TOTALLY 'BATTY': Buju Banton is the most visible homophobic artist in reggae today.
One Hate, One Fear
With the rise of homophobic dancehall and 'murder music,' reggae has gone from Jamaica's possibility to its brutal reality
By David Sason
Everyman fi have a gal
And every gal grab a man
Man to man, gal to gal, that's wrong
—"Ramping Shop," Vybz Kartel featuring Spice, 2009
Andy Samberg's brilliant Saturday Night Live character "Ras Trent" navigates a day in the life of a reggae-loving college student, from the "shanty dorm" to his part-time job at "Jah Cold Stone Creamery" and, of course, his DVD of Cool Runnings. The skit is hilarious because everyone knows a suburban "rude boy," complete with the blonde dreadlocks and Bob Marley silkscreen, who smokes way too much weed. Reggae music is pervading our culture like never before, from annual festivals to skanking reggae remakes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon.
But even the clownish Ras Trent can't escape the ugly side of modern reggae. "Oh, fire pon Babylon," he croons in an exaggeratedly American accent, "and fire pon a batty boy." The satire gains surprising accuracy with the term "batty boy," a Jamaican slur for a gay man that's appeared in many incendiary songs over the past 20 years, each shifting further the genre's image of love and harmony toward a reality of violence and bigotry.
At the center of recent controversy is dancehall superstar Buju Banton, whose fall tour was beleaguered by a well-organized boycott campaign that led to 23 cancellations, including shows in Berkeley and San Jose. In 1992, Banton broke Bob Marley's record for most No. 1 singles in a year, but he also released a song called "Boom Bye Bye" whose catchy melody belied its lyrics:
Boom bye bye, inna batty bwoy head
[mimicking a gunshot sound "in a batty boy's head"]
Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man, dem haffi dead
["Rude boys don't promote no queer men, they have to die"]
(Two man) Hitch up on an rub up on, an lay down inna bed
["Two men connect, then rub each other, then lay down in a bed"]
Hug up on another, anna feel up leg
["They hug each other, then feel up the leg"]
Send fi di matic an di Uzi instead
["Send for the automatic [gun] and the Uzi instead"]
Shoot dem no come if we shot dem
["Shoot them, don't come if we shoot them"]
Guy come near we, then his skin must peel
["If a man comes near us, then his skin must peel"]
Burn him up bad like an old tyre wheel
Having been dropped from Peter Gabriel's WOMAD tour that year due to the international uproar, Banton issued an apology and then a retraction, thus beginning nearly two decades of amends-making that at best can be called schizophrenic and, at worst, disingenuous. The singer claimed he had "moved on" from a song he wrote as a 15-year-old, supposedly about a specific, well-known, case of man/boy rape. But Banton continues to perform the song. (His microphone was switched off at New York's Reggae CariFest in 2007 when he began it.) He also claims he makes no money from "Boom Bye Bye," but all U.S. copyright records show his name.
In June 2007, Banton finally signed the Reggae Compassionate Act (RCA), which language reads in part, "It must be clear there's no space in the music community for hatred and prejudice, including no place for racism, violence, sexism or homophobia. We do not encourage or minister to hate but rather uphold a philosophy of love, respect and understanding toward all human beings as the cornerstone of reggae music."
Just a few weeks later, though, he denied signing it and denounced the act extensively throughout the Jamaican media. "His signing of the RCA is worthless," says Peter Tatchell, the renowned British activist who co-founded OutRage!, part of the organization Stop Murder Music, and who coined the term "murder music."
"Banton has been given so many chances to drop his incitements to kill LGBT people," Tatchell says. "He has refused, or agreed and then gone back on his word."
Cementing Banton's reputation were reports from Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch about his involvement in a 2004 attack on six gay men near his Kingston recording studio. The victims were called "battymen" by the group of armed attackers, and the savage beating left one 44-year-old victim blind in one eye. After an investigation and trial that bordered on farce—it took about a year and a lot of international pressure to even issue a warrant—Banton was acquitted.
Still, many of his fans buy his persecution tale. Tim Nuss of Napa, 23, is one of them. "Two years ago, I was going to his show in Oakland, but they shut it down," he says, at last month's Gyptian and Warrior King show in Fairfax. "We can't leave a stigma on artists who have evolved. Buju has moved on from that stage in his life; they should move on as well."
