In 2004, the U.K.-based gay and lesbian rights group OutRage! initiated the Stop Murder Music campaign, waging war against dancehall artists that encourage hatred and violence toward gays and lesbians. The campaign, which resulted in concert cancellations and sponsorship losses, targeted Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Capleton, Elephant Man, Sizzla, TOK and Vybz Kartel. The campaign was called off in early 2005 when the artists, their respective record labels and promoters agreed to issue apologies and refrain from future grievances. But since then, according to Peter Tatchell, a spokesperson for OutRage! and one of the main proponents of the Stop Murder Music campaign, Buju Banton, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer have broken the terms of the agreement.
“The campaign against them has resumed and we are calling for a global boycott of these artists including the cancellation of performances,” says Tatchell.
Despite these infringements, Tatchell is pleased with the results overall, adding that most major music promoters and advertisers in Jamaica are now supporting the campaign. “Our whole campaign has been premised on the need to challenge homophobia in popular culture and promote a public debate about gay human rights,” he says. “I think we have been fairly successful in prompting a debate about an issue that was previously invisible and taboo. Obviously we have a long way to go, but slowly and surely we are beginning to win hearts and minds.”
While it’s easy to link dancehall and homophobia when some singers denounce gays and call for their deaths in hit songs, pop culture only facilitates discrimination in Jamaica—where the problem is ingrained in the culture. Elena Oumano, who’s writing a book about homophobia and the relationship between politics and music in Jamaica, says the island’s aversion toward gays is linked to slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and other historical elements.
Tatchell, on the other hand, sees the nihilism and hatred of the music in part as a reaction to failed hopes for social justice. “The earlier generation—Delray Washington, Mickey Diamond and others—sang of black liberation and upliftment. But when the whole project for social transformation in Jamaica fell to pieces, some of the noble ideals faded too, and a new generation of artists exploiting the shock value of misogyny and homophobia stepped into the vacuum,” he says. “These reactionary, bigoted dancehall artists are undermining black unity and empowerment. They are de facto agents of imperialism.”
Some dancehall, like much hip-hop, is predicated on tough-guy bravado and ruled by glorified violence, over-exaggerated threats and gun chatter. But these references are part of a metaphoric dialogue that offers social commentary on everything from poverty to homosexuality, and can sometimes be left open for interpretation. Are the calls to violence against gays actually cries against the pedophiles who prey upon Jamaica’s young ghetto boys?
Either way, in Jamaica, where latent homophobia exists alongside anti-“buggery” laws, this volatile combination often results in deadly violence. Which is why dancehall’s aggression toward gays and lesbians has been met with such worldwide fervor, prompting a 2004 Human Rights Watch report titled Hated To Death: Homophobia, Violence And Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic, which stated “political and cultural factors, including religious intolerance of homosexuality, Jamaican popular music, and the use of antigay slogans and rhetoric by political leaders also promote violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
But is Jamaica’s homophobia the music industry’s responsibility? Steve Weltman, president of Greensleeves Records, which has released records by Vybz Kartel, Bounty Killer and Sizzla, says the music industry must take its place alongside others in society to pursue self-improvement an