12 July 2006

Blood On Their Hands

What a sad state our popular culture is in! That’s something on which religious fundamentalists and I fully agree. Too many folks in the entertainment industry seem incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong! They don’t understand why it’s wrong to glorify irresponsible sexuality on screen. They don’t understand why it’s wrong to degrade women and girls with misogynistic records and videos. They don’t understand why it’s wrong to sell Rock and Rap songs that spout vulgar and violent language. Evidently, they don’t even understand why it’s wrong to promote recording artists who advocate murdering a minority group.

For the past ten years or so, the music industry has been making big profits off the sales of dancehall Reggae and Jamaican Hip-Hop. Many people find this kind of music irresistible. Gay people often find it reprehensible! Rap acts in general have a bad reputation when it comes to their attitudes toward Lesbians and Gay men, but Caribbean Rap acts have taken homophobia to a new low. Best-selling Jamaican artists like Busta Rhymes, Buju Banton and Beenie Man are notorious for sprinkling anti-Gay lyrics into their songs, lyrics that aren't just hateful but downright genocidal.

A song called “Han Up Deh” recommends that Lesbians be lynched. Another called “Chi Chi Man” suggests that patrons of Gay bars ought to be burned to death. One of the most infamous examples, “Boom Bye Bye,” gleefully encourages shooting Gay men through the head. These and other disgusting songs call openly for Gay people to be wiped off the face of the Earth, often on religious grounds. In urban centers all over the world, impressionable young people are partying to this obscene music.

That’s unfortunate, you might say, but what harm does it really do? Don’t song lyrics just go in one ear and out the other? No, they don't! What’s been happening recently in Jamaica obliterates that myth once and for all. Within the last two years, two prominent Jamaican Gay activists named Brian Williamson and Lenford Harvey have been viciously murdered. Williamson‘s killing was particularly heinous; he was stabbed multiple times. At the crime scene, Dancehall Reggae fans reportedly gathered to celebrate his death. They even had the nerve to sing excerpts of “Boom Bye Bye” and other homophobic song lyrics as the poor man’s mutilated body was carted away! What more evidence could anyone want that Hate speech can and does have frightful consequences?

Human Rights Watch reports that “violent acts against men who have sex with men is commonplace in Jamaica. Verbal and physical violence ranging from beatings to brutal armed attacks to murder are widespread.” Men aren't the only ones in danger, either. This very week, two Jamaican women suspected of being Lesbians were slaughtered in the home they shared. The tragedy has all the earmarks of an anti-Gay hate crime. Sure, you can say there's no way to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that popular music played a role in these killings; you can call the popularity of anti-Gay Reggae tunes just a symptom of a larger problem. True enough, but if the symptom is ignored, isn't the problem going to be ignored, too?

The last thing you'd think homophobic artists would want to do is participate in a benefit to raise HIV awareness among Gay Black men. Yet that’s exactly what a music industry charity recently asked them to do. LIFEbeat, a Manhattan-based organization that professes to have AIDS prevention as its goal had scheduled a big benefit concert for this coming weekend. As headliners for their “Reggae Gold Live! 2006 Summer Jump Off,” they tagged none other than Beenie Man and a group called TOK, both high-profile sources of anti-Gay virulence. How’s that for inspired casting? What better way to promote AIDS prevention among homosexual youth than showcasing performers who call for their extermination? A real coup de grâce!

When Black Gay activist Keith Boykin found out about this, he immediately demanded an explanation from LIFEbeat. In a letter to John Canelli, the organization’s executive director, he laid out the case against what the concert organizers were doing in no uncertain terms. “I fully support the mission of LIFEbeat to use music to reach America’s youth about HIV/AIDS,” he wrote, “but I cannot support the use of blatantly homophobic recording artists to achieve that mission. In fact, to provide a forum for these musicians actually contradicts the mission of LIFEbeat, in that the artists promote homophobia that contributes to AIDS. Furthermore, to use Beenie Man and TOK at an AIDS benefit concert is a slap in the face and an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Gay men, Bisexuals and Lesbians who have died of AIDS! As a Black Gay man, I’m personally insulted that an AIDS organization would give a space for anti-Gay musicians to spout their homophobia.”

