Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Inefficacy of American-led Boycotts Against Jamaican Homophobia

I have always been ambivalent about the renewed call for a boycott of Jamaica by North American gay-rights activists. Though I believe that inaction should never be an option, I am mindful of the complexity of the situation at hand, and know fully well that a boycott of Jamaican products and tourism will not be sufficient to make the social environment more tolerant of minority sexualities and genders. The question one must then ask is this, whose interests are being served by calls to boycott Jamaica? The evidence on hand suggests that gay and lesbian Jamaicans who lead lives shrouded in fear and shame are not always a primary concern. 

Over the last decade, different organizations have sustained an assault on Jamaican musicians, who sing lyrics they deem objectionable. Much of Dancehall music is indeed homophobic, as much as it is sexist, misogynistic, and murderous. But, it is important to acknowledge the cultural context which gives rise to such an abhorrent reality, and holistically consider feasible strategies to induce progressive change. I have noticed that some of the translations of music from Jamaican Creole to English muddle the meaning of words and phrases, by using literal and superficial interpretations.

In their Dancehall Dossier published a few years ago, Outrage! deliberately attempted to portray Dancehall music as hate speech, supported by poor translations and misleading texts. For example, the first line offered as unequivocal proof that one Jamaican artiste, Beenie Man, spouts hate speech, is from his song, An Op De (Throw Your Hands in the Air). The line in the promotional document reads:
“Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope.”

One would imagine that the song’s primary intent is a directive to kill lesbians by hanging, but further consideration of the lyrics in their entirely yields a different truth. In my analysis, two lines in the chorus stand out as being particularly homophobic:

“Ef yu bon batiman mek mi si di an a go op”
“Ang chichi gyal wid a lang piis a ruop”

Someone without an understanding of Jamaica’s sociolinguistic culture would translate these two lines in English as follows:

“If you burn homosexuals let me see your hands going up”
“Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope”

In the literal English that is reminiscent of the misinformed translations in the dossier, the chorus continues:

“Burn hypocrites, let me see the hands going up”
“Hang witch doctors with a long piece of rope”

Jamaican is a language coloured with many violent metaphors, perhaps a reflection of the high levels of physical violence and aggression that are permissible in the society. In the song, the same murderous regard is offered for ‘hypocrites,’ or ‘haters’ as they are better known in America, and for witch doctors, who in Jamaica are thought to possess the ability to thwart your potential for success, if someone commissions them to do so. The assumption would be that Jamaicans dislike witch doctors to the extent that they do lesbians, and are advocating for them to be hanged en masse, but this is not the reality. Obeah men are feared, even revered, and their services are much sought after. “Burn” and “Hang” are not meant literally; they are not proclamations of war against the groups named, but denunciations of those groups whose actions are an affront to personal growth, and heterosexual hegemony- both important aspects of the Jamaican psyche.

The advocacy group singles out and reduces the content of An Op De to one objectionable line from the song, then characterized the artiste and his music, as homophobic. Clearly, there is an unaknowledged complexity to the imperative to denounce homosexuality in Jamaican popular culture. There is no equivalent world for homosexuality in Jamaican Creole, so it is possible that the artiste is denouncing homosexuality, and not homosexuals as a group of individuals. A more culturally sensitive, translation of the first line of the chorus could read:

“If you disapprove of homosexual lifestyles, let me see your hands going up.

This clearly reads very differently than "burn homosexuals." Fi bon out sitn (to "burn" something or someone) is a spoken show of disapproval, or distaste. So Jamaicans "bon out" witnesses to crimes who testify in court (infaama); oral sex practitioners (pusi soka); and the covetous among us, who do not like seeing others prosper (ipokrit).

The belief in a homosexuality-free global African cultural traditions is very prominent in Jamaica. Thus homosexuality is viewed as a foreign-derived corruption. Homosexuality is widely regarded as morally reprehensible, and few would deny the religious nature of Jamaican society, and the pertinence of such beliefs. The activists are decrying the wanton proclamation of violence against homosexuals, but it is perceived that they are forcing immorality upon the nation, or otherwise, an enlightened ideology, which again is evocative of centuries old European imperialism.

We need to act decisively, and with exigency, but not with ignorance of Jamaican culture, and misguided, singular approaches to dealing with its unique manifestation of homophobia. American gay rights activists have a very important role to play in the offensive against entrenched conservative values, but their efforts will only be fruitful if it is coupled with advocacy efforts within Jamaica. Homosexual, like Hispanic or Italian, is an identity marker in America, but in Jamaica, it is regarded as a lifestyle choice, a behaviour, akin to smoking, or exercising. We need to mobilize support in Jamaica to educate people about what it means to gay or lesbian. It is not enough to tell god-fearing Jamaicans that their opinion of homosexuality is bigoted and wrong, because then, we become bigoted ourselves.

No one culture has the authority to dictate morality. We seek to educate, not intimidate, as that could result in an epic backlash of violent proportions. Jamaicans will surely defend the legitimacy of their cultural mores, however retrograde we perceive them to be. This is their sovereign right.
We know what needs to be done. Let us do it well.


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog post. But I have to object a little bit. Firstly I understand that you are showing that most lyrics by artists in Jamaica are not guided towards homophobia but moral disapproval. However the thing you have to look at is how the people who speak the language interpret the lyrics. You can tell that most Jamaicans interpret these lyrics more so to a homophobic view than a moral one.

