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We Three Kings: Sizzla, Pato and Junior are all coming to Santa Cruz this month. Well, that is, maybe ...

That Which We Dread

Three top reggae artists set their sites on Santa Cruz this month, but only one has people up in arms. Pato Banton and Junior Reid weigh in on the Sizzla controversy.

By Bill Forman

Merrie Schaller might have known it wasn't over last year October, when her local GLBT Alliance worked to get reggae dancehall artist Capleton's show at the Catalyst called off with virtually hours to spare. Seemingly overnight, the Jamaican artist's violently homophobic lyrics had become the epicenter of a heated debate that, when reduced to its simplest terms, pitted the ideals of free speech and public safety against each other. With that battle won, the gay community went back to its more familiar role as scapegoat and, in Schaller's words, "fundraising tool" for the radical right.

But history has a way of repeating itself, and the spotlight that once shone on Capleton has now, just as suddenly, shifted over to Sizzla, who, as this issue goes to press, is still scheduled to play the Catalyst on Sept. 11.

Like Capleton, Sizzla is a member of Bobo Ashanti, a Jamaican religious sect whose leader, Prince Emmanuel, is thought by some to be the reincarnation of Christ. And, also like Capleton, Sizzla has written songs that condemn gays. An email currently being circulated by the GLBT cites the following lyrics, complete with parenthetical translation:

Pump Up
Step up inna front line (Step up to the front line)
fire fi di man dem weh go ride man behind (burn the men who have sex with men from behind)
Shot battybwoy, my big gun boom (Shoot queers, my big gun goes boom)

Boom Boom
Boom boom! Batty boy them fi dead (Boom boom! Queers must be killed)

Get To Da Point
Sodomite and batty bwai mi seh a death fi dem (Sodomite and queers, I say death to them)
Mi no trust babylon fi a second yah so (I don't trust Babylon for a second)
Mi a go shot batty bwai dem widdi weapon ya (I go and shoot queers with a weapon [as in gunshots])

All of which means Schaller and others in the gay community again find themselves at odds with another Jamaican dancehall artist and, by extension, the Catalyst.

"I don't want to fight with the Catalyst; I like the Catalyst," says Schaller. "They've been here 30 years, and they've done a lot of good stuff in that 30 years. But 30 years ago, we didn't have a lot of performers telling people to go out and kill people."

The storm clouds gathering around Sizzla are not unique to Santa Cruz. He has had to call off a recent U.K. tour after being banned by the British government, European festival promoters have canceled his appearances and a Jamaican festival was reportedly fined by its sponsors due to Sizzla's onstage transgressions. And just last week, the House of Blues in L.A. became the latest to pull the plug after sensing, one suspects, an inconsistency between Sizzla's "Shot batty bwoy" and their own "Help Ever, Hurt Never" motto.

"I'm not entirely sure what were gonna do at this point," says Schaller. "I'm hoping we don't have to do anything. I'm hoping they'll say, like the folks down in L.A. said, that they recognize that there's a valid fear. And that they're concerned and, out of respect for the queer community, they'll decide not to do this. We've been hoping that community pressure would sway them first."

Failing that, says Schaller, "were going to be getting in touch with some of the other advocacy groups in town like the NAACP and Temple Beth El and the ACLU and the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, and see if they want to sit down with the Catalyst and us. Because this is a bigger issue than just violence against gays and lesbians. It's violence against a lot of people, and it's becoming more and more real."

While the last-minute Capleton cancellation suggests it's never over until the Rastaman sings, the Catalyst is showing no sign of backing down this time. "At this point the show is scheduled to go on," confirms Catalyst house manager and assistant talent buyer Eddy Dees. He goes on to point out how, back in October of 2003, Sizzla sold out the Catalyst and performed "without incident, without preaching hatred of any kind and without one person calling to complain about his performance at the Catalyst, pre-show or post-show." Since then, says Dees, Sizzla has contractually agreed not to engage in homophobic behavior either onstage or on future records.

Dees also questions the accuracy of the lyrics being sent around the Internet, and notes that the "translations" tend to appear only on anti-Sizzla sites. Most of the artist's lyrics, he points out, are not about hating gays, and many are calls for love and unity.