Boykin ended his letter by requesting that LIFEbeat require Beenie Man and TOK to publicly renounce their homophobia as a condition of taking part in the Reggae Gold Live! concert. LIFEbeat executives were unwilling to grant his request. John Canelli was quoted as stating that he was “not in a position to make a demand like that.“ Boykin then alerted the Black Gay community on his popular blogsite. American Gay activists, especially those of color, have a history of not responding or responding half-heartedly to these kinds of affronts. Yet, it turns out that even the patience of docile homosexual Black folk has limits. People simply hit the roof!

Activists around the country joined forces via the Internet with allies across the globe and whipped up a firestorm of protest. News media was alerted, bloggers were mobilized, and hundreds of faxes, emails and phone calls poured into the LIFEbeat offices. At first, the charity stubbornly refused to revise its concert line-up, and offered lame excuses for its ill-advised choice of headliners. They even argued that the lyrics in question had been taken out of context, but that strategy was doomed from the start . . . how the Hell do you take death threats out of context? Four days after Keith Boykin sent his letter of protest, the outcry had grown so great that LIFEbeat decided to cancel the benefit.

I’m often not proud of the things my people do, but I can definitely say I’m proud of this collective action. As Bernice Johnson Reagon sang on the award-winning Civil Rights documentary “Eyes On The Prize”: I know one thing we did right/Was the day we started to fight!

Last I heard, LIFEbeat spokesmen were grousing about having their good intentions sabotaged by radical Gay agitators bent on political correctness. Radical? Maybe so, if valuing one’s own life is radical. Political correctness? Absolutely not! “Moral outrage” would be a better description for what motivated the actions of Keith Boykin and his supporters. Boykin, Jasmyne Cannick, Stacyann Chin and other community spokespeople are now asking LIFEbeat to re-mount the benefit concert with Gay-friendly artists, and give the proceeds to J-FLAG, a Jamaican Gay rights network. I seriously doubt that will happen; an AIDS charity is unlikely to consider human rights fundraising part of its mandate. Even if it does, I question the wisdom of trying to work with an organization that suffers from such an obvious lack of good judgment.

If Canelli and company didn't know any better than to hire somebody like Beenie Man for an AIDS benefit, why would we expect them to do a good job promoting tolerance for Gay people? How can we be sure that helping prevent HIV infection was their main objective, anyway? Maybe all LIFEbeat really wanted to do was generate good publicity for the Reggae acts they planned to showcase. Maybe it was just a ploy to increase the audience for these acts, which in turn would increase profit margins for their record labels. True concern for the welfare of at-risk Gay and Bisexual men may have been the farthest thing from their minds!

Cynical, aren’t I? Of course, I may be wrong. But in the final analysis, LIFEbeat is an arm of the entertainment industry, and no number of benefit concerts can make up for the immeasurable damage that industry has done to young people. For too many years, mass-market music, movies and television shows have glamorized promiscuity. They've displayed young girls as willing sex objects. They've presented drug abuse and petty criminal behavior as something youth should aspire to. They've encouraged youth to disrespect their elders. They've desensitized the public to depictions of graphic violence. Now record companies are enabling sick and twisted "artists" who preach homosexual genocide.

Could matters possibly get any worse? When it comes to spreading evil influences, homophobic Reggae stars aren’t the only ones with blood on their hands! John Canelli told Keith Boykin, “My job is to save lives.” No lie? Well, then, here’s how he can do it: Get Time Warner, Sony/BMG, Universal, Disney, Fox, Clear Channel and all the other media conglomerates to stop marketing ignorance, hatred and immorality. That would save a Helluva lot more lives than he could ever hope to save by staging flashy musical galas!