Monday, 14 December 2009

And look how well that worked out for Buju

I've attempted to write this post so many times, and so far have not made it past the first sentence. Finally, last week, I saw an old friend - a Bajan reggae artiste - and although I intended only to do the hugs and catch-up thing, I ended up holding forth on this particular disappointment, while he, ever gracious and probably slightly afraid, nodded and smiled and looked around for an exit. So lest I alarm any more innocent passersby, here I go.

A few days ago, I went with some friends to see one of our local reggae bands perform. Their set was mostly covers of Sanchez covers, Beres Hammond and other usual suspects. Women were screaming in the front (I suppose Sanchez has that effect under the right circumstances and with the proper amount of alcohol), guys were vibing in the back, the place was nice. Then I heard a familiar riff and thought "No. They're not going to sing that. This must be something else." But sure enough, out came the lyrics to the infamous Boom Bye Bye.

Now, even as Buju sits in jail in Miami on cocaine trafficking charges, news coverage of the arrest invariably ends up in a discussion of the various ways in which this song was not the best idea for an artiste who wants to maintain a career outside of Jamaica. Yet, a Barbadian band, which let's face it could very well get by performing for a local audience without inciting hate and murder, opts to cover this song. I've been out before, recently actually, where DJs played songs with homophobic themes, and even while I yelled at my friends "What are you doing?! Don't dance to this!" (I know. I'm lovely), it was a sight easier to ignore than a live band inches away from my nose making gun signs and with a smile, encouraging me to kill gays and lesbians. The song got some forward, as we say: people cheered during the opening bars more, I would desperately like to think, out of nostalgia for younger days than because they endorse its message. But ultimately, it doesn't matter. Given that as responsible citizens we have to interrogate our own prejudices and privilege, it's no longer enough to say "but I just like the beat." And even though there were those who cheered the first few notes, even they quickly realized how uncomfortable it is to actually sing the lyrics of that song out loud, assuming you're not in fact a murderer of gay people. The song is very slow, the hate is unmistakable, and though we sadly know all the words because this is the music with which we grew up, most of the room still found themselves by the first chorus mumbling uncomfortably into their beverages as tourists drifted toward the exits. I'm not sure the band picked up on that, because they sang verse after chorus after verse for what felt like a thousand minutes, until finally the torture was over.

But that wasn't the only part of the performance that soured the night. As they went on, there were increasingly more and cruder references to women's genitalia, and even a charming joke in which one of the lead singers equated beating cancer to "beating nookie", the latter of which he thinks should earn him equal congratulations with someone who has done the former. He reminded me of this charming fellow, and also made it clear that I was not his target demographic. In fact, I, along with several other people there that night, was invisible. Because in all his homophobic ranting and simple-minded drooling about how much nookie he violently assaults, he's assuming a heterosexual, cisgendered male with criminal tendencies as his default listener. And the rest of us simply aren't there or don't matter. Or worse, and since he did acknowledge the women present in the first part of his set by repeating "this one's for the ladies" a bajillion times and then launching into syrupy sweet lover's rock tunes because clearly all women want is to be romanced by tired lyrics, he's expecting us all to be a party to our own invalidation. Yes, you're here, I see you. But you like it when I refer to you as your genitalia, right? No? Welp. Sorry. Them's the rules.

And what bothers me about this band is that clearly they have no philosophy. There's nothing they stand for. The fact that they could never engage in this mess at a national show, and they don't, means they acknowledge that this kind of performance is not for popular consumption. So they're clearly dialling up the stupid for an audience they perceive as base and rabid, which not only insults the people there, but even assuming this was the nature of their audience, also misses an opportunity to help people move beyond. These parts of the show, though highly distasteful, were small. Their set could have worked without them. So this image of the weed-smoking, gay-killing, nookie-plundering, one-love-promoting (ha) Rastaman that they're trying to perpetrate on an audience they assume is aspiring to nothing more is a fraud and is unnecessary.

So here begins my solitary boycott. I shall not return.


  1. It really is distressing how immovable a presence this kind of homophobia/misogyny seems to be in so much (but by no means all!) music from the Caribbean (also, don't want to imply that this is unique to the region - there's as much or more in plenty of other genres common to other climes).

    It's horrid for me, as a foreigner who really enjoys all sorts of music from the region (from first-wave ska to dub poetry to reggae to dancehall to reggaeton, and so on), because I don't feel like I'm in a cultural place to be a good choice as a commenter - I don't want to be "that white woman from overseas who thinks she can tell us how to have our music".

    But I adore the music, deeply, and feel so gut-wrenched when I run into a song with this kind of lyric.

    I really appreciate your writing on it, Mar, and hope you can have some effect on the industry.

  2. Excellent post and great follow up to the September story. So many of us who know better still let these things go by without public comment - it's just too much trouble. And it is hard work sometimes, having recently had to research Lil Wayne lyrics to show my teenage daughter just how misogynistic they can be.

  3. @CaitieCat: Your best form of protest, I'd say, is choice. Choose the music you like, whose message reflects and affirms your philosophies, or that at the very least doesn't invalidate your very existence. As a consumer, you have that power. You don't have to like it all just because you like the genres in general. Discriminate! You have my permission, white woman from overseas. :)

    @alldaydoodler: Thanks. What I really wanted to do was grab the mic and yell "REALLY? ARE YOU PEOPLE STILL SINGING THIS #@$%*!? But I did not. My bravery hasn't yet reached such heights.


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