Despite accusations that his music promotes violence against queers, controversial Jamaican dancehall artist Sizzla headlined a well-attended live show in Toronto on Dec 1.
A number of Sizzla’s North American and UK concerts have been successfully shut down in the past by activists, including Amnesty International, who say his lyrics promote hate. But his Toronto show went off withouta fuss.
Ron Nelson, operator of the Toronto-based Reggaemania.com and host of CKLN radio’s Friday Night Reggaemania, says there is no hiding the fact that lyrics such as “mi agguh shot batty bwoy dem wid di weapon” — loosely translated as “I go and shoot gay men with a weapon” — un-mistakably point to gun violence against gay men.
“I can not defend that,” says Nelson. “Is it right? Is it ethical? No. But reggae is about freedom of speech. Do we have the right to shut them up? No, we do not. Should we monitor what they are saying? Yes, we should. There are not enough people monitoring.”
Neither Sizzla’s Canadian record label nor his show’s promoter say they received any major complaints about his appearance in Toronto. Sizzla himself doesn’t apologize for his lyrics.
“Reggae music is spiritual and follows the Bible,” says Sizzla. “I can’t change that. It has been going on like that for years.”
But some Jamaican-Canadians say Sizzla should not be allowed to sing such lyrics in Canada.
“No matter who they are, they should be screened and stopped,” says Charles (who asked that his real name not be used, for fear of being attacked because of his criticism). “Gaybashing shouldn’t be tolerated…. A lot of gay Jamaicans had to flee Jamaica for fear of our lives. We had to give up our jobs and everything that we have worked for over many years, and came to Canada to seek refuge. It’s unfair that [Sizzla] be allowed to come here and make it bad for us again.”
After the international media picked up on a 2004 article exploring reggae artists and antigay rantings by Montreal writer Richard Burnett, Burnett found himself in the middle of an all-out war between reggae fans and those attempting to call it out. Concerts were cancelled. Promoters and performers lost money. Burnett finds it unsettling that Sizzla played Toronto without an outcry.
“I am astonished that gay activists in Toronto haven’t stepped up to do anything about this,” says Burnett. “The lyrics by artists like Sizzla and Buju Banton advocate violence against gay people. I don’t have a problem if they say, ‘I hate gay people.’ But as in Boom Bye Bye [by Banton], when they talk about picking up an Uzi and shooting gay people, that is unacceptable.”
Charles agrees that the lack of response is discouraging.
“It means that we have put our guard down,” he says. “And we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t slack off. We should always have our guard up.”
Just as Charles fears violent retribution for his comments on the issue, Nelson is not optimistic that reggae fans will ever feel comfortable enough to speak out against these artists.
“When it comes to the reggae, it is a losing battle,” says Nelson. “You can’t control it. You are not going to find anyone to speak out because we’re not going to do it. Anyone who does it is going to get lynched. I’d love for the community to wake up a little bit and to be a little more socially responsible, but I don’t see it happening.”