Wednesday, 2 September 2009

It's not just about Buju

So we heard this past Sunday that once again, following protests from gay rights advocacy groups, Buju Banton has been banned from performing at scheduled shows, this time in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas, Dallas and Houston. Some bloggers are rolling their eyes that people just can't get over a song from 20 years ago and let the man have a career, and even the Jamaica Gleaner is, through their headline, painting him as some kind of tragic figure dogged by past mistakes and hunted by an unrelenting, international activist machine. It's as if we're meant to believe that this is all about one man and one misguided song, rather than an entire reggae industry made rich by anti-gay sentiment, and supported by a large, homophobic population.

There are other questions that might be examined here: the idea of redemption, who deserves it and when, and who gets to offer it; boycotting as a political action, whom we boycott, who we may find it easier to boycott, and who is ultimately affected by these types of decisions. But one thing is impossible to deny: the homophobia in Jamaican music is definite and destructive, and makes a very difficult subject for any exploration of the privilege of Western activism aimed at the developing world. Still, let us onward, and see what we see.

Back in 2005, the UK-based Stop Murder Music coalition entered into a verbal agreement with major record labels and concert promoters representing eight of reggae music's biggest names, including Buju, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. The agreement saw the suspension of SMM's aggressive campaigns against the artistes and their music - campaigns which had been extremely successful in cancelling tours and TV appearances and withdrawing award nominations from the artistes involved. In return, record companies "pledged not to release or re-release any offensive songs", as well as encourage singers not to perform such songs on stage.

But the artistes themselves were not involved in this decision, and the following year, the truce was abandoned when it was claimed that Buju Banton, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer broke the agreement by repeating homophobic songs and views.

In 2007, Buju Banton, Beenie Man and others attracted considerable praise and media attention when they reportedly signed the Reggae Compassionate Act, renouncing homophobia and condemning violence against lesbians and gay men. But it later emerged that once news of the Act reached their fan base in Jamaica, representatives of the artistes vehemently denied their clients' being signatory to the agreement, and so the cycle continues.

Over the last decade, Buju especially has come to be known more for his uplifting lyrics than for the infamous "Boom Bye Bye" - first recorded in 1988 and re-released in 1992 - that has come to be the exemplar of murder music against which activist groups are fighting. But he performed the song at Memorial Fest in Miami in 2006, a year before signing the Act, but recently enough for those concerned to be skeptical of his professed change of heart. (The last link also contains the song's lyrics, so this is a warning for sexual content, violence and most other forms of general indecency of which you might conceive.)

None of these agreements has ever required an apology for past hateful behaviour, or any kind of public, verbal statements by the artistes reflecting a change of heart, or a commitment to denounce homophobia in their public lives. Sure, they may (or may not, depending on who you talk to) have scrawled a pen across an Act whose clauses were written by a third party, but they are part of a culture and people that considers itself righteous in its homophobia and hate: there is a community that thinks itself the victim of a conspiracy to malign Jamaica and its music, and so they stand proud in a fight to protect their right to be hateful. And much of masculinity in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean is predicated on an emphatic, sometimes violent rejection of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. The same violence applied to the conquest of women that defines manhood is applied to the suppression and oppression of the gay identity.

When the Prime Minister of a country, in an internationally broadcast interview, asserts that there is 'no room for gays' in political life and refuses to establish legislation recognising gay rights, there is very little incentive for musicians to reject homophobia. In fact, this type of stance by the country's leader acts as a disincentive to any Jamaican from interrogating his/her own homophobia and taking a public stand against it, since such action is likely to be met with ridicule. It would be great to have a popular champion of tolerance, but that is not likely to come in the person of a best-selling reggae artist who, like the PM, must stay popular in order to stay wealthy.

There are, of course, parts of the population who do not accept homophobia as a necessary part of their culture, but one finds it difficult to conceive of a Jamaica where the tolerance of the few eventually extends to the many. This is not likely to happen for many generations, not when homophobia is sanctioned by the State. Jamaican opposition to outside activism makes claims of racism, charging that White gay rights groups are unfairly targeting Black, Caribbean musicians, and seeking to keep their communities in poverty. I'd say it's a little difficult to play the victim when you're advocating the eradication of an entire population, but there is something to the notion that we have to be strategic in our political action. I wrote a little about it here, and clearly immune from accusations of vanity, I'm going to quote myself below:
Amid growing calls in the international activist community to boycott tourism and products that would benefit 'homophobic countries' - on the list of which Jamaica features high - Barbados too has been censured in a recent shadow report "for its criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity and the violation of the rights of lesbian[s], gay[s], bisexual[s] and transgender[ed people] (LGBT)." While I think that the types of boycotts mentioned are often ill-conceived and counter-productive (if you want to change public attitudes towards the LGBT community, maintaining the already poor in poverty is not the way to do it), and based on the absurd notion that for example Jamaica is one homogeneous society thinking and acting as one, I do believe that properly-implemented action by the international community is one of the ways to develop political will among these countries' own governments to effect change from within. Tying development aid or representation on certain international bodies to the proven enforcement of human rights conventions is one place to start, and while it is not the place of the US or any other country to wholly dictate cultural values to another country, it is certainly the place of all of us to expose institutionalized bigotry and hate in countries that claim to promote human freedoms for all.
Do I have a point? Yes! And it is this: the LGBT communities all over the world are within their rights and have my support in preventing those who would attack their identities and their bodies from being given a platform on their doorsteps. We would be naïve to think that this is just about Buju's one song years ago. This was the track that launched his career, and he seems hard pressed to abandon his identification with it. Even so, this isn't about one man or one song. To this day, homophobic lyrics are produced in reggae studios and played in clubs. And if Jamaica is a scapegoat and an easy target, it's certainly a justifiable one. (It's also an unfortunate one, since those who absurdly and incorrectly claim that homophobia is a predominantly Black affliction have good old Jamaica to point to.) Anti-homophobia action has to go beyond bans and boycotts, but we can't expect the targets of hate and bigotry, the ones struggling to feel safe, to be the only ones tasked with eliminating it. It's the rest of us who have to do the work.

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