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Outrage! Still Has Many Rivers to Cross

Alistair Davis

ARE THE "homophobic reggae artists" targeted by OutRage! really influential enough to merit their ire? Elephant who? Vybz what? Beenie Hat? These are the questions that those in the pop mainstream are asking themselves when confronted with the names of the so-called Jamaican stars (also known as DJs) that "spit" homophobic lyrics from microphones accompanied by the potent, throbbing beats which makes dancehall reggae so popular.

It is to the credit of OutRage! that it is not ignoring the plight of the Jamaican gay community, but its campaign seems heavy-handed, ignorant of the realities of contemporary Jamaican life and culture and ethically arrogant.

OutRage! argues that dancehall reggae is responsible for the climate of intolerance that makes an out and proud life impossible for Jamaica’s gays and lesbians. But this is to put the cart before the horse. Dancehall is a uniquely Jamaican phenomenon. And Jamaica is an island steeped in poverty and violence. Most dancehall DJs come from the bleak Jamaican shanties where life is nasty, brutish and short. These boastful braggarts may, in different circumstances, have been the pride of their generation, educated and successful citizens. However, in the main, they live in a hopeless, gun-ridden environment as removed from the tolerant, liberal metropolis as it is from paradise.

Some tracks are indeed littered with homophobic sentiments and these are to be deprecated. But phrases such as "man fi dead" – meaning "man should die" are applied indiscrirninately, not only to gay people but anyone who gets on their nerves. It is not unheard of for DJs to sing about killing their musical rivals. This is not an attempt to excuse anti-social dancehall music, but it is a plea for the music to be understood in a Jamaican context.

The Black Music Council (BMC), a group of self-appointed defenders of reggae music, have weighed in with counter-charges of racism. That charge is easily dismissed. Peter Tatchell has a fine record of opposing imperialism and oppression dating back to the 1970s when he championed African liberation movements.

But OutRage! is guilty of pursuing unsophisticated foreign artists for public relations purposes. Reggae music is a richly textured genre. Yet phrases such as "homophobic reggae stars" are fed to the press by OutRage! to tar the whole genre with the same brush.

It is a genre containing, at one end, the dreaded Rastafarian mystics singing an Old Testament allegory of love and war, Babylon and Zion. At the other end are the swaggering rude boys full of bling bling braggadocio venting an ill-defined fury against everything in general and anyone in particular.

OutRage! seems to be an organisation chasing its tail. In the early 1990s, it waged a similar campaign against Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks (the latter riding the crest of a chart-topping wave at the time) and they successfully managed to stunt their respective careers. Wielding the moral axe did not stem the flow of the dancehall lyrics to which they object. The Bujus and Shabbas were replaced by younger artists. New faces, same message and a pyrrhic victory for Jamaica’s gays and lesbians.

There is a question of OutRage!’s legitimacy in all this. OutRage! is a pressure group with no political mandate. So what right does it have to stop recording artists from underdeveloped countries plying their trade in England? If the artists’ British performance does not contain homophobic lyrics then they are breaking no criminal or civil laws. Should we allow pressure groups to act as social censors?

There is a common-law tort for such action called "interference with contract" and OutRage! is fortunate not to have been hauled before the courts for interfering with artists’ British gigs.

It is far from clear that OutRage! occupies the moral high ground. In the past, its policy was to "out" privately gay public figures, regardless of the personal consequences for the forcibly outed. To be sure, the Tatchellites had the ready excuse of "hypocrisy" to level against their targets. But one couldn’t help but be struck by the tension between the OutRage! philosophy of sexual liberalism on the one hand and its vengeful intolerance of those who didn’t meet its definition of gay pride on the other.

There is a more pertinent point to he made. Why is OutRage! pursuing individual dancehall Ws – men who often hail from rough, impoverished backgrounds, men who don’t know any better – rather than the music moguls who encourage their art for commercial purposes? If OutRage! were serious about its campaign it would not just target a few reggae dancehall DJs, it would lobby and pressure the promoters, distributors and sellers of the homophobic songs.

One only has to recall the career of Prince who daubed his cheek with the word "slave" to realise that artists have limited control over their own recording career. A recording artist will write a song and present it to his record label. The record label will listen to it and if they "accept" it, a marketing campaign will begin and the track will be sent to radio for airplay. A few months later, the record will be available for sale in the shops.

It is the recording industry plutocrats who release these tracks in Britain and receive profits from this "murder music". So, why is OutRage! not bringing pressure to bear on the major recording companies, distributors and retailers of these songs? The organisation prefers to picket a nightclub where a reggae artist is appearing in front of around 1,500 young black men.

The recording industry is guilty of releasing records with homophobic and misogynistic content as well as fostering African Caribbean/American racial stereotypes. It is responsible for the sexist sexualisation of videos and live shows in order to increase record sales. Is OutRage! brave enough to take on a more worthy foe, a foe versed in public relations, a mediasavvy opponent with considerable resources or will it concentrate its fire on easier targets?

Russell Simmons, the United States music mogul, threatened a boycott by the Afro-American community of a certain brand of US product because his organisation felt that a decision the brand owning company had made was racist. The company reversed its decision and the boycott never materialised. This is an example of a pressure group taking on and defeating big business.

If OutRage! threw up a similar challenge, it might well find that its cause strikes a common theme and is supported by the African Caribbean community, which is, after all, no stranger to marginalisation. OutRage! can only make a real difference with less outrage and more courage. When will OutRage! bypass the local battles and embark on the war?

This article was published in Tribune, 15 October 2004