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Reggae's Compassion

Apparently, reggae and dancehall music are nothing alike. This might sound confusing to casual fans of the genres, but international reggae star Freddie McGregor says a line needs to be drawn in the sand — and he's not just talking shit. McGregor, a prominent member of the reggae community who's based in Hollywood, is just one of a long list of artists who are angered by the recent declaration of the Reggae Compassionate Act, which calls for the abolition of homophobic lyrics in reggae.

Numerous dancehall artists have been besieged by gay-rights groups over the years for writing inflammatory lyrics, some of which call for the deaths of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered citizens around the world. It's an old problem that hasn't gone away. Civil liberties groups like Stop Murder Music, OutRage, and GLAAD do their best to block homophobic dancehall artists from performing internationally, which has resulted in canceled shows and a sizable loss of revenue. Artists who have earned the scorn of the gay-rights community, like Sizzla, Beenie Man, Capleton, and Buju Banton, whose "Boom Bye Bye" from 1992 epitomizes dancehall's antigay message, have been dogged in the media for their lyrics, but the loss of income from canceled shows probably hurts their pocketbooks even more than the bad press hurts their reputations.

About a month ago, news came from London that dancehall artists Sizzla, Beenie Man, and Capleton had signed an accord denouncing homophobia in their music. The goal of the Reggae Compassionate Act is to get reggae artists to agree not to perform homophobic material in concert. It says "there is no space in the music community for hatred and prejudice, including no place for racism, violence, sexism or homophobia." It sounded like a step in the right direction, but I was skeptical that antiqueer artists would join in. Then news came that Banton had signed.

Now, all hell has broken loose. Websites that reported the accord, including New Times, were flooded with homophobic comments — and that was only the beginning. Artists alleged to have signed the document put forth denials, including Capleton and Banton, who say that they were never approached to sign such an agreement and that their reported signatures were frauds. Although attempts to reach Capleton, Sizzla, and Beenie Man were unsuccessful, Traci McGregor (no relation to Freddie), president of Banton's Gargamel Music, states emphatically that they were never contacted by anyone from Stop Murder Music and concurs that if Banton's signature is on the document, it must be a fake.

All of that puts a negative slant on what should have been a monumental step forward for gay-rights activists around the world.

I've read the document and seen the signatures from all four artists and can't help but believe that the document is fraudulent. At least three of the artists have denied signing it, and the fourth, Beenie Man, refuses to speak on the issue publicly.

Even if the artists signed the document, Freddie McGregor says, he still has a problem with it because of one key distinction he believes needs to be made. Its opening sentence reads, "We, the artists of the reggae community...," but McGregor says such wording is misleading.

"It needs to read, 'We, the artists of the dancehall community,' because Jamaica has two genres of music, reggae and dancehall, and all of this homophobia business is a dancehall problem, not a reggae problem," McGregor said in a recent phone interview. "This don't have nothing to do with reggae, so why does the contract [say] that?"

McGregor says he doesn't have a problem with the GLBT community. His problem is that reggae is being dragged through the muck when it already has image problems thanks to dancehall.

He's got a point. Reggae — the slow-winding lover's rock made popular by Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, and Beres Hammond — is a relatively accepting genre that preaches "One Love." Dancehall is a more aggressive style with faster rhythms, bolder lyrics, and a problem with violent imagery that rivals hip-hop's when it comes to bad notices and even real-life gunfights. So to call on reggae artists to stop homophobia is misleading. As McGregor points out, there aren't any reggae artists targeted by gay-rights groups because reggae artists "don't deal in such fuckery!"

"Reggae is about peace and love and unity," McGregor continued, "and dancehall is about violence. They choose to go out and blast the gay and lesbian community, and we don't."

If the accord is real, Beenie Man and Sizzla's show in Miami this weekend should be free of the expletives commonly hurled at homosexuals by dancehall performers. But that probably won't be the case. I haven't gone to a dancehall show in South Florida without hearing the "chi chi man" and "batty boy" references.

Still, there is a chance that the Reggae Compassionate Act can have a healing effect.

"There's a big lesson in all of this," McGregor says with the wisdom of a man who's been in the reggae industry for 44 years. "It's teaching these younger artists that they shouldn't have said all those things against gays in the past. Leave what doesn't bother you alone, and promote peace and unity."

Maybe McGregor needs to start teaching a class called Basic Humanity 101.

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Jonathan Cunningham