Wed | Oct 17, 2018

Jaevion Nelson : Reggae, dancehall and the psyche

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

When WILL we divorce our blindness and hypocrisy about the impact our music can have on people, including their treatment of people from vulnerable and marginalised communities such as gays and lesbians and women and girls? It has been most painful to see scholars and opinion leaders argue in defence of dancehall music, especially defending the lyrics as merely metaphorical over the years. It's almost as if the lyrics we listen to do not play a key role in how we understand people and society, frame our opinions, and treat each other.

This is a convenient denial of the reality; it is tiring. We cannot ignore the fact that reggae and dancehall music play a significant role in the retention of dominant and widely accepted beliefs we consider to be socially or morally acceptable or unacceptable.

I can understand why we might want to defend our music, but it does not serve any of us well to deny its potential impact. Yes, the songwriter or artiste might not have intended to cause harm or considered the extent to which people might interpret the music. This does not, however, mean negative behaviours aren't encouraged. For example, our music promotes aggressiveness, multiple sex partners, and social exclusion and violence against gays and lesbians persons. And yes, many of our artistes also use their music to protest against corruption, child (sexual) abuse, and violence and defend the welfare of the poor, but that does not mean such criticisms are mis/ill-informed.

I want to focus on the role of Jamaican music in perpetuating antipathy towards gays and lesbians and transgender people, which the US State Department cited in its annual report on human rights in Jamaica.

One cannot ignore or deny the role our music has played over the years in mainstreaming and perpetuating homophobia in our country. Its role continues to be dominant despite the fact that these songs have reduced over the years and some artistes have come out as supporters of equality for and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and apologise for the harm they have caused others because of their music. Notwithstanding, it is still not unlikely for such songs to be belting from the speakers at social eventseven in so-called 'uptown' spaces. Lyrics from reggae and dancehall songs are frequently cited by persons when they are harassing or abusing LGBT people. Importantly, this does not only happen in Jamaica. Human-rights defenders from other countries have complained bitterly many times about the exportation of hate/murder music from our country and its role in perpetuating stigma and discrimination and violence against gays and lesbians in their country.




It is unclear where all of this hate has emanated from in our music. One senior politician has said to me that this can be traced back to fundamentalist Christian advocacy against the rights of LGBT people. Cecil Gutzmore, in a paper entitled 'Casting the First Stone', argues that songs promoting anti-gay attitudes were being recorded from as early as 1978. According to a website, Murder Inna Dancehall, Mauma Man by Shabba Ranks (Rexton Gordon) produced in 1989 by VP Records on the Best Baby Father album was one of the first set of homophobic songs. There are more than 200 such songs which have come to be known by many abroad as 'murder music'.

International reggae artiste Tanya Stephens, in a 2010 interview, provided a poignant explanation for the homophobia which is replete in Jamaican music. "Artistes reflect what is already an ingrown social undertone, but, in so doing, help to reinforce the attitude and often bring it to the fore as a renewed trend, hence strengthening it," she said.

White & Gerke's exploratory research on intolerance in Jamaican society in 2007 supports Lewis & Carr's (2009) argument in Gender, Sexuality and Exclusion: Sketching the Outlines of the Jamaican Popular Nationalist Project that "specific manifestations of gender and sexuality have come to challenge or define popular conceptions of Jamaican national identity". In so doing, many incidences of "sexuality-based oppression", as highlighted by White & Gerke (2007) and Lewis (2009), are often seen as a "defence of anti-Jamaican practices", which has been referred to by The Guardian and The Economist as a "vicious intolerance", where even politicians are seemingly undisturbed by the number of hate crimes meted out to the gay community.

It is time that we have more frank discussions about the role of music in our society - and not just in relation to homophobia. Dancehall and reggae artistes are teaching our children and youth because of our unwillingness to talk to them on certain topics such as sex and sexuality.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to and