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Gay vs. reggae: the reggae music industry makes changes in response to gay activists' protesting violently homophobic lyrics. The artists have no comment.

The long and heated battle between homophobic reggae artists and gay activists appears to have come to an end, at least temporarily. There is no clear victor, but a tentative ceasefire is in place.

Once perceived as a musical embodiment of peace, love, and sunshine--thanks largely to the serene efforts of the late Bob Marley--reggae has become a medium for hate and prejudice in recent times. At the center of the storm have been artists like Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel, Bounty Killer, and Sizzla Kalonji, who have grabbed headlines with songs steeped in violent antigay rhetoric.

It's this kind of dangerous content that has mobilized queers, particularly in Europe, where reggae enjoys considerably more commercial acceptance than in the United States. Following a series of protests helmed by the Stop Murder Music coalition, which combines the efforts of watchdog groups like OutRage! and J-Flag, reggae music industry representatives have verbally agreed to stop releasing songs that promote hatred and violence against gay people.

"Quite honestly, they had no choice but to back down and move in a more harmonious direction," says Chuck Taylor, managing editor of Billboard Radio Monitor, a music industry trade publication. "The bad publicity was taking a toll. The tenacity of the gay community paid off in a huge way. Their power had become impossible to ignore."

No specific artists were involved in the negotiations, and no reggae performers have yet commented on the accommodation between activists and the music industry. Rather, the deal was brokered by representatives of recording companies and promoters that house the majority of reggae's top acts. Among the participating companies are VP and Greensleeves Records as well as distributor Jet Star. Concert promoters, including Jammins and Apollo Entertainment, are also on board. Under the terms of the agreement, labels will release no new songs--or reissue old ones--that advocate violence against gays and lesbians, while promoters are to make the singers agree not to perform such songs onstage.

In a show of good faith, the Stop Murder Music coalition has agreed to call off future protests. "We shall not be picketing concerts or calling for prosecutions to give the industry the space to regulate and reform itself," OutRage! activist Brett Lock said in a statement.

"We were having trouble doing business," says a reggae-label source, on condition of anonymity. "It was necessary to play ball and get our artists back on the road without hassle."

Even if the only motive is financial, the reggae industry has decided to coexist more happily in the Western music world. Some believe that change of heart had its origins in queer activists' reaction to Beenie Man, long a figure of controversy among gays and lesbians. His 2004 release Back to Basics sparked widespread protest from several U.K. gay organizations, including OutRage! which successfully pressured MTV into batting the artist from a Miami concert held in conjunction with the Video Music Awards last summer. After being prohibited from touring the United Kingdom in the fall, Beenie Man eventually issued a public apology--through his label, Virgin--insisting that "while my lyrics are very personal, I do not write them with the intent of purposefully hurting or maligning others."

And what are these "personal lyrics"? In Beenie Man's "That's Right," the chores begins, "We burn chi-chi [Jamaican slang for "gay"] man and then we burn sodomite and everybody bawl out, say, 'Dat right!'" And in "Hart Up Deh," the artist makes jokes: "Man a save yuh from drowning is a lifeguard / Man a watch a man batty [Jamaican for "butt"] is a batty-guard." In that same song he then delivers an antigay chant, urging listeners to raise their hands if they agree: "Hang chi-chi gal wid a long piece a rope / Mek me see di han' a go up, mek me see di han' a go up."

Further victory for gays came on November 4, when Sizzla Kalonji was denied a visa for a five-city U.K. tour that has since been canceled. "The world is watching now, and that is changing the entire complexion of reggae," notes Taylor.

Rose Toma of Bristol's Our Rights group notes that "a lot of these acts have been flying under the radar for a long time. Now that there's money at stake, things will change in a positive, less controversial direction. That's the most effective way to effect change in any industry--in the pocketbook."

Not every reggae artist is on the homophobia bandwagon. In fact, 21-year-old Chanelle Scot Calica, a.k.a. MC Shystie, is calling for the genre's artists to be "more open-minded."

During an interview on the BBC's The Music Biz program, she said, "There's boundaries and lines not to cross, and I think some people are crossing those lines. Keep your thoughts to yourself. It's your personal opinion and another man's preference. So it's not really got anything to do with you."

Flick is cohost of Sirius/Out Q Radio's OutQ in the Morning.

RELATED ARTICLE: Marley's ghost.

Is homophobia part of the Rastafarian tradition?

An otherwise conciliatory industry insider pleads for lenience in the case of homophobia among reggae artists by noting that "many of them adhere to Rasta philosophy, which views homosexuality as a punishable offense." But does it? And is Rastafarianism, once practiced by the late Bob Marley, even a proper religion? It's a point of debate even among Jamaicans.

Margaret Polack, a Rasta teacher who also runs the Sister Tree theater company in the United Kingdom, says that Rastas are "a group of people who go under the name of Rastafari. Many people view Rastafarianism as a non-Christian faith. This is a myth. The basic belief of a Rasta is to uphold the truth and defend good over evil, to do the will of God here on earth. These are the teachings of God."

Because of these biblical roots, cultural fears of homosexuality are inherent in Rasta teachings. "It's a matter of rejecting what is frightening or against age-old beliefs," says Polack. "When Rastas lash out in violence, what they are doing is lashing out in fear. I don't know if that fear will ever go away for some Rastas."--L.F.
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Title Annotation:Music
Author:Flick, Larry
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 12, 2005
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