Why are reggae singers allowed to incite the murder of gay people?
Is homophobia a socially acceptable prejudice? It seems so, judging from official indifference to the latest hate campaign against the lesbian and gay community. The Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have nothing to say about the recent wave of reggae hit songs that advocate the murder of queers.
Jamaican reggae singer Beenie Man is one of four top reggae stars who have released records urging the shooting and burning of gay people. His track, Bad Man Chi Chi Man (Bad Man, Queer Man), instructs listeners to kill gay DJs:
“If yuh nuh chi chi (queer) man wave yuh right hand and (NO!!!)/If yuh nuh lesbian wave yuh right hand and (NO!!!)Some bwoy will go a jail fi kill man tun bad man chi chi man!!!./Tell mi, sumfest it should a be a showdown/Yuh seem to run off a stage like a clown (Kill Dem DJ!!!)”.
Imagine the outcry if gay singer Elton John released a record urging the lynching of black people? He’d be kicked out of the music industry and be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred and murder.
But when black artists call for the extermination of queers, they get away with it. Worse still, they win nominations for prestigious music awards. Where is the public outrage? Why do the police and government sit back and do nothing?
Violent homophobia is the latest craze in the reggae off-shoot known as ragga or dancehall music. This descent into bigotry is surprising. Reggae once gave musical expression to voices for black liberation. Sadly, the love, peace and justice idealism of singers like Bob Marley and Delroy Washington has been usurped nowadays by a vicious homophobia and misogyny, and by the gratuitous glorification of gun culture and gang violence.
Typical of the new homophobic hate lyrics is TOK‘s track, Chi Chi Man (Queer Man):
“From dem a drink inna chi chi (queer) man bar/Blaze di fire mek we dun dem!!!!Dun dem!!!!./Rat tat tat every chi chi man dem haffi get flat./Chi chi man fi dead and dat’s a fact”.
Music industry chiefs have responded to these homophobic anthems by gleefully promoting them. Even the BBC has featured some of the tracks. Last year, Radio 1 defended playing Chi Chi Man on the grounds that it was part of Jamaican culture. Oh yeh! Apartheid was part of white South African culture, but the BBC never used that argument as an excuse for giving a platform to white supremacists. Why do they have different standards for homophobes?
The BBC only belatedly pulled the plug on anti-gay reggae artists, and that was solely because of protests by the gay rights group OutRage!.
The issue of homophobia in black music was highlighted at the 2002 Music Of Black Origin (MOBO) awards, where performers Elephant Man, TOK and Capelton were nominated as “Best Reggae Act” – despite their history of violent homophobic lyrics that urge the incineration and gunning down of gay people. Their records vilify gays as “battymen” and “chi chi men” (Jamaican patois insults similar to queer, poof and faggot).
A Nuh Fi Wi Fault by Elephant Man boasts:
“Battyman fi dead!/Please mark we word/Gimme tha tech-nine/Shoot dem like bird”.
Another of his tracks, We Nuh Like Gay, goes:
“Battyman fi dead! Tek dem by surprise/Ghetta in shot head, cau me big gun
collide./gimme me Tech-9, General B. wid de chrome an waa shine/Harry Toddler shot out ah bugger-man”.
Elephant Man proudly defends his lyrics: “We (Jamaicans) know that this thing (homosexuality) is not right and we are not going to uphold it. The Jamaican heritage is deep, we love God and we are not involved in certain things. From the time I was growing up, I learned that chi chi man fi get bun.bun dem out”.
Another inflammatory hit is Capelton’s Bun Di Chi Chi (Burn The Queer). It was previously promoted by BBC Radio 1 via the online Top Ten posted by DJ Chris Goldfinger:
“Blood out ah chi chi (queer) Bun (burn) out ah chi chi/Dem ah deal with too much inequity/Blood out ah chi chi, Bun out ah sissy”.
Only when OutRage! kicked up a fuss did the BBC withdraw its web links to the song and admit that its promotion was a “mistake”.
Likewise, on the BBC website promoting the recent TV series, The History of Reggae, it used to be possible to download a clip of Elephant Man’s song, Log On. This track celebrates setting fire to a gay person and stamping on their body:
“Log on and step pon chi chi (queer) man/Dance wi a dance and a bun (burn) out a freaky (queer) man./Step pon him like a old cloth/A dance wi a dance and a crush out dem./do di walk, mek mi see the light and di torch dem fass”.
This clip was also eventually pulled following protests from OutRage!. The BBC declined, however, to offer an apology to the lesbian and gay community.
Capelton defends his lyrics by claiming that burning is merely a metaphor for cleansing and purity: “It’s not really a physical fire. It’s really a spiritual fire, and a wordical fire and a musical fire”, he said.
