Can music incite murder?

Doctah X of the Black Music Council and Peter Tatchell of OutRage! put the case for and against hardcore Jamaican dancehall.

‘Tatchell is like a new Tipper Gore’, says Doctah X, British-Jamaican dj turned vice-chair of the Black Music Council.

Peter Tatchell, campaigner-in-chief of the British gay rights group OutRage!, won’t take kindly to being compared to the blonde, bland wife of US Democrat Al Gore, who made a name for herself in the 1980s by campaigning against American gangsta rap. Tipper and Tatchell seem worlds apart, she a manicured lady-who-lunches, he the radical queer and human rights campaigner who interrupts bishops mid-sermon and who once accosted Robert Mugabe.

Yet Doctah X, who co-founded the Black Music Council to defend hardcore Jamaican dancehall against Tatchell’s attempts to ban it, reckons the two have a few things in common. ‘They both pick on black music. They both believe in censorship.’

You can’t dispute X’s last point. Tatchell has spearheaded a campaign to censor what he labels ‘murder music’, the work of dancehall and reggae artists such as Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel and others. He accuses them of inciting the murder of gays and lesbians through their homophobic lyrics. ‘Tek a Bazooka and kill batty-fucker’, sings Beenie Man. ‘Boom bye bye inna batty bwoy head’, sings Buju Banton, an invitation, according to Tatchell, to shoot homosexuals.

Tatchell’s ‘Stop Murder Music’ campaign has made massive waves. The police cancelled a Buju Banton concert in Manchester in September, on the grounds that it might cause ‘hate or dissension within [the] community’. In the same month, the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) Awards in London dropped Vybz Kartel and Elephant Man from the Best Reggae Act category.

When Beenie Man visited England in June he was questioned by detectives from Scotland Yard’s racial and violent crime taskforce over lyrics like, ‘I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the queers’, leading to the cancellation of a concert he was due to play in Hackney in east London. In August, the organisers of the Reggae in the Park festival, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, announced that they were pulling the plug after coming under pressure from OutRage! for including Vybz Kartel in the line-up.

OutRage! is not only taking direct action but leading the charge in the British state’s investigation into these apparently dangerous lyrics. The Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service are considering taking legal action against Beenie Man, following a nine-month police investigation instigated by Tatchell.

Dancehall and reggae artists are feeling the heat. On the eve of the British release of his album in August, Beenie Man issued an out-of-character apology for causing ‘distress among people whose identities and lifestyles are different from my own’ (1). Now corporate sponsors are threatening to withdraw support from dancehall artists who ‘incite violence through their lyrics and performances’, unless they issue Beenie-style apologies too. At the start of October, six of the biggest sponsors of musical events in Jamaica - including Red Stripe, Cable and Wireless, and Pepsi-Cola Jamaica Limited - called for a code of conduct for dancehall and reggae artists, which will renounce incitement to anti-gay violence and will be ‘rigourously enforced’ (2).

‘We’ve had enough, you get me?’, says Doctah X. ‘This is our music and culture that’s being attacked.’ He and Blacker Dread, fellow reggae follower and owner of the Blacker Dread Muzik Store, launched the Black Music Council with a protest outside the MOBOs in London last month, where supporters carried placards saying ‘Enraged by OutRage!’ and ‘Defend reggae music’.

One of X’s main complaints is that Tatchell has taken dancehall and reggae lyrics too literally. ‘Just as “wicked” doesn’t literally mean wicked and “bad” doesn’t literally mean bad, so “murda” doesn’t literally mean murder’, he claims. ‘It means a challenge, a competition.’ He says dancehall artists don’t only threaten to ‘murda’ gays but also each other, especially in ‘soundman competitions’ where they challenge and sing against each other on stage. ‘One of them might say “We’re gonna murda da bwoy” - it means we’re going to make sure he loses, we’re going to make sure he’s humiliated. “Kill da boy” comes from the same thing. They use prose, rhyme, slang, metaphor, colloquialism and patois. How the hell you going to turn all that into English?’

He takes issue with the claim that dancehall or reggae incite violence. ‘They are musicians, not political parties! They don’t stand on a platform and preach, “This is what you must do to all gays.” They sing songs, people dance, and then they go home. They call it “murder music”, but music never murdered nobody.’

