Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-JAMAICA: Spat Escalates Over Anti-Gay Lyrics

Zadie Neufville

KINGSTON, May 9 2008 (IPS) - Under pressure from gay rights groups and a sponsorship boycott of live dancehall shows by local beer giant Red Stripe, some Jamaican dancehall stars are offering free performances to events at which no Red Stripe products are sold or consumed.

Last month, title sponsor Red Stripe pulled its financing from the major live shows Sting and Sumfest, which it has sponsored for six and seven years respectively, in what it says is a response to the continued use of violent and anti-social lyrics during performances. The boycott stopped short of a total withdrawal of Red Stripe products from the events.

“We have noticed that there is a negative trend that has been creeping into some of the music…This is very damaging to our culture, the music and to our country as a whole,” corporate relations director Maxine Whittingham told reporters.

Now some performers are portraying Red Stripe’s action as an attack on dancehall reggae, dubbed “murder music” by gay rights activists for its explicit references to killing homosexuals. O’Neil Bryan, popularly known as Elephant Man, accuses Red Stripe of having a “hidden agenda”.

The British food and drink Company Diageo owns Red Stripe, which it bought about 10 years ago from Jamaica’s Desnoes and Geddes. Some here claim that the company has succumbed to lobbying pressure from gay rights campaigners outside Jamaica.

In a press statement, Red Stripe noted: “While our most recent efforts through the Coalition of Corporate Sponsors have met with some measure of success, some performers continue to propagate, through their live performances, violent and anti-social lyrics.”

According to Whittingham, the withdrawal came after attempts to “raise the standard of the music” through the Coalition of Corporate Sponsors failed.

On Oct. 1, 2004, a coalition of sponsors, including Red Stripe and the Jamaican subsidiaries of Cable and Wireless, Courts, Digicel, Pepsi Cola, and local rum maker Wray and Nephew Limited, declared their intention to cut ties with artists who ”promote violence of any form” from their advertising campaigns. A week later, Sandals Resort International dropped the word ”heterosexual” from its advertising.

Red Stripe’s newest statement comes on the heels of an ultimatum issued to the Jamaican government by Canadian human rights group Egale Canada in early April. The group has given the Bruce Golding-led administration until May 17 to announce plans to repeal the country’s anti-homosexual legislation. If its demands are not met, Egale Canada says it will launch a campaign to ban Jamaican goods in the international marketplace as well as a boycott of tourism.

Egale Canada describes itself as a national organisation advancing equality and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified people across Canada. The organisation has successfully lobbied for the removal of some popular reggae songs from iTunes North American store.

A 2007 Amnesty International report condemned homophobic violence in Jamaica and called for the government to do more to prosecute those who incite and carry out attacks against perceived homosexuals.

However, not all gay rights groups are agreed on the strategy that should be used. The Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (JFLAG) has rejected Egale Canada’s ultimatum and says it does not support a boycott – although it has criticised the new prime minister for refusing to take up the issue of anti-gay violence.

JFLAG estimates there were 30 homophobic murders in Jamaica between 1997 and 2004.

Still, Prime Minister Golding says he has “seen nothing yet to convince” him to repeal the so-called “buggery laws”, noting: “There is a road down which I’m not going to allow this country to go under my leadership.”

Anti-gay sentiment is rife on the island. Most Jamaicans appear to support the prime minister’s stance and many believe the dance hall artists, or DJs as they are locally called, are simply expressing their opinions of a particular lifestyle.

In the past few weeks, several well-known artists, including David Brooks who performs under the moniker Movado, and dub poet Mutabaruka (formerly Allan Hope), have voiced their opposition to Red Stripe’s decision during performances and interviews. Now, they say, they taking their displeasure to another level.

Anthony Moses Davis, also known as Beenie Man, and Bryan are among those artists whom media reports say have begun lining up to give free performances in support the effort.

Davis, who originally planned to perform free at the upcoming Reggae Sumfest, says he will now host a free dancehall show himself. “Jamaicans should stand firm together and let them (Red Stripe) know we don’t like what they are doing,” he said.

His stance has been echoed by Bryan and Desmond Ballentine, who performs as Ninja Man. An outspoken dancehall artist, Ballentine gained popularity as a “don gorgon” (a local term used to describe known murderers who inspire fear in their communities), and says he is not worried by Red Stripe’s lack of support. In fact, he believes that artists and promoters should wean themselves of sponsors in favour of their own shows without the “rules and constraints the sponsors come with”.

What is important, Ballentine says, is that Red Stripe “sort out whatever problem they have with the fraternity”, noting that that the relationship between the artists and Red Stripe has been a mutually beneficial one.

If, as timing suggests, Red Stripe’s boycott is the result of pressure from the gay community, then Jamaica must be prepared for long and bumpy ride, particularly since Prime Minister Golding’s opposition to same-sex marriages has been unwavering.

“As far as this prime minister is concerned, marriage means a union sanctified and endorsed by law between a man and a woman. And I don’t want to speak with any ambiguity about where this yah (sic) prime minister rest,” he said in response to Egale Canada’s ultimatum.

As it had in 2004, when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation announced its intention to promote an international boycott of Jamaica’s tourism industry, the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) says it is concerned about the threats.

JHTA’s head Wayne Cummings believes that groups such as Egale Canada may have influence, particularly in socially tolerant countries such as Canada.

But while Red Stripe’s participation will be missed, organisers are mindful that the artists are an integral part of the shows’ success despite the controversy surrounding them. As for “the great Jamaican beer”, they haven’t closed the door on sponsorship.

“It is our hope that our action will cause the proponents of this destructive trend in local music to stop and take stock of the negative impact of their actions on the society and seek to make a change,” Whittingham said. At that time, she says, Red Stripe will be willing to reconsider.

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