'Murder music' silenced by a tough operator

Media strategist acts as bridge between gay rights group and reggae industry

Glen Yearwood emerged from the studios of BBC Radio 4's
Today programme last November feeling a bit battered and bruised. The London-based marketer had taken part in what he calls a "tête-à-tête" with gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, a formidable media performer and a man unafraid to confront such characters as boxer Mike Tyson and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. By Yearwood's admission he had come off second best.

Glen Yearwood emerged from the studios of BBC Radio 4's Today programme last November feeling a bit battered and bruised. The London-based marketer had taken part in what he calls a "tête-à-tête" with gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, a formidable media performer and a man unafraid to confront such characters as boxer Mike Tyson and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. By Yearwood's admission he had come off second best.

One of the few media strategists of an Afro-Caribbean background, he found himself on Today after writing a letter to the London Evening Standard protesting at the way reggae music was being blamed for violence against gay men and in particular the homophobic murder of a London barman.

Yearwood had written to the newspaper as nothing more than a music fan and was unhappy at the adversarial nature of the Today debate in which he had been cast as the bad guy. But instead of storming back to the office, he decided to stay and talk to Tatchell, whose Outrage! group, through its successful campaign against "murder music", was bringing much of Britain's small black music industry to its knees. "I said 'Let's go behind closed doors and hammer out a solution because I don't think we are doing this right'," he says. Tatchell concurred.

Over the next three months, Yearwood achieved the seemingly impossible by coaxing together two groups who had previously appeared to be diametrically opposed.

Outrage!'s "Stop Murder Music" campaign (jointly run with the Black Gay Men's Advisory Group and Jamaican gay rights organisation J-Flag) had skilfully targeted eight leading Jamaican music performers who were exposed for recording homophobic lyrics. Artists such as the dancehall reggae star Beenie Man whose repertoire includes the song "Batty Man Fi Dead" were banned. But in persuading police, local authorities and former Home Secretary David Blunkett that the presence of Beenie Man and other anti-gay performers represented a threat to public order, the Outrage! campaign had damaged the careers of other artists and promoters with interests in festivals and concerts that were cancelled.

Yearwood, 41, could see the damage being done to one of the leading sources of income within Afro-Caribbean culture. "What was at stake was the equity of the reggae music brand. There was more than 40 years of equity under threat," he says. "I tried to illustrate to Peter [Tatchell] that reggae music was like the Last Supper, with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh at the head of the table and these young artists right at the other end."

The marketer, who grew up in Luton, sought to explain to gay rights activists that the homophobic lyrics, reprehensible as they sounded, were the product of a Jamaican culture which still clings to British colonial laws that punish gay sex with 10 years' hard labour.

At the same time, with his clipped English accent and a family background that harks back to the small Caribbean nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines, he had to win over the reggae industry, which still has its roots in Jamaica's poorest urban neighbourhoods. Yearwood says: "What we had to negotiate was what is fair and honest criticism of a lifestyle and what can be perceived as inciting violence. For me, the act of mediation was to take both parties along this bridge."

Last month an agreement was reached by which the leading reggae labels and promoters agreed not to promote homophobic songs. Tatchell says previous attempts to reach agreements with the Jamaican music industry had been "ignored or rebuffed". He says: "Glen fulfilled the very positive and useful role of go-between and in the course of negotiations the key record labels and promoters came to realise that inciting the killing of other human beings was not something they wanted to be associated with. It's a very welcome development and may not have happened without Glen's facilitation and perseverance."

Yearwood is aware, nevertheless, that the new deal is vulnerable to a fresh outburst of bigotry. "It's very fragile," he admits. "It only takes one individual to get up on stage or record sentiments that would put us back at square one."

When Beenie Man returns to the London stage for three shows later this month, Yearwood will be among those listening with bated breath.

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