Dancehall, Gay Lobby Pact

Reggae labels pledge sensitivity, activists call off protests

A group of promoters and labels representing ninety percent of the reggae industry came to an agreement in London on Friday to prohibit the violently anti-gay lyrics that characterize some dancehall artists' records and live performances.

As a result of months of talks with the Stop Murder Music coalition, promoters Jammins and Apollo Entertainment, New York-based VP Records, London-based Greensleeves and worldwide U.K. reggae distributor Jet Star have agreed to reconsider any future material that "incite[s] violence against lesbians and gay men." (VP and Greensleeves have released records by Elephant Man, Vybz and Sizzla.) In turn, the SMM coalition -- spearheaded by U.K.-based rights organizations OutRage! and the Black Gay Men's Advisory Group -- agreed to "suspend" its campaign, ceasing protests of dancehall artists that have led to the cancellation of dozens of shows in Europe and North America over the past six months.

Beenie Man, one of the genre's biggest crossover artists and a 2001 Grammy-winner for his album Art and Life, has been a particular target. Upon launching his international tour in support of his latest record, Back to Basics, last summer the Virgin Records artist was met with a string of protests and cancellations in England, Germany, Canada and the U.S., including a Miami show in conjunction with the MTV Video Music Awards.

OutRage! estimates that the cancellation of tour dates for a number of dancehall artists, including Elephant Man and Buju Banton, resulted in a total loss of more than $7 million for the performers, promoters and venues, with Beenie Man alone taking a hit of approximately $500,000. In addition, some of Jamaica's biggest reggae sponsors announced that they were considering withdrawing their support.

"While my lyrics are very personal, I do not write them with the intent of purposefully hurting or maligning others," Beenie Man said in a statement in early August following the cancellation of several U.K. dates. "I offer my sincerest apologies to those who might have been offended, threatened or hurt by my songs. As a human being, I renounce violence towards other human beings in every way, and pledge henceforth to uphold these values as I move forward in my career." Local activists, however, pointed out that the apology was vague and did not guarantee the removal of anti-gay songs from the artist's repertoire.

Beenie Man's hits include 2003's "Han Up Deh," in which he sings, "Hang chi-chi gal wid a long piece a rope"; and 2004's "Weh Yuh No Fi Do," which includes the lyric, "batty man fi dead." In Elephant Man's 2001 track "Log On," he sings, "Log on, and step pon chi-chi man." ("Chi-chi" men or women and "batty boys" are derogatory slang terms for gays.)

Such previously released material, however, is not on the table, with discussions limited to future releases and performances. Artists are also not expected to issue any formal apologies for their back catalogs.

"As an industry, our view is that we need to move beyond this," says VP president Randy Chin of dancehall's anti-gay content, which he believes is a "very small" part of the reggae scene. "The last few months, there's been a tremendous amount of debate. And in my view, one of the biggest breakthroughs was to have direct contact with the gay lobby and to talk to them -- because we used to talk past them. We're trying to develop a way of talking to each other if this issue does arise in the future."

"We welcome this framework agreement," Brett Lock of OutRage! said in a statement last week. "Providing the singers do not in the future encourage violent attacks on gay people, the campaign will remain suspended. We hope the singers will respect our show of good faith and will choose to make music with a positive message, rather than promoting prejudice."

As for how to broach the subject with artists, however, Chin admits the process will be "very sensitive." "On the artist side, this is an ongoing thing," he says. "But now this is at the fore, and the community is much more aware. We'd have to just sit down with the artists and say, 'Hey, these are some of the issues we are confronted with.'"

But Colin Robinson of New York's Black Gay Network, which participated in a September protest of a major dancehall event sponsored by New York radio station Hot-97, emphasized that changing the standards of the music industry does only so much to change the quality of life of gay people in the Caribbean. "The goal is not only to make it impossible for people to profit from music with hate lyrics," he says, "but to make sure our solution will have some longer-term impact on the lives of lesbian, bisexual and gay folks in Jamaica."