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Reclaiming Jamaica's gay past: cross-dressing pirate heroes and gay-friendly reggae gods--true Caribbean culture contradicts the homophobia of dancehall music.

For heterosexuals, Jamaica is a kind of heaven, but for gays and lesbians, it may seem like paradise lost. In the past few years there's been much talk on the radio, in newspapers, and in magazines about dancehall--a kind of hip-hoppy descendant of reggae--and the fact that some of the form's top performers traffic in violent and repugnantly homophobic lyrics.

As a Jamaican-American, I grew up listening to the island's music. Jamaica's musical past goes far beyond reggae: There's the warm rhythms of mento, the sweet sway of calypso, the jittery jump of ska. The past is more tolerant too. In the music of Jamaica's global superstar, Bob Marley, the vicious gay bashing of dancehall is nowhere to be found.

I've made a study of Jamaica's cultural, political, and sexual history for my new novel about 18th-century Jamaica, Kingston by Starlight. It tells the story of Anne Bonny, a real-life Irish woman who journeyed to Jamaica, dressed as a man, became a pirate, had a relationship with another cross-dressing woman, and was put on trial for her alleged crimes in 1720. Kingston by Starlight is a story of adventure and beauty, rapture and revenge, the lower depths and the high seas. It's also, I think, a story about the true soul of Jamaica.

Some dancehall performers may never admit it, but gay life is intertwined with the history of the Caribbean; it's part of the legends, the literature, the landscape. There are suggestion and shadows, winks and hints, that some significant portion of the region's celebrated and notorious pirate population may have been gay. B.R. Burg, in his book Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, writes of the piratical institution of "matelotage," in which one buccaneer was matched to a shipmate, each pledging mutual cooperation and companionship, with the understanding that if one died, all booty would go to the survivor. Yes, of course, it may have all been perfectly chaste, but to modern observers it sure sounds like a same-sex marriage at sea.

In the more recent past, writers with Jamaican roots, such as Audre Lorde and Michelle Cliff, have published novels about gay life in the region; younger lesbian writers such as Patricia Powell and poet Staceyann Chin have written about the experiences of Jamaican homosexuals. Chin's work is inspiring and insightful; it takes you by the hand and grabs you by the throat. A few years ago Chin performed at Calabash, an annual literary festival held in Jamaica. There had been worries about how she would be received, but once she got got into her reading, the fears fell away like scabs off a healed wound. The largely Jamaican audiences were won over by her work. I talked to Chin recently about this, and she sent me this e-mail: "Yes, it is OK to say I was well-received at Calabash, but it is also important to note the other times when I was not received well by a Jamaican audience (and there were times that ranged from testy to downright unsafe)." The struggle continues, but at least the battle is being fought.

I left Jamaica when I was a child and was raised in Brockport, N.Y. I also went to school at Harvard--a collegiate fantasyland where sexual and racial difference is embraced (except when it comes to getting a tenured position on the faculty). So the homophobia that some critics had ascribed to Jamaican culture had always mystified and disturbed me. I didn't subscribe to it, and I felt it didn't have deep, legitimate roots in the Jamaican culture that I knew. I saw it as some foreign weed planted in Jamaica's rich red soil to choke the life out of our native fruits. I felt homophobic hatred could be uprooted and overcome if an artist was talented and determined enough. After all, the greatest Jamaican artist of them all, Bob Marley, never gave voice to homophobic hatred in his songs.

Many dancehall acts don't follow in Marley's lyrical footsteps perhaps because they don't have the guts to try to live up to his level of artistry. It's hard, and it requires talent, to get a crowd moving on the power of one's music alone. It's cheap and easy to rile up members of a crowd by playing to their worst instincts and lacing one's music with homophobic diatribes.

Jamaican artists need to create a new foundation built on the cornerstone Marley put in place. In writing Kingston by Starlight, I searched for different kinds of heroes, new voices from the past to create a fresh framework for understanding Caribbean history, an alternative to the one conjured by homophobic dancehall lyrics. The main protagonist in my new book, Anne Bonny, challenged boundaries of culture and sex with a ship, a sword, and a black flag.

There is a kind of anarchic, anachronistic thrill that comes with the knowledge that--almost 300 years ago--a woman successfully challenged some of the barriers that still exist today. When I wrote my novel, immersed in the lore of Anne's time, I could see her, feel her, smell the salty sea spray on her skin as if she were still strolling the beaches of Port Royal today. In the pages of my novel I wanted to make her as real for every reader as she was to me as I was writing. I can still see her, standing before me, her bare feet on the beach sand, a breeze off Montego Bay ruffling her crimson hair.

Unlike Marley--whose grave in the tiny village of Nine Miles is a destination for pilgrims from many countries Anne Bonny has mostly gone without her proper recognition in Jamaica. Museums and monuments in the Caribbean commemorate male pirates such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackam. Her name is often missing, like some sunken treasure ship beneath the waves.

I want to bring her back, and I hope I have. If Anne could con-found expectations in an age of wooden ships and wooden gallows, petticoats and slavery, could today's task really be harder? She was a woman who became a legend because she had the guts to take on the myths of men. What if her exploits were better known? What if her story were more widely included in the story that others tell about what the Caribbean was, is, and could be? Could she set sail again and raise her black flag, if only in our dreams?

Island grooves

Caribbean music that embraces everybody

Bob Marley and the Wailers, African Herbsman (Trojan, 1973; Trojan U.S. remastered edition, 2003): Classic material recorded before Harley became an international star. Lyrics from song "Trenchtown Rock": "One good thing about music / When it hits you feel no pain."

Ms. Dynamite, A Little Deeper (Interscope, 2002; reissue, 2003): British two-step maverick whose music emphasizes her love of roots reggae. Lyrics from "Seed Will Grow": "Black roses grow from concrete,"

Luciano, Messenger (Island, 1997): Veteran reggae vocalist with Harley-like outlook. Lyrics from song "Never Give Up My Pride": "Even though I'm broken up inside / I'll never give up my pride."

Sean Paul, Dutty Rock (Atlantic, 2002): Tuneful dancehall star who is focused on partying, not hatred. Lyrics from "Get Busy": "Let's get it on till the early morn'."

Natty King, No Guns to Town (Insight, 2005): A young up-and-coming roots reggae star with a positive message. Lyrics from song "Equality": "I want the world to be living in harmony."--C.J.F.

Farley, a senior editor at Time magazine, is the author of Kingston by Starlight (Three Rivers Press/Random House).
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Article Details
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Author:Farley, Christopher John
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:5JAMA
Date:Jul 5, 2005
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