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By Felicia Garcia
One afternoon, I was driving to work and I had the reggae station playing on Pandora. Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye-Bye” came on. At first, I wasn’t really paying much attention to what the lyrics were saying. Growing up in a Jamaican family, this kind of music was commonly played in the household. When I was a kid, I didn’t have much connection to reggae because I was more concerned with assimilating into American culture to fit in with my friends at school. Recently, I’ve been trying to catch up on lost time and reconnect with my roots.
I have a different perspective than when I was younger and have grown to be more aware of power dynamics within a culture. The more I listened to this song, the more I noticed the explicitly violent content—the song is about killing gay men. Other reggae and dancehall songs have similar themes of violence, homophobia, and the promotion of perverse masculinity. Realizing this brought me back to early memories of hearing people in my family say things like “batty bwoy” and “chi chi bwoy” to insult men. I use to think these were funny names, silly, and harmless. I now understand that they have dangerous implications. Homophobia as a phenomenon circulated within my culture and family life. A common argument is that the root of homophobia stems from religion, but it is deeper than that.
As I reconnect with my Jamaican culture, it’s going to take more effort than listening to reggae music and eating Jamaican food. I need to learn about our society through a historical and critical lens to unpack the issue of homophobia within island culture. In particular, language, media, and colonialism play a central role in perpetuating these ideas.
Patois (otherwise known as Patwah) is the “unofficial” language of Jamaica because it is considered broken English or English Creole. Much like Jamaican culture, it’s a blend of influences from the United States, Britain, and West Africa. It’s not taught in school, but it is spoken everywhere; it is a direct reflection of Jamaica’s dynamic culture. The language is complex in its expression. Words are used to describe, but also have underlying meanings and they place value on people. For example, the term “batty bwoy” translates to “butt boy,” a man who has anal sex with other men. Christopher A.D. Charles (2011, pp. 3), a West Indies academic, explains that it is dangerous to be a non-heterosexual man because they are constructed to be an “abomination to his God, a shame to his family and society, and worthy of being killed.” “Nasty man” and “chi chi man” are similar derogatory words used to devalue gay men. A batty bwoy is in direct contrast to another commonly used term to describe men in Patois: “rude bwoy.” A rude bwoy is heterosexual, tough, rebellious, but also a friend and one worthy of respect in the street community. These terms not only describe and place value on men, but they police and encourage heterosexual masculinity.
Buju Banton is a popular Dancehall artist who is well known for his song “Boom Bye-Bye.” His music perpetuates violent assertions of male expression. When the song is translated directly, it reads that gay people should be intimidated by him because he has the power to shoot them in the head. Buju’s lyrics detail that he is a “rude bwoy” who doesn’t support the “nasty man.” He also glorifies his own sexuality and masculinity by saying that women are the greatest thing God could put on earth because of the “sweetness” they offer men. His lyrics state that he will shoot gay men and that they should die—he is reaffirming masculine, heterosexual privilege through violence and the utilization of his body in its sexual entity. In Timothy Chin’s article, “Jamaican Popular Culture, Caribbean Literature, and the Representation of Gay and Lesbian Sexuality in the Discourses of Race and Nation” (1999, pp. 16), he articulates the meaning of these lyrics through Carolyn Cooper’s work. The gun in Buju Banton’s song, as well as other Dancehall tunes, represents his penis and “real men” are celebrated for knowing the “real use” of their “gun,” which is used to penetrate women.
Buju Banton’s music, and Dancehall music more generally, makes connections between violence and sexuality and works to enforce hetero-masculinity and ideas of “real men” in Jamaica. Class dynamics are also informing the regulation of hetero-masculinity. According to Charles (2011), Dancehall is deeply rooted in a “violent world view” that struggles against poverty and disenfranchisement. The lyrical emphasis on dominating vaginas with one’s penis is described as a way to gain power and validation. In a harsh environment of impoverishment, being weak can literally cost a man his life. Considering this within a dominant culture of heterosexuality, the definition of weakness and powerlessness becomes the “batty man.” This violent dynamic displaces blame onto gay men through their regulation and marginalization.
