Sat | Jul 11, 2020

Is anti-gay music harmless?

Published:Thursday | August 29, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Jaevion Nelson

Reggae and dancehall are our brand; they're in our vein and culture. It helps in retaining dominant and widely held beliefs, norms and practices and influencing how we interact with each other.

Around 1992, when Buju Banton released Boom Bye Bye, Jamaica seemingly embarked on a trajectory where it gained international notoriety for its treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. With so many songs - apparently there are at least 200 from as early as the 1970s - it wasn't very difficult for people (foreigners?) to believe Jamaica was, indeed, the 'murder music' capital and 'most homophobic place' on earth.

Many Jamaicans are strongly opposed to these descriptions, but the number of mob attacks, murders, abuse and other forms of harassment betray efforts to contest this characterisation. There has been noted progress over the years, but anti-gay attitudes remain commonplace. The brutal murder of 16-year-old Dwayne Jones reminds us that much more needs to be done to protect the rights of LGBT people.

It is unlikely to not hear speakers belting songs endorsing anti-gay attitudes at any event. That's the Jamaica I grew up in. That's what I heard on the bus to and from school every morning and evening and that's still the reality of many Jamaicans.

Nuff artistes like Queen Ifrica still a sing seh dem 'doh waan nuh fish inna [dem] ital dish'. This 'ital dish' is the reason Queen Ifrica has been criticised by concerned Jamaicans, some of whom are human-rights defenders; and the reason why her performance at Rastafest in Toronto was cancelled.

LGBT rights activists have seemingly walked into the trap of Shirley Richards, the former president of Lawyers' Christian Fellowship (LCF), that LGBT rights are part of an agenda to silence Christian values. Richards has been craftily (mis)using some cases where people were sanctioned for disrespecting the codes and practices of their employers. To Richards, these employees were just exercising their freedom of speech and conscience.


The truth is, freedom comes with responsibilities. It isn't a licence to spew disparaging remarks about people. Furthermore, there are limitations to freedoms, and people will protest when they feel you are (mis)using your freedom to (directly or indirectly) cause harm. That's what the group of gay and lesbian Jamaicans abroad, JAGLA, did when it successfully got the organisers of Rastafest to cancel Queen Ifrica's performance.

Only time will tell whether or not JAGLA's actions will 'teach' Ifrica a lesson, mute her, or make her more respectful of the rights of LGBT people. I am anxious that this might only make her angry and cause Jamaicans to resign in their fears about gay rights and people's freedoms.

There is a fair bit of information available, such as the activist reflection on fighting 'murder music' by Colin Robinson and Akim Ade Larcher (2009), which is instructive for our analysis of what ensued recently (see Their experiences and views are noteworthy.

At the end of the day, I am sure Queen Ifrica, as do most Jamaicans, still believes music doesn't influence our behaviour. For many, it's really just a song - it's metaphorical. Furthermore, Jamaicans do not understand activist-speak and, as a consequence, it is difficult to comprehend why saying 'no fish roun' here' is problematic.

Dr Marcia Forbes' book Media, Music and Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica is a good case study for music and behaviour. That is why, while I am not suggesting JAGLA did not engage Ifrica, dialogue outside of polarised spaces is so important in all of this.

Noted Jamaican scholars have opined that songs such as Buju's Boom Bye Bye and TOK's Chi-chi Man are merely lyrics and not an incitement to harm any person. Arguably, this is valid, but one cannot ignore how music contributes to mainstreaming and perpetuating anti-gay attitudes and the application of these songs by Jamaicans. After all, we easily recite lyrics and Bible verses when we mete out punishment to LGBT people.

All of us are somehow complicit. No single group can be held responsible for the anti-gay attitudes replete across Jamaica. We believe that saying 'no fish inna mi ital dish' is OK as long as it didn't explicitly 'encourage' violence. That's a big problem with our culture. It's one of the reasons we ignore students bullying their peers until there is blood.

Not so long ago, we shunned (through our music) people who engage in oral sex - that's now a thing of the past. I sincerely hope we can say that about 'murder music'. As Tanya Stephens said (in an interview with me in 2010), "It wouldn't hurt artistes to stop spreading messages of hate in their music."

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