4 min

Jamaica boycott call sparks war of words

Debating how to fight homophobia and on-going attacks on gays and lesbians

A Canadian call for a boycott of Jamaica and ongoing attempts to ban homophobic dancehall music have sparked a war of words in both countries.

Stop Murder Music Canada (SMMC) — a coalition that includes Egale Canada and the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto — is calling for a boycott of Jamaica if the country’s government doesn’t take action on homophobic violence by Mon, May 12.

Akim Larcher, the founder of SMMC, says the boycott is a reaction to the Jamaican government’s refusal to take steps to curb on-going attacks on gays and lesbians.

“When we look at the history of what’s been happening in Jamaica there has been a history of non-responsiveness from the government for some years,” he says. “Part of our responsibility as Canadians is to call into question where we spend our dollars.”

Larcher says SMMC has also been accused of censorship for trying to stop sales and performances by dancehall musicians whose songs contain violently homophobic lyrics.

“We’ve gotten a lot of backlash from people thinking we’ve gone above and beyond, into censorship,” he says. “But in fact we’re looking at hate lyrics and violent homophobia that violate Canada’s hate speech laws.”

Those in Canada’s reggae community are split on the issue. Cezar Brumeanu, who runs the Montreal International Reggae Festival and that city’s House of Reggae nightclub, writes in an email that boycotts are the wrong approach.

“I think it’s stupid to boycott an entire country over an internal issue that should be dealt with internally by the Jamaican people and their government,” he states. “Only Americans do things like that in other countries and look at the extremely bad reputation that they have because of it. Canada should open dialogue on both sides to discuss the issue, if anything, instead of imposing bans and restrictions based on limited knowledge of this particular issue.

“As for the festival and the House of Reggae we are here to promote reggae music to all patrons that enjoy it, period. We are not in support of any kind of religious, social, ethnic or political movements, only the reggae music movement.”

But Christian Lacoste, the openly gay Montreal reggae fan who runs the website Murder Inna Dancehall, supports both the boycott and the attacks on the artists.

“A tourist boycott, if it’s well orchestrated, could greatly affect the Jamaican economy and the government would have no choice but to revise these laws that attack the freedom of a significant percentage of the Jamaican population,” he states in an email. “I personally will join the boycott. It will be difficult for me as my house is filled with reggae. I will simply concentrate on reggae that comes from other countries, and there is tons of it. And frankly speaking, these days, the best reggae is not coming from Jamaica.”

Lacoste also supports the call for a ban on homophobic dancehall artists.

“I hope that the Canadian government will not allow a visa to any singers that advocate killing of gays and lesbians in their songs or onstage, unless these artists have clearly stated that they will not perform these songs anymore (including in the Caribbean) and will not use their stage performance to promote discrimination,” he writes.

But Michael Griffiths — who sits on the board of Casey House — opposes the boycott. Griffiths is of Jamaican heritage, lived there from ages three to nine and visits regularly.

“This sort of collective punishment, I think it’s counterproductive,” he says. “You’re not going to stop homophobia with a boycott. You need education.”

Griffiths says targeting a country as poor as Jamaica is pointless.

“They think they can bring the country to its knees. The country’s already on its ankles.”

Griffiths also opposes calls to ban dancehall artists from performing or selling their music. He says the best way to oppose homophobia is to not spend money on those artists.

“I think they should be allowed to come,” he says. “The best way to vote is with your feet.”

Phillip Pike, the coordinator of Toronto Friends of Jamaica AIDS Support and the director of Songs of Freedom, a documentary about Jamaican queers, supports a boycott, but reluctantly.

“I’m of two minds,” he says. “If the boycott is successful it has the potential to help exacerbate the situation. Someone is laid off at a hotel in Montego Bay. They’re back on the unemployment line and it’s easy to scapegoat gays.

“But what will it take for leaders there to realize it’s not okay for gays and lesbians to be killed? There’s always the question of who it will hurt but I guess at the end of the day I would support it.”

Pike is more certain about supporting bans on dancehall music.

“It’s illegal and immoral and reprehensible,” he says. “The criminal code says it’s illegal to promote hatred or violence against a particular group. It’s not clear to me why we’re even having this discussion.”

For Agostinho Pinnock, a graduate student at the University of West Indies in Jamaica, says discussion, rather than boycott, is paramount.

Pinnock is also a public relations officer with the Jamaican government but stresses that he does not speak on the government’s behalf. He has written a number of academic articles about dancehall and gender and sexual orientation, and says a boycott — of the country or of artists — will not help.

“How does a boycott aid in such a situation?” he asks in an email. “Indeed how does putting financial pressure on artists, many of who come from deprived conditions, help in this context? How it is played in Jamaica is as more reason to execute the heterosexist hysteria against homosexuals. The more pressure placed on dancehall, economically, the more pressure placed on hapless young men without the appropriate means by which to defend themselves against the often vitriolic attacks of antihomosexual violence reported by groups like Amnesty International and others.”

Pinnock states that what Jamaica needs is education.

“The simple truth is that homosexuality as it has been represented in public discourses here offend most peoples’ sensibilities,” he writes. “We must, therefore, address this sensitive issue through other means and with significantly more compassion than suggested by the actions of developed societies from the north with their ability to enforce economic pressures on struggling artists/societies like Jamaica.”