That's just what Bay Area LGBT leaders tried on Oct. 12 when they arranged a meeting with Banton and his reps at a Larkspur hotel. San Francisco County Supervisors Bevan Dufty and Eric Mar as well as SF LGBT Community Center executive director Rebecca Rolfe were among the officials who met with Banton to discuss the singer's lyrics and community protests against them. Hopes were high, what with the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act that same week and President Obama's equally noteworthy speech on gay rights.
But after grievances were expressed and a request for a town-hall meeting in Kingston was refused, no resolution was reached. "I'm not starry-eyed, and I don't have rose-tinted glasses," says attendee Andrea Shorter of Equality California. "It's just a step in the right direction."
Herself a dreadlocked African American, Shorter grew up on Bob Marley and continued her love of Jamaican music with Ziggy Marley and the ska revival of the 1980s, but she's appalled by what it's become. "Reggae music has had great meaning to me, whether it's about positivity and uplifting spirit and creating more united amongst people," she says. "That's what real reggae is about."
That night at Banton's show at San Francisco's Rockit Room, a blast of pepper spray dispersed the audience. Activist groups deny orchestrating the attack, but it nonetheless quelled any remaining hopes for progress. "As I said in one of my songs, 'There is no end to the war between me and faggot,'" Banton told a Jamaican talk show the next day. "After I met with them, they pepper-sprayed the concert. So what are you trying to tell me? I owe dem nothing, they don't owe I nothing."
A couple weeks later at a show in New Jersey, Banton reiterated the comment. As seen on YouTube, in a medley he yells, "There is no end to the war between me and faggots!" He then rails against the gay marriage efforts in California, before berating "battymen" SpongeBob and Beavis and Butthead. It would be laughable if it weren't for the rapturous cheers of the crowd, who waved two fingers in the air like guns and chanted "Boom boom, boom boom."
Jamaica is plagued by extreme poverty, AIDS and homicide. As recently as 2005, the island nation had the highest murder rate in the world, and still averages one murder every six hours. Homosexuality remains a crime in this British commonwealth. With a recent survey cited by Amnesty International showing that 96 percent of Jamaicans are opposed to any move to legalize homosexual relations, much of that violence is directed at the LGBT community.
"The challenge is that the violence [gays and lesbians] face is one that is culturally and socially sanctioned and expected," says Jason MacFarlane of J-FLAG, Jamaica's LGBT rights organization. Under the antiquated "buggery" law, sodomy is a felony punishable by imprisonment with hard labor for up to 10 years. Additionally, says MacFarlane, "any sexual intimacy between men short of that is a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years. Furthermore, neither major political party in Jamaica has expressed any support for gay rights."
Since January 2007, reports to J-FLAG have shown at least eight men alleged to be homosexual have been murdered, and over 35 have sustained serious injuries from mob attacks. The list of incidents is harrowing. In early 2009, two lesbian couples were raped by men who had threatened them earlier, as a form of "corrective therapy." In 2006, Nokia Cowan died after a mob shouting "Batty boy!" chased him off a pier in downtown Kingston; he couldn't swim.
At an open-air dance party, a young man watched his roommate killed by bullets to the head while "Boom Bye Bye" played in the background. The bodies of lesbian couple Candice Williams, 20, and Phoebe Myrie, 22, were found dumped in a pit at the home they shared. In 2004, a teen was nearly killed when his own father learned his son was gay and invited a mob to lynch the boy at his school. The stories go on and on and on.
Despite international support, J-FLAG must keep the location of its headquarters a secret. The constant threats against the organization are taken seriously since the 2004 stabbing death of Brian Williamson, J-FLAG's founder. Human Rights Watch researcher Rebecca Schleifer arrived at Williamson's home after his body was discovered and found a small crowd gathered to celebrate—with some singing "Boom Bye Bye."
Why is support for such atrocities largely ignored by U.S. reggae fans? MacFarlane feels it's nothing sinister. "Patois is not easily understood," he says. "Sometimes people get caught up in the rhythm of a song and not so much its lyrics, and this has been what dancehall has been able to use."
