Friday night Hammerstein Ballroom demo targets hate-fueled reggae
As New York queers take to the streets to protest the Republican National Committee, local activism burns hot.
Friday evening, September 3, will see a protest at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom against the Hot97-sponsored anti-gay, murder-filled lyrics of Jamaican dancehall stars Beenie Man, Vybz Cartel, T.O.K. and Elephant Man.
The protest, organized by a coalition of queer, AIDS, people of color and Caribbean groups and individuals, will take place at 7 p.m. in front of the ballroom’s Manhattan Center home at 311 W. 34th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue.
Since June, gay activists have been fiercely rattling the chains in Jamaica, Europe and the United States, demanding the cancellation of concerts by artists who preach the murder of queers. The demand was sparked by the slaying in Kingston, Jamaica, of Brian Williamson, a gay activist. Williamson’s murder follows a long and increasingly violent pattern of gay-bashing in Jamaica—fueled by wildly popular hate lyrics, as well as the refusal by Jamaican police to respond to crimes whose victims are gay.
Concerts have been cancelled in England and Germany by the sponsoring venues, and across the U.S. by tour sponsor RJ Reynolds and local concert halls. Singer Buju Banton was ordered by his corporate sponsor, Puma, to omit all homophobic lyrics from his performance at the Olympic games.
The Hot97 Hammerstein Ballroom concert is one of only a few performances left uncancelled on Beenie Man’s U.S. tour. Hot97, which bills itself as the “official #1” for hip-hop and r&b in the New York radio market, has flatly refused to talk with the gay and Caribbean activist coalition, and the Hammerstein Ballroom claimed in a fax that it does not seek to control the content of performances.
Organizers are calling on the Caribbean and queer communities to turn out in force to the demonstration, citing “murder music” as a major catalyst for gay bashing in Jamaica.
“Jamaicans are asking for help in bringing international economic pressure to stop the hate lyrics,” said Julius Powell, a Jamaican gay man and a member of the New York coalition No More Murder Music. “There is a culture of anti-gay discrimination in Jamaica, institutionalized in laws and language. ‘Chi chi man’, for example, actually means ‘termite,’ and it goes along with the idea that gays are a corruption that needs to be removed from society.”
Through the music, the culture of homophobia is internalized, and the discrimination is realized as physical abuse, according to Powell. In Jamaican and U.S. Caribbean newspapers, organizers have faced the charge that the movement is an attack on reggae and Jamaican culture. The charges have been especially strong against the English gay group, Outrage!, which does not claim any links to Jamaican or Caribbean communities, and has forwarded the international call to action.
But in New York, the movement against the artists has had strong leadership from the Caribbean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In June, members of Jamaica Forum for All-Sexuals, Lesbians and Gays, or JFLAG, met at Human Rights Watch to ask New Yorkers for assistance. In subsequent meetings to establish No More Murder Music, groups and individuals representing an array of Caribbean nationalities and local communities of color plugged in to build the coalition. Planning meetings take place at the New York State Black Gay Network, and the coalition is looking beyond the cancellation of concerts to long-term organizing. The group is also taking the opportunity to deal with issues of race within the queer world.
“LGBT communities have a problematic history around race, which has come through in folks outside the Caribbean community leading on this issue,” said Robinson. “That plays into the destructive idea that ‘queers are white, and Caribbean people are straight’ and that organizers are just white queers using power in racist ways. If we’re going to interrupt that idea, we have to have different leadership on this issue. And we can use this issue to look at some of the racial fault lines in the queer community. It’s especially important because some people of color don’t join in [to multi-racial organizing] because they’ve been burned before.”
The New York group hopes to counter that trend with multi-racial organizing under the leadership of Caribbean LGBT people. Race and nationality are not the sole defining issue, though.
“Queerness transcends borders, class and race, so we can’t presume that this is a form of cultural penetration,” said Powell. “What’s more, Jamaica has set its own standard by signing on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
While organizers are hopeful that Friday’s Hammerstein demonstration will be populated by those who are most directly affected within their communities, they acknowledge that the reality of homophobia and violence may prevent it.
“We may have a relatively small turnout from the Caribbean LGBT community, because people still have to live underground,” Powell said. “That’s why it’s so important that the demonstration is happening, and why we need to be able to count on support from our allies.”
Speaking of allies, it is worth noting as this week winds down that gay-bashing dancehall artist Donnie McClurkin is scheduled to perform at the Republican National Convention.
For more information on the effort to challenge hate music, visit jflag.org, call 917 691 6306 or e-mail [email protected]
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