Jamaica’s dancehall music is being blamed for the country’s violent attacks on gays. But there are many who don’t see the music as homophobic, only the battle cry of a changing nation. Read part 2 of this article here.
Image courtesy of Ebony G. Patterson
On a breezy evening in mid-April a committee boasting some of Jamaica’s most venerable citizens convened an open-air meeting under the auspices of the department of government at the University of the West Indies. After almost a year and a half of sifting through charts and listening to old vinyl recordings, the committee co-chairmen, which included the president of Jamaica’s National Gallery and a former finance minister, presented to several hundred members of the public their list of the top one hundred Jamaican songs. Pandemonium ensued.
Audience members objected to the choice for number one song, “One Love,” Bob Marley’s sweet paean to togetherness, as being too saccharine. People jammed the open microphone to point out the under-representation of female artists. Others testily questioned why so few of the chosen top songs reflected reggae’s subversive, anti-establishment politics. Several people demanded a more transparent process. But the most passionate complaint from the crowd—which included members of the media, faculty in the university’s department of reggae studies, music industry figures, and ordinary music fans—was voiced over and over again from younger members of the audience: Where on this top one hundred list were the dancehall songs?
Dancehall is a beat-heavy, lyrically-dense, energetic, and synthesizer-driven music that has much in common with American hip-hop. It evolved in the early nineteen nineties out of the classic reggae of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff—the often feel-good, reefer-party music championing the Rastafarian visions of social justice and pan-African celebration, which had powered Jamaica to worldwide recognition in the nineteen seventies and had catapulted Jamaican musicians into the far reaches of global iconography.
Surging in popularity worldwide, dancehall acts routinely fill venues like Madison Square Garden. The biggest dancehall performers sell out their U.S. concert dates within minutes. In Japan some forty thousand fans roar to the beat of dancehall acts in a sold-out stadium concert staged every September. Dance moves pioneered by dancehall fans frequently turn up in the videos of American hip hop stars.
But dancehall is hugely controversial—inside and outside Jamaica. Detractors echo many of the same complaints voiced against American hip-hop, including that the music promotes misogyny and violence. But the brief against dancehall far exceeds criticism inveighed against any other genre of popular music. Dancehall is a crucible for Jamaica’s irreconcilable notions of class and masculinity and identity. Most of all, dancehall is accused of fomenting vicious anti-gay violence.
But none of the judges explained the paucity of dancehall in the list by citing the social upheaval, foreign disapprobation, or controversy surrounding dancehall. To explain dancehall’s under-representation on their top one hundred, judges instead invoked their own personal tastes and the need for recent music to endure the test of time. During the audience Q&A, one man in his twenties leaned forward into the microphone as if he were about to break into song himself, his hands wrapped around the lapel of his linen sports coat. “You cannot ignore dancehall,” he lectured the judges. “It is the soul of the Jamaican street. We respect our roots but it is not what is alive right now. You cannot wish us away.”
Homegrown music in Jamaica fulfills a cultural role far larger than popular music in the US or indeed in most other countries. As an export it is a major factor in Jamaica’s economy—and helps fuel Jamaica’s massive tourism industry, the country’s largest economic sector, with about 1.6 billion dollars in annual revenue and the source of employment for more than 10 percent of the Jamaican population.
Music is a vital component of Jamaican national identity—in much of the world, after all, it is what puts Jamaica on the map—and it acts as social glue in a nation of extreme disparity, where the middle classes are bundled inside gated housing developments while the majority of the population sprawls across crowded urban garrisons. Jamaican music is a sort of lingua franca for a country with two halves literally speaking different languages (English in the hilly subdivisions; Jamaican patois in the ghetto). Only the hated gas tax seems to rival music as a common conversation topic from Kingston’s manicured uptown to the city’s ravaged downtown.
Jamaica only achieved its independence from Great Britain in 1962, and for many years after, the country remained largely rural and relatively isolated from the larger world. But Jamaican society has become a lot more complicated in the past twenty years. The country has seen new immigrant groups—mainly Chinese and Indians attracted to small-bore business opportunities—a huge number of Jamaicans working overseas, the rise of vexing criminal networks, the influx of global media, vast divisions in wealth, and new educational opportunities that challenge the former British colony’s old class divisions. Where once tasked with creating a nation from the historical firmament of an especially brutalizing slavery system—tinder for frequent violent plantation uprisings—Jamaican society is now devastated by one of the highest homicide rates in the world (in 2010 coming in third behind Columbia and South Africa).
