5 min

Murder music and boycotts

Is attacking musicians or boycotting the country the best way to stop homophobic violence in Jamaica

Credit: (Ajay Bikram Thapa illustration)

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 trying to prevent the sales and performances of Jamaican musicians whose songs contain violently homophobic lyrics — is now calling for a boycott of Jamaica if the country’s government doesn’t take action on homophobic violence by 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 ongoing 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.”

But the country’s queer rights group — the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, Allsexuals and Gays (JFLAG) — says a boycott will only make things worse.

“Because of the possible repercussions of increased homophobic violence against our already besieged community, we feel that a tourist boycott is not the most appropriate response at this time,” said the statement. “In our battle to win hearts and minds, we do not wish to be perceived as taking food off the plate of those who are already impoverished. In fact members of our own community could be disproportionately affected by a worsened economic situation brought about by a tourist ban.

“JFLAG believes that there are a number of avenues which can be explored to bring pressure on our government to respect, protect and ensure the human rights of LGBT people in Jamaica. We have called on the prime minister and influential leaders of industry to both renounce homophobic violence and commit to a course of action that will stem this scourge that plagues our island.”

But Gareth Henry, the co-chair of JFLAG until he was forced to flee the country for Canada last year, says he supports the boycott. He says JFLAG can’t be seen to publicly support a boycott.

“They can’t be the ones to call for the boycott,” he says. “They can’t be that voice. But the gays, lesbians and queers on the ground are supportive of a boycott.”

Henry says he’s tried talking to the government.

“We have tried numerous approaches, numerous dialogues with government officials,” he says. “They have been non-responsive to the call. We have to hit people where it’s going to hurt, where they’ll feel it. In the Jamaican context talk is cheap. After 10 years of JFLAG’s existence what else can we do?”

As for SMMC’s original focus on trying to stop sales and performances of homophobic dancehall music, Larcher says the coalition has been accused of censorship.

“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.”

Last month, iTunes Canada removed several songs with anti-gay lyrics from its online store, in response to SMMC’s campaign.

The songs — by Jamaican dancehall artists Buju Banton, Elephant Man and TOK — contain lyrics that advocate the killing of gays.

“iTunes is exercising its corporate responsibility by pulling this murder music and raising the bar for other retailers and distributors to do the same,” Larcher said in early April, calling iTunes’ decision a victory for the gay community in Canada and in the Caribbean.

“We are extremely pleased with this decision,” added Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale, which is part of the Stop Murder Music Coalition. “We have also contacted HMV, Archambault Inc, and and we are optimistic that they will follow iTunes’ lead.”

Archambault Inc, one of Eastern Canada’s biggest record dealers, did follow iTunes’ lead just a few weeks later.

But people in Canada’s reggae community are split on the issue.

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 Cezar Brumeanu, who runs the Montreal International Reggae Festival and that city’s House of Reggae nightclub, thinks 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 writes in an email. “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.”

Michael Griffiths also 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 and a public relations officer with the Jamaican government, discussion, rather than boycott, is paramount.

Pinnock, who has written a number of academic articles about dancehall and gender and sexual orientation, 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.”