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.


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