Dancehall, with its incorporation of global music trends and appetite for foreign audiences, has become a vibrant expression of Jamaica’s changing society. But the music is also a rebuke against important aspects of the country’s sense of national identity. For a start, the genre’s aesthetics pose a challenge to Jamaica’s delicate balancing act on race—Jamaican leaders like to trumpet both the country’s multiracial harmony and Jamaica’s historical support of a strong identity among pan-African diasporas. But a popular dancehall affectation among men is to bleach white their faces, necks, and arms, leaving many Jamaicans to wonder how many of the nation’s youth really feels about their black skin. Like with much else about dancehall, there is little agreement about significance: a large number of Jamaica’s punditry insist race has nothing to do with it; others, more convincingly, argue that it’s a little absurd to fail to see racial implications when Jamaican men undergo expensive bleaching treatments.
Dancehall’s anti-homosexuality often is camouflaged in Jamaican patois, but in translation, the emotions aren’t hard to decode.
Dancehall-inspired body alterations don’t stop with bleaching. At concerts and street festivals, the same young men who will aggressively showcase their dance moves with women—including “daggering,” a style of dance invented in dancehall clubs that involves a graphic, frenetic, and very public simulation of sex (one form of daggering is when a man jumps from an elevated platform, usually a stack of speakers, dropping ten or twelve feet directly into the spread legs of a woman writhing on the dance floor)—will also show up with shaved eyebrows and dress in a riot of gender-bending jewelry and accessories. The result is a look that borders on post-apocalyptic.
But in no arena is dancehall—and Jamaican society overall—more troubled than in grappling with sexual orientation. Blaring on most street corners and from car radios, dancehall’s virulent homophobia, a curdled hatred for homosexuals explicitly and pervasively articulated in the music’s lyrics and deeply entrenched in dancehall culture, foments a quotidian reign of terror against Jamaican gay people. Jamaican gays call it murder music.
Dancehall’s anti-homosexuality often is camouflaged in Jamaican patois, a dialect of English difficult for non-Jamaicans to understand. But in translation, the emotions aren’t hard to decode. A song by Capleton called “More Prophet” includes the lyrics: Shoulda know seh Capleton bun battyman/Dem same fire apply to all di lesbian/Seh mi bun everything from mi know seh dem gay/All boogaman and sodemites fi get killed. “Batty” means backside in patois and “battymen” is a ubiquitous pejorative for homosexuals in Jamaica. This translates from the patois into, “You should know that Capleton burns homosexuals/The same fire applies to lesbians/Say I burn everything as long as I know that they’re homosexual/All homosexuals and sodomites should be killed.” Beenie Man, one of the top dancehall musicians, sings “Han Up Deh” with the lyrics Hang chi chi gal wid a long piece of rope, which means “Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope.” He is also the author of one of the first anti-gay dancehall anthems, “Batty Man Fi Dead,” which translates into “Homosexuals should be killed.”
A top dancehall performer named Bounty Killer sings lyrics, among many other examples, that include, “Burn gay men until they wince in agony/gay men should drown.” A dancehall singer named Elephant Man, one of Jamaica’s top dancehall musicians, a charismatic performer with multicolored hair braids who headlined a Fourth of July concert in Rochester, NY, has a hit song with the words “When you hear a lesbian getting raped/it’s not our fault/it’s wrong/two women in bed/that’s two sodomites who should be dead.”
In a country where gay people are routine targets for violence, where the homes of suspected gay people are burned down at night and lesbians frequently confront the threat of rape, where police habitually refuse to intervene in crimes against gay victims and where men do not sit next to each other on a public bus in fear they will accidentally brush up against another man and consequently expose themselves to violent attack, dancehall implacably channels the country’s anti-gay animus.
As much as dancehall’s professional promoters strain to sideline the issue and Jamaica’s boosters look to avoid the topic, dancehall’s homophobia has become nearly unavoidable—one Jamaican compared it to the way the issue of race metastasized everywhere in the Jim Crow South. Walking a busy Jamaican street one afternoon, I listened for patois anti-gay epithets; I heard it tumbling out of a majority of conversations at a frequency that seemed entirely implausible if I had not already been told by Jamaicans of the country’s gay fixation.
At dancehall events, like Kingston’s all-night street dance parties, a deadly hostility toward homosexuality co-mingles with an obvious gay aesthetic. The question is why.
