Free Speech and Hate Music

First published on September 22, 2004, in the Chicago Free Press.

It is by now pretty well known among gays and lesbians that several Jamaican reggae or "dance-hall" performers sing lyrics that are viciously homophobic.

That fact, however, seems not to have reached people in the entertainment business who sponsor and support these performers.

Recently the British gay advocacy group Outrage! mounted a campaign to induce performers such as Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Elephant Man, Capleton, Sizzla, T.O.K., and Vybz Kartel-to stop singing those lyrics, charging that they promote homophobia and legitimize anti-gay violence.

Here are some of the lyrics. In the Jamaican patois batty means buttocks and battyman means gay or queer. Chi chi means gay or lesbian. Other translations are in parentheses.

From Beenie Man:

"Hang chi chi gal wid a long piece of rope." "I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays." "Tek a Bazooka and kill batty-fucker." "All faggots must be killed." "We burn chi-chi man and then we burn sodomite and everybody bawl out, say, 'Dat right!'"

And from Elephant Man:

"Dance wi (we) a dance and a bun (burn) out a freaky man. ...crush out a bingi (queer) man." "Battyman fi (must be) dead! Gimme tha tec-nine (pistol), Shoot dem like bird." "Battyman fi (must be) dead! Get a shot inna yu head, inna mi big gun collide" (when meet my big gun).

From Vybz Kartel:

"Bow (blow-job) cat, sodomite, batty man fi (must) gat assassination," "Faggot fi (must) get copper (bullet) to di heart, A wet yuh up wid di Maggy" (I shoot you with the Magnum). Or T.O.K.: "From dem a drink inna chi chi man bar, Blaze di fire mek we dun (kill) dem!" And Sizzla: "Shot battyboy, my big gun-boom" and "Boom! Boom! Batty boy them fi (must be) dead."

The lyrics are no different from the murderous anti-black and anti-Semitic lyrics of underground skinhead and neo-Nazi rock groups preaching "racial holy war" and the extermination of minorities - whose CDs are for sale on the Internet. But dance clubs, concert promoters and record labels that would never sign a neo-Nazi group welcome the reggae homophobes.

The excuses vary. One agent said the lyrics were "metaphors" although he did not linger to say what lyrics about gleefully bashing, burning, shooting and hanging homosexuals might be metaphorical for.

A club hosting Capleton and Beenie Man objected that no one complained before and, anyway, it is "very difficult to understand what they are saying on stage." But then the club added, "They won't be using those lyrics when they play here." That is gratifying. But if the lyrics are really so difficult to understand, why bother assuring that they won't sing them?

A New York Times writer claimed that the violence of their anti-gay language is just a rhetorical gesture - a way to "gesture to religious and cultural injunctions against homosexuality...while also reminding listeners of their 'bad man' bona fides."

Suavely argued! But the singers seem serious. When Virgin Records issued a supposed apology for Beenie Man's homophobic lyrics, the performer's manager repudiated the apology. Another performer was identified by a witness as a participant in a Jamaican gay-bashing incident.

Perhaps the most specious defense of the lyrics is that we should tolerate them because we must preserve everyone's right to free speech. But the defense is without merit. Constitutional protections for "free speech" only guarantee that speech is safe from interference by government authorities.

Anyone can freely espouse any cause, write letters to a newspaper, post notices, distribute flyers and handbills, rent a room or lecture space and make a speech saying just about anything short of sedition and incitement to riot - and governments may not interfere.

But the Constitution does not say that people must be paid for their speech. "Free speech" does not mean that a private club, organization or lecture hall is obligated to pay someone to speak their piece or sing their songs. No agent is obligated to promote them, no lecture series or concert manager is obligated to book them. The Constitution guarantees "free speech" not "paid speech."

The only reason a dance club or commercial entertainment space engages a performer is to make money. And there are only two reasons club managers would engage a homophobic performer:

  1. They agree with the homophobic views, or
  2. They do not care what he says so long as people buy tickets.

In either case, others are free to try to discourage this and future exhibitions of homophobia by reducing the performer's and dance club's income. They can persuade people not to attend, picket the event in orderly fashion, pass out explanatory literature, tell their objections to newspapers, and name and shame club owners and concert managers for their complicity with inflammatory bigotry.

A friend shares the following story. A Holocaust survivor was once asked what Jews had learned from Nazi persecution. He replied, "When someone says they're going to kill you, believe them."

Comments are closed.