“You must kill them. All of the batty men run when you see them. All up in your community, mon, me gon’ kill them. Man need a woman, can’t live without them, that’s why me comin’ after them!”
That’s what I sang into the microphone.
I paused. “So what is the ‘Batty Man’? Is that like the police or somethin’?”
We were in a makeshift studio close to the Arts Center in Accra, Ghana. Lonely Planet accurately describes the Arts Center as, “a warren of stalls selling arts and crafts. The level of aggressive hassling may make you want to keep your cedis in your pocket but if you have the patience and wherewithal, you can come away with good-quality handicrafts from all over Ghana.”
It’s where I met drum makers, traded beat up Nike’s for a yellow Ghana track suit, and hung with Rastas. I got my weed under a sign that said “No War” from a guy who had a guitar case full of joints. I ended up living down there for a while.
“No mon. Homosexual”
Hold up. I put down the mic.
I had been troubled by the beat from the beginning. It was digital. Aggressive, yet lifeless. I gave my buddy the benefit of the doubt. We had spoken of making some music together the night we met and he saved me from jail. He said he was a musician.
It seems he was more of a vocalist though. I was gonna throw down a verse on some pre-recorded beats that he had.
It was my ignorance completely, but I had been generally disappointed meeting aspiring musicians in Ghana. We would bond in conversation over shared values of “roots” aesthetics, but when they showed me their music, it was usually some drum machines and cheesy hip hop sounds. In Ghana? Drums and ballaphones everywhere and you use some casio beats? It was a style thing and a resources thing. I get it now. But that’s another story.
My buddy was teaching me the chorus. We were gonna sing it in unison.
Not that I was comfortable singing about killing cops, or anybody for that matter. Gay people though? This was straight bigot music. I thought we were gonna make some reggae.
So how to approach? I’m in Africa. Maybe he will think I’m gay. What if I was? Do I have to tell him that I’m not? Is this a cultural thing? I can’t sing this tune.
Right outside of the room two or three couples of men passed by holding hands. This is commonly seen in Ghana. Men I knew would often grab my hand and start walking with me. It was uncomfortable. I was 20. I was masculine. I could hold my own and pull away, but how awkward would that be?
The handholding was not gay. Merely fraternal. If it was even hinted as being gay, it would be shunned and avoided at all costs. Most men I met in Ghana preferred to be perceived as anti-gay.
“Ya mon. This is like a public service announcement. Homosexual men come from France, from Denmark, and they take advantage of the poor young boys. They pay them for sex. They spread HIV. This is an awareness song about the dangers of homosexuals.”
“Well, you are telling your audience to go kill the homosexuals in their community. I don’t know man. Writing music is sacred. It’s a big responsibility. I don’t think I can sing about promoting the killing of anybody. I’m sorry. I can’t do this tune.”
“No, I don’t actually mean I want them killed. It’s just a song.”
The energy was awkward. We got into it. I argued that the men he is angry with do not represent homosexuals. Those men were turning young boys into prostitutes. It’s pedophilia and exploitation of the poor, certainly sinful on my moral compass.
He kept insisting it was just a song.
“But you want people to hear the song right? What happens if some kid listens to you? You have the space for a message and this is how you are gonna use it?”
That was 2002. Since then, we have all seen the tides begin to turn globally in the struggle of LGBT rights and awareness. I grew up calling techno music gay and my best friends faggots. In time I learned about respect and intentions, and why language is so powerful and dangerous.
At the time, I was totally unaware of the connection between reggae and international homophobia. Reggae is known to many as hateful music. There is an international campaign, Stop Murder Music, that has successfully worked to deny certain “reggae” artists visas into Western nations to perform. The same artists have had songs removed from iTunes at the request of the organization, on account of homophobic lyrics.
To think of reggae as music of hate? When and where did this all go wrong?
