. Music documentaries are increasly popular. So why can't the film get distribution either in the U.S. or Europe? If anyone has any ideas or comments, please share.SXSW All Star Refugees African Band
You like? Buy their music. The Refugee All Stars' official album is available on the film's website.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Chanting Down Babylon with Homophobic Chat

Recently, President Bush and the family morals marshals finally brandished their sharpest lance - a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage. Around the same time, an article ran in Times Magazine by Tim Padgett about homophobia in the Caribbean. In the article, Padgett unapologetically critiques dance hall artists like Buju Banton for their role in creating a climate of violence against gays in Jamaica and the entire Caribbean. The article seems to concur strongly with human rights activists who, Padgett says, confer on Jamaica "another ugly distinction: the most homophobic place on earth."

My friend Tasha, a former human rights attorney living in Jamaica, posted a response to the article. In it, she criticizes the article for its unfair critique of Jamaican society and homophobia in the Caribbean. Portions of her commentary are below:

"The article implies that [two Jamaican men in incidents unrelated to the St. Maartin one] were murdered because they were homosexual. However, this is not true both men were killed in unrelated incidents due to personal disputes by persons whom they knew (the allegations are that they were murdered by former lovers) not because they were homosexuals.

Padgett goes on to say that “few epitomize the melding of reggae and gangst[a]er cultures more than Banton."

Tasha replies: "Padgett incorrectly portrays Jamaica and draws the wrong conclusion that rampant violence against homosexuals is the norm in Jamaica. Jamaicans society is largely Christian. Due to their religious beliefs most Jamaicans like most people of non-western cultures strongly disagree with homosexuality but they do not react violently towards gays. Many dancehall artists like most Jamaicans think that homosexuality is wrong, however they do not advocate for the actual killing of homosexuals nor do they incite violence against them. These accusations are based on a misinterpretation of dancehall lyrics and are not based on the facts."

Tasha's point about the Times' reporter's shoddy homework is well taken as well as her conclusion later in the piece that the white American reporter's characterization of Jamaica as some sort of endemically homophobic state is biased. But the real violence that was done to the two CBS reporters by the St. Maartin mob made me seriously consider Padgett's perspective. The article made me re-think the age old question of how much we, not only as artists but as consumers of that art, have a duty, like revolutionary rap, rock and reggae pioneers of the 1970's, to speak out about the issues of our day and what we will and will not stand for.

I was troubled most by Tasha's analysis in her comparison of Buju to reggae greats like Bob Marley; yet this comparison in some respects resonates with me. To me, a relative outsider but long time fan of Jamaican dance hall music, the line between "conscious" or "roots" reggae lyrics and the lyricisim of early Buju Banton songs has always seemed slim. Take another very popular, positive, lyrically uplifting roots/dance hall artis, Sizzla. At Jamaica's Reggae Sumfest show in MoBay in 2004, I watched Sizzla rip the crowd with songs like "Thank you Mama" and Try Jah (Try God)." Then, with Jermaine Duprie lurking in the curtain folds, he makes a short speech that can be paraphrased as: I just want to take this opportunity to put it on record that we can and should continue speaking out against, and outing, homosexuals and their disgraceful, blasphemous way of life. Sizzla ends with FIYA BUN! an expression in Jamaican chat that has religious allegorical overtones. The term "Fiya Bun" to me epitomizes the cultural and social tensions inherent in many dance hall lyrics.

As Tasha argues, When the lyrics of many Jamaican dancehall songs are translated into other languages they appear extremely violent." (drawing on the well-respected conclusions of cultural critics like Carolyn Cooper.) "The literal meanings of these songs are in fact violent. However, these lyrics are not meant to be taken literally."

It seems to me that the allegorical roots of dance hall's territorial, agressive lyricism stem back to early Jamaican folk traditions that also manifest in the popularist, symbolical tendencies of reggae music lyrics. This article, On the Uses of Fire in a Culture of Love and Rebellion gives a commentary on the allegorical tensions of "Fiya Burn," one of many expressions that has served as a rallying cry by dance hall/reggae artists to their audience.

At Reggae Sumfest, I watched thousands of fans go wild when they heard Sizzla's words. A loud, passionate cheer spread throughout the crowd, and the fire from thousands of lighters lit the sky. There was a sense of joyful appreciation - for Sizzla, for the music and for the unity of the people. Despite that feeling, there was, to me, a deep sense of foreboding. I would have hated to be gay at that moment. In that crowd, I would even have feared for my own life had I been Staceyann Chin, the Jamaican Def Poetry lesbian poet who spoke so loudly in condemnation of a gang rape attempted against her in her college days at UWI - but who, in that crowd, would have been stricken to silence.

Buju plays the role of a cultural spokesperson in dance hall Jamaica, as does Sizzla. As Tasha argues, "[Buju] makes music to uplift the poor and oppressed of the world. He is the voice of the voiceless marginalized poor people of the ghettoes of Kingston who live under extremely oppressive conditions."

So was Bob Marley. And it is this very acceptance by today's dance hall artists of a messenger role that makes the anti-gay image such a confusing and dangerous spectre.

If we can safely say, and work with law enforcment officals to ensure, that violence against homosexuals is not on the rise, we may sleep soundly at the end of this controversy and despite the opinions of writers from the mainstream press. But does this refute the liklihood that in this climate of homophobia, human beings will continue to be lyrically battered into a space of silence?

Maybe gay people, who are not in rare yet tragic incidents, beaten or murdered, should not be painted as victims. Each person has the ability in any democratic country, including Jamaica or St. Maartin, to assert his or her rights when faced with the hostility of peers, cultural leaders and religious institutions.

