Last edited: July 11, 2004

Rhythm of Hatred: Anti-Gay Lyrics Reflect an Island’s Intolerance

Miami Herald, August 5, 2001
1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132
Fax: 305-527-8955 or 305-376-8950

By Nicole White,

In dancehall, a music of fierce lyricism and fierce battling for supremacy, there are two things artists agree on: They will not perform oral sex; and most unequivocally, they will not tolerate homosexuality.

Being gay or lesbian — a "chi-chi" man/gyal or a "battyman" — is the ultimate sin in Jamaica, an island paradise so steeped in religion that it holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of having the most churches per square mile and where it is still legal to arrest two men caught having sex.

"It is better to be a gunman than a homosexual," said a radio commentator recently in the island’s leading daily newspaper, the Gleaner.

Even the island’s Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson, felt compelled to deny rumors of his homosexuality in the media: "My credentials as a lifelong heterosexual person are impeccable," he said in a recent newspaper article.

So this music, born in the 1980s to reflect what was simmering in the streets of Kingston, has become a lyrical reflection of sorts for the sexual intolerance that continues to dominate.

One of dancehall’s hottest groups, TOK, sums it up in its hit single, Chi Chi Man: "From dem a par in a chi chi man car, blaze a fire mek we burn dem. From dem a eat in a battyman bar, blaze a fire mek we done dem."

The song echoes the feeling of Buju Banton’s controversial 1990s hit Boom Boom Bye Bye. Tony Matterhorn, a leading Jamaican dancehall DJ, says the music is reflection of how the majority of people on the island feel.

"Listen, the truth is we can’t stop a man or woman from doing what they want to do inside dem bedroom," Matterhorn says. "But they can’t stop us from lashing out against it and warning them not to bring that argument to us."

Perpetuating Fear

But the warnings have turned into death threats. And death.

The Jamaica Forum of Lesbians All-sexuals and Gays — J-FLAG — is celebrating its second anniversary on the island. It continues to win international acclaim from the gay rights community for challenging the island’s phobia. But the truth is, the group is forced to carry out its advocacy under a cloud of secrecy.

"We can’t advertise the location of our office, we can’t openly mourn the murders of gay men and women that have been happening on the island, because there is a very real possibility that we will be killed," says J-FLAG member Lester Wishart, not his real name.

Although there are a number of cultural norms that promote homophobia — such as the anti-sodomy law — make no mistake about it, says Wishart: There is a direct correlation between the anti-gay rhetoric in dancehall music and violence against anyone simply suspected of being gay.

"The music has become a form of rallying cry, a cry of solidarity to rid the country of what is largely perceived as a disease," Wishart says.

But South Florida radio host and promoter Luther McKenzie says the artists are merely mirroring what they’ve grown up hearing.

"All of these guys are children of the ghetto and they DJ about what they know," McKenzie says. "They give the people what they want, and what the majority of the island wants is for homosexuality to not be a reality."

Fiery Words

McKenzie and others, like South Florida dancehall DJ King Waggy T., say that despite the warrior-like posturing, the artists are not advocating that people literally light a match and burn gays.

In the culture of the Rastafarians — the traditionalist Jamaican religious sect that has heavily influenced reggae and, by extension, dancehall — it’s meant to be more allegorical. For example, a performer like Capleton, who has a CD called More Fire, uses fire as imagery.

Says McKenzie, "He’s not saying light a match and burn these people. Fire is a purification of the mind; Capleton and others are saying clean up those actions which they personally deem offensive and against their religious beliefs."

King Waggy T. believes this preoccupation with homosexuality will die. "People forget that dancehall music is a fad, and we are in that stage where we hit out against a group of people," he says. "By September that will be played out."

But Wishart says such thinking is dismissive of a music that is more than a style; it is a music driven by performance and a need to involve its fans.

"We have a problem when young people in the island know about killing a battyman before they even know what a battyman is," he says. "This is not a fad. Something is not a fad when it is seen as a national discourse to cleanse the island. It is not a fad when it’s almost like a public service announcement."

Says Wishart, the reality is this: "We’re like cholera, and being gay is the scourge of the island."

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