Beenie Man: 'I'm not homophobic'

Jamaican dancehall star Beenie Man tells Matilda Egere-Cooper his violently anti-gay lyrics have been misunderstood
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The St Kitts music festival might well be the best-kept secret in the Caribbean, and there's a good chance that even the most clued-up of music aficionados in Britain won't even have heard of it. This is despite the event assuming the status, over the past decade, of an annual destination for punters with a fondness for all things enticing in the world of music.

For the thousands of revellers who make the trek to this tiny island, anything goes. This year is no different, as the highly sexualised soca rhythms of artists such as King Socrates give way to some serious gyrating and booty-shaking. Air Supply's romantic rock vibes, meanwhile, are capable of moving even the sulkiest group of bikini-clad teenagers to song.

Beenie Man loves it here. On the second day of the four-day fest, the self-proclaimed king of dancehall is one of the headliners (pop star Shaggy tops the bill for the international night the next day) and manages to incite shrills and rapturous applause from his audience, despite the time nearing 2am. The upbeat DJ sears through his oldies and newbies, all the while jumping in the air and revelling in the adoration of the crowd. There's a marked absence of demonstrations, and the OutRage! spokesperson Peter Tatchell is most definitely not lurking in the shadows, waiting his moment to run onstage and curse the singer for his anti-gay lyrics.

"When you come perform in the Caribbean, it's like you are at home - because it's a few miles away from Jamaica anyway," says Beenie Man back at his hotel room the next day. "So, you get either a more loving spirit because the Caribbean people love the songs from back in the day to now, and when you're an artist that they love forever, and you're still here making hits. It makes a difference, you know. And I've been coming here for, like, nine years now. The people dem really accept you for who you are."

But a fair proportion of homosexuals and gay rights activists in Europe and North America most definitely don't accept him for who he is. It was only a few weeks ago that the award-winning DJ's scheduled concert appearance in Bournemouth was cancelled following complaints from gay rights groups. Days later, a number of groups in the US protested against the singer's inclusion on the bill of an HIV/Aids benefit concert, before it too was eventually cancelled.

Of course, Beenie Man (real name Moses Davis) has become used to the furore that seems to inevitably accompany his activities nowadays. His controversial lyrics such as "Well I'm think of a new Jamaica, me come to execute all of the gays" have led to activists campaigning against him and other dance- hall artists, and their anti-gay sentiments.

Aside from these latest set-backs, the 35-year-old has also been unceremoniously dumped from the MTV Video Music Awards, dropped from the Mobo awards and even snubbed by his former pal Janet Jackson, with whom he collaborated for his 2004 single "Feel It Boy". "She said if she had known [that I was homophobic] she would have not sang a song with me," says Beenie, in a tone that implies he's still annoyed to this day. "I am not homophobic!"

Beenie Man clearly isn't happy, but he is unwavering in his convictions. A slight man with a neat head of dreadlocks, his bespectacled face and polite manner seem at odds with the sexually rowdy persona that has been part of his appeal since the dawn of his career at the age of 10.

Born in the grimy Waterhouse area of Kingston, Jamaica, Beenie Man's rise to fame has been well-documented. By 1983, he was recording with heavyweight DJs, such as Dillinger and Fathead, and released his debut album that year, The Invincible Beenie Man, the Ten Year Old DJ Wonder, and the single "Over the Sea". Verbal wars with rival Bounty Killer later added to his notoriety, after he accused the elder performer of stealing his catchphrase, "people dead". In 1993, Beenie Man was booed off stage at a show celebrating the visit of Nelson Mandela to the island and he left Kingston for a year. It wasn't until 1995 that he would attempt to establish his name in the UK. Two years later, he had a hit with "Dancehall Queen" and follow-up single "Who Am I?". By 1998, he had signed with Virgin Records and had the means to spread his music to a wider audience.