    Your understanding of its lyrics have some merit but its your opinion of the context in how the words are used. I interpret it as being homophobic, while most people in Jamaica and other parts of the world will interpret it as a call-to-action to eradicate everyone who doesn't confirm to the dogma that their religion/family/soceity have defined. Sometimes, when these artists' shows are stopped, these same people will radically change their interpretatoin, that the artist didn't mean it in that way. However, when they see a guy who "behaves" gay by their definitoin, they want to kill them, or they will say, "chichi boy fi dead" and then try to do physical harm to the person.

    I think we have to ask the artist what exacting he/she wanted to convey to the audience. In a way we may never be able to get a correct answer from them.

  2. Okay. What you are objecting to is the suggestion that some Dancehall lyrics aren't to be viewed as homophobic- for reasons to do with culture, language and history.

    That is not my argument.

    This piece is a critique of what I perceive to be the misguided approach of international groups whose understanding of homosexuality, and homophobia is very different from that of people in Jamaica.

    I believe that the music IS homophobic. And I also believe that Jamaicans needs to change. But, I do not possess the moral authority to dictate values to an entire society. What is homophobic (as in hatred) to you is a moral imperative for Jamaicans. Your seeking protections for gays is seen as the same as protecting pedophiles or rapists. It is this dissonance of perspectives that we need to acknowledge, and settle, before we can proceed with traditional means of gaining respect, protections and rights.

    Of course the Dj's mean it when they say "kil a batibwai!" And of course this is frightening! If you profess love for men in a public space, yes you will be beaten by an angry mob. I never suggested that the lyrics weren't objectionable. What I did suggest is that foreigners often misinterpret, or take literally, words and phrases in Jamaican Creole that are meaningless if not considered in the context of Jamaican popular culture. I'm not saying I respect how women or gays are regarded- I'm just recognizing the obvious that we have cultural norms that are counter to what is termed progressive.

    International organizations will play a big role in collaboration with local organizations, in sensitizing and changing the hearts of Jamaicans. I'm glad they are doing the work they do. All I want is for the work to be done with greater sensitivity to the cultural context. Jamaica may now be where America was in 1950, but they are very different countries, and the solutions that worked in America may not be the ones that work in Jamaica. It took over 30 years of activism to get to where America is today. We might want to approach Jamaican homophobia with a similar trajectory in mind.

  3. Hi FP,

    very glad to have found your blog...and this excellent post. I agree with your points and am grateful for this far more nuanced reading of the lyrics. The problem w the international gay rights groups is that they are operating with a blinding sense of self-righteousness and completely unwilling to take into account local culture. its a one size fits all outlook that is regrettable. again much can be learned from the way in which women's rights groups had to accommodate different cultural and ethnic differences to reach women around the world. they couldn't simply apply the white feminist perspective universally...

    but this post is a very valuable addition to the battle for equal rights for all.

  4. Bwoy, a wan serious an tawtful post dis.

    More to the point, I'd say you're right to see the "bu'n" and "fiya fi" calls as moral disapproval for homosexuality rather than immediate demands to murder homosexuals and lesbians. There's little doubt, though, that they help maintain an atmosphere of homophobia.

    Certainly the gay pride movement in the West is often unaware of the nuances of Jamaican society, where lightly closeted gay people can sometimes survive for years, and sometimes be brutally murdered after years of living with what appeared to be immunity from persecution (I'm thinking of Peter King).

  5. this is great - keep it up PLEASE!!!!! Have you read Haritaworn's "Gay Imperialism?" it's right inline with a lot of what you and Annie Paul are teasing out of this situation

  6. @ Annie: It's great to hear from you. I am a very big fan of your work. Yes indeed, the one size fits all approach will not work. Now we need to find a way to communicate our 'insight' to the gay-rights groups that are dominating, and largely framing, the discourse on homophobia in Jamaica.

    @ FSJL: Glad you stopped by. Certainly, the ubiquity of anti-gay (pro-heterosexual) speech in the Dancehall serves to reinforce the atmosphere of homophobia. But, the music perpetuates an already existing worldview that it rooted in other insititutions, which will have to be dismantled/ reformed if the noble goals of gay-rights groups are to be achieved.

    I don't think any gay person in Jamaica has an immunity from persecution. The fact of being forced into silence and non-existence is in itself a form of persecution, as pernicious physical violence. But yes, gay-rights groups do often exaggerate the reality, and fail to devise strategies to capitalize on the little, but by no means negligible advances that Jamaica has made in regard to homophobia. Media groups everywhere love sensationalism, and violent manifestations of Jamaican homophobia apparently make for a good story.

    Interestingly though, people seem to be putting a spin on the murder of every prominent gay person- it must be their lovers who killed them in a jealous rage, as homosexuals are so inclined. The drama never ends.

    @ Rizzla: I will most certainly continue writing. It's the only way I have to stay sane. Haritaworn's work is apparently very controversial. I tried sourcing a copy of the book that it is in, but there are very few copies out in the US. I'll keep looking, though. Thanks a million.

  7. Fiyu,
    I feel like am repeating myself but it's okay. People do not know that it's not good to go around burning, hanging and throwing people from cliffs when they have done nothing to them.
    It doesn't matter what you meant but you said it and that's what you meant, homophobic lyrics should not be tolerated, when the holy patriarch believed that other people who are different from them and do not follow how they live were deemed outcasts and they were banished in whatever way in dimensions of origin, religion and color I bet the victims would still say "lynch 'em" let's say the victim being the perpetrator and victimizing another person, they would scream "No way in hell" to the patriarch right now.

  8. Hey Haute Haiku,
    people have a way of turning their backs on issues that do not directly affect them- human nature, I guess. What a day when it is politically incorrect to speak of killing someone, because everyone believes in the inherent value of human lives. It'll take us a while to get there, but we must never give up working towards the ideal. Thanks for your thoughts.

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