Sunday, August 29, 2004
Kingston, Jamaica A generation ago, reggae anthems by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh preached concepts of "one love," legal marijuana and social justice.
But today's version of Jamaica's native music is more likely to advocate casual sex, opulent dress and sometimes, critics say, violence against gays.
The issue of homophobia in dancehall reggae took center stage this past week after Grammy-winning artist Beenie Man was booted from a concert associated with Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards in Miami.
MTV pulled the Jamaican from the roster after Florida gay rights groups threatened to protest because of past Beenie Man lyrics like "I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays" and "Queers must be killed."
"These lyrics only incite hatred and violence toward gays and lesbians," said Brett Lock of Outrage!, a London-based gay rights group leading boycotts of Beenie Man and several other artists.
The episode has drawn mixed reaction in reggae's birthplace, where homophobia frequently surfaces and issues of sexuality are rarely discussed publicly.
Beenie Man's manager, Clyde McKenzie, said the artist was not promoting violence and suggested the protests were timed to capitalize on the recent success of dancehall -- a type of reggae infused with hip-hop influences.
"This wouldn't be happening right now if it weren't for the music's popularity," he said.
But some have been less sympathetic.
"You are earning money from selling songs that preach death for your fellow Jamaicans," read an anonymous letter published in Friday's Gleaner newspaper, Jamaica's largest.
Other artists criticized for anti-gay lyrics include Buju Banton, Bounty Killer and Elephant Man. Banton's music has called for burning homosexuals.
Beenie Man, whose real name is Anthony Moses Davis, is on tour to promote an album, and he issued a statement through his record label earlier this month offering his "sincerest apologies to those who might have been offended, threatened or hurt by my songs."
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, he said, "I don't support homosexuality because I'm not homosexual, but I don't hate gay people. ... Jamaicans come right out and say, 'We don't deal with homosexuals.' ... That's why the music is homophobic? I don't understand."
When he played early Saturday in the Cayman Islands before more than 1,000 people, he did not perform any songs with anti-gay lyrics.
Lack of tolerance toward gays is not new in the Caribbean. Last month, more than 100 protesters in the Bahamas shouted anti-gay chants at homosexual cruise passengers as they stepped off their chartered ship.
J-FLAG, Jamaica's sole gay rights group, says it has received dozens of reports of abuse against gays this year, and it cites dancehall lyrics as a factor.
"These artists are Jamaica's role models. If you grow up hearing songs saying 'burn gay people,' of course that's going to have an effect," said a J-FLAG spokeswoman, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
Others note that much of Jamaican music is free of homophobia, and popular artists like Sean Paul, Burning Spear and Luciano do not use anti-gay lyrics.
"Dancehall is just one corner of the music. I wish people would focus on the positive message reggae has spread throughout the world," said Barbara Blake-Hanna, a Jamaican author who writes on culture and the Rastafarian faith.
Reggae's move away from the social activism of the 1960s and 1970s to today's more graphic, sexually suggestive songs began shortly after Marley's death from cancer in 1981.
By then, violent crime fed by poverty and a growing drug trade had spread across this small island nation, giving birth to a grittier style of reggae.
"It's now reached a point where these lyrics are not only harmful to the music business but pose grave danger to Jamaica's international reputation," said Roger Steffens, a noted reggae historian.
And what would the late king of reggae think about today's music?
"I think Bob would be righteously angry," Steffens said. "It's everything he never wanted to see."