Like many an idea, Stop The Bashment Bashing began in the pub, or the Knowledge mag Christmas party to be precise. As the issue of homophobia in dancehall was debated in mainstream circles, Sarah Bentley explained how she had become increasingly enraged at the ignorance about dancehall displayed by mainstream journalists. After a few pints, I goaded her into unleashing her fury. Within a few minutes it was clear her point of view needed airing. Mainstream media wouldn’t listen, so Blackdown Soundboy obliged.
Without writing a biog for her, Sarah Bentley is to dancehall magazine journalism what Chris Muniz and Pete Rogers are to d&b journalism, Steve Yates is to hip hop, or what perhaps myself or Chantelle Fiddy hope to be to garage. Her views are not necessarily those of Blackdown Soundboy, but properly informed on the international dancehall movement, they’re very worthwhile.
//Stop The Bashment Bashing//
Words: Sarah Bentley
If you’ve read the UK mainstream press this autumn you couldn’t have escaped the controversy over Jamaican dancehall and reggae artists apparent homophobic lyricism. Sizzla has been banned from performing in the UK. Beenie Man was retained by the police on the basis that his lyrics, ‘incited violence’. And Buju Banton’s, ‘Boom Bye Bye’ tune, somehow dominated headlines again, twelve years after its original release.
So how did all this happen? Well, Gay Rights activist and OutRage’s front man, Peter Tatchell, had timing on his side. With the rise in popularity of dancehall the papers were ripe to listen to his long standing argument that dancehall is, ‘murder music’. And why not? Anyone whom believes they are being disrespected has the right to speak out. But the right to sabotage an entire musical genre and with it a large proportion of a nations economy, that’s a different thing.
Throughout 2004 I watched in horror as journalists, radio and TV presenters seized Tatchell’s mantle to brand all dancehall artists murder inciting homophobes with no regard for the wider effects these comments were having.
My favourite newspapers ran copy with embarrassingly inept descriptions of the various Houses of Rastafari (check Alexis Petridis article that states “Bobo Rasta’s believe in racial segregation”). Buju Banton was wrongly accused by The Guardian in June of being involved in a violent ‘gay attack’ in Jamaica.
Inexcusably wrong patios translations were rife. Check every ‘literal’ patios translation on Outrage.com. And the nation developed pseudo expertise on Jamaican culture, history and social science. Check my pensioner parents telling me about the perils of ‘that terrible reggae’ after watching Channel Four documentary ‘Trainers, Reggae & The Olympics’. To date no "Apologies for an error made in issue/programme xx” have been printed/broadcast.
Thanks to OutRages online ‘Essential Guide To Homophobic Lyricism In Dancehall’, anyone could become an overnight expert in bashment bashing. It was so easy. Check the web and make that money. It didn’t matter that patios was a creole that required more than a literal translation. What do you mean burn, doesn’t mean burn? And fire doesn’t necessarily mean physical fire? You can’t get one up on us that easily. We might be western but we’re down. We know what your jungle language means, man.
Before I proceed I’d like you to know I’m a stereotypically left wing music hack. I drink soya milk. I’ve been to Trade. I use eco friendly washing powder. I’ve applied nail varnish to a gay friend’s toenails. I fully accept Jesus, if he did exist, was a blackman. I read The Guardian and The Observer. I believe no one should suffer prejudice. Violence is wrong. I mourn if I accidentally tread on an ant. But, when it comes to dancehall, the general publics not getting the full picture. And now the witch hunts on, there’s no stopping the hypocrisy of its most ardent critics. And someone, anyone, has to start presenting the flip side.
Fact is, its illegal to be a sexually active gay man in Jamaica. Buggery or in fact any intimacy between two men is unlawful and punishable by prison. No such direct laws refer to lesbians. It seems Jamaica’s don’t take so much offence to the thought of two women getting it on. Somehow, I doubt dancehall, a genre of music yet to be invented when Jamaica was granted independence in the 60’s, had little impact on the Jamaican governments decision to maintain the law the British had previously imposed.
Taking things to 2004 a recent opinion poll stated 96% of the country opposed having this law over turned. And if you think 96% of the country is influenced by dancehall, you’re wrong. Like garage in the UK, dancehall is the music of ghetto youths. If anything unites the 96 out of 100 people that didn’t want the buggery laws over turned, it would most likely be the church.
We all know Christianity is big in Jamaica and the island has more churches per square capita than anywhere else in the world (broadsheet hacks got that right at least). Well has anyone ever thought where that strident belief in the Bible came from? Er, hello, we took it there. Before being shackled, wedged into a coffin size space and packed off to the Caribbean, do you think Africans had much experience with Christianity?
Christianity was the religion of the plantation owners and slave masters. After blacks supposed emancipation in 1830, ex slaves, desperate to gain respectability, social mobility and status, only found equal footing to Jamaica’s light skinned, upper class society in religion. Back then, both in Jamaica and in England, the churches word was final. And with regards to homosexuality, the Bible taught this was a heinous sin, one the monarchy believed should be punishable by death.
