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3 min

Following Elephant Man’s trail

A beach boy visits Caribana's Celebrity Ball

Jamaican dancehall musician Elephant Man, notorious for his homophobic song lyrics, last made Toronto headlines in 2007 when Kool Haus cancelled an appearance because outrage erupted from some in the city’s gay communities.

Some of his lyrics include such lines as, “Battyman fi dead! Tek dem by surprise,” (Gay men must be killed! Take them by surprise) and, “When yuh hear a sodomite get raped/but a fi wi fault/it’s wrong/two women gonna hock up inna bed/that’s two sodomites dat fi dead,” (When you hear a lesbian getting raped/It’s not our fault…. Two women in bed/That’s two sodomites who should be dead.)

On Jul 28 of this year Circa nightclub announced that Elephant Man would be performing there on Aug 2 during Caribana. Some gay people reacted quickly, calling for Circa to pull the plug. Elephant Man didn’t appear at Circa on Aug 2 but Xtra writer Greg Beneteau did. This is his report.

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It’s about 10pm and already the lineup for the Celebrity Ball stretches down the street and around the corner. Passersby are forced to walk out on the roadway to get by the crowd.

I’m not a fan of dancehall music but I’m nevertheless interested to see who will be performing tonight. Following an outcry from some in Toronto’s gay community, Circa announced that it would drop Jamaican dancehall musician Elephant Man from the concert’s roster. Elephant Man is notorious in some circles for homophobic lyrics that glorify the murder of gay and lesbian people.

Prior to the event Xtra confirmed Elephant Man’s cancellation with Circa but was told by the independent event promoters and Elephant Man’s management firm that the musician would be performing as planned. In the crowd tonight the rumour persists that Elephant Man, known also as the Energy God, will show up. It’s a rumour some in the crowd desperately hope is true.

“He’s so great to watch in person, never stops. You’d be on your feet the whole time,” says my friend Moriam, who is accompanying me on the trip. Perhaps chaperoning is a better word. I’m dressed in my beach clothes from earlier in the day: An Old Navy T-shirt and flower-print swim trunks. I feel like one of the Beach Boys crashing a Mos Def concert.

There’s no doubt Elephant Man, born O’Neil Bryan, is a popular figure here. Several people in line are wearing T-shirts sporting his unmistakable likeness: red, orange and yellow cornrows; silver chains and iced-out wrists. I see a hoodie with “Nuh lingah” written on the front, a reference to the single from Elephant Man’s Grammy-nominated album Let’s Get Physical.

There is also a clear sense of disappointment about Elé’s absence from the show, which includes performances by US rapper Fabolous and singer Trey Songz. What’s less certain is how people feel about the circumstances surrounding his absence from Circa.

Despite my obvious status as an outsider, people are friendly and open to talking with me, at least until I bring up dancehall’s reputation for homophobia.

“I’m just here to have a good time. I’m not talking about hurting nobody,” says Bobby Jones, a tourist from New York who paid $60 for a chance to see Elephant Man on stage. “[The promoters] said he was coming and nobody cared. Then some people complain that he’s offensive and he can’t come.”

I mention to Bobby that I would find Elephant Man’s call to arms against gay people offensive, being gay myself.

“I’m cool with that, I don’t mind,” he replies. “But consider that nobody’s forcing you to be here.”

Bobby has a point: The odds that this group will be whipped into an antigay frenzy by song lyrics are zero. His dismissive attitude about dancehall’s demons is echoed to varying degrees by many in attendance. Some, like Moriam, suggest I’m focusing on a few bad apples in an otherwise empowering musical genre.

“Lots of dancehall music deals with real problems that people have, like poverty and violence,” she says. Some of these people, “paid, like, a thousand bucks to be sitting next to the stage. That’s how big it is.”