No to hate: dancehall & gay-bashing lyrics

Garry Steckles looks at the gay-bashing lyrics of dancehall and reminds us that the true message of roots reggae is One Love

  • No to hate illustration by Jason Jarvis

This was the first paragraph of a recent Associated Press story out of New York:

Citing concerns about potential violence, an organiser on Wednesday cancelled a reggae concert meant to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS after protesters complained two of the scheduled performers were anti-gay.

The performers in question were dancehall stars Beenie Man and TOK. The concert was cancelled after a storm of protests, mainly from gay people in the United States. It brought to the boil a controversy that has been simmering in the Jamaican music industry for the past few years: the violent, homophobic lyrics of many of today’s most popular Jamaican dancehall performers. Most prominent of them, in addition to Beenie Man and TOK, are Capleton and Sizzla. Lesser-known performers who have also been guilty — and I use the word deliberately — of inflammatory anti-gay lyrics are Turbulence and Richie Davis.

Before going any further, I’d like to make a couple of things clear.

1. I’m not gay.

2. I’m a staunch defender of the rights of musicians to use their Jah-given gift to comment on the world and everything that’s going on in it.

Whether or not I agree with what they have to say is of no consequence. But — and it’s a big but — we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. There’s a huge moral gap between outspoken social commentary and advocating murder. Which is exactly what Beenie Man, Sizzla, TOK, Capleton, et al having been doing for years.

I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that the lyrics of many of their songs urge their fans, most of them young and impressionable, to slaughter gay people. And, as I read more and more about the controversy surrounding the cancellation of the New York reggae concert, I couldn’t help wondering: don’t these guys have something better to do with their talent?

I love music. I can’t sing (and I do mean can’t). I can’t play an instrument. I’m a lousy dancer. And the only people in the world I envy are people who have the gift of music. I don’t want to be Bill Gates. I don’t envy Warren Buffet. The Sultan of Brunei can keep his billions. Next time around, I want to be the deadliest bass player in all of reggae. Or the guy whose howling sax captures the heart and soul of salsa. Or the singer with the pipes from Mount Zion. I want to be an Ernest Ranglin. I want to be a Miles Davis. I want to be a “Family Man” Barrett. I want to be a Bob Marley, a Van Morrison, a Tommy McCook, a Jimmy Bosch, a Lord Kitchener, a Nasio Fontaine, a Duke Ellington, a John Lennon, a Stevie Wonder, a Jackie Mittoo, a Ruben Gonzalez, a Joseph Hill, a Roaring Lion, a Justin Hines, a John Coltrane, a Jimmy Cliff, a Lord Blakie, a David Rudder, a Fela Kuti, a Toots Hibbert, a Mighty Sparrow, a Hugh Masakela, a Burning Spear, a Bob Dylan, a Frank Sinatra, an Otis Redding, a Wyclef Jean, a Michael Franti, a Ben Harper. And if I come back as a woman, I want to be a Calypso Rose, an Aretha Franklin, an Ella Fitzgerald, an Etta James, a Singing Sandra, a Nina Simone, a Judy Mowatt, a Dinah Washington, a Mahalia Jackson, a Celia Cruz, a Janice Joplin.

One thing I don’t want to be, though, is a musician who abuses my blessed gift by encouraging human beings to kill one another. One of the things great musicians have in common is that they use music to spread joy. And, often, wisdom. But never — never, never, never — to advocate murder.

Can’t people like Beenie Man, Capleton, TOK, and Sizzla find anything better to sing about? It might have escaped their attention, but the world has problems that would appear, to my simple mind, to be a little more pressing than people having sexual inclinations that don’t happen to coincide with theirs. Haven’t they noticed the carnage in Iraq? The millions of innocent people being slaughtered in wars in various parts of Africa? Global warming? Domestic violence? Poverty? Sexual abuse condoned by a holier-than-thou religion? Starvation? Greed? Millions of people dying every year of heterosexually transmitted AIDS? Children having children? Chronic over-population? Rampant corporate skullduggery?