175 years on and still it’s the light skinned population that fill Jamaica’s uptown restaurants, security guarded housing estates and private schools. Jamaica’s poorest rural and downtown communities are almost entirely populated by descendents of the original African slaves. Many people are still illiterate. Men and women do hard labour jobs for less than £20 a week. Gang, and political related fighting devastates downtown communities. The church continues to be a central force in people’s lives.
Now I’m not trying to excuse homophobia, I’m merely trying to illustrate the background to Jamaica’s hard-line stance. Now we’re all such shining examples of liberated, PC-ness, it’s easy to forget that homosexuality wasn’t legalised in Britain until 1967 and even then the age of consent was 21. It wasn’t until 1980 and 1982 Scotland & N.Ireland came to the same conclusions, the last amendment a mere 22 years ago. Furthermore it wasn’t until 1994 England lowered the age of consent to 18, the debate on lowering it to 16 still a hot debated subject in this country today.
Without intending to sound patronising, Jamaica is a third world country. Soap operas don’t have token ‘gay characters’. The nation doesn’t watch Queer As Folk whilst eating their tea. TV presenters do not dress in drag. They don’t have a fashionable gay district with nice bars and restaurants border-line homophobes like my Dad can visit to conclude, “They aren’t that bad are they? The gays.” Most people are worrying about how to feed their children and pay the rent. It might take longer for the notion of the homosexual lifestyle to become accepted in Jamaica than in did in England. Is that really so surprising?
The baiting of conscious dancehall artists Buju Banton and Boboshanti Rastafarians Capleton, Sizzla and Antony B rattles me more than any factor of this whole blood thirsty affair. Buju, Capleton and Antony B all started their artistic lives as gun toting rude boys before experiencing a spiritual enlightenment that switched them onto more righteous ways. Today they offer hope to young men in Jamaica’s desperate ghettos. They employ people from their local communities, the artist’s income also the lifeline to the survival of tens of other families.
They wear humble clothing or traditional African dress. They denounce drug taking and drinking. They eat strict vegetarian diets. Women are their empresses and queens (albeit they have a few of them). Achievement is measured through the richness of a person’s heart, soul and mind, not their wallets. They openly praise the family unit, particularly mothers. They are the antithesis of the thugged out, gangster puppets and glassy eyed, sexually available hoes of the US rap world.
Lyrically their main subject matters are Rastafarian philosophy and the promotion of black pride, education, unity, clean living and love. Yes they perform homophobic lyrics in a low percentage of their material but they perform them within the context of Biblical teachings. Is it really reasonable to expect religious artists in a country where homosexuality is illegal, to not express anti-gay sentiments?
Sure to the unaccustomed ear the vernacular seems harsh. But, like the artists say, their words shouldn’t be taken literally, an aspect of patios people choose to embrace and ignore in equal measure. When Bob Marley sang, “I shot the Sheriff,” I don’t remember him being arrested for inciting violence against the police. It’s safe to conclude Bob didn’t like the way the police conducted themselves (after all he said he shot one), so why can’t the same conclusion be drawn from Capleton singing, “Burn fire pon de battyman.”
Patios is a dialect that uses strong words to express a feeling. Take the following sentence, “I step pon Tatchell an burn fire pon de murder music campaign”. What I mean by this statement is, “I earnestly disagree with Peter Tatchell and I’d like to see his Murder Music campaign come to an end.” However the literal translation, as pioneered by the OutRage department of creole expertise, means, “Stamp on Peter Tatchell and all homosexuals and set alight anyone whom supports the Murder Music Campaign.” There are subtle, but oh so important differences: Dislike-death. Anger-violence. Disagree-eradicate.
I’m not denying it must be hard to be gay and live in Jamaica. But it’s also hard being an average person on the street there as well: robbery, rape and sexual attacks on women far more frequent crimes than gay assaults. Personally I find homophobic lyrics uncreative and lazy (Jamaican artists know the public will love any tune featuring them-it’s a no brainer). But until government changes the law and initiates nation wide programmes of education and integration, why would dancehall artists stop using anti-gay lyrics?
It all goes back to the same age-old argument. Does music reflect life or dictate it? Well I’ve been to Jamaica and seen crews of openly gay men dancing to Elephant Man’s ‘Log On’ at downtown dances such as Passa Passa. A few people stared, but no one stamped on them. I’ve read newspaper columns where male writers have written accounts of being come on to by a gay man in the bank, the man merely embarrassed, not enraged as the whole queue laughed at him, “in his predicament.”
Looking at today’s music business it appears that if you’re raking in millions for corporations you’re merely a victim of social circumstance singing/rapping about your personal experiences. However if you’re not shifting 50,000 units you’re the devil, the cause of every social ill you dare mention (in the case of dancehall the ill is homophobia not homosexuality) and fare game to the media bloodhounds.
As a departing shot I’ll leave you with the profound words of 50 Cent, a rapper whom regularly appears on kiddie music station MTV donning a bullet proof vest spitting lines such as, “But I’ll hunt or duck a nigga down like it’s sport, Front on me, I’ll cut ya, gun-butt ya or bump ya…I’m the type that’ll kill your connect when the coke price rise.”
With morality like that filling our pre-watershed TV schedules, no wonder there is such a furore over dancehall.