Dancehall calls to "burn fire" on everyone from gays to popes are, supporters contend, deeply metaphorical. And besides, they figure, artists are supposed to be complex, contradictory and, yes, controversial. "They're not supposed to be morally or artistically consistent," contends Dees. "That's what makes them artists."

 


No Proselytizing: While Sizzla and Junior Reid profess Bobo Ashanti beliefs, Pato Banton leans toward Urantia, which seems to make him a good deal more cheerful.

Pato Banton, who plays the Vets Hall on Sept. 16, tends to agree with the argument that Sizzla is employing metaphors when he sings about a fire raining down on homosexuals, but adds one crucial caveat. "I think it's more metaphorical really, but sometimes fans can take metaphorical things and make them literal."

Banton has direct experience to draw upon when making such claims, having grown up in Birmingham, England, at a time when racial tensions were high and the neo-Nazi National Front was all the rage among the local skinhead population. "My mom lost four of her teeth because a policeman punched her in her face, and when she went to court the judge made my mom pay a fine for disturbing the police. I've been attacked maybe three times in my life, all as a youth. And last year, some skinheads chased my boys from the bus stop all the way home, and I had to chase them."

Banton confirms that he did, in fact, catch the skinheads, but declines to reveal what happened next. "That," he laughs, "is another story."

These days, Banton says, Birmingham is more multicultural in its population, but less diverse in its musical offerings thanks to the onslaught of American media. To offset this, Banton took a few years off from recording and touring recently so he and his wife could start a youth program that helps disadvantaged youth develop their music talent. Having himself been discovered as a teenager by the English Beat's Rankin' Roger at a talent contest, Banton sees this as an opportunity to give something back.

"Pato's just a really thoughtful, really mellow guy," says former Santa Cruzan Frank Price, who plays bass for Banton when he tours the West Coast. "He's not the kind of guy who goes around proselytizing about his beliefs." A founder of Northern California reggae outfit Sol Horizon, Price points out that even Banton's most overtly religious songs like "Settle Satan" and "Oil in Me Lamp" are nonjudgmental, especially by Sizzla standards.

"To proclaim that a certain group of people should die or are going to hell because of something they do, that is not for any man to dictate or judge," says Banton, who draws "90 percent of his inspiration" from a relatively esoteric philosophy called Urantia. "For me personally, I can tolerate anything usually--or most things--as long as they are not harming people. What people do or want to profess of their sexuality, for me, that's your business, as long as you're not pushing it onto me."

Banton also draws a clear distinction between free expression and hate speech. "As far as freedom of speech goes, I believe everyone has the right to express themselves to a point," he says. "I think that the minute you start to denounce a group of people or to promote violence in any way, then there should be a limit put on that."

That rule applies, in Banton's view, no matter who the target may be. "If you're saying that all rich people should die, then I would feel the same way as if someone was saying that all homosexuals should die or all Jews should die or all black people should die. If you're saying that the amount of money that rich people have got is not just, then that would be your freedom of speech. If you're saying you don't agree with homosexuality, that is your freedom of speech. But if you start going across the borderline and saying that a certain group of people--because of their richness, their sexuality, their color--should die or should survive, then that can't be right."

While Banton's music mostly brims with optimism, the world's current state of affairs has him questioning some very fundamental assumptions. "I was just talking to someone today about how dictatorships have their pros and cons," he says. "If you have a moral and a just dictator, then the precepts of that dictator will be moral and just and right. The majority isn't always right, you know? If you had a majority of Sizzla's followers, and they had the vote, then homosexualism wouldn't be allowed to survive in that society. If you had a majority of racist people voting, then people of color would be in trouble. So for me, the majority isn't always right."

The irony, in the case of Sizzla, is that much of his music addresses issues of political and social inequality that would sit nicely with much of Santa Cruz's liberal population, had he not chosen to become a poster boy for Jamaican hate-speech.