In hindsight, this might have been a mistake: Beenie Man maintains that the lyrics in his music have been misconstrued due to cultural differences, and are actually aimed at child-molesters in his country. "Jamaica is not against gay people," he says in a thick Jamaican lilt. "Gay means consented sex. What we have in Jamaica is not what it is in England where two men live together. That's not it in Jamaica and these people [like Tatchell] fail to understand that. In Jamaica, gay is rape. It's a big man with their money going into the ghetto and picking these little youth who ain't got nothing. And then give them money and then involving them. There were 550 youths who got raped inna Jamaica you know? And nobody seems to speak of that. Nobody sees the youth get raped, and throat cut because the man who raped him, he knows him, and he doesn't want him to go back and say he did it. And these things still happening."

It's to his credit that Beenie is prepared to defend himself against criticism - his fellow artists Buju Banton and Bounty Killer have been less than forthcoming about the reasons for their similar lyrical onslaughts. But Beenie's justification of his words has its flaws. For starters, why aren't his views about paedophiles more explicit in his music? And how is the listener meant to differentiate between the use of derogatory terms for gays and lesbians - "batty men", "chi chi gals" - and their use in the righteous skewering of child-molesters?

It's common knowledge that a virtually zero-tolerance policy operates towards homosexuality in Jamaica, from the grass roots to, it is widely believed, the government. Violent acts against gay men are also commonplace. In 2004 Brian Williamson, the country's leading gay activist, was murdered with a machete, though the police continue to claim that the murder happened during a robbery and was not motivated by homophobia.

It would almost seem as though Beenie Man is avoiding the issue of the general victimisation of homosexuals that his music encourages, conscious as he is of the homophobic tendencies of his homeland. "Gay men are dead all over the world," he shrugs, crossing his arms. "One gay man's dead in Jamaica, so what's the difference? Yes it's a big thing, but [the reaction] doesn't make no sense.

"If a gay man [wants to] say that because we say 'Batty man, yeah, you have sex with a man', right there you're gonna find it offensive to you. But it's not dedicated to you. We're not saying kill gay people, you understand? [Reggae star] Sizzla turned around and said he's not apologising to no batty boy, but you need to understand what that means. It means a big man that's sexing a little boy, that's what it is!"

What are his views on gays and lesbians, then? "People need to understand this," he sighs. "I'm a Rastafarian. And I believe in the Bible. I know that if a man sleeps with another man, life ceases to exist because a man cannot breed. Woman to woman can't make no kids. But I'm not fighting against gay and lesbian life. As a man, you don't like to see two men together, you find it disgusting. But that's their life. To you it's disgusting, but to them it's happy. That's why they call themselves gay, they are happy people. They are happy with their life and they're doing their thing. So it's not for you to come and make these people feel sad and unhappy. And dancehall music never set out to do that because people are people. When I see a gay man, I see a man."

He maintains that he's being targeted, unlike the rapper Eminem, who's been able to get away with his own controversial musings about gay people in the past. "We're a smaller topic," he says. "Eminem is an American. America, they're behind him. You understand? We're a smaller topic, we're dancehall artists, and we are from Jamaica. There are gay people in America, gay people in Europe, gay people in England and all these organisations come against one small group."

Releasing his 19th album couldn't have come at a worse time. Called Undisputed ("I am the undisputed king of the dancehall. No question", he boasts), the album sticks to the rapper's formula for pulsating dancehall tunes, wrapped up in that cheeky charm that's crowned him the "girls dem sugar" - or womaniser. His first single, "Girls", is a predictable collaboration with man-of-the-moment Akon, while the rest of the album steers clear of the drama in the UK and the US that's taken place over the last few years. One can't help but think that's a smart move, but will he continue to address the gay topic in the future?

The revellers in St Kitts seem to love him regardless, and he's content in his belief that there will always be fans of his music. But he's also keen to take on the role of campaigner. "Because my ting is my ting," he says, firmly. "I have my foundation, the Beenie Man Foundation for Troubled Youth. And 95 per cent of these kids are boys that have been sexually molested by elder people. So what are we going to do? We need help from the gay community, too. Because if they support all these things, they're not supporting life."

The single ' Girls' is released on Monday; ' Undisputed' is out on 29 August on Virgin; for more information on the St Kitts Music Festival visit