Young reggae stars like Sizzla give voice to rising tide of Jamaican homophobia
A young gay man in Jamaica fled to a nearby churchyard looking for refuge from a chanting mob where, the London Observer reports, they cornered the man and shot him to death just because he was gay.
Since that senseless killing back in 2001 there have been many more murders of gay men throughout Jamaica. Today, desperate gay activists are lobbying hard to have sodomy laws that date back to British colonial rule struck down.
Some gays, meanwhile, have found asylum in Canada, America and Britain. But back home in sun-splashed Jamaica – a deeply religious island nation still deeply feeling the effects of slavery, British colonial rule, HIV and endemic poverty – there are far more gays and lesbians who cannot escape and live in fear of being beaten to death.
And their lives are being made all the more miserable by international Jamaican dancehall superstars like Buju Banton, Beenie Man, T.O.K., Capleton and Sizzla, the latter two ultra-orthodox Boboshanti Rastas, called "Bobo Dreads," who exhort their fans with "fire burn" lyrics, which profess the literal torching of all symbols of Babylon.
Many gays – or people perceived to be gay – have since been set afire in Jamaica by mobs chanting "Fiya burn!"
"We won’t tolerate homosexuals, we won’t tolerate lesbians," says Sizzla, who will headline a concert in Montreal next week, over the phone. "Lesbians and faggots, how did they came? They came through man and woman, mother and father, the guardians of life. The artists won’t stop [singing anti-gay lyrics] because the people won’t stop, because [anti-gay sentiment] is a tradition. We must keep the covenant of the most [high] and give thanks and praise."
Sizzla was among the headliners at the massive Rebel Salute outdoor concert in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, which drew 30,000 fans this past Jan. 17.
"Throughout the night, Capleton, Sizzla and others sang almost exclusively about gay men," Amnesty International reported in a May 17 alert. "Using the derogatory terms for gay men – ‘chi chi men’ or ‘battybwoys’ – they urged the audience to ‘kill dem, battybwoys haffi dead, gun shots pon dem. Who want to see dem dead put up his hand’ (kill them, gay men have got to die, gun shots in their head, whoever wants to see them dead, put up your hand)."
But Sizzla may not make it to Montreal if the Montreal-based Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) has anything to do with it.
In an Aug. 17 open letter to Sizzla concert promoter Cezar Brumeanu, also head honcho of the Montreal International Reggae Festival, CRARR executive director Fo Niemi states, "While we recognize and celebrate the unique artistic merit as well as the cultural, economic, political and social pertinence of reggae in the struggle of the people of Jamaica, and of people of African descent all over the world, we do not believe that by supporting or advocating homophobia and violence against gay men and lesbians, reggae will help maintain its standing as the sound of liberation, justice and freedom. Millions of people around the world have come to appreciate and respect reggae as one of Jamaica’s national treasures and as the voice of universal friendship, solidarity, peace and emancipation, rather than the sound of hate, discrimination, violence and degradation of people because of their sexual orientation.
"For this reason," Niemi continues, "we do not believe that Sizzla’s performance, or the performance of any other singing artist who advocates homophobia and other forms of hate, is socially and legally acceptable in [Canada]. We therefore call upon you to exercise your social responsibilities and show your strong support for justice and human rights by cancelling Sizzla’s performance in Montreal."
A copy of the letter was sent to both the federal and Quebec Attorneys-General since only they can provide consent for hate propaganda prosecution.
But Cezar Brumeanu is having none of that.
"The anti-gay lyrics concern me in a way," Brumeanu told Hour this week. "For most reggae artists it’s just the way of their culture. On the other hand they must understand they are not performing in Jamaica – they’re on the international stage."
CRARR disagrees. "We also call upon you to ensure that reggae artists who support, promote or advocate homophobia in their homelands are no longer invited to perform on Canadian soil unless they publicly take a strong stand in favour of equality, diversity and civil rights," Niemi states in CRARR’s open letter.
As a promoter, Brumeanu says he is caught "in the middle. At [this summer's] reggae festival in the contract it says that performers can’t make any prejudicial statements [onstage]. It’s in my standard contract. If they do, they won’t come back and depending how bad it is [their onstage comments], I’ll cut their pay."
That didn’t stop dancehall act T.O.K. from performing their massive anti-gay anthem Chi Chi Man at this summer’s Montreal International Reggae Festival. "Blaze di fire mek we bun dem!" T.O.K. sang.
