by David Sason
Every man got a right to decide his own destiny,
And in this judgment there is no partiality.
To divide and rule could only tear us apart;
In everyman chest, there beats a heart.
-"Zimbabwe", Bob Marley & the Wailers, 1979
Everyman fi have a gal
and every gal grab a man
man to man, gal to gal, that's wrong
-"Rampin' Shop", Vybz Kartel featuring Spice, 2009
Moving on in a meaningful way us just what LGBT leaders tried at the historic meeting with Buju Banton back on October 12th in Larkspur's Courtyard Hotel. Hopes were high for the meeting called by San Francisco City Supervisor Bevan Dufty, what with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that same week and President Obama's equally noteworthy speech on gay rights. But alas, after a 45-minute dialogue - in which he again said he does no longer performs the song- no resolution was reached and the protest outside the Rockit Room was to go on as planned. He did at one point say, "I don't advocate violence, Rastafari is not about that."
That night, a blast of pepper spray near the stage (which activist groups deny orchestrating) quelled any hopes for progress. "As I said in one of my songs 'there is no end to the war between me and faggot'," Banton told a Jamaican talk show the next day. "After I met with them, they pepper-sprayed the concert. So what are you trying to tell me? I owe dem nothing, they don't owe I nothing."
In response to the meeting attendees' request that Banton hold a town meeting in Kingston on the importance of respecting gays, he confirmed his stance: "Them come with demands, which I and I a go flop dem right now," he said, "because give thanks to my culture and upbringing I coulda never endorse them things. I can't sell myself out, neither would I do that in a thousand years."
Perhaps no one in the world knows more about the "golden age of reggae" of the ‘60s and ‘70s than Roger Steffens, founding editor of "The Beat" magazine and chairman of the Reggae Grammy Committee since it started in 1984. Chances are you've read his liner notes, seen him as a talking head on TV, or have heard of his "Life of Bob Marley" exhibit, which has graced countless museums internationally over the past 25 years. The gargantuan collection of his memorabilia (which he's collected since 1973) fills six rooms of his Los Angeles home, which has become an essential SoCal stop for reggae fans and artists alike. Recent visitors include fan Leonardo DiCaprio and musicians Ini Kimoze & Inner Circle. Like many, the Vietnam veteran got into reggae as a disillusioned rock fan."In the ‘70s, after the lawyers and the accountants had taken over the business, I was looking for something that had the great harmonies of doo-wop, but also had the spiritual & political awareness of the best of the 60s," remembers 67-year-old Steffens, an early rock n' roll fan who was raised on Alan Freed. After spending the end of the ‘60s as a soldier in Vietnam, Steffens lived in Berkeley where a Rolling Stone article piqued his curiosity about an exciting new island sound." I went down to Pellucidar Books on Shattuck Avenue and I bought a used Catch a Fire," he recalls. "The next night, I went to the little Northside Theatre and saw The Harder They Come, and bought the soundtrack at Rasputin's on the way home. From those two days, my life changed forever."
Having visited Jamaica regularly since 1976, Steffens is well aware of the island's long-standing opinion of gays. "It has always been a very homophobic society, party through the influence of the fundamentalist churches, even the church of England," he says. "And it's only been in the past 20 years that it's become more blatant, what with the rise of the dancehall music."
As chairman of the Reggae Grammy Committee, Steffens has led the effort to have two categories, one for dancehall and one for roots reggae, which he insists rings truer to the more utopian hey day. "We make a great distinction between the roots artists and the dancehall artists; they're really two separate forms of music; the rhythms are different," he says. "I've been trying for years to break the category up into two, but there's just not enough sales to warrant it in America. The terrible thing from a musical point of view is that everyone in reggae music gets tarred with this homophobic brush."
Despite Jamaica's national motto "Out of Many, One People", it's clear that "Murder Music" reflects the current state of Jamaica, which remains plagued by extreme poverty, the spread of AIDS, and homicide. As recently as 2005, the island nation had the highest murder rate in the world (and still averages one murder every six hours).
On the issue at hand, in late July 2008, a poll was conducted that asked "Whether or not you agree with their ‘lifestyle', do you think homosexuals are entitled to the same basic rights and privileges as other people in Jamaica?" Of the respondents, only 26% said "yes," with 70% saying "no", and 4% undecided. Another survey revealed 96% of Jamaicans were opposed to any move to legalize homosexual relations.
(No wonder that Banton looked as diplomatically stone-faced as Bill Clinton in North Korea in all the meeting photos. In all fairness, he's likely in just as much danger if he sympathizes.)"The challenge is that the violence [gays and lesbians] face is one that is culturally and socially sanctioned and expected," says Jason MacFarlane of to J-FLAG, Jamaica's LGBT rights organization. In addition to widespread reports of the police condoning the violence against gays and taking part in it themselves, Prime Minister Bruce Golding himself was quotes as saying "homosexuals would find no solace in any cabinet" he formed.
MacFarlane sees this as evidence that the homophobia in Jamaica is not merely a result of being uneducated. "Even the "well schooled" display their own level of homophobia openly or are pressured to because it is expected," he says, "and this creates further discrimination for the LGBT members of society."