Couldn’t these guys preach love, rather than hate?

Bob Marley had no time for homosexuality, and he made no bones about it. But he never sang about it. He never urged his millions of fans to kill people because their sexual preferences were different from his. He never used his voice, the most influential in the history of music and one of the most influential in the history of mankind, to preach anything other than One Love. He sang about solving our problems, about unity, about redemption — not about slaughtering people he didn’t see eye to eye with.

My personal stance against musicians who preach violence, by the way, extends to those whose songs and videos denigrate women or reinforce ugly and demeaning racial stereotypes. Switch on your TV and check out BET or the Tempo channel if you want some examples of what I’m talking about.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who feels the same way. Here’s what Chuck Foster — whose comprehensive and incisive reggae reviews have long been a cornerstone of The Beat, the wonderful Los Angeles-based world music magazine — has to say on the subject:

Peter Tosh said, “I’m a progressive man and I love progressive people.” There’s nothing progressive about racism, violence, homophobia, or misogyny — they’re part of the same system of oppression roots reggae fought against from the beginning. Now more than ever we need tolerance not intolerance, love and not hate, unity and not the kind of divisiveness our so-called leaders use to keep themselves in power. Reggae music is and should be a powerful force in the struggle for human rights without regard to race, class, or gender. It is inclusive not exclusive, conscious and not shortsighted, proactive and not prejudiced.

Hear, hear. And, for what it’s worth, here’s the stand I take against negative music: as soon as I hear a single song advocating violence or sexism — much less murder — I refuse to have anything to do with that performer’s music. I won’t buy their CDs. I won’t buy their DVDs. I won’t attend a concert or a music festival where they’re on the bill. I won’t watch them on television. I won’t buy a compilation CD that includes any of their songs. I won’t listen to a radio station that plays their music.

As far as I’m concerned, they’re banned.

For life.

On a somewhat cheerier topic, one of the most amusing news stories I’ve seen in years involves the distinct dialects of two of my favourite places in the world: the north-east of England and Jamaica. I’m from the former, and I’ve spent a lot of memorable time in the latter. I love them both, and I love their strong and distinctive dialects, one of which I grew up with, the other of which I often wish I’d grown up with.

The story I’m talking about involves something known as “foreign accent syndrome”. It happens, and it’s very rare, to people who undergo some sort of trauma that results in them losing consciousness; when they wake up, they’re talking with a radically different accent or dialect. If you haven’t heard about it, I can assure you I’m not making this up. The story I’m talking about appeared in just about every paper in the UK, and you know they wouldn’t lie to you.

It’s about a woman from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, my home town, where the guttural, virtually impenetrable local dialect has had dictionaries devoted to it. She suffered a mild stroke, passed out, and, when she woke up in hospital, started speaking with a broad Jamaican accent. She wasn’t amused. In fact, she was quoted as saying she felt like something had been taken out of her life.

Personally, proud as I am of my own dialect, I’d be delighted to be able to speak like a Jamaican. From “why aye, hinny” — a common expression in the north-east of England — one minute to “yeah, mon” the next. It would be wonderful.

All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with Caribbean culture, the designated topic of this column, but it’s a story I couldn’t resist sharing with you.

And if you don’t believe it’s true, you can Google it.

Finally, like millions of people around the world, particularly those from the Caribbean and most especially those from Jamaica, I was saddened by the recent death of the wonderful Louise Bennett-Coverly.

Miss Lou, as she was affectionately known, was a Jamaican folklorist, comedienne and poet. But she was much more than an entertainer; she was a Jamaican cultural icon, a national treasure whose warmth, humour, and grace embodied much of what’s best about her beloved Jamaican people.

Read Mervyn Morris’s appreciation of Louise Bennett-Coverly and what she meant to the people of Jamaica.

Walk good, Miss Lou.