"You should know that Capleton burns gays / The same fire applies to lesbians / Say, I burn everything as long as I know that they're gay / All gays and sodomites should be killed."
So run a few translated lines of Jamaican dancehall superstar Capleton's song "Give Har." (In the Jamaican patois in which they were recorded and are performed they go like this: "Shoulda know seh Capleton bun batty man / Dem same fire apply to di lesbian / Seh mi bun everything from mi know seh dem gay / All boogaman and sodomites fi get killed.")
In "Bun Out Di Chi Chi," another of his songs, Capleton, who will appear at Houston's Milan Pavilion on October 10, opines that right-thinking people should "bun out" and "blood out" all "chi chi men," which translates to setting fire to and knifing gays. A third Capleton song -- "Hang Dem Up" -- runs like this: "Yow, string dem up and hang dem up alive / Bare batty man come round yah / All gays who come around here / Dis mamma earth sey none cyann survive."
Most Americans familiar only with Bob Marley and other vintage reggae superstars assume that Jamaican music is about righteous indignation against colonial masters, positive vibrations and copious quantities of ganja. That's not always the case today. Though positive themes remain, even predominate, in reggae and dancehall, "batty boy" tunes are as much a staple of the music as are songs about Henny and weed in hip-hop, or ditties about the joys of the Hill Country in Texas music.
And as Capleton's words illustrate, they go far beyond mere expressions of distaste. Often they advocate murder, plain and simple. Grammy-winner Beenie Man is on record saying he wants to "hang chi chi gal [lesbians] wid a long piece of rope," and his dreamed-for "new Jamaica" will be complete only after he has "execute[d] all the gays." Buju Banton has said that gays should be burned like old tires. Sizzla offers up "Pump Up," which enjoins listeners to "Step up inna front line / fire fi di man dem weh go ride man behind," or "Step to the front of the line and set fire to the man who has sex with men from behind."
You'd expect performers with lyrics like this to be marginalized -- maybe not so much as white pride groups such as Skrewdriver, but at least as much as N.W.A or Ice-T were back in the day for their cop-killing sentiments. Not so. Beenie Man won a Grammy in 2001 and performed at the behest of Puma at this year's Athens Olympics. (In the United States, RJ Reynolds had planned to sponsor Beenie Man's summer tour; the tobacco giant pulled out at the last minute.) With the lone exception of Buju Banton, who endured a firestorm of controversy in 1992 for his homophobic song "Boom Bye Bye," most of these artists had gotten a pass in the UK and America until quite recently. (Perhaps few here knew what a "batty man" was and thought they were talking about burning down Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurants.)
In recent years, though, as dancehall has gained in popularity worldwide, gay rights groups such as J-Flag in Jamaica and OutRage! in the UK have succeeded in getting the word out about the homophobic lyrics. Dancehall artists Vybez Kartel and Elephant Man were dropped from the summer's British Music of Black Origins awards show when they refused to apologize for their lyrics, and another British event, touted as the biggest reggae concert there in 20 years, was forced to cancel as well. Capleton's current tour has been dogged by protests in Chicago, Newark, Boston, Los Angeles and New Haven, Connecticut, and his San Francisco show was canceled under fire from gay rights groups.
As of this writing, reaction in Houston has been muted. Neither a spokesperson for the Houston gay paper The Voice nor Julie Harris of the Houston GLBT Community Center knew of any protests planned in the area. Also, a spokesman for Inner City Music Group, the promotion company for Houston's Capleton show, said somewhat cryptically that "Everything has been cleared up. There was a misunderstanding, but now everything's clear."
Meanwhile, OutRage!'s work hasn't gone unnoticed by unsavory elements in Jamaica. Last week, OutRage! director Peter Tatchell, who has called homophobic dancehall "murder music," was placed under around-the-clock police protection after receiving about 20 death threats; word on the street was that the Yardies (Jamaican Mafia) had a contract out on his life.
Many in virulently homophobic Jamaica would likely cheer Tatchell's murder. Homophobia is so ingrained there that dancehall performers pretty much have to release "batty boy" songs lest they be deemed gay, and male Jamaicans have to like them lest they suffer the same fate.
