Jamaican reggae: Songs of hatred?

Police investigate the homophobic lyrics of eight Jamaican reggae stars after the murder of a gay man in London, reports Terry Kirby. The artists, however, insist that their shows must go on
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The Independent Online

Despite preaching revolution and advocating the benefits of copious ganja consumption, Bob Marley and the Wailers never quite had the full force of Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service turned on to them.

But now, some of today's major reggae stars are at the centre of a row over the violently homophobic nature of the lyrics to their music. An investigation by Scotland Yard's Racial and Violent Crime Task Force has now been extended to cover eight of the biggest Jamaican artists.

That inquiry has been given new urgency by the murder of a gay man in London over the weekend, which came during a spate of what are believed to be homophobic attacks.

At the same time, one of the eight, Sizzla - whose lyrics have included the phrase "Shoot queers, my big gun goes boom'' - has arrived in the UK for a five-date tour. After protests by gay groups one of those performances, in Birmingham, was cancelled yesterday and the tour promoters have insisted on inserting a clause in his contract which bars him from using homophobic, racist or sexist lyrics.

While the row has divided reggae enthusiasts and West Indian communities in Britain, it has raised barely a flicker of interest in Jamaica, where homosexuality is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Michael Eboda, editor of the New Nation newspaper, said feelings were divided into three broad camps: "There are those who think that what they are saying is wrong and should be stopped; there are those who agree that it is wrong but argue that it is impossible to compare the cultural sensibilities of liberal Britain with the Jamaican ghettos; and the third group who believe that it amounts to victimisation of reggae music and black people.'' He added: "In Jamaica, people just don't understand what the fuss is all about, they don't get it.''

The roots of the controversy lie in both the influence of the Bible and the Church on Jamaican culture and the social changes that have affected the island in the past 20 years.

As with much of black Africa, the established Christian churches in Jamaica, particularly the Pentecostalists, vigorously oppose homosexuality. Rastafarianism, the belief followed by a large number of Jamaicans, including many reggae artists, is not proscriptive in that fashion, but implores its adherents to follow the Bible, which forbids homosexual practices. Being anti-homosexual has, therefore, always been present in Jamaican life in a culture dominated by its churches; some say that reggae artists simply reflected that fact.

David Katz, author of two books on the music and a frequent visitor to Jamaica, said: "I think that if you had asked some of the big artists who were popular in Britain in the Seventies, like Burning Spear or Big Youth, they would almost certainly have said that if the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, then they agreed with that. It was just not something that came through into their lyrics.''

The change came at the end of the Eighties with the rise of dancehall DJs and the digitalisation of music. The older, ganja-influenced rhythms of Marley, Spear and others were replaced by a combination of what is known as "slackness" music, which consisted mostly of fast-paced, computerised beats with sexually explicit lyrics. More controversially, it included "gun talk", an element of the hardcore ragga sub-genre which perhaps reflected the growth of Yardie gang culture, which spoke heavily to the ghetto audience and celebrated the use of firearms. Katz says: "The dancehall DJs would build their careers around a macho, tough, ghetto image, in which only the strong survive. Anyone who was seen to be effeminate would be singled out because they did not conform to that machismo ethos.'' It is important to remember, he said, that Jamaica was an island and relatively inward-looking. "When something gets popular, people jump on the bandwagon.''

Although attention has only recently been focused on the artists under investigation, some of their work has been around for a long time without causing concern. But as some of these artists grew more well-known in Britain - and one, Beenie Man, is now signed to Virgin Records, part of EMI - concerns were raised with the police by Outrage, the militant gay group headed by Peter Tatchell.

In June, police questioned Beenie Man on arrival at Heathrow airport, forcing the cancellation of a concert in Hackney, east London. In August this year, the Metropolitan Police announced that the lyrics in songs by three other artists, Bounty Killer, Elephant Man and Buju Banton, would also be investigated.

