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One Love vs. Murder Music

Post date Mon 3 Sep 2012 2:13 PM

In 2012, fifty years has past since Jamaica achieved freedom, the British colonial reign ended and the Jamaican flag finally was unfurled for the first time. For us 2FACED1s the music and culture of this tiny island has functioned as a huge influenced on our common pop culture, and in many ways presented alternative ways of looking upon the present Western society.

A couple of months ago a polarized debate, took place in Sweden concerning homophobia and dancehall music, and with this article by our fellow 2FACED1, Nathan Hamelberg, we wish to broaden the perspectives, 2FACED1-style, bridging some gaps and shed light on facts that we feel are too important to overlook. Could a lot of ignorance have been avoided if there was more mutual understanding of the parallel histories of the movements? The 2FACED1 State Of Mind blog presents;

"Kissing Sizzla" - Artwork by A Lowe Thing exclusively for 2FACED1 STATE of MIND

One Love versus Murder Music

Words by Nathan Hamelberg

Is there anything, politically speaking, as depressing as trench warfare between different liberation movements?

The worldwide campaigns against murder music has, starting off roughly with reactions Buju Bunton's "Boom Bye Bye" (1992) led to two previously unknown phenomenons. First, it sparked debates about reggae in general or dancehall in particular, especially about lyrical content outside of the universal tribe of aficionados that reached worldwide and had repercussions inside Jamaica. Secondly, it marked a shift within the LGBT - activist community, going from celebrating icons to boycotting bigots. Twenty years onward, the No Murder Music - campaign was vibrant in Sweden, with a campaign against Nyabinghi rasta practitioner and "conscious" Reggae superstar of the nineties, Sizzla.

The boycott campaign sparked off a lot of debate in Swedish media as well as social media. By and large, it was a two sided affair, with anti-homophobia activists demanding a clear stance, against Sizzla and other artists encouraging violence against and murder of homosexuals, from reggae event organizers. On the other hand, dancehall die-hards deriding the opposition as a manifestation of racism and a colonial view of sexual politics.

The online debate was characterized by entrenched positions, generalizing statements going far beyond the subject matter and for LGBT people of color or in love with caribbean music, as well as anti-homophobia dancehall lovers, it was nothing short of a secular version of the purgatory. The facebook group Rainbow Riots gathered both LGBT Reggae lovers and haters, as well as committed anti-racists and others who saw it as simply an issue of combating homophobia. In the end the Jamaican LGBT group J-Flag's views of different dancehall artists came to set the standard against which they should be measured and any boycott should take its cue from. In the end, the nightclub Slakthuset decided to cancel the gig, organized by independent promoters, and taking an economic hit but probably gaining some goodwill from the LGBT community in Stockholm. Having said that, 'Sizzlagate' amounted to an attempt of communication and reconciliation between the Swedish LGBT and Reggae community. A few things are certain: there are vast problems of homophobia in dancehall, and the Swedish LGBT-scene is not a free heaven from the racist structures that shape Swedish society at large.

The question is whether not a lot of ignorance could have been avoided if there was more mutual understanding of the parallel histories of the movements?


Children of the Same Kind 

Let us begin circa 1970, when both reggae, - as a social movement, lifestyle and a anti-colonialist musical culture, and the gay liberation movement* celebrated it's largest victories. Bob Marley put global injustices and the colonial heritage on the pop cultural map more or less at the exact time that the gay liberation Stonewall riots turned streets, squares (pun intended) and discotheques upside down. The evolving LGBT movement as well as the solidarity movement emboldened by Rastafarianism would inspire working class youth, feminists and second generation immigrant youth throughout Europe. More precisely, the American black, gay liberation movement and reggae children of the same kind.

Both trace their political, and to quite a great extent cultural, roots back to the Harlem Renaissance movement. Many of the most well known figures of the movement, from Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were gay or bisexual, and outspoken supporters of the most militant political leader of the movement; Marcus Garvey. Garvey was a Jamaican emigré in New York where he organized UNIA**. Second in importance only to Haile Selassie in symbolic importance within roots reggae, Garvey was the most successful organized Pan-Africanist in the years preceding African and Caribbean de-colonisation. Besides initiating the "Black Star Liner/Back to Africa" project/movement, he also played a pivotal role in organizing international support for Abbessynia against the Italian invasion. Second to the international anti-fascist brigades fighting Franco, Mussolini and Hitler in the Spanish civil war, it was the most well organized international anti-fascist solidarity campaign of the mid war years. On a more general level, the literature, the magazines, the poetry and music of the Harlem Renaissance was the cultural soil that a lot of the Civil Rights Movement sprung out of some twenty years later. And obviously, it served as the political ground for Reggae.

Back in the streets of Harlem, the music, dance and poetry of the Ballroom scene during the whole twenties and most of the thirties was the direct precursor to the vogueing scene that developed in the late sixties.

Music and Dance as a Prelude to Rebellion

Back to the 1970ies: for the African diaspora as well as the gay community the way out of oppression was intrinsically about the creation of a collective. That meant to liberate space from the oppression. And using culture as a means to rally the tribe. In Jamaican slavery days, slave owners were fined as much as fifty guineas if any of their slaves were caught with a drum, simply because of the rallying power of loud, rhythmic instruments. Dance was a gathering, and a gathering a prelude to a rebellion. Just as a lot of the 70'ies American gay culture organized itself informally around loft parties, somewhat separationist before bursting out in the mainstream, revolt against slavery centuries before came through creating a collective strong enough to survive any coming clash and also, to put enough distance enough from the slave owners and colonial powers that be.*** Not a small amount of propaganda was spread, probably often in vain, against successful refugees from slavery.