"I heard about that after the show," Brumeanu explains, "and they won’t be coming back to the festival."
When I asked T.O.K. frontman Roshaun Clarke before his Montreal show if Chi Chi Man is anti-gay, he fumed, "Ummm, no. We’ve moved on from there. There’s more to us than Chi Chi Man."
Clearly performers like T.O.K. and Sizzla are increasingly aware that if they want international fame and fortune, they can no longer sing anti-gay songs. That’s what killed the surging major-label career of onetime dancehall don Shabba Ranks in the ’90s (he never recovered from the negative publicity after being dumped by The Tonight Show) and that is what has blindsided current dancehall king Beenie Man this summer. Beenie Man (who dueted with Janet Jackson and Lil Kim on his 2002 album Tropical Storm) sings in his song Damn, "I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays."
But Beenie Man concerts are now being cancelled across the USA and tobacco giant RJ Reynolds has pulled out of his tour. (The worldwide boycott kick-started by British gay group OutRage! is escalating across Europe: Dancehall star Bounty Killer’s set at the Krakrock Festival in Avelgem, Belgium, in September has also been cancelled because of his anti-gay lyrics.)
Beenie Man’s record company, Virgin Records, quickly issued a public apology on behalf of Beenie Man, who has promised to drop his anti-gay songs from his setlist.
"I renounce violence towards other human beings in every way and pledge henceforth to uphold these values as I move forward in my career as an artist," the statement read. Within hours of its release, in a bid to shore up Beenie Man’s street cred back home in Jamaica, Beenie’s PR flack Clyde McKenzie told Radio Jamaica the apology was initiated by Virgin Records and not Beenie Man.
Meanwhile, on July 19, Gay.com U.K. reported, "According to Amnesty International in London, Buju Banton… is wanted in connection with an attack on four Jamaican gay men, which took place in their home. Banton was identified by witnesses as one of the gang who beat four gay men in Carlisle Avenue on June 24. One of the men’s arms was reportedly broken in the alleged beating after they were accused of being in a gay relationship."
Banton – whose 1992 hit song Boom Bye Bye advocates gunning down batty bwoys with Uzis – went on to perform a free concert for Olympic athletes in an exclusive beach club outside the Olympic Village in Athens last Saturday, Aug. 14. But not before the concert’s sponsor, sportswear company Puma, stated homophobic lyrics will not be tolerated.
"If Buju Banton defies this agreement and performs a song using anti-gay lyrics – either at the Athens concert or at any future concert anywhere in the world – Puma will not associate with him in the future," Puma international marketing director Paul Gautier stated. "This also holds true for all performers with which Puma works… Puma will encourage reggae artists to take responsibility for their lyrics and their global impact."
That’s music to the ears of persecuted gays and lesbians in Jamaica still waiting for Banton to report to police. "Last I heard one of the guys who was beaten said there was a warrant for [Banton's] arrest," an organizer from Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-Sexuals and Gays told Hour, requesting anonymity for fear of being attacked. "A BBC reporter related to me that police were supposed to arrest him last weekend [August 7-8], but he never came in. It seems the police are not doing anything."
Rebecca Schleifer, a researcher with the NYC-based Human Rights Watch who was in Jamaica at the time of the attack, told Hour, "There is a pattern of police indifference to attacks on gay men in Jamaica that goes far beyond what Buju Banton is alleged to have done in this case. Neither his fame nor the stigma attached to the victims should stand in the way of a full, fair and complete police investigation."
The support of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch may put pressure on authorities in Jamaica while Montreal activists hope pressure here will cancel Sizzla’s Montreal concert.
Montreal promoter Cezar Brumeanu says the show will go on without any onstage anti-gay tirades by Sizzla. "And I will tell that to Sizzla personally backstage," Brumeanu says.
But Sizzla is unrepentant.
"It is wrong! Once we stoop to sodomites and homosexuals, it is wrong!" Sizzla says, his voice rising. "Wherever I go it is the same thing – burn sodomite, burn battyman. Burn all things that are wrong. Burn it… We must get rid of Sodom and Gomorrah right now and they must give us [the African diaspora] repatriation [to Africa] right now."
Then, just before hanging up the phone, Sizzla calmly says, "Much love to the people. As you know, Jah is love."
With Anthony B live at the Medley, Aug. 27