Even more amazing is Prime Minister Golding's use of TOK's aforementioned "Chi Chi Man" during his 2001 campaign against incumbent P.J. Patterson, the victim of a whispering campaign to spread rumors of his sexuality. Some critics even referred to him as "P.J. Battyson" instead of his actual name. Although Portia Simpson-Miller was first female prime minister after he stepped down, the deeply macho country has a long way to go."This is an island-wide phenomenon and has gotten worse in terms of the number of instances of and extent of harm that is perpetrated on this minority group," says MacFarlane. "Thankfully the music has gotten less violent over the years, but we have seen the use of slang to show their disapproval of gays and lesbians."
That same year that J-Flag founder Brian Williamson was murdered, JGN publisher and editor Larry Chang had to seek political asylum in the U.S. The next year, a friend of Williamson's, AIDS education activist Lenford "Steve" Harvey was not so lucky. He was dragged from his house by armed men who repeatedly asked "Are you battyman?" before being shot to death on the eve of World AIDS Day.
Regarding the meeting in Larkspur, MacFarlane echoes Andrea Shorter's sense of clarity. "J-FLAG is under no illusion that Mr. Myrie [Buju Banton's real name is Mark Anthony Myrie] or other DJs of his ilk will ever be minded to produce music that preaches the dignity of all life, including that of gays and lesbians," he says. "The fact that he sat and met with some members of the GLBT community in SF is worthy of note. The fact that nothing came out of it, not even an agreement to say let us continue the dialogue, says a whole lot more.""No agreement can be reached between Mr. Myrie and the gay community until he desists from publicly performing ‘Boom Bye-Bye' and repudiates the call for the murder of gay and lesbian Jamaicans," MacFarlane goes on to say. "Anything less is mere farce and a public relations stunt to garner support for his music."
Gary Pratt of Sonoma, 19, is a huge fan of Buju Banton and Sizzla. The Reggae Rising regular was devoted enough to watch the Fairfax show from the street since he was underage. Pratt doesn't agree with the violent views toward gays, but points to appreciation of art. "You don't have to agree with everything they're singing, it's just music and they say their thoughts through music," he says. "My friends pretty much feel the same way. No one takes their stances on things to heart too much. They're from a completely different culture from us."
This justification comes up again and again, but where does it end? The KKK, Neo Nazis, people who perform the clitorectomy, purveyors of child sex slaves, they all come from a "different culture". So do our parents. So do our children. Why all this pussyfooting and financial empowerment when it comes to English-speaking musicians a few hundred miles east of Miami who actively perpetuate a deadly environment for gays? We throw the book of public opinion at other religious zealots, from Islamic terrorists to those who perform honor killings and kill abortion doctors. Is the Roman Polanski syndrome at play with these musicians? Would Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visits still be protested if he sang how the holocaust never happened in a kick-ass dancehall jam?
A better guess is the "white guilt" phenomenon. After all, Jamaica was introduced to Christianity through European colonialism. This occurrence surely came into play back when Eminem was protested for homophobic lyrics while African-American rappers were ignored."If somebody stood up on stage with a white sheet on his head and saying the same thing, we would be up in arms," says Shorter, who thinks the theory could hold water. "Sometimes there's an inclination to excuse ignorance and hatred of other minority groups because they haven't had a fair shake themselves, but Mr. Banton is a world-traveled man. You're a man of the world at this point, so you can't have it both ways."
Tatchell has been accused of racism for years because of his efforts against "Murder Music", even though he's trying to help save other black Jamaicans. "Would these venues host a concert by a neo-Nazi singer who called for the murder of black and Jewish people?" asks Tatchell, who's also been labeled "the next Tipper Gore"."This is not a free speech issue; incitement to murder is a criminal offence in Jamaica and the U.S., and free speech does not include the right to incite the killing of other human beings," he reminds. "The criterion for opposing incitements to homophobic murder should, in my opinion, be the same as for incitements to racist murder - zero tolerance for both."
Most reggae fans I've encountered seemingly ignore their direct consumer/supplier relationship with reggae artists. What does voting against Prop 8 mean when a given person also financially supports the perpetuation of such discrimination?"Certainly the power is in the hands of the consumer," says Jason MacFarlane of J-Flag. "The challenge is when the consumer is unaware of the lyrics being sung and the impact they have had and continue to have on a society."
History has proven that in a democratic society, our only power lies in our voice and our consumer dollar. And in every struggle for equality, from slave emancipation and women's suffrage to civil rights and disabled rights, there have been those seemingly unaffected throngs whose compliance with "the way it is" eventually becomes complicity.
Whether or not you admit it, the gay rights movement is the civil rights struggle of our time. The President knows it, and 10-year-old future-lawyer Will Phillips knows it. Reggae fans and all citizens need to decide which side of history they - and their money - want to be on.
Haile Selassie, Jah Rastafari to his followers, said it best himself: "Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph."––David Sason
*To find out how you can help LGBT people in Jamaica, please visit www.jflag.org.To learn more about Roger Steffens and "The Life of Bob Marley" exhibit, visit www.reggaesupersite.com.For music and upcoming tour dates for Pato Banton, please visit www.patobanton.com.