More misconceptions stem from Rastafarianism, the religious movement of many reggae artists. Though seemingly progressive, with marijuana as a sacrament and a vegetarian diet, at its core it's based on Judeo-Christian traditions. Rastafarians believe Haile Selassie I, the final Emperor of Ethiopia, is the incarnation of God or Jah Rastafari. Followers believe his death in 1974 was a hoax. The lion in the iconic red, yellow and green flag represents Jesus, who was known as the Lion of Judah. Along with the 65 percent Christian majority in Jamaica, it's easy to see where the nation's values come from.
Local favorite Pato Banton, a British-born veteran of the genre, calls himself a "follower of Christ," and at one point during his recent euphoric show at Petaluma's Mystic Theatre, urged the audience to spread love to a stranger next to them.
"I am fully aware of the Jamaican community's concerns about homosexuality from a religious point of view, but I think the line is drawn when anyone pushes for homosexuals to be hurt or to be violently attacked," he says. "Personally, I try my best to live in a way of acceptance. The Bible and spiritual teachings have taught me not to judge."
Raised in Birmingham, where his Jamaican DJ stepfather introduced him to the music, Banton wasn't immune to similar bigotry. "Everything that was going on in Jamaica was exactly going on in our community," he remembers. "I had friends in England who [are] very homophobic. It's the few rather than the more who are accepting.
"I've tried my best to educate myself about homosexuality," he continues, "regarding the genetics of someone who's masculine feel as if they want to be feminine, and vice versa, and through that, I have a deeper understanding. All people are God's children, whether they're straight or gay. I've got friends that are gay. I've got spiritual friends that are gay. It's only by getting close to those people that you truly understand the depth of what they are about."
Pato Banton feels Buju Banton is missing out, but he is hopeful for the future. "More acceptance of gayness will be the case in the future, with human progress and human development," he says. "I believe it will put us in a position of being more accepting and understanding and inclusive."
Celeste Larkin of Sacramento is similarly optimistic. "That's what's been instilled in [Buju Banton] his whole life," the middle-aged reggae fan said at the Pato show. "That's his culture. That's the way he was raised. I don't think he should he should put this in his songs and go around telling people to kill the batty boys. That's wrong, because if you're representing Jah, Jah is love."
Stop Murder Music's "Dancehall Dossier" translates Jamaican patois slang and shows that Banton is not alone. There's Bounty Killer ("Mi ready fi go wipe out this [faggot with a] pure laser beam"), Capleton ("Capleton burn battymen, dem same fire apply to di lesbian"), Elephant Man ("Battymen [must be] dead, [take them] by surprise"), Sizzla ("Boom boom! Batty boys [must be] dead"), the group TOK ("Those who drink in a gay bar, blaze the fire, let's kill them!") and Vybz Cartel ("Oral sexer, lesbian [and] batty man [must be] assassinated"). Dr. Evil is a newer artist who's come under fire for his self-explanatory song "Jah Don't Like Gay." Like Banton, Capleton and Sizzla have both signed the Reggae Compassionate Act.
Dancehall singer Beenie Man (also an RCA signee) just had his upcoming Australian and New Zealand shows cancelled, including an upcoming gig at the Big Day Out Festival. "He has never apologized for urging the killing of gay people. In fact, he put out a hit song called 'I No Apologise'," charges activist Tatchell. "These cancellations will hit Beenie Man hard in the pocket. He has lost tens of thousands of dollars. The success of this campaign sends a warning message to all murder music artists."
Unlike Banton, Beenie Man proudly performs his controversial songs, including "Damn," which has him "dreaming of a new Jamaica" where he can "execute all gays."
But perhaps it's just a matter of semantics. In a 2006 statement, Beenie Man explained his point of view: "Jamaica is not against gay people. Gay means consented sex. What we have in Jamaica is not what it is in England, where two men live together. That's not it in Jamaica, and these people fail to understand that. In Jamaica, gay is rape. It's a big man with their money going into the ghetto and picking these little youth who ain't got nothing. And then give them money and then involving them.
"There were 550 youths who got raped inna Jamaica, you know? And nobody seems to speak of that. Nobody sees the youth get raped and throat cut because the man who raped him, he knows him, and he doesn't want him to go back and say he did it. And these things still happening."
The gay rights movement is the civil rights struggle of our time. The president knows it, the state of California knows it, and 10-year-old future lawyer Will Phillips, the Arkansas fifth grader who recently refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance due to gay-rights inequities, knows it. Some reggae fans are still deciding which side of history they—and their money—want to be on.