“You go to Passa Passa”—an all-night dance party held every Wednesday in one of Kingston’s roughest neighborhoods—“and you see men dancing in pink pastels, dancing as effeminately as they possibly can,” said Donna P. Hope, a professor of reggae studies at the University of the West Indies, tapping her nails against her desk. “These guys are supposed to be gangsters. What is going on here?”
The contradiction goes well beyond a curious taste in sartorial expression. It is more like a call to arms. Jamaica’s legions of young dancehall fans, the majority from relentlessly poor urban neighborhoods, have embraced a persona that is calculated to offend, even if by all rights it should also offend their own prejudices. It is also, it seemed to me, a preemptive strike: in a society where sexuality is under constant surveillance, where the smallest clue that a person is homosexual is a pretext for violence, dancehall provides the ultimate protective uniform. When everyone on the dance floor is flouting heterosexual conventions, it suddenly becomes impossible to single out anybody. “We have this fraught sense of sexuality—it is an irony—where we go to extremes in expressing sexuality but at the same time we have this horrible shame and violence about it,” said Thomas Glave in a telephone interview. Glave, a professor of English at MIT, was born in the Bronx but mostly grew up in Jamaica and sets his fiction inside the country.
Jamaica is hardly the only country in its region to persecute gay people. Cuba especially has a history of repressing sexual minorities. Through the nineteen eighties men accused of homosexuality were sent without trial to internment camps to undergo forced hard labor there. But countries across the Caribbean, including Cuba, have in recent years quietly allowed a more visible if discreet public space for gays. Since the nineteen nineties predominately gay beaches have been allowed to flourish in several Caribbean islands. Sympathetic gay characters have started to appear on Cuban soap operas. With same-sex marriage laws stacking up territorial wins in the U.S. by the month, an openly lesbian president of Iceland, and protections for gay people being enshrined across the world, it’s not even news to notice gay people are enjoying a sweeping global acceptance.
Rampant homophobia cohabitates with the pervasive belief that some extravagantly large percentage of the island population is, in fact, gay.
Not in Jamaica. A member of Jamaica’s parliament recently drafted a proposal to change the current sentence for breaking Jamaica’s “gross indecency” law, which generally applies to any gay sexual conduct public or private, from a 10-year prison sentence to life. In May, 2008, in an interview on the BBC program Hard Talk, Jamaica’s newly elected prime minister, Bruce Golding, declared that he would exclude homosexuals from his cabinet. “Jamaicans require a very clear anti-homosexual statement or most Jamaicans will actually think the prime minister himself is gay, as absurd as this sounds,” said Deann Fontaine, a Jamaican film maker.
Rampant homophobia cohabitates with the pervasive belief that some extravagantly large percentage of the island population is, in fact, gay. In dozens of interviews with both gay and straight Jamaicans, I was repeatedly assured that at least half the men in Jamaica are gay.
In this decade “the discussion about gays has just exploded,” said Thomas Glave, the MIT professor. At the same time, it is a discussion that “has sparked a national anxiety, an anxiety that hasn’t really been eased or resolved. This travels in different ways in different social networks but the result is you don’t have to be gay to be considered gay,” continued Glave. “Which is why people honestly believe in numbers like 70 percent and 80 percent for the gay community.”
Yet again and again Jamaicans told me that the country is not exceptional, that it is being singled out unfairly in order to limit dancehall’s commercial viability abroad, and in any case the country has a right to its traditions and religious values.
“It’s our culture to be honest,” said a smartly dressed producer for a popular Jamaican reggae show who often interviews Jamaican musicians about politics. Despite her job as a professional interviewer, she refused to give me her name after I broached dancehall’s controversies. “We’re a very spiritual country,” she said, a fierce note in her voice. “The overseas market has made us pay for our views but we’re still going to sing about it.”
Indeed, the canyon separating Jamaican attitudes on homosexuality with its neighbors is especially steep when it comes to dancehall artists’ global aspirations. The entertainment world is, by and large, hyper-sensitive to allegations of promoting intolerance against any group. Rank, publicly expressed homophobia has become the worst kind of poison on the factory floor of pop culture manufacturing: it has become dangerously uncool.