That inquiry has now been extended to include the lyrics of four others: Sizzla, Capleton, the group TOK and Vybz Kartel. The Crown Prosecution Service is now considering whether the lyrics from some of their songs amount to an incitement to violence.

Some of this group, including Sizzla and Beenie Man, profess to be Rastafarians, and are known as "Bobo Dreads", which is a fundamentalist branch of Rastafarianism. Vybz Kartel, however, says that he is anti-religion.

In the case of Sizzla, Outrage says that it is not just his lyrics. At a festival in Kingston in 1998, he is alleged to have urged the multiracial crowd to "burn all white people". At a concert in Chicago in April 2002, he is alleged to have boasted: "Mi nuh go tek back mi chat ... mi kill sodomite and batty man dem bring Aids and disease pon people ... shot a kill dem, mi nuh go tek back mi chat."

[Translation: I won't take back my words ... I kill sodomites and queers, they bring Aids and disease upon people ... shoot and kill them, I won't take back my words.]

Mr Tatchell said: "In a free society, Sizzla has a right to criticise homosexuality. But he does not have a right to advocate the killing of lesbians and gay men. He has overstepped the mark.'' He added: "Sizzla has refused to apologise for his incitements to murder white people and to kill lesbians and gay men. His 'kill gays' songs are still in circulation. He has not withdrawn them. He is still profiteering from his murder music. We urge sponsors, promoters and venue owners to cancel Sizzla's concerts on the grounds that he incites racist and homophobic violence. His encouragement to kill white people stirs up racial hatred and violence. Sizzla's songs promote the murder of gays and lesbians. His performances may lead to public disorder and to homophobic and racist hate crimes.''

So far, only the Aston Villa leisure centre in Birmingham has cancelled a Sizzla gig, which was due to have taken place on Friday night, citing "technical reasons", although the venue was unable to comment further. Tonight, he is due to play in Milton Keynes, followed by Bradford on Thursday, London on Saturday and Bristol on Monday.

Concerns in London have been heightened by the recent rise in homophobic incidents, up by 10 per cent in the past year. Early on Saturday morning, David Morley, a barman who survived the nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan pub in London's Soho - the work of a homophobic killer - was savagely beaten up on the South Bank near the Royal Festival Hall. He died later from multiple injuries. The attack was one of five violent robberies committed by a gang of youths - two black and two white boys and two white girls. At least two of the victims were gay and the area is known as a meeting point for gay men. Police say that although robbery was clearly a motive, they are also being considered as homophobic. Mr Tatchell said: "It is appalling that these concerts are going ahead in the wake of this horrific murder.''

David Stewart, general manager of the Rex in Stratford, east London, where Sizzla is due to play on Saturday, said last night that the concert was almost certain to go ahead. "He is restricted by his contract not to use such lyrics, which was insisted upon when the tour was arranged. If he breaks the contract, he doesn't get paid. It's as simple as that."

He added: "We do not want to cause offence to anybody. This is a multicultural area and we are a venue used by all kinds of people, including gays, and have hosted Gay Pride events. We have had some protests from gay people, but other gays have said, let the music speak.''

The reaction of record companies remains uncertain. Despite protests from Outrage, Virgin Records is still representing Beenie Man. A spokesman said: "The allegedly homophobic lyrics relate to recordings which were not released by us, therefore we cannot comment.'' VP Records, which represents Sizzla, TOK, Capleton and Elephant Man, said no one was available to talk on the subject.

David Katz believes there is some hope that reggae will eventually shift its views into line with the liberal consensus that prevails in popular music, and cites an interview given by Vybz Kartel in which he apologised for homophobic lyrics and said he had renounced them. Another major producer, Cordell "Scatta" Burrell, he said, had also said he would no longer allow homophobic lyrics on any of his recordings. He added: "It may simply be a phase the music is going through. I think the artists and producers may now realise there's a whole big world outside Jamaica that might not share their views on this and that it's time to change.''

