Last edited: February 28, 2005

Don’t Blame The Music

The Guardian, October 17, 2002

By Dotun Adebayo

Now that two gay Jamaican men have been granted asylum in Britain, we can expect many more such applications from the Caribbean island famous for reggae, good ganja and zero tolerance of homosexuality. Jamaica, where homophobes will fling rocks first and ask questions later, is one of the most dangerous places in the world for gay men and women.

But they are not entirely to blame. They take offence at homosexual behaviour not least because in Jamaica it is an offence—punishable by 10 years’ hard labour. Yet, in response to the asylum offer, a spokesman for the Jamaican high commission said he was “unaware” that gay persecution was a “major problem” on the island.

So how can we make them aware? Not by protesting about a music industry backslap in Canary Wharf. Peter Tatchell may not like the fact that in Jamaica he would be regarded as a batty boy, a yatty man or a chi chi man. But he was mistaken if he thought that picketing the Mobo awards was going to change the homophobia that attaches itself to the ragga side of reggae music.

The root of the problem lies in the Caribbean. And I doubt Tatchell has the balls to go to Jamaica shouting: “I’m glad to be gay.” Such is the mystique of homosexuality among most Jamaican youths that the first thing many schoolboys on the island want to know from overseas visitors is “what does a batty man look like?”

After a popular record, Chi Chi Man by TKO (later picked up by the opposition and used as its campaign song in the run-up to this week’s Jamaican elections), suggested that the island was being run by an oligarchy of closet gays, Prime Minister PJ Patterson had to go on national radio to declare that he never had been and never would be a homosexual.

Gays living in Jamaica have to keep a very low profile. There have been incidents of people being stoned to death merely on suspicion of being gay. When a gay group proposed a march through the centre of Kingston to protest against homophobia, the machete factories on the island ran out of stock. The march was quickly abandoned.

Homophobia in reggae music continues unabated. It’s not only accepted but expected of a ragga MC. Ten years ago, ragga MC Shabba Ranks was asked on British TV to show his hand on the issue. Shabba took out his bible and began quoting scriptures, knowing that he could not return to Jamaica otherwise.

On that occasion, Tatchell called for Shabba Ranks’ music to be banned on Radio 1. It was, and the young Jamaican, who was then embarking on what would have been a lucrative career, disappeared from view, though at home in Jamaica he was hailed as a hero.

Boom Bye Bye, the Buju Banton hit that advocates the murder of homosexuals, still sells by the bucketload. Buju himself almost lost his life in Jamaica after reports that his US record company had issued an apology on his behalf to the gay community. Buju’s response was to deny publicly that he had ever, or would ever, apologise to a batty man.

Today, ragga music is more homophobic than ever. Jamaican reggae MCs Beenie Man and Bounty Killer narrowly avoided bloodshed between their opposing camps only after Beenie Man explained on radio that he had referred in a song to the Killer riding “on a h-o-r-s-e”, and it wasn’t his fault that the word is pronounced “a-r-s-e” in Jamaican dialect.

Tatchell would be better off taking the stance of Boy George, one of several gay men and women attending the Mobo awards. Boy George understands that it’s not about reggae, not about Jamaicans and not about black people. Most of all, it’s about the government that presides over the hatred. Not so long ago, here in London, police officers went posing as gay men in bars to arrest any man who solicited them. Back in those days, white British TV comedians would refer to gay men as “poofs”, “queers” and “bum bandits”—and “queer-bashing” was rampant, if not acceptable. But the government changed its stance.

Until a Jamaican government has the bottle to do the same, there isn’t going to be much love for gay guys on the island. Until a Jamaican government stops imprisoning homosexuals and scraps all anti-gay laws, men and women will continue to be murdered for their sexual orientation. Tatchell should be addressing his campaign to the Jamaican high commission. Anything that might hurt the tourist industry will make the government acutely aware that gay persecution is a major problem in the country.

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