Yet, while many in the dancehall world defend Jamaican performers as simple vessels for the prejudices manifest in Jamaican society at large, it’s more likely that dancehall was what ignited the fuse in the first place. Until about twenty years ago, Jamaicans with whom I spoke uniformly recalled that men didn’t worry about accidentally brushing up against another man on a city bus. Homosexuality was hidden, but not radioactive. That changed beginning the early nineteen nineties, precisely the time when dancehall emerged, with its musicians exhorting fans to spill out of clubs and attack gay people.
Dancehall’s culpability is “clear—it’s really the one big difference between other Caribbean countries and Jamaica. Other countries have a cult of masculinity and powerful churches but what they don’t have is dancehall,” said Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College in New York and a prominent popular music critic who has published widely on Jamaican music.
The dichotomy between Jamaica’s democracy and its treatment of sexual minorities “is particularly striking,” said Rebecca Schlieffer, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “That in a country with such a vibrant democracy and history of championing human rights protections for vulnerable groups, it would have a complete disregard for international law and a total failure to protect people.”
Still, Dreisinger cautioned me that “if you don’t inherently love dancehall—like so many cultural products—it is easy to check off what’s wrong and distressing in it, if you don’t appreciate its creativity and beauty and power. At the same time, the criticisms are all true,” said Dreisinger. “I don’t think there’s one uber-explanation. The homophobia has definitely become worse in the last five years. Which is why I subscribe to the snowball effect, that it is hype-generated.”
Moreover, some critics pointed out, dancehall musicians are caught in a difficult Catch-22. An aggressively anti-gay posture is needed to sell music in Jamaica, essential in establishing their credibility as bona fide dancehall product; but doing so jeopardizes their commercial appeal abroad, the source of the real money in the business.
Jamaica’s minister of culture, Olivia “Babsy” Grange, a staunch defender of dancehall who once worked in the industry as a personal manager, appeared almost apoplectic when I brought up the subject of anti-gay lyrics (while her press liaison, who sternly lectured me after the interview for bringing up the issue at all, looked like he wanted to hit me). “We do not support gay bashing. We don’t support violence against anybody. But the problem is taking care of itself,” the minister recited, and pointed out that her ministry has produced workshops for musicians, helping them to formulate positive messages in their songs and prepare for the export market. “These artists have to understand that they are in a global marketplace, and they do understand this.”
When the minister told me that dancehall is primarily about “arrival” and “good emotions,” I reported to her my experience the night before at a dancehall club where the deejay had relentlessly aroused the crowd with hectoring references to homosexuality, calling out “battyman” and “chi chi man” and “fish,” all incendiary patois pejoratives. Grange protested that focusing on anti-gay speech in dancehall “is unfair. We’re not preoccupied with it. I don’t think it is part of the national conversation right now.”
Even by Jamaican standards, N has been vigilant in shielding his sexuality. He is closeted from his affluent parents, both professionals living in a city on the southern coast. While a student several years ago at Howard University in Washington DC, he introduced his boyfriend to only his closest friends. Back in Kingston, he never walked on streets more than a few minutes at a stretch and he rarely allowed another man, gay or straight, to enter his apartment.
Over his shoulder, N heard a man’s voice: “You all are battymen.”
A few months ago, in a parking lot adjacent to a posh Kingston shopping district called the Sovereign Center, N and another man kissed their two stylish women companions on the cheeks and turned to open their car doors. The four office colleagues had just enjoyed an after-work dinner at an upscale restaurant. Over his shoulder, N heard a man’s voice: “You all are battymen.”
“I wasn’t sure who they were talking about so I turned around,“ recounted N. “Someone stabbed me with some sort of instrument in my eye, then punched me in the face.” For N, the next ten or so minutes became a blur. Witnesses told police that fourteen assailants—including the owner of the restaurant they had just exited—punched, kicked, and body-slammed the two men over and over again.
Despite three operations, N lost all sight in his left eye. He refused to leave his apartment for two months. After the attack, the friend who was also beaten filed a police report against their assailants, listing his home address. Two weeks later, he was shot outside his front gate.
Read part 2 of this article here.
Ilan Greenberg is a journalist based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Foreign Policy, and the Wall Street Journal. He was the recipient of the 2008 Lange-Taylor Prize awarded by Duke University.
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. A story of slavery and rebellion, haunting and lyrical, by an emerging master in Jamaican fiction. Another one: The Reggae Scrapbook by Roger Steffens and Peter Simon. An exuberant mishmash of photos and miscellany from Jamaican musical history. A kaleidoscope portrait of Jamaica’s vibrant, potent, contested music culture.
To contact Guernica or Ilan Greenberg, please write here.