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.