Let's reason with Beenie Man, not ban him

Plenty of figures who have inspired the poor and oppressed have held anti-gay views
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The Independent Online

Anyone with any spirit must agree the world needs Peter Tatchell, if only for his audacity. Had he been around in biblical times, the story of Sodom would have been so much more heartening. "And GOD said: 'I shall wreak much destruction upon the city, for the Sodomites have brought disgrace upon the Earth.' And then Peter Tatchell did appear at GOD's shoulder saying 'Thou hast broken clause 9D of the Canaanite Human Rights Act, whereupon it is forbidden to smite upon grounds of sexual preference', and thus the Lord was taken away under a citizen's arrest."

Anyone with any spirit must agree the world needs Peter Tatchell, if only for his audacity. Had he been around in biblical times, the story of Sodom would have been so much more heartening. "And GOD said: 'I shall wreak much destruction upon the city, for the Sodomites have brought disgrace upon the Earth.' And then Peter Tatchell did appear at GOD's shoulder saying 'Thou hast broken clause 9D of the Canaanite Human Rights Act, whereupon it is forbidden to smite upon grounds of sexual preference', and thus the Lord was taken away under a citizen's arrest."

The most impressive side to Tatchell is that he approaches each issue by asking: "What can I do to improve the situation?" Most campaigning groups issue leaflets with a heading "What you can do", followed by a list that includes things like "write to your MP" or "don't buy Danish canoes". How much more constructive if they said: "Why not travel to an obscure airport and try to arrest a dictator?"

Recently he's been campaigning for the banning of several reggae stars, for singing songs such as Buju Banton's "Boom bye bye, in a batty boy head," meaning gays should be shot. In Jamaican dancehalls this song is often accompanied by audience participation, in which people fire their guns into the air. I suppose it's a reggae version of when everyone stands in a line and flaps their arms to The Birdy Song.

Some commentators have said suggested it's unfair to criticise this, as it's merely an expression of Jamaican culture. You might as well say you should not criticise George Bush, as invading places and nicking their oil is an expression of US culture. Other excuses are even weaker. The Voice newspaper quotes one supporter of these songs as saying: "They don't mean any harm, they're just entertainment." This is a similar argument to the one used by old comedians to justify their jokes about black people. And to be fair, even Bernard Manning's audience didn't usually fire guns into the air every time he said "there's this Pakistani fella".

And yet, the call for banning these stars makes me uneasy. When Beenie Man was nominated for a music award, Tatchell said this was "the same as nominating a racist pro-BNP entertainer". But however appalling some of their lyrics, this seems to be putting everything in the wrong order. A recent Buju Banton album, Friends for Life, contains several stirring anthems for civil rights, an excerpt of a Marcus Garvey speech, and is a deliberate attempt to distance reggae from the egotistical bling-bling culture of modern rap.

Tatchell also equates these singers with apartheid South Africa, but this was a highly armed state dedicated to preserving the power of a wealthy minority, which is hardly the case with Beenie Man. Is there a reggae bank we shouldn't put our money in with a slogan "don't invest in Natty West"?

Fascism and apartheid, brutality and bigotry is built into the belief that a handful of people should exclude everyone else from any power or rights, but Rastafarianism is a response to brutality. It developed as a demand for a Jamaican culture dominated neither by the British Empire nor American business, and it's this rebellious nature that explains its attraction. Like any religion it contains all sorts of peculiarities. I recently had a long argument with a Rasta cab driver who rejected evolution, in which at one point he said the marvellous line: "You look in the Bible, there ain't no mention of no raasclot stegosaurus."

Plenty of figures whose overall impact has been to inspire the poor and oppressed have nonetheless held anti-gay views deriving from their religion. Should we have called for the banning of Bob Marley, or Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, comparing them to the BNP or apartheid? If an individual or movement is driven by opposition to injustice, but contains some disgraceful attitudes, they should be engaged in debate rather than banned. If this seems naive, it's no more so than the task of converting Britain's miners to the cause of gay liberation during the strike in the 1980s. At the start of that dispute there was a vast demonstration in which the main slogan became "get yer tits out for the lads", shouted at any passing woman. At that point your average Yorkshire miners' attitude towards gays was probably "boom boom ta-ra in thou pansy head".

But as miners and their supporters debated, attitudes changed, until famously a contingent of miners were at the front of the following year's Gay Pride march. It's only a shame that no one thought of asking a brass band to play "Relax". Whether Beenie Man can be persuaded to follow a similar direction is debatable, but a campaign to persuade the millions of people attracted to reggae to reject the anti-gay sentiments espoused by some singers would probably be more effective than trying to get them banned.

I'm aware this may not be the easiest argument in the world, but as Buju Banton's performing in London next week, perhaps we should knock out one of those leaflets and give it a go. Then maybe we'll soon see the first gay dancehall reggae stars, complaining that red and gold clashes terribly with green, and singing "I and I will survive".

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