Tatchell is quick to snap back. As someone who in the past was at the forefront of campaigns against censorship, he tells me that he’s still for free speech. The problem, he says, is that certain Jamaican artists have crossed the line from criticising homosexuality to inciting violence against those who practise it. ‘Singers have the right to criticse homosexuality, but free speech does not include the right to incite the murder of other human beings’, he says. ‘We are not campaigning against lyrics that are homophobic; our campaign is explicitly and exclusively against singers who promote the killing of gays and lesbians.’

His use of the incitement category seems a little unconvincing. To most minds, incitement to commit a crime or a violent act usually involves a close relationship between two parties, where one excites, encourages and implores the other to do something he or she shouldn’t. That’s a far cry from listening or dancing to a record in your bedroom or at a disco, even if that record does include offensive lyrics like Buju Banton’s ‘Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man, dem haffi dead’. The notion that these songs can incite individuals to commit violent acts seems to be based on the idea that some of those who listen to dancehall and reggae are so ignorant that they might just pick up the nearest blunt instrument and go out gay-bashing after listening to a bit of Banton.

Tatchell protests. ‘We are not saying that everyone who listens to this music will go out and attack gays. But it encourages, reinforces and legitimates homophobic violence, which may prompt some disordered straight men to act out their homophobic hatred in violent ways.’

Of course those individuals who commit acts of violence against gays should be punished. But by calling for censorship as a way of keeping ‘disordered’ straights on the straight and narrow, Tatchell ironically echoes those arguments that were used to justify the censoring and repression of gays in the past. There was a time when homosexuals were seen as ‘disordered’ individuals, who needed to be kept at a safe distance from others and ultimately protected from themselves.

Indeed Tatchell has spent much of his 30-year career articulately arguing against such blinkered views, and the censorship that they gave rise to. When copies of his gay sex manual Safer Sexy (boasting ‘full-colour photos of 65 hard-ons and 23 images of oral and anal penetration’) were seized by British police shortly after publication in December 1994, Tatchell decried that attack on free speech. When West Midlands police seized the book Mapplethorpe, a collection of explicit photos by the late gay American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, from the University of Central England in 1998, and demanded its ‘immediate destruction’, Tatchell led the protests. He said: ‘Why should some busy-body copper have the right to act as the arbiter of moral taste?’ (3)

Yet today he’s in danger of handing the state that very right. When Greater Manchester Police banned Banton in September, a spokesman said they supported the right to ‘public freedom of expression’, but not anything that might ‘cause possible hate or dissension within any community’. Dissension, as spiked editor Mick Hume pointed out recently, means ‘difference of opinion’ (4). What started as a campaign to protect gays from apparently violence-inciting dancehall has ended up with busy-body coppers laying down the law on who can and cannot express a different opinion.

Perhaps Tatchell and Doctah X have more in common than they think. Both seem to agree that there should be a limit to free speech. X says he supports free speech, but ‘there has to be a line. If people say we should hang all Jews or that we should literally murder gays, that shouldn’t be allowed’. So he defends hardcore dancehall and reggae on cultural grounds rather than free speech grounds, arguing that the songs have been misinterpreted and taken too literally. The end result is that X plays down the music’s anti-gay content in an attempt to squeeze it into what is seen as acceptable today, while Tatchell plays up the anti-gay content, blaming it for real-life violence. X pleads that this dancehall/reggae falls within the line of what’s acceptable, Tatchell insists that it crosses the line.

Surely there can be no line when it comes to freedom of speech? We either have it or we don’t. And if we have it that means having to put up with Banton, Beenie and the rest, in the same way that Mary Whitehouse, the late arch-censor of the old-fashioned blue-rinse, blue-pen variety, had to put up with the lyrics to Relax, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ode to oral and anal sex. Otherwise we’ll end up with an ever-more stifling climate of ‘You can’t say that, or sing it either!’, where even dissension can become a crime.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

Censorship in drag is still censorship, by Mick Hume

(1) Jamaican star apologises for ‘hurtful’ lyrics, Guardian, 4 August 2004

(2) Music industry responds favourably to no-sponsorship threat, Jamaica Observer, 3 October 2004

(3) What’s wrong with porn?, Peter Tatchell, 24 April 1998

(4) Censorship in drag is still censorship, by Mick Hume

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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