By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Firmly in the crosshairs is Beenie Man, the veteran dancehall don who has enjoyed a long, fruitful career marked with international success and hit tunes including "Who Am I," "Wicked Slam," "Girls Dem Sugar" and "Dude." Beenie Man's current hit, "Damn," has caused consternation in England for lyrics like "Execute all the gays." The resulting anti-hate-speech backlash campaign, spearheaded by UK-based gay-rights organization OutRage!, has stopped Beenie Man's career momentum cold. His entire UK tour was scrapped, as was his planned appearance at MTV's recent VMA awards in Miami.
In early August, Beenie Man's record label, Virgin, issued an apology for his lyrics, but Beenie himself has yet to say he's sorry. In fact, he reiterated his homophobic stance during two August performances in Jamaica.
At this point, Beenie Man's twenty-year career is in jeopardy, and he may not be alone. In his zeal for justice, OutRage! spokesman Peter Tatchell went so far as to coin the term "reggae bigots" -- which seems oxymoronic, given that reggae has long been a genre that attacks racial inequity. In fact, referencing racism makes sense in this controversy -- but not in the way OutRage! intends.
To be sure, Jamaican artists make an easy target for gay activists. The homophobia in some cases is undeniable, even if it has to be translated for non-patois-speaking folks.
There's a lesson to be learned here from the censorship troubles faced by hip-hop a decade ago, when its mainstream appeal and economic clout were just starting to become apparent -- much as with dancehall today. Censoring "offensive" lyrics by Jamaican artists could result in the same kind of dumbing-down and mainstream filtration that saturated rap music following the Parents' Music Resource Center/Christian Coalition machinations of the '90s. As the controversy escalates, Beenie Man could easily become the Professor Griff (and Capleton the Ice-T) of his era, vilified through a well-orchestrated media campaign, while the real cause of the injustice goes unchecked.
At the very least, there's a danger in any predominantly white organization attempting to characterize a predominantly black culture according to its own agenda. OutRage!'s inflammatory press releases, for instance, detail instance after instance of lyrical "homophobic hate crimes" by Jamaican artists but fail to mention that most of the songs are several years old.
OutRage!'s strategy seems to be to force the Jamaican government into action by blockading what is in effect an export commodity. But why not go after the officials who have turned a blind eye to violence against gays and demand change on a legislative level? Instead, OutRage!'s campaign has dehumanized dancehall artists and, by forcing the cancellation of shows, has imposed de facto economic sanctions on an already poor nation tragically ravaged by violence -- only a small portion of which is directed at gays.
The same could be said of Beenie Man's lyrics. He's known more for advocating gay-bashing than anything else. Yet the artist has also decried black-on-black crime and police brutality ("Murderer") and praised oft-forgotten freedom fighters ("Steve Biko"). Likewise, Capleton is known for pro-peace songs ("Jah Jah City"), while Buju has recorded anti-gun tunes ("Mr. Nine") as well as nonsexist anthems ("Only Man"). Even Elephant Man has a political side -- he commented on 9/11 on the single "The Bombing," for instance. The point here is that all of these artists (not to mention Jamaican culture itself) are the product of a very complex set of factors, not the least of which is Jamaica's history as a processing center for African slaves and a colony under British rule, which may be the reason its denizens are overly sensitive about being emasculated.
Ask yourself: When does lyrical content become a hate crime, and when does it become a First Amendment issue? Where is the line, and who is drawing it? Interestingly, the protests against dancehall artists have all come from the white gay community, which, as some activists point out, isn't always so enlightened when it comes to racial issues. So in our zeal to identify and stamp out homophobia, are we overlooking racism? -- Erik K. Arnold
What's in This Kool-Aid?
If one were to believe the hype of the new documentary Dig!, Anton Alfred Newcombe, leader and creative force behind the constantly shifting lineup of rock collective the Brian Jonestown Massacre, disappeared into a drug netherworld, a bloated corpse brought low by instability and psychosis sometime in the '90s. The film, which covers the early career trajectory of the Dandy Warhols and the Massacre (bands that played in the same scene and were friends with one another), appears to chart the Warhols' rise to ostensible fame while the Massacre slips into darkness owing to Newcombe's erratic behavior. The popular consensus seems to be that he's no longer making worthwhile music. The funny thing is, no one told Newcombe that.
"It's tough when you read about yourself in a magazine or online," Newcombe says. "You can't really say, 'Wait a minute! There's more to that story.'[It] can be kind of hard, but I have had to deal with distraction and misperceptions my whole life. I plan to carry on making music."