zaterdag 19 maart 2011

Reggae and homophobia

I object to the qualification of current reggae, or even modern dancehall, as “hate music” or “murder music”. This came from gay and other groups protesting against lyrics of some dancehall reggae artists, lyrics considered homophobic and even promoting violence against homosexuals. These Gay Rights groups have, of course, like everyone else, the right to protest or let their objections know about certain lyrics or expressions.
They can say whatever they want, but when some of them exaggerate or make false judgments…the freedom of expression goes both ways. It’s in essence a false accusation of, in this case, a music genre. Besides mentioning specific lyrics by specific artists there were inappropriate generalizations, at least by some.

Every true, seasoned reggae fan knows: overall reggae cannot be called Hate Music or Murder Music: the existence of some slackness and gun lyrics aside, mostly reggae remains quite the contrary: protest music against (gun) violence. Violent lyrics are not absent, but the balance tips strongly to the latter anti-violence lyrics. Besides, part of what seems violent in some Jamaican lyrics is in fact metaphorical, such as the “Bun” (Burn) expression, used as an expression of condemnation, rather than actual call for violence against (burning) certain phenomena.

Generalizations and simplifications, and also misinterpretations. No doubt that the song ‘Boom Bye Bye’ (recorded in 1988) by Buju Banton, early in his career, had anti-gay lyrics and seemed to call for violence. The lyrics are I think discussed enough. It also is true that anti-homosexual lyrics can be found in recent lyrics as well, such as by Shabba Ranks, Capleton, Sizzla, or Bounty Killer, and that several Jamaican artists, also older roots artist, made disparaging comments about homosexuals, or Batty Men (“batty” is Jamaican Patois for buttocks), as gay men are known in Jamaican parlance. These lyrics or expressions are, however, not as common as many think. Not even in modern dancehall. Besides, it strongly differs per artist, regarding the “if” and “how”. Some of these artists even stated publicly – in response to media images – that they do not hate gays. Important nuances.

The homophobia still expressed within reggae and dancehall may be regrettable, but must at the same time be put into perspective. Many countries in this world have outlawed homosexual acts, or are otherwise intolerant toward homosexuality, especially when compared to some European countries, US states, or for instance Canada, that are more liberal in this regard. Jamaica is furthermore a very Christian, especially Protestant, country, besides the influential Rastafari-adhering minority, and the Bible condemns homosexual acts as an abomination, also in quite violent terms.


I must admit that I find homophobia an interesting subject, not nice or beautiful, but interesting: what moves people to emphasize their heterosexuality? Why is homosexuality considered and feared as a threat to a cherished sexual order? Not just by elites, but also by common folks?
I can try to be hypocritical, and caress my own ego by saying that I cannot at all imagine that people can be so intolerant, but I’d rather tell the truth. First of all, it also is true that I hate hate, also hate against homosexuals. If two people of the same sex are consenting adults, and both want to have sex with each other, essentially I don’t mind. It’s not my business, in that case.

On the other hand, I can understand homophobia to a degree. Mind you: that is not the same as approving of it.
I won’t tell too much about my experience as a sexually maturing boy, adolescent, young man, and now man, but I can say this: there are many aspects that promote insecurity when you grow up as a man.
Maybe I was unlucky, but I think societal norms, more than biology, made and make woman-man, girl-boy relationships often quite tense. Tense in the sense of a nice challenge, but often also unpleasant and disturbing. There are pressures on men, often from “macho” men around you, to hit on women, find women, often combining this with a very annoying competitive atmosphere. “True love” hereby tends to become secondary. Macho men are often insecure men who brag about their success with women or girls to show they’re better than you.

Yet you feel the same sexual desires within yourself. At a certain age (boys somewhat later than girls, I understood) you inevitably get sexual feelings. As an heterosexual your interest in female bodies, rounder buttocks, breasts, legs, all that, increases.
Set against the “macho” norm – as many women as possible – you’ll find that, well, most of these girls/women who amaze you do not want to be too intimate with you. Some of the more “distant” don’t want to be looked at, or talk with you either. There is a frustration there. This is ideally fulfilled by other girls/women who do want to be intimate with you, compensating the others. Not all boys/men are that successful, however.
I’ve heard men, in later stages, characterizing going to prostitutes as a sort of “failure” or “defeat”. Similarly, turning to your own sex (if you’re not born homosexual) can be seen as a similar “defeat” caused by female rejection.

This type of insecurity stems from competitive, macho norms, as I mentioned, but this in turn stems from decades of patriarchy and male rule over women. For a long time the norm was basically: any woman or girl should be available to a man or boy as he pleases, and should not withhold sex. I’m afraid that this thinking is still deeply ingrained, also in the Western world. It’s partly biological, but mostly socially shaped. If you’re not successful with girls and women, and other men around you are, you feel hurt in your manhood, and feel somehow humiliated.

It is this type of insecurity that can lend itself well for expressions of homophobia.


Let’s return to Jamaica. Due to historical reasons “manhood” has a different, troubled meaning for black men in the Americas. Not just manhood but also womanhood were denied to slaves: their humanity was denied and they were treated as chattel. Socially they were as good as dead. Slave masters, mostly men, and overseers, also mostly men, abused and raped slave women more often than not. English-born Thomas Thistlewood, overseer and later plantation owner in western Jamaica, was a mass-rapist in that he had raped thousands of enslaved black women, i.e. on a regular basis, and other slave masters did not stay far behind. Enslaved men where stimulated to fertilize women, and sometimes slave-owners stimulated that enslaved men raped enslaved women. Procreation of slaves meant more enslaved labourers. Stable relationships or a “father role” for male slaves, meanwhile, were destimulated. Several “demasculinizations” thus took place.

After slavery the position of black people, including men, remained second-class: humanity and manhood kept being questioned.
The Western norm of a patriarchal man taking financially care of a wife and children was (and is) difficult to live up to when you don’t have the means to do so, and are too poor.
Long-denied humanity or manhood because of your race further adds insecurities to black men. These insecurities are historically understandable. It is not an excuse for everything, of course.
The last marker of manhood that remains is the biological one: having children with women, pleasing women sexually, as many women as possible, or having a large penis which (hopefully) all women desire, becomes a source of pride. However stupid this may sound: in a certain socio-psychological situation it makes sense.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on heterosexuality can take the form of homophobia. If you turn gay, you are marginalized all over again from desired norms of manhood.

In conclusion, to common insecurities of a maturing male as a sexual being, are added insecurities stemming from historical and social and racial inequalities.


By the way: many Jamaican reggae lyrics deal with sexual abuse and strongly attack pedophilia. ‘Child Abuse’ by the veteran roots harmony group Abyssinians is such a song. Jr X’s song ‘Pedophile’ another.

I can from the top of my head recall references in songs by Junior Kelly, Jah Mason, and Chuck Fender (the song ‘Gash Dem’), and others.

Also - many may not know this - Buju Banton’s Boom Bye Bye song originally referred to a man-boys rape case in Jamaica. I hope that most gays also agree with me (and with Buju Banton, most people in Jamaica, and in the world) that sex should be between “consenting adults”. Not with someone who is not ready for sex, does not want it, or does not even know what sex is.
That in Jamaica some pedophilia affairs were explained by some - both Rastas and Christians – as a wicked “batty man conspiracy” (to raise more gays, or to disturb the sexual, natural order etc.) may sound disturbing or unenlightened. On the other hand it also is, in light of the above, understandable.

Perhaps an unpleasant truth, but let’s just say that it is a complex issue…