Certainly, we could hypothesize Bob Marley was anti-gay. Regarding homosexuality, Rastafari is parallel in its ethos to many fundamentalist Christian sects. Like all religions, its members represent a spectrum of beliefs ranging from extremist to casual identifier. Echoing most churches in the world, Rastafarians, for the most part, view homosexuality as a sin.
Rastafari, having origin in Jamaica, has a vulnerability that the U.S. churches do not; being victims of colonialism and third world exploitation.
Internationally, the black community has been criticized for harbouring stigma against homosexuals. Uganda and Jamaica are frequently railed against as the most dangerous countries to be gay in. The stance often stems from religious beliefs. Nation of Islam has had a similar effect on some Hip-Hop music in the States.
While Stop Murder Music targeted other hateful music such as Nazi punk, gay bashing reggae was the only hate music that was topping the charts internationally.
What was the relevant fear here? Why was this message connecting with people? Why had the subject of a liberation music changed from “Africa Unite” to “Boom Boom Bye”?
The lore of white men coming to rape their sons was prevalent in Jamaica as well as Ghana. While the threat certainly exists, there are also white men coming to rape their daughters, in instances that are much more flamboyant and prevalent in frequency.
Why were we not singing about the open market of teenage girl prostitutes that is every main road when the sun goes down?
Each of these countries have what could be identified as natural, gay communities within them. Despite local rhetoric, all gayness is not foreign.
Why are we ordering for the murder of ALL homosexuals in the community, if the threat is foreign and easy to spot? Are they vampires? If once bitten, will the preyed become the predator?
Bob Marley may have had his beliefs, but he certainly didn’t propagate violence towards anybody for their sexual orientation in his songs. The gay bashing lyrics started to be heard in reggae music throughout the late ‘80s, as international awareness and concerns about HIV were being tied to the gay community. Buju Banton famously sang the song “Boom Boom Bye” , which calls for the killing of homosexuals. He recorded it when he was 15, before he was famous. It was written, apparently, in response to a man/boy rape case in Jamaica. If you click on the youtube link, you can follow the fascinating thread of angry comments and discussion that has followed this song for over 20 years. The song was re-released in 1992, after Buju broke Bob Marley’s record for the most number one singles in a year. The song advocates shooting gay men in the head, pouring acid on their bodies, and burning them alive.
He has publicly apologized for the lyrics in “Boom Boom Bye,” but the stigma has followed him. Angry protesters met him at every U.S. and European show ever since. He continues to be accused of public homophobic rants and assaults on gay Jamaicans, even after he signed a pledge called the Reggae Compassionate Act with other reggae artists, in which they promised to refrain from performing homophobic songs or making homophobic statements.
While buying joints out of the guitar case under the “No War” sign, the rasta told me that Buju had also bought joints there. Banton was highly regarded by the Ghanaian Rastas. From Accra to Cape Coast, everyone seemed to have a story about smoking a spliff with him down by the beach. He was real. He was of the people. He wandered down to the sea, off the beaten path, to enjoy local herbs with Ghanaian brethren. It was interpreted as a great gesture of equality to his fans and admirers.
He was highly respected. His lyrics were studied and repeated. He was an international role model, like Bob Marley.
Such tension. Buju is a truly outstanding artist. A troubled story of talent. Buju rose from poverty to power through music. His conscious growth is documented in his albums. A young uneducated poverty-stricken teen spewing language of hate and intolerance became a voice of faith and wisdom in just a few short years. His song, “Untold Stories”, is one of the most powerful tunes to ever come out of Jamaica, often compared to “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley.
“It’s a competitive world for low budget people, spending a dime while earning a nickel,” he sings.
He can relate. He knows the struggle. It’s uplifting. This from the man who authored “Boom Boom Bye”.
Many popular reggae artists were targeted by the Stop Murder Music campaign for gay bashing.
I was introduced to Jamaican dancehall in Ghana. I fell in with a group of Bobo Ashanti identifying Rasta kids my age. They listened to Capleton, Bounty Killah, Sizzla, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, all of whom, have produced violent lyrics aimed at the gay community.