This context of violence, blame, and regulation comes into being through Jamaica’s history with colonialism and slavery. European settlers exploited Africans for labor and instilled their ideas about sexual morality through religion and policy. Jamaicans underwent a process of Christianization during their time in slavery from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s: the Spanish with the spread of Catholicism and then the Church of Britain when the British took over the island. As Charles (2011, pp. 8) explains, “the Church started the spread of the Christian gospel to convert captive Africans so they would be saved from sins and become tractable. The Church as a cultural institution became the moral heartbeat of Jamaica.” Under the Consolidated Slave Act, planters were required to build chapels to teach Africans the religion. Great Britain also policed sexuality through the English Buggery Law, which outlawed anal sex and made it punishable by death. Through the power of religion, the British established views of sodomy as sinful, wrong, and punishable. Legal regulation of sexuality informed and enforced “respectability” with sexuality and affected heterosexuals as well since any intercourse that was not for procreation was seen as sinful. Long after slavery and Jamaica’s independence from Great Britain, the morality and respectability rooted in religion continues in the culture today. The dominance of heterosexuality was passed down through centuries of corrosive colonization and became deeply rooted in political and economic systems and circulated within popular culture through language, music, and the media. This legacy has left us with an understanding and practice that men crave respect and recognition, and their value is their toughness and masculinity. Survivability, then, is framed as the meaning of the gun paralleled to that of the penis demonstrating “rude bwoy” capabilities.
Despite the dominant opposition to alternative sexualities, there is still a prevalent gay community in Jamaica. There are not many efforts protecting the rights of the gay community, but there are some interventions that challenge dominant Jamaican society. One example is the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays, which began at the end of 1998 and “constituted the first significant political and institutional attempt to address homosexual issues in Jamaica” (Lawson Williams, 2000, “Homophobia and Gay Rights Activism in Jamaica”). This organization encourages people to refuse the marginalization and violence as a way of pursuing a legitimate life. This approach caused a media and cultural uproar because the organization exposes the violence of a heterosexual state that discriminates against the gay community. Their work is often received with media backlash against the gay community, which raises more concerns for people’s safety. Due to the level of violence against the gay community in Jamaica, many people question the organization’s intentions because it seems that open and safe life in Jamaica still means hiding one’s identity.
Unfortunately, this violent context means, non-heterosexuals and queer supporters remain silent as a means of survival. Although the gay community has found a way to build solidarity and live their lives, the violence remains; it affects people in a variety of negative ways and perpetuates internalizations of shame and continued contexts of fear. Hiding one’s sexuality is the main approach to safety and this is a narrow tunnel of life. Tolerance is needed, but it too is limited. What would it mean for all Jamaicans, including the diaspora, to genuinely live our lives freely?
I am more aware than I was as a child dancing to “Boom Bye-Bye” and remixes of “Chi Chi man.” I’m learning that Jamaica is more than just the country that my family is from. It’s more than a hot tropical place where people live simplistically, go to church, and spend a week preparing Sunday dinner. As I come into my own identity as a queer woman, it becomes more apparent that there is a complicated history and a complex social dynamic that dictates the lives of Jamaicans. I’m not going to suggest that Jamaica has a gay liberation movement that parallels the history of the United States. Jamaica is a place full of beauty, but also of struggle. I, for one, hope to join the steadily growing community of supporters who work to find our safe haven in living as our true selves–understanding our history and transforming the culture into that of a stronger being as we reach for our liberation.
Felicia Garcia is a writer, womanist, and graduating senior at Georgia State University. Felicia claims Atlanta as home, but her origins are in Jamaica. Felicia’s blog, afromynx.com, discusses personal events through a black feminist lens. When Felicia is not expressing her passion for writing, she shares her love with food and long walks in 68 degree weather.