But in any democracy, the ultimate issue is, what does free speech mean? For Jamaicans, does it mean excluding gays from a dialogue that is the cultural food of the people in any society, and has been particularly so in the Caribbean? It seems a difficult but obvious choice has to be made: between a lyrical expression that deserves to flourish beyond its violent surroundings, and the kind of participatory dialogue, created and promoted by a society's bearers of culture, that can lead to a stronger democracy.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Summer Caravan II: The UN Sings to Save Lives

Last night at the United Nations I was lucky enough to be a witness to one of those New York City moments where power and prestige shake hands with the possibility of change. At Dag Hammerstein yesterday, I attending a converging of celebrities – not the usual United Nations suspects – for an extravaganza in support of the fight against HIV and AIDS.

I was surprised to find such a heartfelt and extraordinarily well-organized outpouring support, such an expression of solidarity fir the lives lost and the victories won over the last twenty-five years. I sat close to the front row, beside UN workers and diplomats and friends. I had come to see Wyclef rock the house, to sing along with Anjelique Kidjoe to “Chez Mama Africa,” to be in the presence of celebrity activists like Naomi Watts and Whoopi Goldberg and Kofi Annan.

By the end of the night, there was a feeling that we young fans and entertainers were all bound together with the leaders in the room. It was as if we were breaking bread together, taking in one overwhelming banquet of mixed emotions. It felt as if this shared emotion was the only thing that could feed the battle against a relentless disease and the ignorance around which affect so many lives.

In a particularly poignant moment, Richard Gere, after recalling the struggles of the gay community here in New York City, asked the crowd how many had known someone who had died of or was living with AIDS or HIV. Almost everyone in the room raised their hands.

I don’t know why I was surprised to witness such emotion. Maybe I was just a late arriver to the party, another unaffected person who had failed to listen to the stories of the millions of mothers, fathers and children that we have lost over the years. Note: that is twenty-five million lost - one million for each of the twenty-five years since the HIV infection was diagnosed. We have closed our eyes to the fact that the work of women's rights advocates in sex camps in Asia, relief workers in Africa, and anti-AIDS activists on the streets of Harlem or D.C. is a losing battle, not because of a lack of dedication but because of chronic underfunding for the work that they do.

To confront the reality, the speakers agreed, we have to throw away the idea that as "responsible" citizens and decision makers we must put away the pieces of their private lives when addressing the problems of the world. The audience seemed to agree, and when we raised their hands in answer to Richard Gere’s question, I could detect in the intense silence a sense of conviction and righteous indignation. Later, we lifted our hands again to raise the battery lit votives that studded the rows throughout the hall.

Now our hands were waving back and forth, and Wyclef sang:

If America is the United States of America
Than why can’t Africa be the United States of Africa?...
This is rebel music
This is refugee music...

It sounded damn good to hear Wyclef's bassist pump the bass up to the chorus and hear Wyclef with his raspy, guttery voice spit his take no prisoners lyrics, right there in the hallowed General Assembly hall.

The music was soothing, yet the feeling of righteous indignation survived through the night. A group of at least 50 protesters (they moved seamlessly and I could not count them)staged a walk out, shouting the words “CONDOMS” “WOMEN” and “VULNERABLE GROUPS” before storming out of the hall. The Declaration passed the next day by the General Assembly contained those same words. The strength of the language in the document, according to the New York Times report today, surprised some of the activists themselves. But the power of their conviction no longer surprised me.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Central Americans In Our Backyard

Mexico is not the only Central Americn country dramatically affected by the United States' proximity to their border. As Congress and the Mexican and Chicano community debate Bush's guest worker bill, the effects of immigration policy are being felt in the Hondurenian immigrant community.

Yesterday, permits expired for about 75,000 Hondurans and 4,000 Nicaraguans who entered the country under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Program, after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Honduras and particularly Nicaragua are still facing the econommic effects of the Hurricane and depend on the remissions sent by immigrant families here in the States.
Congress is debating now whether the permits will be renewed, allowing the immigrants to live and work legally in the United States for another year. The permits were already extended until April 2007 for the Honduranean immigrants; however, thousands of immigrants have not taken advantage of their option to renew - likely unaware of the change in INS border enforcement.

Central Americans have been crossing borders since the colonization of that region in the 1600's by the Spaniards (and later by the British in Belize/British Honduras) -- both our borders and their own. These migration patterns have both revitalized Central American economies (reducing Central Americans debt burden to the United States) and offered refuge for refugees from wars and conflicts in Guatemala and El Salvadaor, as well as economic refugees in Nicaragua and Honduras. Re-emigration and remittances by outmigrated citizens of these countries have also contributed vastly to these economies. So to both Central Americans and United States citizens this migration is nothing new.

What may be news to some of us North Americans though is what happens when migrants to this country return to their own "homelands" or relocate to other Central American countries after having been in the US. Unfortunately, not all contributions made by Central American returnees reflect well on or benefit the United States. Examples of some effects of returning migrants (both illegal and legal) include the rise of US-model gangs like the Crips and Bloods, which both draw strength and redemption from the transnational links between youth gang and artistic communities.

(You could argue that criminals and outcasts are inclined to whatever lifestyles they eventually take on before they immigrate, but then, you might remember that many migrants are impressionable youth. And you might consider that they're not too different from your neighbor's pre-teen child who got into a scuffle with the police the other day.)

So the emergency permits have expired and many of the hurricane fugitives may be deported, a reminder of the risk that in giving and taking back the benefits of living in this country, we may send the "externalities" of our modern economy back across the borders.