How seriously were these lyrics taken? How dangerous are they?
In Jamaica, homosexuality is a criminal offence. There are multiple reports of violence against gays and lesbians, sometimes while chanting the lyrics to “Boom Boom Bye”. In 1997, 35 gay men were murdered in Jamaica and the LGBT community still has much to fear in 2014. Jamaica has been dubbed possibly the most homophobic country in the world.
Though much international attention has been brought in an effort to shame the Caribbean island, the hate continues to permeate the culture, especially among macho young men. It was determined that homophobic feelings were most prevalent in groups of males who listened to dancehall.
Banton and other artists continue to apologize, but the fire was lit. Their word is gospel to many around the world. Songs are forever. Those lyrics are still being heard by youth discovering reggae.
And this is what some people think when they hear reggae. Hate music. Fear-mongering, mob-mobilizing music.
There is an endless amount of literature concerning the subject of gay bashing in reggae. Some argue that it is freedom of speech, and denying these artists a place to express is yet another racist silencing of third world voices. Others argue that once you advocate violence towards a group, you are denying those victims their own freedom of speech and expression— freedom to be out without fearing for their lives, freedom to express their love to a partner in public.
Certainly LGBT people have had documented legitimate concerns in communities where this type of reggae is mainstream. Dancehall artists have spread homophobic language into everyday syntax. “Batty” is a common term in Jamaican patois that means gay. It is demeaning. It gets dropped pretty casually in many circles. Like “fag” used to in the U.S.
Who are these artists though? So many of them are coming from poor and disenfranchised communities themselves. What is their real fear? How has their community shaped their views? Homophobia is not a symptom of poverty; far from it.
Does the hate trickle down? Or is it saturated from bottom to top? Ernest Smith, an MP for the ruling Jamaica Labour Party, used a parliamentary debate to claim that “homosexual activities seem to have taken over this country” and gay men are “abusive, violent”. He added that “acts of gross indecency” between consenting gay men should be punishable by sentences of up to life imprisonment.
It has been said that in the colonial exchange, the Western powers took all resources and left the colonized men with right to machismo, in what scholars have dubbed the “colonial bargain.”
Much of the hate music has hailed from Bobo Shanti Rastas such as Capleton, Sizzla, and Lutan Fyah. Remember, Bobo Shanti is the Rasta sect that strictly adheres to literal biblical text. This would be like if the Westboro Baptist Church was producing artists that were pumping out #1 singles. In an ironic twist, many of these artists have been denied visas to the U.K, whose nation was responsible for bringing Christianity to Jamaica before becoming more tolerant of difference in the late 20th century.
Many of the sodomy laws on the Jamaican books, are no doubt, left over from colonial rule. It is reported that even today, U.S. evangelical groups have been instrumental in keeping these laws active.
The Stop Murder Music campaign that began in the U.K. in the ‘90s, was well organized, and highly successful in its mission. Many of these artists careers will be forever tainted. The entire genre has been stigmatized. Search the internet and you will find the remnants of message boards dedicated to stopping these artists at every venue they tried to play. People got in touch. Phone calls were made. Petitions were signed. Money was lost.
In the U.S., it seems that the young budding reggae fans are ultimately interested in the roots music. Bob Marley was originally promoted to the white hippie audience in the United States, despite his songs often focusing on an Afrocentric discourse.
The scene that buys Rebelution, SOJA, and Panda records, are the children of that scene. It is multi-ethnic and international, but still not overly black.
They don’t embrace dancehall for the most part. It seems to be more of an aesthetic preference than an outwardly political choice. Roots music will take your blood pressure down, sing you a melody you can reflect on, and simplify your love. It is slow. Meditative.
Dancehall is hugely popular anywhere in the world where there are West Indian people, and then some. The music is radically different from roots. It is coarse. Aggressive. Futuristic. Intensely sexual. Highly electronic, even in its early days. From NYC hipsters to San Francisco dreads, dancehall is far from dead. The reggae tree keeps growing, evolving its sound and rhetoric day by day.
