Over the past couple of months, five Jamaican dancehall musicians have had their shows in Ontario cancelled because of virulently homophobic lyrics calling for the murder of queers.
But while the debate has raged over the extent to which this music contributes to the murders of queers in Jamaica and whether censorship is the best way to deal with the issue, the one thing that’s gotten lost in the furor is the role that religion has played.
Dancehall is an offshoot of reggae, a more dance-oriented version with the addition of hip-hop beats and a more urban focus. And like reggae, many dancehall musicians are Rastafari, a religion as homophobic as fundamentalist Christianity.
There’s much to admire in the Rastafari movement, which started in Jamaica in the 1930s as a response to the grinding poverty many black Jamaicans lived in. The movement adopted many of the teachings of black nationalist Marcus Garvey — regarded as a prophet by many Rastafari — who preached black pride and pride in African heritage. But Rastafari also adopted many of the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity, although with their own unique interpretations.
Rastafari believe that Haile Selassie — the former emperor of Ethiopia in the ’30s, called Ras Tafari before his coronation — is the messiah returned to earth and that blacks are the true Israelites. This belief is based in part on Selassie’s titles of King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of Judah — references taken from Revelations. Rastafari believe that Selassie’s 1975 death was a hoax.
Rastafari believe in a strict interpretation of the Old Testament, which is why they believe that smoking ganja is a sacrament. The belief is taken from several Biblical verses, such as Genesis 3:18, which commands, “Thou shalt eat the herb of the field.”
Rastafari wear dreadlocks because they believe that Biblical commands forbid the cutting of one’s hair, as found in Leviticus 21:5 (“They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.”) and Numbers 6:5 (“All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.”).
But Rastafari have also interpreted Biblical proclamations on homosexuality — such as Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” — as proof of God’s hatred of queers. Rastafari believe that homosexuality is a product of Babylon (corrupt modern society) and will not be found in Zion (the black homeland and birthplace of humanity).
While Rastafari are not numerous — estimates say about a million — most are found in Jamaica and their effect on the country is profound, especially when coupled with the fundamentalist Christianity prevalent in Jamaica.
As Alexis Petridis wrote in The Guardian in 2004, “Jamaica has more churches per capita than anywhere else on earth, most of them preaching a brand of Christianity that would seem pretty familiar to your average US Biblebelt fundamentalist. As a side order, there’s Rastafarianism, particularly the hard-line bobo shanti variety adopted by current reggae stars including Sizzla and Capleton. As well as believing in racial segregation, bobo Rastas go in for a fire-and-brimstone reading of the Old Testament that makes Jamaican Christianity look liberal.”
And while not all Jamaicans, or even all Rastafari, are homophobic, the murders, assaults and rapes of gay men and lesbians in Jamaica led Time to label the country “the most homophobic place on Earth.”
Sizzla and Capleton are two of the artists recently stopped from performing in Canada. Bobo Shanti Rastas, the sect to which both belong, follow a lifestyle based on the Old Testament, including rules for menstruating women that limit interaction between the sexes. When it comes to homosexuality, they believe that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their tolerance of homosexuality.
Capleton’s songs include “Give Har” which includes the lyrics “Shoulda know seh Capleton bun battyman [You should know that Capleton burns queers]/ Dem same fire apply to all di lesbian [The same fire applies to lesbians]/ Seh mi bun everything from mi know seh dem gay [Say I burn everything as long as I know that they’re gay]/ All boogaman and sodemites fi get killed [All queers and sodomites should be killed].”
Capleton claims he doesn’t mean it literally, that the fire is spiritual. In a 2004 interview he said, “This fire is all about the purification of humanity and the uplifting of the people. The fire is self-awareness and self-control. You must stay away from self-serving immorality.”
Capleton went on to explain that dancehall artists’ numerous references to shooting, stabbing, hanging or beating queers aren’t literal either. “Capleton is not telling no-one to go out and shoot nor kill no-one. In Jamaica, in our dancehall patois thing, when we say kill, it don’t necessarily mean kill.”
But God’s metaphorical use of handguns aside, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays says that four gay men have been killed in 2007 because of their sexuality and four lesbians raped. The Forum reports that 98 queers have been attacked this year in 43 mob attacks as of July, and that between 2005 and 2006, at least 10 queers were murdered.
So are dancehall lyrics, inspired by Rastafari religious beliefs, responsible for those murders? There’s no way to know. But in a country as dominated by conservative religious belief — both Christian and Rastafari — as Jamaica, it’s next to impossible to believe that religion itself didn’t play a role.
Stopping these artists from performing in Canada might conceivably affect their wallets and persuade them to stop singing homophobic lyrics, although it hasn’t so far. But it won’t address the underlying religious beliefs that are likely to prove as durable for the Rastafari as they’ve been for every other religion.