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Campbell: The selective targeting of Beenie Man

Gordon Campbell on the selective targeting of Beenie Man

Reportedly, Big Day Out organizers have backed down from their original intention to include the Jamaican dancehall musician Beenie Man in the next BDO festival line-up in January. The reason has been the public pressure from gay activists who have been expressing vocal opposition to the anti-gay sentiments in some of Beenie Man’s lyrics. A Facebook site was created to oppose Beenie Man, and Charles Chauvel had even called for him to be refused a visa to enter the country.

From the very outset, the BDO knew Beenie Man had a controversial background. In the past, his song lyrics have included lines such as "I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays" in “Damn”, and "Hang chi chi gal [lesbian] wid a long piece of rope" in ‘Han Up Deh.’
Whether Beenie Man had actually signed for the festival or not, we may never know. Certainly this site would suggest his appearance had not been finalized

When we spoke to Beenie Man’s brother and manager ‘Blue’ yesterday, he said that Beenie Man has not been officially contracted to perform. Blue said they were aware of the protests since Wednesday and were puzzled by it.

He said, “I don't even know how dis issue reach so far, cause we haven't closed the contract as yet. We have been in discussion with the organizers for the last three weeks to a month. They sent the contract and we weren't comfortable with some things in it so we're not even sure if we're going to go as yet or not.” According to Blue, if the contractual matters are sorted out to their benefit, despite the protests, Beenie Man is willing to perform at the Festival.

Just perhaps, the furore has enabled the BDO to avoid needing to deal with contract conditions still in dispute. Did those items in dispute comprise further assurances about the content of his act – or his fee, or what? In any case, the organizers have now decided not to associate the BDO with the controversy, nor to allow the protests to blight the atmosphere of the entire day. Initially it would seem, BDO organizers thought the stance taken by Beenie Man [which I will explain below] was defensible and they were prepared to support his renunciation of anti-gay violence – but when they realized the depth of feeling and possible commercial consequences, they buckled. Whatever you call that, its not rock’n’roll.

The campaign against Beenie Man mirrors gay protests in the US last month against a US tour by Buju Banton, with Beenie Man as support. Similar protests occurred in Britain a couple of years ago against a proposed tour by Sizzla, that was cancelled. That adds up to tactical success and good publicity for the gay community, which has been able to isolate these marginal artists and threaten their livelihoods very effectively.

Rap and dancehall musicians serve as relatively safe targets in that respect for gay politicians such as Chauvel and the Green Party’s Kevin Hague, and enable them to play to their constituents.. In many respects, the campaign against the Jamaican dancehall musicians is similar to the campaign waged against the rapper Ice T for his “Cop Killer” song in 1992. Chauvel’s attempt to deny a visa is also a virtual repeat of the Clark government’s barring of the Holocaust denier David Irving from entering New Zealand in 2004, which I objected to here at the time.

The activists will no doubt be congratulating themselves for their success in silencing Beenie Man. Yet what Professor Bill Hodge said of the Irving incident holds true here, too.

Freedom of speech is really the freedom to read, the freedom to hear and the freedom to listen. It is far more important to the listeners, the readers and so on than it is for the speaker. Everybody is losing. If you go back to John Stuart Mill, we might know the truth of it [the Holocaust], but it might be dead truth, if we do not allow it to be challenged.”

In the cases of Ice T and Beenie Man, there has been not a peep from the human rights organizations, Even though – to state the obvious, Beenie Man is a singer, exercising free speech. He is not a political activist. He is not handing out guns. He sings songs that are fictional constructs. Like Ice T’s 1992 song, the songs of his cited above belong to the context of hip hop and dancehall – in which exaggeration of all kinds (sexual bragging, the expression of violent hostility towards authority and other artists and groups in society) is commonplace. It is a theatre of aggression and hedonism for oppressed people, but it is theatre – not a literal call to murder. In films and on television, people kill people – including gays – all the time, for our entertainment. Why should the rules be different for music?

The verbal extremism and heated tone of dancehall is a bit like the Internet, If dancehall was a blog, it would probably be a bit like Whale Oil, and IMHO, it should be treated as such. As overblown thetoric. It isn’t likeable, it can be hateful. It is also a conscious caricature, and understood as such by its audience. Does it tap into unhealthy and repugnant attitudes to gays and others ? Yes. So does rap, so does heavy metal, so does pornography, so does half of popular culture. Gays may not like some dancehall songs, any more than cops liked Ice T’s song, or songs by any number of rap artists since who have sung about their violent feelings towards people they don’t like.

In Beenie Man’s case, he is being labeled by some New Zealanders as a disgusting homophobe. He must be wondering why he bothered to sign the Reggae Compassionate Act document in 2007 – which was an agreement brokered between record producer Eddie Brown in Jamaica and British gay activists – in which the signatories pledged, among other things, ‘to respect and uphold the rights of all individuals to live without fear of hatred and violence due to their religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or gender.’

The document was and is controversial in Jamaica, in that it lumped reggae performers in with dancehall musicians. It also sought artistic obedience from performers whose entire persona is based on not respecting authority, or taking orders from anyone. Can you imagine what would happen if you tried to require 50 Cent to sign such a document, demanding that he only issue music in future that contains less glorification of gun violence and more respect for women?