While these branches of reggae music grow further apart, they still end up on the same charts, the same radio stations, and on the same bin of the record shop.
The “anti-homo” wave seemed to roll off around 2004, despite the major players dishonouring of the Reggae Compassionate Act. While the tunes of the sub-genre still generally focus on guns, drugs, and women, the “batty boy” has been less of a theme. If artists harbour such beliefs, they are not putting their money into them.
They are not a crowd to be silenced though. So much of what they say is totally right on, only to fail miserably when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. These are powerful performers. They are focused and dedicated to their craft. They are on a mission of exposing what they think the truth is.
Listen to Sizzla, for example, he has no qualm explaining (at 3:08) his disdain for homosexuals, and his mission to work with the Jamaican government in an effort to keep the country free from gay people. Then watch the rest of the video. This is no fool. His colonial critique is crucial. His fanaticism is frightening. We hope for the next generation to embrace the former, and unshackle themselves from the latter.
Outside of the Bobo camp, artists like I-Octane are credited for their conscious subject matter and inspiration from more mellow Rastafari teachings, while electronic music DJ’s such as Major Lazer have absorbed and popularized much of the dancehall sound to another new, young, sometimes gay, white audience.
The “anti-homo” dancehall still gets lots of spins at certain parties in the U.K. and Canada though,
“If I’m playing at a gay house party, I kill it with the homophobic records.” says Biggy C, a popular gay DJ in the UK.
So when a journalist calls me, and asks if we play reggae, I am never thinking that they might consider me a gay-bashing Christian zealot. Hopefully they never will. Hopefully this chapter of reggae is closing with the arrival of newer, conscious artists, who can take the wisdom of those before them and leave the bigotry for time to decompose.
I never recorded any music with my Ghanaian friend. We reasoned for quite a while about what should be sung about. We each so wanted to understand each other and make things cool. I remember that in the end, he claimed he didn’t care if a man had sex with a goat, as long as they were in love. It was quite a departure from the message he was putting forth in his public service announcement of a song. I wondered if he had any other songs? He didn’t seem too excited to show me. The collaboration was over.
Honestly, I didn’t feel that it was my place to tell him what to sing about. I was in a foreign land. All that I wanted to do was create with people, but I had yet to fully understand how much your identity is connected to the music you make. I wasn’t him. I wasn’t from his community. I wasn’t gonna lend him my voice to launch a campaign of hate and violence, though. This conversation was as far as my voice was gonna get.
Where I am from, people have had the privilege to champion campaigns for human rights of every kind, often because they are not suffering a direct attack against their own. I wasn’t sure that he was in the same situation. I feel that maybe he was, though, and he was simply picking the wrong battles.
Buju Banton is currently spending his fifth year in a federal prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilos of cocaine and for possession of a firearm. He was denied parole as of January 2015 and is expected to be released in 2019.
The day before his trial, he won a Grammy for best reggae album in the U.S. He was allowed to perform one concert between trials, which was held on January 16, 2011, to a sold-out crowd in Miami.
The homophobia and the drug charges are not related. Or are they? The story of how he was set up by an undercover DEA agent makes you even feel sorry for him. The two met on a plane, and the the agent hassled him for years until apparently, he finally agreed to connect him with someone who would sell weight in cocaine.
So basically Buju bragged that he could hook it up, and when doubted, his pride landed him in handcuffs. An easy trap?
Buju has said himself that he is a victim of his own ego. The machismo that plagues so many men in our world can be a prison in itself. In a musical sub-genre that promotes a constructed masculinity, young men are taught and tempted to adorn that prison.
Great reggae, in songs like “Redemption Song” and “Untold Stories”, offers tools to help break free of all prisons. Perhaps even the chains of a manly ego.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds” – Bob Marley “Redemption Song”
“I could go on and on, the full story has never been told” – Buju Banton “Untold Stories”