Jamaican Anti-Gay 'Murder Music' Heard by Millions in the US
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Jamaican dancehall star Buju Banton was considered a musical prodigy in 1988 when, at age 15, he recorded what remains one of his best-known tracks, “Boom Bye Bye.” Even in the difficult-to-decipher Jamaican slang known as patois, its chorus evokes violence and dread: Boom bye bye / inna batty bwoy head / Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man / dem haffi dead. (“Boom [the sound of a gunshot], bye-bye, in a faggot’s head / the tough young guys don’t accept fags; they have to die.”)
For those whose familiarity with Jamaican music begins and ends with Bob Marley, “murder music” — and its stubborn worldwide popularity — will come as a serious shock.
Gay and lesbian activists in Jamaica and throughout the Western world have spent years trying to slow the spread of murder music. The going is tough: Banton, a four-time Grammy nominee who has collaborated with renowned Haitian singer Wyclef Jean and the punk band Rancid, is but first among equals in a genre deeply rooted in Jamaican culture, whose stars include celebrated musicians like Beenie Man, Capleton and Sizzla Kalonji. The top-rated of 86 YouTube videos of Banton performing “Boom Bye Bye” has been viewed an astounding 3,217,409 times since it was posted in 2007.
The Stop Murder Music campaign is an international movement with activists on nearly every continent who urge sponsors to pull funding from offending artists, pressure venues not to book them, and organize boycotts and protests when they perform. Supporters of the musicians “say we’re attacking these artists because they’re homophobic,” said British human rights activist Peter Tatchell, international coordinator of Stop Murder Music. “That’s not true. We’re attacking them because they’re inciting the criminal offenses of violence and murder.”
Something surely is. According to the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), Jamaica’s only organization promoting LGBT rights, mobs assaulted at least 98 gay men and lesbians between February and July 2007 alone. Last year, J-FLAG recorded six cases of “corrective rape,” in which men forced themselves on women thought to be lesbians. More recently, in just the month of September, two women were subjected to corrective rape, J-FLAG said. The first was gang-raped by a group of four men; the second was held at knifepoint and raped after being forced to perform oral sex on her attacker.
The source of another oft-repeated statistic, that at least 35 Jamaicans have been killed since 1997 solely for being gay, is unknown; it is commonly but wrongly attributed to Amnesty International. In any case, powerful taboos against gays in Jamaica make compiling accurate statistics on anti-gay hate crimes difficult because victims and their families are afraid to come forward.
Roots, Rock, Hate
Murder music may be a trigger for anti-gay violence, but Jamaica’s cultural homophobia has deep historical roots. The island’s fundamentalist brand of Christianity and its indigenous Rastafarian religion both condemn homosexuality in the strongest terms. Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Sizzla, Capleton and others in the murder-music pantheon espouse Rastafarian beliefs.
Making matters worse, anti-sodomy laws criminalizing sex between men remain on the books in Jamaica and other former British colonies in the Caribbean. As a result, gay men are essentially viewed as criminals, making it nearly impossible for them to bring complaints about violence to the police. Though consensual sex between two women is not illegal, murder music nevertheless includes lesbians in its wrath.
Even politicians at times have conferred legitimacy on murder music. Dancehall group TOK’s track “Chi Chi Man,” about killing and burning gay men, was the Jamaican Labour Party’s 2001 theme song. Its lyrics: From dem a par inna chi chi man car / Blaze di fire mek we bun dem! From dem a drink inna chi chi man bar / Blaze di fire mek we dun dem! (“Those who gather in a fag’s car / Blaze the fire, let’s burn them! Those who drink in a fag bar / Blaze the fire, let’s kill them!”) The melody of the chorus, ironically, evokes the Christian hymn, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The most viewed of 99 “Chi Chi Man” YouTube videos had been seen 869,084 times as of mid-September.