Monday, September 6th, 2004

Chi-Chi Man Redemption?

Kelefa Sanneh, brilliantly, on Beenie Man, bu’n battyman lyrics, and the gay activist backlash.

This is a controversy that’s really heated up this summer. In fact, unlike 3 years ago, bu’n chi-chi lyrics are in decline in the dancehall, and the Outrage!/J-Flag campaign has played no small part in this. But as Sanneh points out, it also has to do with dancehall’s continuing global crossover.

He writes:

“Even as they portray themselves as swaggering “bad men,” reggae stars also present themselves as forces for good: folk heroes, social activists, prophets. (Buju Banton, for example, sometimes calls himself, “the voice of Jamaica.”) To be really successful, you have to do both at once, which is one reason vocalists find antigay rhetoric so useful. It gives them a way to gesture to religious and cultural injunctions against homosexuality (in interviews, the stars often cite Scripture) while also reminding listeners of their “bad man” bona fides. With antigay lyrics, vocalists manage to seem simultaneously righteous and wicked.”

Indeed, progressive dancehall-watchers have been making these same points for a while. But just as it was with Boom Bye Bye in 1992, the discourse has reached a new height in light of the platinum success of Sean Paul, and the underground influence of T.O.K. and Elephant Man.

Sanneh’s article makes two passing points that are interrelated, and that deserve elaboration.

+ “This state of affairs has bred no small amount of resentment among stars and listeners alike, who see something neocolonial in the way Britons are criticizing Jamaican music.”

+ “Frustratingly, gay Jamaicans have been largely absent from this discussion.”

For a dancehall artist, anti-gay lyrics are part of a closed system within which an interesting feedback loop develops. Here’s how it works:

If you’ve ever been to a dancehall show, you’ll see that chi-chi man lyrics draw an intensified response from the crowd. We could talk about who’s doing the responding, perhaps compare it to the response rappers get when they ask females to strip, or much worse scenarios (note: I’m never the one to go Fox News and start talking Nazi Germany), but it’s basically empirical fact.

The artists then hit the studio and develop their money lines to voice over a riddim–against tons of other artists trying to get recognized on the same beat. That stuff goes to the shop or the DJs, where the buyers and the DJs sort through the stuff. Here, with 25 seconds to catch the attention of the tastemakers, the tracks with the clearest expressions work the best, and let’s face it: “Fiya bu’n” was a pretty strong trope, yall. The song gets played in the dance, to the same effect as before. And the stuff gets filtered up and up to the top of playlists and charts.

In the end, the reasons that folks dance and respond to this stuff is complicated, but there have been multiple places for the music to be ratified. A small clique of tastemakers can seal the deed. And it is small. We’re talking in the low hundreds. Folks who want to generalize homophobia to the entire country of Jamaica, or speak of it broadly in terms of abstract nationalisms would do well to start first by studying the process of making a dancehall hit.

On the other hand, that group is a powerful group, one confident to believe it can shape the attitudes of the island and the culture. Homophobia also allows that group–let’s call them the cultural elite because that’s what they are–to also gain acceptance from the island’s political establishment. Not a small thing when you consider the fractious, often bloody history between politicians and musicians on the island.

Homophobia, in the same way the culture war does for American fundamentalists and business interests, strikes a strong bargain between the two most powerful forces in Jamaica. Together, the alliance of the establishment with the most influential anti-establishment types can make any kind of dissent look nothing less than treasonous. No wonder gay activists in Jamaica appear tentative to First Worlders.

posted by @ 9:08 am | 0 Comments

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