The notion that high-profile reggae acts known for their virulently homophobic lyrics could march into the Air Canada Centre on the very day of Gay Pride festivities and not be faced with calls for a boycott seems unfathomable.
Believe it or not, Jacana Entertainment, the outfit bringing the International Reggae Superstars to the ACC Sunday (June 26) - the same day Toronto Pride celebrates its 25th anniversary - says it's bent on "removing the (anti-gay) stigma behind reggae music." To that end, it's been hyping the event as a "peace concert, intended for a family audience" despite the fact that the lineup includes Buju Banton, Bounty Killer and Elephant Man, three of yesteryear's dancehall homophobes.
Jacana marketing director Mark Saldeba puts the anti-gay dancehall lyrics on a par with Madonna's sexual cooings and the invective-laced railings of Eminem and "most of the hiphop world," in the sense that "the language they use is not suitable for children, but it's still part of their art."
He thinks there's a cultural disconnect when some of the get-down-and-talk-shit dancehall patois is translated into the Queen's English and analyzed as if it had some deeper meaning.
Saldeba says the artists have been told "what the culture is like here compared to theirs, and [it's been] communicated in their own language what they can't do. It's one love. We can work this out."
A formal agreement aimed at putting a lid on anti-gay lyrics during live performances was reached this February between dancehall record labels and various organizations, primarily the UK-based Stop Murder Music Coalition (SMM), Outrage and the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG).
Under the terms of the agreement, New York City-based VP Records, which controls about 80 per cent of the dancehall market, has also promised not to produce any new anti-gay material or re-release offending songs. VP did not return NOW's calls requesting a comment, but SMM spokesperson Dennis Carney offers that the agreement "could be a turning point for reggae music, an opportunity to finally put these hateful lyrics to rest." SMM has for the moment suspended its campaign against dancehall and is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"These artist need to stop this foolishness and move on," says Carney. "Otherwise, they won't have international careers. A year ago we wouldn't have been having this conversation. I think reggae music is evolving in the right direction."
The Canadian High Commission in Kingston, Jamaica, is also in on the act, putting the squeeze on the dancehall rude boys. In order to get temporary work authorization, acts must sign an Entertainer Declaration that states that they "have read and fully understand" excerpted provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code, Charter Of Rights and Human Rights Act. More specifically, the declaration specifies that the performer "will not engage in or advocate hatred against persons because of their sexual orientation."
An official from the High Commission says that "before we instituted this, we met with performers' representatives to explain that it would be very difficult for us to allow entry into Canada to a person whose act is known to contravene Canadian laws." The official says that any transgressions would firstly be a matter for the police's hate crimes unit, and then the High Commission would "deal appropriately with that artist's future applications."
SMM's campaign has generated a far-reaching debate about homosexuality in Jamaica, where a sodomy law is still on the books. Some observers of the musical crackdown have posited that the campaign was never really about dancehall, but a backdoor attempt to have that law repealed.
Reached at dancehall ground zero in Kingston, Jamaica, a J-FLAG rep says all the international furor that's momentarily silenced anti-gay lyrics doesn't mean squat for yardie gays and lesbians. As J-FLAG spokesperson Gareth says, the harsh realities of life on the island - like not being able to divulge his surname for publication - foster an environment in housing, medical care and policing that is openly hostile to the gay community.
"Jamaica is generally homophobic, and it's ingrained in the culture to not accept gays and lesbians," he says. "The old offensive recordings are still popular and in circulation, and there's never been acknowledgement here that what they were doing is wrong."
Case in point: as recently as April, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer (on the Superstars bill) went off on gays, again, during a nationally televised Carnival event in Jamaica. There was no public outcry, although a group of leading Jamaican companies, the Coalition of Corporate Sponsors, has yanked sponsorship of any events where either of the two acts is skedded to perform.
But in a head-scratcher, one of the companies isn't pulling the pair from a current advertising campaign.
The corporate flexing has led to some talk of artists staging their own shows in Jamaica. In fact, Buju Banton has set up his own label, whose website proclaims, "The voice of Jamaica will not be silenced."
So is there or isn't there a ceasefire in effect? Asked about the Jamaica Carnival events, Sharon Burke of Jamaica-based Solid Agency, which represents Bounty Killer, says, "No, no, no, Bounty and Beenie both apologized, denouncing violence against any member of the human race," before adding that she's "much too busy for this" and unceremoniously hanging up.
In Toronto, it's just as difficult to make contact with the sponsors of the Superstars event. Western Union marketing director Brian Fox says negotiations were afoot "at a higher level" over a substantial underwriting of the event, but the parties "couldn't agree on a price" and that's where it was left. Saldeba says the inclusion of Western Union on Superstars promo material is a result of a print timing issue. Says Fox, "We don't want to be associated with controversy."
Shit happens, but what's the deal with local community radio station CKLN, which "prohibits material or comment that is racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic... ," showing up on the event's promo material? CKLN program director Tim May doesn't know or care. "Half the time I don't even understand the lyrical content, and I have to take somebody's word for it."
I raise that point with J-FLAG's Gareth, who bristles. "Well, here people recite the lyrics to these widely popular songs while they abuse gays and lesbians in the streets. And these same people teach that hate to their children." Over at the ACC, exec VP and GM Robert Hunter says the ACC is not in the business of playing cop, but it does ascertain that the events booked are in "reasonably good taste and that people generally are not going to be offended."
Ultimately, he says, "censorship is imposed by people who aren't going to buy tickets. If you take offence to any artist, just don't go to the event."
Pride Toronto spokesperson Leon Mar, meanwhile, takes a decidedly higher road.
"They also have the right to come here, and any anti-gay sentiments are not for us to comment on - other than to wish them a good performance."