'It's part of the culture' is no excuse

The police are investigating, and the singers are having to defend themselves. Much of the credit must go to Tatchell
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The Independent Online

It was one of those "come off it" moments: a woman from the Music of Black Origin (Mobo) Awards solemnly telling James Naughtie on Thursday's Today programme that the songs of the Jamaican reggae artist Vybz Kartel are "an expression of his culture". So does that mean it's all right for Kartel and other reggae stars to record songs that advocate killing gay men and lesbians? People grow up in all sorts of cultures - anti-Semitic, homophobic, with customs that damage women - but that doesn't relieve them of individual responsibility to behave decently.

It was one of those "come off it" moments: a woman from the Music of Black Origin (Mobo) Awards solemnly telling James Naughtie on Thursday's Today programme that the songs of the Jamaican reggae artist Vybz Kartel are "an expression of his culture". So does that mean it's all right for Kartel and other reggae stars to record songs that advocate killing gay men and lesbians? People grow up in all sorts of cultures - anti-Semitic, homophobic, with customs that damage women - but that doesn't relieve them of individual responsibility to behave decently.

Kartel is one of eight reggae artists being investigated by Scotland Yard over claims that their songs incite violence against gay people. His lyrics call for homosexual people to be assassinated. His fellow Mobo nominee, Elephant Man, has made his feelings equally plain with a song called "We Nuh Like Gay", while another of his lyrics advocates shooting gays "like birds". Yet the woman from Mobo went on to claim that Jamaican homophobia is a "legacy of Victorian morality", as though more than a century later performers like Kartel and Beenie Man are helpless to resist it.

Kartel himself, interviewed on the same programme, did not help his case, protesting that his songs had not advocated killing gay people for - oh, at least two years. I can't help thinking that this Damascene conversion, which he described in not wholly convincing detail to Naughtie, may be connected with the fact that other reggae stars, such as Beenie Man and Bounty Killer (who has suggested setting fire to "mister fagoty"), have had concerts cancelled after protests about their homophobia. And it is clear that all this is happening only because the gay rights group OutRage!has been campaigning against such lyrics for years, and has finally succeeded in shaming the singers and their record companies - and making promoters think twice about booking them.

At first no one paid much attention: Brett Lock of OutRage! says the Mobo organisers have ignored letters and refused to meet anyone from his organisation for a couple of years. (On Friday, I could find no mention of the controversy on the Mobo website, even though it was reported in detail in most newspapers last week as well as being discussed on Radio 4.) As recently as two years ago, protesters were beaten and kicked by rap fans when they demonstrated outside the awards ceremony. Now that the police are investigating, the singers are having to defend themselves and much of the credit must go to Peter Tatchell, who has doggedly circulated copies of the lyrics and refused to let the matter rest.

So effective has he been that last week he came under attack from a black writer in the Guardian. Joseph Harker accused him of trying to drive black musicians out business, cutting off "our escape route" from inner-city poverty. Of course, this is nonsense - Tatchell is trying to get a small number of reggae stars to desist from making incitement to murder part of their act, not stop them performing altogether - but Harker went on to make a disgraceful insinuation: "Following [Tatchell's] most prominent recent campaigns, against Robert Mugabe and the Muslim cleric Sheikh al-Qaradawi, some are beginning to ask what he's got against people of colour."

It is absurd and offensive to suggest that Tatchell is a racist. What he most certainly can claim to be - and this is what gets up people's noses - is consistent. He does not believe that people who advocate violence should be judged less harshly if they have suffered discrimination themselves or that you have to belong to a particular group (black, Jewish, Muslim, you name it) to be entitled to criticise the behaviour of some of its members.

In this instance, he has applied standards of universal human rights to popular culture - Jamaican reggae, although he has been just as outspoken in his criticism of the white rapper Eminem - and found it wanting. Tatchell doesn't accept the feeble excuses made on behalf of artists who casually exhibit their hatred of gay people and women in their recordings, and I don't see why the rest of us should either.

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