ONE ISSUE has dominated the build-up to the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) awards at the end of this month—the viciously anti-gay lyrics of two of the original nominees.
Gay rights group OutRage!, led by veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell, picketed the MOBO launch party in August, when the nominations of Jamaican dancehall singers Elephant Man and Vybes Kartel were announced.
Tatchell then called on the Crown Prosecution Service to charge the pair if they were allowed into Britain. The MOBO Academy buckled under pressure and rescinded the nominations.
Outrage!’s actions are part of a wider campaign against what has been dubbed “Jamaican murder music”. The murder earlier this year of Brian Williamson, the island’s leading gay rights campaigner, tragically highlighted the appalling oppression Jamaican lesbians and gay men face.
There is no doubting and no excusing the sickening homophobia in songs such as Vybes Kartel’s “Bedroom Slaughterman”, Elephant Man’s “We Nuh Like Gay”, or various outpourings by Beenie Man—who was pressured into a quarter-hearted apology last month.
Instead, the issue is how to confront it. Tatchell compares homophobic black musicians to the BNP Nazis. “It’s the same as nominating a racist BNP entertainer,” he says—and his tactics follow from this.
But a black audience listening to a dancehall act cannot be equated with a BNP mob at one of their so called gigs. Confronting homophobia is much more complicated than stopping the BNP—and so too is Jamaican music.
Take Buju Banton, for example. A group of us recoiled in disgust a few years ago as a Notting Hill Carnival MC whipped up a large crowd between repeated plays of Buju Banton’s infamous anti-gay song “Boom Bye Bye”.
But the same Buju Banton produced a brilliant album, Til Shiloh, in 1995. The words of one of its tracks, “Murderer”, became the defiant anthem of south London protesters campaigning against the deaths in police custody of two young black men.
And his latest album, Friends for Life, includes extracts from speeches by Marcus Garvey, one of the US’s first black nationalist leaders. It is a conscious attempt to move beyond the ugly materialism that characterises much of contemporary dance music.
Under the cover of a campaign against homophobic lyrics, some artists are coming under fire merely for citing black figures such as Garvey and Malcolm X.
There is also a guilt by association creeping in—the whole of this year’s planned Reggae in the Park event in London was cancelled recently.
The truth is that contemporary Jamaican music, like other cultural forms, represents the society it comes from and the conditions it is created in.
In the mid-1970s Jamaican reggae burst onto the world’s stage. Artists such as The Wailers, with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh at the band’s heart, expressed people’s anguish at centuries of racism.
They encouraged a sense of pride among black people, and specifically among Rastafarians, whose religion was born as a reaction to racism and imperialism.
Reggae music has, of course, moved on since then, and dancehall is now far and away the most successful form of the genre.
Jamaican society has also moved on. It has been devastated by IMF-imposed free market polices that are wreaking havoc across the globe.
The collapse of basic infrastructure and welfare provision on the island was graphically highlighted last weekend as Hurricane Ivan hit. The social consequences of neo-liberalism in Jamaica are poverty and despair.
Unfortunately being ground down does not necessarily produce a progressive reaction. And suffering from one form of oppression does not automatically lead you to identify with those who face another.
Does that mean just accepting the bigotry of the likes of Elephant Man? Certainly not. Letters to The Voice, Britain’s leading black paper, have claimed homophobia is part of “black culture”, which makes it “racist” to criticise it.
Apart from anything else, that argument ignores black lesbians and gay men. Two of the most influential black cultural figures of the last century, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, were gay.
European Christian missionaries were notoriously shocked by the prevalence of same-sex behaviour they found in many African societies. The issue of homophobic lyrics by a few black musicians is not a “gay thing” versus a “black thing”.
It is equally important not to fall into the same trap from the opposite direction.
Treating a handful of black musicians in the same way as the BNP does nothing to help to win young black (or white) people to opposing homophobia. And they can be won to that understanding.
The same system that generates racism also oppresses gay people, and the same home secretary who caves into the racists also opposes equality for gays.
Twenty years ago miners across the country went on strike. Many were from villages where backward ideas about gays were widespread. Yet they were won to seeing the links between different forms of oppression.
It wasn’t easy. Gay activists and socialists built solidarity for the strike, but also took up arguments about the oppression of women and gays. The 1985 Gay Pride march was led by a band from a South Wales colliery.
The involvement of activists in countless arguments created far deeper and greater change than a handful of people engaging in media-savvy stunts.
That is the approach needed today. Some, such as soul singer Beverley Knight and rap artist Mos Def, have spoken out against homophobic artists and lyrics.
Others acts, including Heartless Crew, Wiley and Ms Dynamite, have joined in campaigns such as Love Music Hate Racism, or are raising issues such as police violence or the war.
It’s among that kind of growing radicalisation that a powerful force against homophobia can grow.
Stoke - Love music Hate Racism
Thousands of people gathered at Stoke’s Love Music Hate Racism carnival last weekend.
The dance tent was packed all day and featured a great line-up of top garage/grime, hip-hop,
R & B and bashment DJs and MCs. They included Metz & Trix, Donae'o, Slimzee & B-Live, Hardkaur, Corey Johnson and local talent. It was a brilliant response by black, white and Asian people to the Nazi BNP’s attempts to organise in the area