That topic, of creating your own heaven, your own republic, is a dominant theme in so much of reggae as well as (gay) disco - although reggae rather stresses place ”Zion” than place, as in so many disco anthems: ”Weekend”, ”Saturday”. The through Rastafarianism popularized concept of Exodus from Babylon to Zion means literally to go from hell on earth to heaven on earth, and thus stands in opposition to a paralyzing traditional Christian view that rewards come in the afterlife, and for LGBT-movement shaking of conservative religious concepts of piety have been essential to take steps towards liberation.

The End of a Period - Where Gays, Blacks and Woman Took The Center Stage of Pop Culture

Uncannily, the backlashes against both reggae and gay-movement coincide historically. 1979 witnessed the incident that has later been identified as the onset of downfall of disco; Disco demolition night, later called ”The Comiskey Park Riot”, in July the 12th, 1979. Tens of thousands of baseball fans gathered for a Chicago White Sox/Detroit Tigers double header, and were given a beneficial discount if they brought disco records to be destroyed on the occasion, bringing to mind the Nazis ritual burnings of Jewish literature. It marked the end of a short period when women, gays and blacks took the center stage of popular culture. In a few years after the routing, with homophobic overtones, of disco from the musical mainstream the AIDS epidemic spelled anti-gay backlash worldwide.

Similarly, in Jamaica 1978, a political civil war was averted probably only because of the One Love Peace concert in Kingston where leading roots reggae musicians gathered to promote unity and broker peace between the rival gangs affiliated with the conservative Jamaican Labor Party and the socialist People’s National Party. The idea behind the concert came from rivaling gang leaders Claudius 'Claudie' Massop (JLP) and Aston 'Bucky Marshall' Thomson (PNP) who discussed how to put a stop to senseless violence, and Massop contacted Bob Marley and courted him to return from London where he lived in exile since the failed assassination attempt against him two years earlier.

Three years later Marley was dead from cancer, political gang war was fought in the streets of Kingston, CIA intrigued to stop Jamaica from coming under Cuban influence. More than anything else, the aggressive homophobia from ’Murder Music’ stems from the extreme machismo from the paramilitary gangs.

Homophobia is the blind spot of reggae, the part of Caribbean colonial heritage and the legacy left from slavery that a emancipator musical culture such as reggae has not yet dealt with. But everything is not black or white. Whilst reaction set in both in Jamaica and the US during the Reagan years, with AIDS and gang war running wild in parallel, the eighties underground disco sound – garage – was thoroughly infused with reggae. The most successful Jamaican rhythm section of all time, Sly & Robbie, left Jamaica for New York (and Nassau), and threw hurled themselves into the centre of the world of American dance music, producing and performing with some of the giants of Gay music; Grace Jones and Larry Levan – resident DJ of the Paradise Garage, arguably the most important black gay club of all time.

- A bit reductionist perhaps, but the template for garage music can be written disco + dub. Check Grace Jones' ’Pull up to the Bumper" above, or Gwen Guthrie's ’Seventh Heaven’ for instance.

the Centrality of Family as a Right

Another striking resemblance between reggae and the LGBT-movement – the centrality of family as a right. In Jamaica, just as in most other societies built on slavery, family is not just an institution like any other but something that was effectively denied for the majority. As such, it was also space of collective resistance against oppression, much like the church. Just as so many gays and lesbians have fought hard for legal rights to marry, adopt, inseminate and have a family, so too have slaves and the descendants of slaves. Jamaican masculinity is, and Jamaican families are, heavily scarred by the fact that so many men and family are dependent on the possibility of migrant labor opportunities – economically beneficial, but ruining a lot of communities socially. ’Successful’ Jamaican men often have to sacrifice living close to their loved ones.****

Intersectionality and the Last Chain of Colonialism

Anyone pondering whether homophobia is endemic specifically to reggae and Rastafarianism would do well to compare Jamaican sodomy laws with British Victorian laws – as well as look at how countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe etc. all have inherited the same laws. Sadly, homophobia is a mainstream tenet of faith in Jamaican Christianity, but from a distance it might seem as if it stems from reggae given that reggae is the one facet of Jamaican culture that most non-Caribbean people know about. If the gay world and the world of reggae music could meet in exodus on dance floors in the midst of the 80'ies that gave us AIDS, Cold war, Reaganomics, Thatcher and Jamaican gang wars, they must be able to meet without ’worries in the dance’ today. To complete its confessed liberation mission, reggae needs to rid itself of the last chain of colonialism; the bigotry of homophobia.


///Nathan Hamelberg


*for lack of better words, I chose not to say LGBT or Q for that matter, that would be a bit untrue to history
** Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities
*** Maroonage it was called, from the Spanish word cimaron - savage.
**** Historically, the Panama canal was built chiefly by immigrant workers, a great part of them Jamaican – which has led to Panamanian music being more receptive to reggae influences, Panama being called ’Black Colombia’ already.

This is an expanded and reworked version in English of a piece originally posted in Swedish at Tidningen Kom Ut.


Nathan Hamelberg is a music archaeologist/obsessive of the ninth degree who unknowingly picked up his addiction some quarter of a century back when he set out on a shaky career as a hiphop DJ at the age of twelve. In his free time he combines editorial work for online street culture video magazine www.stocktown.com with spreading of the gospel of Hip Hop studies in Sweden through the study group Each One Teach One. A few years back he co-founded the activist group Mellanförskapet ('The Betweenship'; a wordplay on the Swedish words for citizenship and exclusion) to put focus on the missing piece in Swedish anti-racist and integration discussions - people of mixed ethnic background. Otherwise he splits his hours evenly between spinning records on his clubs Bring The Noise and Belleville in Stockholm nighttime and hacking away as digital editor of the Swedish Museum of Architecture, getting paid to put his obsession about cultural sustainability, design and urban issues to use online.