Gary Pratt of Sonoma, 19, a regular at the Reggae Rising festival each year, calls Buju Banton and Sizzla his favorite artists but doesn't agree with their viewpoints on gays. "You don't have to agree with everything they're singing," he says. "No one takes it to heart too much, their stances on things. They're from a completely different culture from us."
Thirty-seven-year-old Colin Albert of San Rafael says, "I don't think it's right, but it kind of goes with the territory. I enjoy the music for what it is, man. I don't get really political about it. I mean, I'm white, for God's sake!"
On the flipside sits a forum post on New Jersey–based DancehallReggae.com. Entitled "Biggest Battybwoy Killing Anthems of all Time," the thread has collected over 300 different songs. One user insists Jigsy King's "Rapapampam" is the best of all time: "I played this song one day, next thing you know I turned on the news and Luther Vandross was dead."
Has it always been this way? Perhaps no one in the world knows more about reggae's golden age than writer and historian Roger Steffens. Ras Rojah, as Bob Marley nicknamed him, says that he never encountered such hatred back in the '70s. "Never. Not even a hint of it," he says. "If they did, it was more as something of humor and not telling people to go out and beat up batty boys and [rape] lesbians, as a lot of these people are doing these days. It's despicable."
An early example of the humor Steffens cites is "Two Lesbians Hitch," a 1981 song by Johnny Ringo describing two lesbians getting stuck on a sexual aid. But even back then, local DJ Drepemba of KPFA 94.1-FM was kicked off the air for playing it. "It was meant as a joke, you know, but people are very, very sensitive, and I can't blame them," Steffens says. "There's so much hatred in the world. It ain't right."
As chairman of the Reggae Grammy committee, Steffens has led the effort to have two categories, one for dancehall and one for roots reggae, which rings truer to the genre's utopian heyday. "There's up-and-coming people like Tarrus Riley, who had one of the biggest pop hits in the history of Jamaica called 'She's Royal,' which was a song actually praising women," he says. "It was acknowledged as an antidote to all the hatred out there and all the disrespect for women." Riley, however, is a U.S. native.
It's really not surprising that of the dozens of Jamaican artists contacted for this article—from pioneers like Toots Hibbert and Jimmy Cliff, to crossover stars like Sean Paul and Damian Marley, to the besieged musicians like Capleton and Baby Cham themselves—none would consent to be interviewed or give a statement on the subject. It's understandable, too, that no one from the Reggae Rising Music Festival, Sierra Nevada World Music Festival and DancehallReggae.com wanted to talk either. Each of these has a financial stake to protect.
But it's noteworthy how hesitant local fans have been to talk. After all, they're the ones helping to finance some "murder music" artists. Over and over again, reggae enthusiasts eager to chat would disappear when homophobia was brought up. Perhaps it's the "white guilt" phenomenon. After all, Jamaica was introduced to Christianity through European colonialism. This occurrence surely came into play back when Eminem was protested for homophobic lyrics while African-American rappers were ignored.
Equality California's Andrea Shorter thinks a movement toward tolerance is possible. "Sometimes, there's an inclination to excuse ignorance and hatred of other minority groups because they haven't had a fair shake themselves," she says. "But Mr. Banton is a man of the world at this point; he can't have it both ways."
"Would these venues host a concert by a neo-Nazi singer who called for the murder of black and Jewish people?" asks Peter Tatchell. "We are not against reggae, just against these few artists who incite homophobic violence and murder. Inciting violence and murder is a criminal offense everywhere."
Steffens reminds that reggae inherently serves a greater purpose. "It teaches people how to live a giving, happy, fruitful and praising life, aware of the influence of the deity in our lives and that there's a broader world out there that we have to engage with," he says.
Despite the music's seemingly progressive nature, no reggae artists, roots or otherwise, have publicly supported respect for gays. "It's very hypocritical because there are gay clubs that everybody knows about," Steffens says, "and some of the best-known artists and academics are obviously gay."
Any names? "Not that I'd be willing to tell you," he replies with a nervous laugh.
"I want to protect their lives."
To find out how you can help the LGBT community in Jamaica, please visit www.jflag.org.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.