how do you take it?
a few posts back i mentioned a blog called killbattyman, which seems to deconstruct its hateful message with its own ridiculousness. the site has called everyone from christopher reeves, to the g-unit rappers (and anyone who wears a tupac t-shirt), to bugs bunny and burger king, a "battyman"--the derogatory term for gays in jamaican vernac. such wild allegations raise suspicions about the intent of the site. is it genuine in its insane rants? or is it meant to parody the anti-gay sentiments espoused by some dancehall artists?
ryan moore, who makes some serious dub music as twilight circus dub sound system, wrote to me and suggested that the site could be a parody, which, judging by its rhetoric, might very well be the work of jamaican provocateur, peter dean rickards. to be honest, though, i've seen things said and endorsed on that site which seem downright anti-gay--and certainly not critical to the point of dovetailing with what might be the parodic intent of killbattyman.
i turned up this conversation at the jamaica star forum, which illustrates the divided opinions of jamaicans around this issue and around such rhetoric as killbattyman promotes. interestingly, one of the participants also raises the question of whether the site is itself a parody "created by a f@g to show how crude and ridiculous our cultural rantings are about the matter sometimes." she goes on to say: "I'm not a supporter, such lifestyles is sickening....and people on the outside looking in fail to realize that it's how the people of our culture knew how to express themselves best about the issue. 'Bun a b@ttyman' doesn't mean that one should go out with a container of gas and a lighter...it's simply a strong expression of how disgusted they are about the whole practice....Duh!!!!"
i appreciate the way she clarifies the distinction between metaphor and actual practice. several friends that i have spoken to in jamaica have expressed essentially the same opinion: that the bark is worse than the bite. according to this theory, many jamaicans, including the dancehall artists who purport to speak for the community, make a lot of public noise about homosexuality, but in their homes and their workplaces they tolerate their gay family members and co-workers. clearly, this is not always the case, as there is plenty of anti-gay violence and intimidation in jamaica. then again, you find this kind of thing everywhere--even in cambridge, massachusetts. (trust me. i went to public school here. i worked as a garbage man in the pahk depahtment. and i've witnessed plenty of homophobia at harvard as well.) at the same time, i've seen the way that jamaica's public discourse affects people's private thoughts, too. i remember having a conversation with a young jamaican man which, probably because we were standing on a balcony, turned to the topic of suicide. what he said to me then struck me as terribly strange and terribly sad. "i would never kill myself," he said, "unless i had sex with a woman and found out it was a man. then i would have no choice."
another friend of mine--a bredren from trinidad who is an ardent lover and great champion of both dancehall and soca--wrote me recently, concerned about the ramifications of the current controversy. he asked: "What do you make of the furor between the gay-rights groups and the dancehall fraternity? Methinks it was inevitable, bound to happen, if you will. It's just frustrating that the political pull of such organizations can threaten the dancehall industry just when it was establishing itself as a viable entity in the urban market. Don't get me wrong, I do not condone voilent lyrics, but the references are used SO often, they do not even register...they're even used in comical contexts in certain songs!"
he continued: "Seems to be a clash of two cultures that simply do not see eye to eye on certain issues. Is there a resolution? I don't know - it's interesting to see the stance of the different artistes (in particular the 'great 8' that have been blacklisted by Outrage!) in terms of who apologizes, who backs down, who doesn't, you know. Beenie was dropped from the MTV VMA's last month...his usual November show at the House of Blues in New Orleans was cancelled weeks ago...Capleton and Cocoa Tea were to perform at the HOB next Monday, and that was cancelled last week...my word, this is a mess. Some are saying it'll 'blow over', but I figure the ramifications are more profound than this..."
i share my friend's concerns about the viability of the burgeoning dancehall scene in the midst of this controversy. but i also think that reggae artists who are courting an international audience will have to consider the tastes of that audience, just as they consider the tastes of their local base. it seems that reggae artists, at least for the last couple of decades, have succeeded overseas precisely because of their stalwart commitment to local concerns. fans in the US, and germany, and italy, and japan, and elsewhere respond to this commitment, which rings with great authenticity. these fans only constitute a subculture, however, and if the "great 8" want to reach more mainstream audiences, they will have to contend with mainstream tastes. of course, judging by the ways kerry and bush are attempting to capitalize on the mainstream's division on this issue, it would seem that dancehall artists simply need to decide whether they want to succeed in red or blue states. a recent column in the gleaner also suggests that some serious calculation is required here.
at any rate, many have made their decision, and have pursued it for some time now. although artists such as sean paul have toned down their anti-battyman stance, others have ratcheted it up. the latest post at killbattyman contains a link to an mp3 in which bounty killer defends the practice of chanting down battybwoys. it's definitely worth a listen. for one, in a time when vybz kartel is apologizing on the bbc (and getting clowned at home for it) and beenie man is retracting apologies issued by his record label, it's significant that a big artist like bounty would come out quite explicitly and say that he will not apologize. his defense is not terribly original. it resonates to some extent with my trinidadian brethren's comment that there is a "clash of two cultures" at play here. bounty killer does refer quite explicitly to his "culture" towards the end of the song. the problem with this defense and this conception of culture--which happens to be the same conception of culture by which the neocons justify invading the middle east--is that it fails to recognize several fundamental points.
first, jamaican culture is by no means homogeneous. the division on message boards discussing this topic illustrates that, as do various conversations i've had with jamaicans about this topic over the years. second, no "culture" in the world today exists as a bounded, stable entity. considering the amount of international socio-cultural integration created and maintained by migration, diasporic networks, global mass media, etc., it is time to recognize that "culture"--it might be more useful at this point to speak of "cultural practices," lest we encourage the bounded stability implied by the term "culture"--is a dynamic, porous, messy, contested, shared thing. jamaican culture has been in constant flux at least since the spanish came and decimated the native population. add to that the coming of the english (who took the island as a consolation prize for cromwell), the importation of thousands of africans (and later, east indians and chinese) for slave- and indentured-labor, the pan-caribbean circulation of people from every island to every other island, the immigration of jews, syrians, irish, scots, germans and other people to jamaica in search of work and freedom from persecution, the tourists, government delegates, and visitors of various stripes from all over the world, the projection and circulation of the world's mass media, among other sources of input and influence, and you've got quite a mess. it's a rich, wonderful mess. and that is one thing that makes reggae music--and other jamaican expressions--so compelling. but it is anything but a single culture.