Even so, Sizzla, Beenie Man, Capleton and Buju Banton all signed it - the latter under his real name Mark Myrie, and Beenie Man under his own real name, Anthony Davis. On the available evidence, Beenie Man has stuck by his side of the agreement, and not performed the objectionable songs since. He has also publically advocated against violence towards gays. In 2007, he told the Jamaica Observer that: “We don't need to kill dem. We just need fi tell the people dem the right ting because I not supporting a gay lifestyle because it's not wholesome to me.” In other words, if you disapprove of the gay lifestyle as he does, then try to talk them out of it but don’t use violence. Regardless, gay rights advocates have continued to target him.

Similarly, Buju Banton has never been able to shake the stigma of his song ‘Boom By By’ in which he advocated killing gays and setting them on fire. A disgusting song, to be sure. Banton is now 36 years old. He wrote “Boom By By’ in 1988 when he was a 15 years old DJ , in the context of a notorious case of the homosexual rape of a young boy, and the song was re-released in 1992. A fortnight ago, an article in the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper described the song in these terms :

The youthful DJ translated the archaic language of the King James Version of the Bible [ie, the anti-gay sentiments in Leviticus] into graphic street talk. The imported Hollywood gun culture provided the primary image for the song in which the sound of bullets ricochets with rhythmic precision. In the best (sic) biblical tradition, the song called down judgement on sinners for the crimes of paedophilia, buggery and rape.

The song has not been part of Banton’s repertoire for 20 years, apart from a couple of occasions in 2006 and 2007, when he sang a few lines from the song as the preface to an attempt to explain to his audience his current feelings about the song, and the controversy it has engendered. (The 45 second 2006 Miami clip of “Boom By By” on Youtube cuts out just as he starts to talk. Very creative editing.)

Moreover, as anyone who knows anything about Buju Banton’s music over the last 20 years would attest, his music has been reggae’s most eloquent expression since Bob Marley of the quest for peace and the oppressed’s struggle for justice. During the mid 1990s, he had seemed the logical successor to Marley as a global reggae icon. Put Banton’s compassionate ‘Untold Stories’ up against Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ and you’ll see what I mean.

For the record, Banton was alleged to have been associated with a 2004 Kingston incident in which six gay men were badly beaten, apparently because the beatings occurred near his recording studio. Banton denied having any involvement whatsoever, and the charges were dismissed by the judge for lack of evidence linking him to the incident. In April 2009, well before last month’s gay demonstrations in the US, Banton launched his latest album Rasta Got Soul at the University of the West Indies by saying that his music was inclusive and meant for everybody : "the young, the old, the gay, the lesbian, the obese, the slim." In recent weeks, Banton has met with gay activist groups in the US and pledged afresh not to perform anti-gay material. Why didn’t gay activists here seek to pursue a similar dialogue with Beenie Man?

To sum up : IMHO, there has been a disproportionate concentration on dancehall and black rap musicians. I can see the political convenience for New Zealand gay politicians and activists to focus on a music such as dancehall – which has few defenders on free speech grounds, even in liberal circles. To my mind, art that is said to be ‘hate’ speech is still art. whether I like it or not. It should be engaged, not vetoed. And newsflash : it is all around us. Pick on dancehall as an easy target, but spare me the righteousness.

By which I mean, there is an elephant in the room. Why haven’t gay activists gone after Eminem in the same way that they have now gone after Beenie Man, and picketed record stores that carry his music ? Take the lyrics in Eminem’s song ‘Criminal. Sample : "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That'll stab you in the head/ whether you're a fag or lez/ Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest/ Pants or dress hate fags? The answer's `yes'." Or, what about the songs in which he fantasises about murdering his wife Kim, or raping his mother?

To be fair, Peter Tatchell who spearheaded the global campaign against the dancehall musicians, did denounce Eminem. Yet interestingly, some prominent members of the gay community did not. Elton John, who lamented the anti-gay culture that he felt had contributed to the infamous hate murder of Matthew Shepard in Texas, did a duet two years later with Eminem on the hit song “Stan” and has stood by him resolutely through his recent personal and career troubles. Melissa Etheridge, a self declared lesbian, has spoken admiringly of his artistic merit. Liberals such as Sheryl Crow have done likewise. Boy George, one gay celebrity who has consistently criticised Eminem has explained the double standard this way :

"Nobody wants to sort of battle against success. It's one of those things; if you slag him off, you on the one hand will appear bitter, and on the other hand you will appear uncool," George said. "If Pol Pot had a successful record, people would probably be running around him as well." Forgiveness for Eminem remains rife. On Yahoo Answers only five months ago for instance I found this reply – voted ‘the best’ by readers – to a query as to whether Eminem opposes gay marriage :

Reply :. ‘He uses the word "faggot" a lot in his songs, and so I thought he was against homosexuality.In an interview though, he said he uses terms like this because to him they mean somebody who is weak. But he doesn't want to offend gays, he just doesn't see the word in that way. So I'm not sure about your specific question, but, no, he is not anti.’ Plainly the same cultural latitude and forgiveness are not to be extended to less successful Jamaicans.

Funny, but I don’t see any righteous Facebook community in New Zealand opposing the ready availability of Eminem’s ‘hate speech’ in every single record shop in New Zealand. To do would seem old hat, and uncool. Far better for the gay aggrieved to focus on disrupting one performance in New Zealand by an obscure artist singing in virtually incomprehensible dialect – even though he has publicly renounced violence, and would not have been singing the material you’re wanting to complain about.

Now that Big Day Out has buckled, who will be the next marginal black performer with antisocial lyrics who is financially vulnerable enough to be forced into submission ? It may be politics, but it has very little to do with principle.


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