Beenie, the Jamaican DJ just dropped from the Big Day Out is, on the one hand, undeniably a phenomenal talent. He released his first album at age ten, and since then has maintained a reputation for witty lyrics and high-energy performances in the intensively competitive Jamaican music industry. Yet, like many dancehall artists, Beenie has, at various times, been openly, flagrantly — almost murderously — homophobic. The lyric “I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays” comes from an early track Damn — but there’s plenty of other examples.
That’s the basis on which Beenie’s been targeted by gay activists all over the world — and it’s why he’s no longer performing at the BDO in Australia. Now, Jamaica remains one of the more religious societies in the world. Not coincidentally, it’s also very homophobic.
Politicians from both major parties are openly bigoted, with Prime Minister Bruce Golding vowing to exclude gays from his cabinet and to keep “buggery laws” on the books that criminalise both gay sex (ten years gaol) and an intent to have gay sex (seven years).
The activist group JFLAG estimates that some thirty people have been killed in homophobic murders in Jamaica between 1997 and 2004.
That’s the context for the homophobia in Jamaican music. It’s very difficult to find a major dancehall artist who has not, at one time or another, recorded anti-gay lyrics. Buju Banton, Sizzla, Capleton, Elephant Man, Bounty Killer: they’re all on record voicing the most vile hatred against gays and lesbians.
As Jeremy Seabrook argued a few years back — ironically, in the context of a previous Beenie controversy — homophobia in Jamaica is a direct legacy of colonial rule.
In Jamaica, the offences of buggery and gross indecency were framed in the Offences Against the Person Act of 1864, derived from the English Act of 1861. The wording is chilling: “Whoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or an animal, shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a term not exceeding 10 years.”
When the constitution for the newly independent territories of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados was drawn up in 1962, its architects honoured their former rulers by preserving colonial values which would themselves be abolished in Britain within five years. These laws had their roots in Victorian morality, but they were embraced enthusiastically by the black nationalist middle class; and, like many illiberal attitudes in the world, these filtered through society, and were transmuted into a virulent machismo among the poor; a consequence, perhaps, of people having been stripped of everything else, including the promises of a better life after independence.
It is out of this culture, fortified by contemporary evangelical Christianity, that the culture of music-driven homophobia has grown.
The historical strength of the churches means that social criticism in Jamaica mostly takes a religious form, especially through the various strands of Rastafarianism. Perversely, it’s thus often the socially conscious artists who are the most fervently homophobic, using anti-gay bigotry to signify cultural authenticity and rebellion.
The campaign against homophobia in reggae by activists like Peter Tatchell in Britain has succeeded in drawing attention to a grotesque lyrical violence often buried under a patois that listeners don’t understand. Yet it’s also produced a backlash that’s reinforced, within Jamaica, a notion of anti-gay bigotry as resistance to institutional power. When Sizzla or Capleton get banned in Europe, they return home boasting about how they “nah bow” and “nah apologise”, further entrenching homophobia within the scene.
The situation’s complicated by the fact that, in the west, reggae’s now very much a minority music and so, the campaign against homophobia can seem like a protest against Jamaicans. It’s not like sexism or homophobia are exactly unknown in rock or metal or other genres. The sense of an underlying ignorance about Jamaican music isn’t helped when, in his Age article about the BDO cancellation, music writer Patrick Donovan misspells Beenie’s name throughout ( “beenie” means little in patois).
A few years back, a group formed calling itself Dancehall Fans Against Homophobia. In its manifesto, it denounced homophobic lyrics and called upon record companies not to release anti-gay tracks, sound systems not to play them and fans not to buy them. It also, however, rejected a general demonization of reggae and suggested that, given the long history of homophobia in Jamaica, there would be no instant solution to the problem. Instead, what was necessary was a process of dialogue within the music and the culture.
This latest incident shows why that dialogue’s needed more than ever.