But this explanation does not wash with campaigners from the Jamaican gay rights group, J-Flag: “When these artists say it is just a metaphor, I’m not sure the average Jamaican interprets it that way.(the homophobic lyrics) perpetuate a culture of hatred and violence against sexual minorities.This music sells; but it also kills”. J-Flag points to the very high level of homophobic hate crimes in Jamaica and the frequent failure of the police to take these killings and assaults seriously. This is the deadly social context in which these singles are being released and promoted.
“It does not matter what the intention of the artist was when writing the lyrics”, says J-Flag. “The words simply confirm the popular belief that gays are evil, that evil must be eradicated, and that vigilante violence is an acceptable means of accomplishing this end”.
The nomination of reggae’s bigoted super stars at the MOBOs was the moral equivalent of the Brit awards nominating a racist pro-BNP entertainer who incites the extermination of black people. The racist band Skrewdriver would never get a nomination – even if it did a chart-topping cover version of Mull of Kintyre. Why should homophobic reggae artists be treated any differently?
Part of the problem is the law. Whereas incitement to racial hatred is a crime; inciting anti-gay hate is not. It is lawful. Gay victims have no redress. Double standards yet again. Prime Minister Blair has refused to change the law. Given that a third of lesbians and gay men in the UK have been violently attacked because of their homosexuality, isn’t it time the government did something serious to tackle homophobic hate crimes? In 1998, during the passage of the Crime & Disorder Bill, Ministers declined to extend the tough new penalties for race hate attacks to assaults motivated by homophobic hatred. How many queers have to be beaten and killed before the government orders a crack down?
The MOBO organisers would, I suspect, be outraged if a Mercury Prize nomination was offered to a white singer who denounced black people as “niggers” and called for them to be put to death. Why, pray tell, are they rewarding homophobes like Capelton, Elephant Man and TOK? In the end, perhaps because of the OutRage! protests, none of these homophobic reggae singers won a MOBO award. But their nomination signalled that MOBO officials believe homophobia is acceptable in black music. Music Of Black Origin? Music Of Bigoted Origin would be more accurate.
Prejudice in pop is not an abstract issue. The hatred of these artists helps fuel queer-bashing violence in Britain as well as Jamaica, as I discovered when I dared to protest outside the MOBO gala night at London Arena. Mouthing the hate lyrics of their reggae heroes, I was attacked by a hysterical homophobic mob yelling “Kill the batty boy” and “Kill chi chi men”. Some shouted more or less direct quotes from the offending lyrics: “Battyman fi dead” and “Bun out da chi chi”. Set upon by 25 mostly black teenage music fans, I was kicked, punched, spat at and hit with beer cans, coins and cigarette lighters. It felt like a replay of what white racist thugs did to black civil rights marchers in the Deep South during the 1960s. The hatred in those young people’s eyes was frightening. I thought I was going to be killed. My crime? Holding up a placard with the words “MOBO rewards anti-gay hate”. Together with four colleagues from OutRage!, I was forced to flee under police escort.
The reaction of e supposedly liberal heterosexuals was an eye-opener. Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Janet Street-Porter ridiculed our protest as politically correct and unworthy. Would Janet be equally dismissive if a neo-Nazi singer released a record urging the gassing of Jewish people? I doubt it. She’d be outraged and demand action. Why don’t hateful attitudes towards the gay community merit equal concern?
Janet went on to imply that gay people in Britain have no right to criticise these artists because “we’re not sitting in a ghetto in Jamaica”. And thank heavens we’re not in the ghetto! If we were, we’d probably be murdered!
In recent years, more than 30 gay men have been killed in Jamaica. They have died horrible, gruesome deaths at the hands of homophobic mobs. It is like Afghanistan under the Taliban. Queers are stoned to death, chopped up with machetes, beaten unconscious with sticks, dowsed with petrol and set ablaze, blasted in the head with shotguns and chased into the sea until they drown from exhaustion. Despite this bloody trail of murder and mayhem, the police in Kingston claim there is no problem with homophobic violence. But since they refuse to monitor and record anti-gay attacks, how would they know?
A few years ago, 16 suspected gay men were massacred in a prison riot in Kingston. Many Jamaicans applauded. The police arrested no one.
Queers, not the killers of queers, are viewed as the real criminals. Gay sex is punishable by up to 10 years hard labour, and the government is adamant that it will not abolish its anti-gay laws.
This culture of unrestrained bigotry is why most homophobic violence in Jamaica goes unreported. Gay people fear revealing their sexuality and rendering themselves liable to further assaults. The danger of reprisals is a real one. There is also the risk of arrest if they go to the police.
Here in Britain, black lesbians and gay men also suffer from the intolerance stirred and legitimated by homophobic lyrics. Many Jamaican families denounce and disown their own lesbian and gay children.
Unsurprisingly, lots of black gay people feel obliged to hide their sexuality. There are no openly gay black super stars. Not even one world famous black athlete, politician or entertainer is ‘out’. That shows the crushing strength of black homophobia.