THE OFFENDING ARTISTS

BEENIE MAN

Real Name: Anthony Moses Davies

Born: Kingston, Jamaica, 28 August 1973

Record label: Virgin Records

A child star in Jamaica, Beenie Man began recording at the age of eight. His career low came when he was booed off stage at a concert celebrating the visit to Jamaica of Nelson Mandela. His single "Who Am I?" was a worldwide hit, entering the top 10 in 1997. He was reported to have apologised for his anti-gay lyrics, but denied this on stage.

Sample lyric ('Bad Man Chi Chi')

If yuh nuh chi chi 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!!!

Zagga zow, and mi sex off Mona, Lisa and (NO!!!)

And mi breed off Keisha, Lisa, and (NO!!!)

Some bwoy will go a jail fi murda tun badman chi chi man!!!

ELEPHANT MAN

Real Name: O'Neill Bryant

Born: Kingston, Jamaica, 11 September 1975

Record label: Greensleeves Records

Elephant Man's recording career began in 1991 when he and a group of school friends were invited to the Seaview studios in Jamaica. He then joined the "Scare Dem Crew" but, after the group broke up, he became a solo artist in his own right. He is recognised for his colourful persona and his energetic showmanship, often climbing the rigging and jumping from amp stacks during his live shows. He was dropped from the Urban Music Awards in 2004 because of his homophobic lyrics.

Sample lyric ('Log On')

Log on, and step pon chi chi man

Log on from yu know seh yu nuh ickie man

Log on and step pon chi chi man

Dance wi a dance and a bun out a freaky man

BOUNTY KILLER

Real name: Rodney Price

Born: Riverton City, Jamaica, 12 June 1972

Record label: His own, Pricele$$.

Bounty Killer is one of the most successful of all the reggae acts, also setting up his own record label and helping to promote new artists. He has been invited to speak at several youth forums in Jamaica, but is a vocal opponent of censorship of lyrics. He once attacked his fellow reggae star Beenie Man for "bowing" to homosexual campaigners and apologising for his lyrics.

Sample lyric ('Another Level')

Bun a fire pon a kuh pon mister fagoty

Cocky deh yah suh fi wheel unda Dorothy

Ears ah ben up and a wince under agony

Poop man fi drown a dat a yawd man philosophy

SIZZLA

Real Name: Miguel Collins

Born: August Town, Jamaica, 17 April 1976

Record label: VP Records

Born to devout Rastafarian parents, Sizzla is a member of Bobo Ashanti, a spiritual community that shuns all influence of "Babylon" (the Western world). They have built self-sufficient communities and live an ascetic existence. Sizzla detests the record industry and rarely grants interviews, or plays live, and very little is known about his history or his private life. His high points are his nominations for Mobo awards, but Sizzla refuses to attend the ceremonies. He has advocated the murder of homosexuals at his shows.

Sample lyric ('Pump Up')

Di woman seh pump up har pum pum pump up har pum pum

She waan mi ram it up vroom!!!

Di woman seh pump up har pum pum pump up har pum pum

Shot battybwoy my big gun boom!!!

Pump up har pum pum pump up har pum pum

She waan mi ram it up vroom!!!

Di woman seh pump up har! pump up har! come pump up har! um!

BUJU BANTON

Real Name: Mark Myrie

Born: Salt Lane, a slum outside Kingston, Jamaica, 15 July 1973

Record label: Mercury

Since the controversy of his early release "Boom Bye Bye", Banton has converted to Rastafarianism and has begun to release songs with a much greater social conscience. He has started Aids charities in Jamaica and recorded several tracks condemning gun violence there, most notably "Murderer" in 1994. He has also been at the forefront of reintroducing live music into reggae dancehalls.

Sample lyric ('Boom Bye Bye')

Anytime Buju Banton come

Batty bwoy get up an run

At gunshot me head back

Hear I tell him now crew

(It's like) boom bye bye

Inna batty bwoy head

Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man

Dem haffi dead