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Wednesday 10 November 2010

Jamaica: Murder on the dancefloor

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 15th November 2009

What is the social and historical context of Jamaica's homophobic murder music? Much of it seems to do with the unhappy post-independence existence of Jamaica itself.

After it gained independence from Britain in 1962, Jamaica was governed alternately by two political parties, the Peoples National Party and Jamaican Labour Party, which ruled by corruption and clientage. If one party was in power, then it would provide its supporters with employment and accommodation opportunities. Unfortunately too, neither the PNP or JLP had any scruples when it came to use of interpersonal violence or arming and equipping gangs to suppress each other's political aspirations. High poverty and unemployment exacerbated matters in the hapless island state.

As a consequence, education and immigration were usually the best way out of a difficult situation. Matters were complicated by drug prohibition within the United States, the CIA and its geopolitical aspirations, which meant that as the cocaine black market developed, Kingston became a way station for illicit drug transactions and Jamaican ganglords and corrupt politicians acquired ill-gotten loot. The nexus appears to have been hard to break and matters were not helped by widespread judicial corruption and police corruption, underequipment and brutality.

Muder music: Jamaican reggae star Beenie Man
It's hard to imagine that given these unfortunate beginnings, things could get any worse, but they did.

In the late seventies, PNP Prime Minister Michael Manley announced socialism had arrived in Jamaica. The corrupt Jamaican elite left, capital flight happened, foreign investment dried up and unemployment and the homicide rate blossomed as the JLP exploited the situation. Pacifistic Rastafarians like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh tried to calm the situation through providing a message of social unity, nonviolence and calm, but their message fell on deaf ears. Even as Manley and JLP leader Edward Seaga shook hands on the platform, the JLP was exchanging guns for cocaine, while the CIA looked the other way. In 1980, Seaga won the consequent election and instituted austerity measures, which further ratcheted up the crime rate, fuelled homicide and led to a thriving firearms trade.

Matters were not assisted by criminal Jamaican expatriates who thrived in equally deprived US inner city environments with negligible social services and educational facilities. Britain, Canada and the United States deported Jamaican expatriates arrested for trafficking in crack cocaine, while an illicit gun trade fuels increasing interpersonal violence in an atmosphere of deprivation.

To defuse the Rastafarian message of peaceful interaction and harmony, Jamaica's corrupt political elite and ganglords fostered a musical genre more amenable to their own interests- dancehall music. Their client musicians could be entrusted not to rock the boat and conveniently diverted attention through encouraging horizontal hostility against others- hence the rise of 'murder music' and homophobic violence within Jamaica. Jamaica has the highest homicide rate in the world and out of an estimated one thousand homicides in 2004, only forty murderers were convicted.


As for lesbians and gay men, the situation is even worse. Jamaica hasn't decriminalised male homosexuality, and retains its colonial-era Offences Against the Person Act 1870, 'updated' in 1969. However, Section 76 labels gay male sex as 'buggery', with a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment. Section 77 criminalises even the intent to have gay sex, with no sex actually having taken place, and carries a seven year penalty, while Section 79 refers to 'gross indecency,' which pertains to enabling gay men to have sex.

Current People's National PM Bruce Golding has claimed that 'foreign' concepts of lesbian and gay rights have no place in socially conservative Jamaica, while the Opposition Jamaican Labour Party has only addressed the issue once in 2004, when a former Justice Minister advocated decriminalisation of homosexuality and sex work.

There is a small but heroic LGBT rights movement. In 1974, the Gay Freedom Movement came into existence, providing outreach to LGBT prisoners and youth, as well as running an HIV/AIDS and STI prevention service. After its founder sought asylum in the United States due to Jamaica's increasing homophobia, JFLAG replaced it, and carries on its work. It isn't easy. In 2004-2005, two HIV/AIDS activists, Brian Williamson and Lenford "Steve" Harvey, were murdered. Altogether, JFLAG estimates there have been thirty homophobic murders in Jamaica (c1997-2004).

In Britain, gay human rights activist Peter Tatchell and gay journalist Johann Hari drew attention to the existence of virulent incitements to homophobic violence and murder through use of firearms in the work of several anti-gay reggae dancehall artists. Tatchell became involved in a campaign against such 'murder music.' Offending artists include Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Vybzz Kartel, Elephant Man, Siizzla, Capleton, TOK, Anthony B and Shanna Ranks. As a consequence, their fortunes have suffered.

There has been talk of an agreement not to engage in murder music, but unfortunately, some of the above artists engaged in sheer duplicity, signing the document but then reneging on it once they were back in Jamaica, away from the spotlight.


Tom Feiling: The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World: London: Penguin: 2009.

Craig Young - 15th November 2009

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