"When Sizzla first came out, he was very dedicated to spreading the word of truth and peace and love," said Banton. "And then sometimes I hear his lyrics and he talks about sex and violence and uses profane language. So I'm not really sure where he's coming from--if he's just going along with social and musical trends, rather than actually having a sincere philosophy or faith." (Sizzla's agent referred interview requests to record company president Damon Dash, who did not return Metro Santa Cruz's calls.)

The very possibility that Sizzla's intolerance may stem more from commercial instincts than matters of faith renders Schaller speechless, if only for a moment. "If that's what this is about, making money on our lives, then that's even worse in some ways," she says. "I mean, at least if he really believes that we should be killed, then he really believes. It's a little sick, but whatever. But if he's just doing this to make money, then I don't even know what to say about that."

 

Junior Reid calls from Jamaica on a cell phone whose nearly discharged battery gives his already heavy patois a booming echo not unlike some of the dub sides he's produced for his own JR Records label. A former member of Black Uhuru, Reid has, like Sizzla, associated himself with the Bobo Ashanti sect.

"I know Sizzla," says Reid. "I've done shows with him, and we've worked in the studio on dub plates." A fully fledged collaboration has yet to occur, he says, though "anything is possible."

"I love Sizzla and I love a lot of artists, but I don't love every song that they sing about," say Reid, who has no desire to be judged by another artist's deeds. "That's his song with his singing. Bobo Ashanti does not promote guns. We don't support violence. We deal with clean words, not nasty words. What we sing about is what we sing about."

Straddling the line between traditional reggae and contemporary dancehall, Reid plans to reprise a number of Black Uhuru songs and all his own hits when he comes to the Vets Hall on Sept. 28. "My career started in the dance hall, so that's the kind of songs that we sing," says Reid, who cites '70s rub-a-dub and his own "Boom Shack-a-Lack" single as early examples of the genre. "Dancehall/rub-a-dub lasts forever," he declares.

Asked his opinion of efforts to cancel Sizzla's appearances, Reid offers neither condemnation nor support. "It's not good for the promoter or the artist when the shows don't go on," he comments, leaving the matter at that.

But if Reid would rather not discuss the H-word, Roger Steffens is less evasive. "Homophobia is a general attitude among most Jamaican males, and it's caused much consternation in the reggae community around the world, because they don't like to have reggae seen as hate music," explains Steffens, a reggae radio pioneer who has chaired the Grammy reggae committee since its inception two decades ago. Reached by phone in Los Angeles late last week, the founding editor of the long-running reggae magazine, The Beat, chooses his words carefully when considering the roots and effects of Sizzla's religious and cultural beliefs.

"The gay liberation movements in various parts of the world, particularly in England, have begun to take a very vocal stance against the more overt lyrics that rain down fire on homosexuals," says Steffens. "They've been trying to say that this is metaphoric speech, but the brutalization of many homosexuals in Jamaica speaks otherwise."

Steffens says that while a lot of artists have gotten the message and promised to not perform homophobic lyrics, they're still being watched closely wherever they perform. "It's really a shame, because reggae is such a peaceful and loving music, and it's become tarred with this brush of homophobia, misogyny and praise of gunmen."

He also draws a distinction between roots reggae music and its modern dancehall variant, which is in many ways analogous to the difference between traditional hip-hop and latter-day gangsta rap. In fact, the two cultures are intimately linked in a cycle of cultural cross-pollination. "Rap music really was born as 'toasting' in Jamaica," recounts Steffens. "And then it was brought to the states in the late '70s by people like Kool Herc in the Bronx, who most people point to as the founder of rapping--that's really the Jamaican way of toasting over dub tracks, just put through an American filter. And now the hip-hop style is having a tremendously strong influence on Jamaica. There are, at last count, 18 radio stations in Jamaica, where there used to be two. And they have several cable channels, 24 hours a day, playing these mostly dancehall videos which are filled with violent imagery and calling down fire on batty bwoys and bow-men, meaning people who bend forward to have anal intercourse. So it's not the reggae that you and I grew up with."


Sizzla may or may not play the Catalyst this Sunday, Sept. 11. Pato Banton will play the Vets Hall, 846 Front St., SC, on Sept. 16, while Junior Reid performs at the same venue Sept. 28.

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From the September 7-14, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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