Also, as was the case in Texas until recently, Jamaica has a sodomy law -- an "anti-buggery" statute, as the antiquated British colonial jurisprudence terms it -- and fully 96 percent of the populace is against its repeal. Brian Williamson, Jamaica's leading gay rights activist, was murdered on June 9 in an incident that police say was a robbery gone bad but that gay Jamaicans believe was a hate crime. Thirty-one other gays have been murdered in hate crimes in Jamaica since 1997. That might not sound like a lot until you learn that Jamaica's entire population is about 2.7 million, or about a million fewer than greater Houston.
Some of the dancehall performers defend their lyrics on religious and cultural grounds. Jamaica is a very religious country, and it's very socially conservative, especially sexually. (Indeed, some of the dancehall stars seem to advocate killing men who perform cunnilingus and women who perform fellatio. Here's a line from Vybez Kartel, one of the hottest young stars of the genre: "Oral sexer, lesbian and gays must be assassinated.") And no matter if Jamaicans are Adventist, Pentecostal, Anglican or Rastafarian, many of them take seriously the verse in Leviticus that says, "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."
Of course, Leviticus also prescribes death for sassy children, adulterers, people who have incest, magicians, fortune tellers and slutty preacher's daughters, and commands the Israelites to enslave their neighbors. And most of the Old Testament is nullified by Jesus' simple commandment to "love one another" and that bit about not casting the first stone unless you are without sin.
Rastafarianism goes the Bible one further. That faith posits that homosexuality didn't exist in Zion (Africa, Jamaica) before Babylon (the white man) introduced it, and so Orthodox Rastas see gays as colonialized traitors. Though mainstream Rastafarianism has toned down its antigay rhetoric in recent years, the reactionary Bobo Ashanti sect, of which both Capleton and Sizzla are practitioners, is as hard-line as ever. An Amnesty International report portrayed this year's Rastafarian-heavy festival Rebel Salute as little more than an antigay rally. "Throughout the night, Capleton, Sizzla and others sang almost exclusively about gay men," the report stated. "Using the derogatory terms for gay men -- 'chi chi men' or 'battybwoys,' they urged the audience to 'kill dem, battybwoys haffi dead, gun shots pon dem. Who want to see dem dead put up his hand.' "
That show was in January. More recently, Capleton has been more repentant. On the eve of the show in San Francisco last week that ended up being canceled, Capleton issued the following statement, which is all he has had to say on the matter so far: "I do not advocate violence or abuse against anyone, nor do I support prejudice, bigotry or discrimination. It bothers me deeply to hear that some of my past lyrics, which I no longer perform in concert, have been interpreted as offensive to gay and lesbian communities."
Yes, I can see how urging people to kill you might be interpreted as offensive. Gay groups in San Francisco were not mollified. Tina D'Elia of the gay rights group Community United Against Violence called the apology "weak" and added, "I absolutely believe people have the right to free speech, but people should be held accountable, not just artists, but promoters, record labels, to say we prefer to hear and put our money towards other people."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
And rank-and-file Jamaicans seem to not buy in to the apologies either. Beenie Man has been dogged by the same controversy of late, and when he issued a similar gig-saving apology recently, one "Snikwad" -- a cynic if ever there was one -- had this to say on a Jamaican message board: "Naw man, food affi eat. 'Im can apologize all day but di whola a yawd know 'im nuh mean it Sometime when yuh cater to a wider market an deh pon a big label yuh affi mek some compromises."
And here's Capleton's idea of a compromise. A New York-based blogger reported hearing Capleton's tune "Guerilla Warfare," which contains the lines "Buss it up for justice and human rights / Buss it 'pon battyman and sodomites" at a show there, immediately after Capleton said he quit performing antigay songs. On the flyer for his upcoming Houston show, first among Capleton's hits listed is the song "Slew Dem," which contains these lines: "Tell dem seh mi nah keep nuh funny man friend / Tell dem seh mi nah keep nuh sodomite friend."
See? He's gone from threatening to burn, knife and hang them to saying they are not his friends and encouraging people to bust them up for the sake of justice and human rights. Now that's progress.
Capleton, Cocoa Tea and Richie Spice appear Sunday, October 10, at Milan Pavilion, 6603 Harwin. For more information, call 713-256-6293.