5 min

Koolhaus cancels concerts amid queer outrage

Silencing Jamaican musicians fuels censorship debate

Protests by a coalition of queer, black and human rights groups have succeeded in preventing two Jamaican musicians from performing in several venues on a tour of Ontario and Quebec.

The Stop Murder Music coalition says dancehall musicians Elephant Man and Sizzla have advocated the murder of gay men in their songs and have indirectly contributed to the murder and rape of queers in Jamaica.

But critics and the musicians’ promoters say the protests, while well-meaning, are misguided, counterproductive and perpetuate racist stereotypes of Jamaicans.

Stop Murder Music (SMM) tried to persuade Diane Finley, the federal minister of immigration to follow the example of the United Kingdom and refuse entry to the artists on the grounds that their lyrics violate criminal and human rights law by advocating violence against queers. Despite repeated attempts, Finley’s office did not respond at all, but venues in St Catharines, Toronto and Ottawa cancelled shows by the musicians after pressure from SMM.

“Our primary objective is to support gays and lesbians in Jamaica,” says Akim Larcher, a spokesperson for SMM. “If it means hurting them in the pocket, that’s a means to do that. We cannot reward an artist, who is preaching hatred and violence, with financial success. If we look at it in an international context, for them to perform these songs is illegal in most countries.”

Larcher says SMM also plans to lobby the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to ban Canadian sales and broadcast of the music.

SMM press material quotes Sizzla’s 2001 track “Get to da Point” in which he sings, “Sodomite and batty bwai me seh a death fi dem” (“Sodomite and queers, I say death to them”) and “Mi a go shot batty bwai dem widdi weapon ya” (“I go and shoot queers with a weapon”). In “Pump Up” from the same year Sizzla sings “Fire fi di man dem weh go ride ride man behind” (“Burn the men who have sex with men from behind”). In the 1999 song “We Nuh Like Gay” Elephant Man sings “Battyman fi dead. Tek dem by surprise” (“Queers must be killed. Take them by surprise.”)

Both artists previously agreed not to perform songs with homophobic lyrics in their Canadian concerts and to publicly sign so-called “Reggae Compassion Contracts,” promising they would no longer perform or write such songs and apologizing for the homophobia in prior songs.

Elephant Man told the Montreal Gazette, “Those songs are from 10 years ago. I’m on a different road now, making people enjoy themselves and just dance.”

But Larcher says the contracts have proven to be pointless. He says artists have signed them and promptly reneged when their tour is over. He says that the effect of their lyrics is felt mostly in Jamaica and that the artists need to make public apologies there.

“What we’re looking for is that they actually denounce violence against gays and lesbians in a public forum in Jamaica,” he says.

Jamaica has a history of deadly violence against queers. Sodomy is illegal and according to Amnesty International and gay human rights groups attacks on queers are widespread. The Jamaica Forum For Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays reports that 98 queers have been attacked this year in 43 mob attacks and that at least 10 queers were murdered in 2005-’06.

Some venues have been swayed by SMM’s arguments. According to a statement issued by Koolhaus, a concert hall in Toronto that cancelled the Elephant Man show and insisted Sizzla pull out of a multi-artist show, they weren’t aware of the homophobic songs.

“Had I been aware of the nature of the lyrics, I would not have allowed the booking,” says CEO Charles Khabouth. “Unfortunately, I was only made aware after the fact. It is impossible for a venue that hosts hundreds of shows a year to be aware of all violent and discriminatory lyrics performed by artists.

“Due to a contractual agreement that was signed before the matter was brought to my attention it was difficult to pull the show but I was persistent and wanted to make it clear I was not comfortable with this show at the Koolhaus and I in no way support the musician or his lyrics.”

Shelley Melanson, president of the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) which booked Elephant Man for an Ottawa performance, says CUSA accepts SMM’s assertions.

“We were going to have him publicly state that he was reforming his views and that he was prepared not to play this music and to write music that didn’t have homophobic lyrics but Stop Murder Music told us that unless the protocol was going to be signed in Jamaica the Reggae Compassion Act was not valid.”

Still, Melanson says she thinks the cancellation is a missed opportunity.

“We think it would have been a real chance to turn a negative into a positive,” she says.

Oren Howlett, a gay, black Carleton PhD student of Jamaican heritage studying the intersections of race and sexuality, says the cancellations may even be counterproductive. He says it will make it harder for gays to inform people of the issues and to reach out to the Jamaican community in Canada.

“People were actually going to mobilize and hand out information about these musicians and murder music, take action and bring about a dialogue,” he says. “We need to be looking at that idea of coalitional politics between minority groups. When stuff like this happens it makes it all the harder to open up communications between these two groups.”

Howlett also says that, while he recognizes the realities of anti-gay violence in Jamaica, SMM’s approach demonizes all Jamaicans.

“The statistics are very real,” he says. “I’m not denying it, I’m not that naive. But not every queer in Jamaica is going to be killed. It’s a little too extreme, casting these generalizations about a place, these characterizations of Jamaica as backward and, by extension, Jamaicans in Canada. The black body is always read as deviant, uncivilized. I think this discourse is what comes out in this argument. It’s saying Canada is good and this music that comes from backward countries must be stopped.”

Howlett says that had everyone just let the shows go ahead without comment, nothing would have happened.

“No one would have been the wiser,” he says. “Everyone would have just been fine. Censorship is not the way to solve these issues.”

Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, a queer lobby group and a member of the SMM coalition, says the issue is not about censorship, it’s about violating the law.

“When you call publicly on stage for the killing and burning of queers you have gone too far,” she says.

The group promoting Sizzla’s tour says cancelling the shows will not hurt the artists, only the Canadians putting on the shows.

“This isn’t going to hurt Sizzla or Elephant Man,” says Paul Riley, the business affairs director for Lyric Music Group. “They don’t need Toronto but for my clients this is a devastating blow financially. The guys who are being hurt by this are young Canadian businessmen. Let’s be clear: No one on this team of promoters condones or endorses homophobic lyrics or actions or, frankly, thought.

“I don’t know how it helps to ban artists from coming to Canada for lyrics they wrote 10 years ago.”

The president of Toronto’s Jamaican Canadian Association did not return Xtra’s calls.