The response of black MPs and community leaders is depressing. Although many are privately appalled, few publicly condemn homophobic reggae singers and their hate-filled, mostly black, fans.
Black commentator Darcus Howe has taken a public stand. He deplores the queer-bashing lyrics as “sad, sick and sorry”. But warning against censorship, he adds: “If singers and record companies want to do this, it’s up to them. I’m very careful about banning people, especially if they are artists”. I wonder whether he would take a similar hands-off attitude if white singers were calling for the torching and blasting of black people?
Howe is not surprised by the failure of most black MPs to speak out: “They don’t even speak out on black issues”. He also worries that black leaders have their hands full fighting racism, without taking on homophobia as well. “They have to battle for black people and you have to battle for gay people”, he says. But if we adopt that attitude, who will battle for people who are both black and gay?
The silence of many black leaders means that anti-gay bigotry has free rein in parts of the black community. If Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson and Desmond Tutu can challenge homophobia and champion gay rights, why can’t British black leaders?
This brings us to the tricky issue of what should be done about homophobia in reggae music – and other pop genres. There clearly is a problem. These lyrics have a demonstrable negative impact on some people’s behaviour, as I discovered when I was attacked at the MOBO awards ceremony. The lyrics may not create homophobic prejudice and violence, but they certainly do validate and inflame it. Helping to make homophobia cool and acceptable is dangerous. It gives a green light to bigotry; making disordered, maladjusted young straight men feel OK about physically venting their rage against lesbian and gay people.
Education is a major part of the answer. Schools should tackle homophobia, just as they are now starting to take a stand against racism. But in the meantime, how should the law respond to homophobia in pop music?
One possible solution is to extend the incitement to hatred laws, which currently criminalise only racist incitement. This legislative extension would prohibit incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.
There are good arguments in favour of broadening the incitement laws. Why should they be limited to race? What about other socially divisive hatreds? The scale of anti-gay violence is so great that legislative action is warranted – and long overdue. If incitement to hatred is going to be a crime, then surely all incitements to hatred should be crimes? It is unfair to have selective laws that criminalise hate crimes against one community but not others.
On the downside, there is an argument that freedom of speech is so precious that it must be protected at all costs against those who want to censor ideas and opinions. If you limit free speech, where do you start and stop? Who decides? Isn’t any judgement bound to be subjective?
My own view is that freedom of speech is such a fundamental human right, and so crucial to the preservation of an open society, that in order to maintain this freedom we sometimes have to put up with opinions that many of us find insulting. One of the litmus tests of a true democracy is the extent to which it is prepared to allow the expression of ideas that the majority find offensive. Having lived through the tail-end of the McCarthyite era, and nearly lost my job because of it, I know first hand what it is like to be on the receiving end of the thought police.
Don’t get me wrong. Homophobia stinks. I nevertheless feel obliged to defend the right of people to oppose and criticise homosexuality. They may be misguided and bigoted, but tolerating (though not accepting) their prejudice is a price we pay for living in a multicultural democracy.
My reluctant defence of the freedom to be homophobic is not merely theoretical. In 2002, I opposed the conviction of the Bournemouth lay preacher, Harry Hammond. He was found guilty, under public order legislation, for displaying a sign which read: “Stop Homosexuality!”. Sure, it was pure prejudice, and prejudice is wrong. But criminalising prejudiced opinions is a step too far. Where do you draw the line between legitimate robust criticism and illegitimate rank prejudice?
The only circumstance where there is a clearly valid case for limiting freedom of speech is when it involves inciting violence.
There are two forms of violent incitement that can be justifiably criminalised. The first involves the direct advocacy of assault and murder, which is what several reggae artists now appear to be doing. That should be illegal, full stop. The second is an indirect, but also dangerous, form of incitement. It involves the expression of prejudiced insults – not necessarily direct incitements to violence – in circumstances where they are likely to encourage an assault. If, for example, an angry homophobic mob has cornered a gay person in the street, and someone inflames the situation by shouting anti-gay abuse, then that abuse is tantamount to inciting violence and should also be a crime. Even if the abuse does not itself involve an explicit threat of violence, in those turbulent circumstances it could encourage the mob to attack the besieged gay man, thereby putting him in danger of assault – or worse. That, too, should be a crime.
The House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences is currently considering whether to extend the laws against race hatred to cover incitement to religious hatred. Perhaps the Select Committee could also consider whether there is a case for comprehensive legislation against all forms of incitement to hatred – including hatred against lesbians and gay men?
Copyright: Peter Tatchell 2002. All rights reserved.
Published under the title, Homophobia in Pop Music, on the website of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, December 2002. Another version of this article was published under the title, The Dark Side of Reggae, in the December 2002 issue of AXM magazine