Jamaican dancehall star Buju Banton’s poisonously anti-gay lyrics have made him a target for worldwide boycotts and protests by LGBT rights activists who say his songs encourage anti-gay violence, especially among fans on the heavily homophobic Caribbean island. Despite this history of hate, the singer of what has been termed “murder music” on Sunday was awarded the 2010 Grammy for Best Reggae Album for “Before the Dawn.”
This was Banton’s fifth Grammy nomination and first win. In 2009, when he was nominated for the same award, gay-rights groups led by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) mounted furious protests and called on the Recording Academy to use the telecast of the awards ceremony to “denounce such music.” The Academy responded that it had in the past featured “a variety of political or cultural perspectives” and would continue to do so.
Ironically, the Grammy awards ceremony came one day after a new report that 28 gay Jamaicans had been granted political asylum in the United States in 2010 because they were persecuted in their native land. The Jamaica Observer said the would-be immigrants had been represented by Immigration Equality, a group of lawyers who help immigrants persecuted in their home countries because of their sexual orientation. The U.S. has recognized such persecution as a basis for seeking asylum since the 1990s, it said.
Gay rights activists say Jamaica is plagued by “murder music,” as this genre of aggressively anti-gay dancehall rhythms is called, and point out that it openly advocates anti-gay violence. “GLAAD stands by its assertion that the Recording Academy should speak out against hateful lyrics like Banton’s, and it hopes that in the future they will make better choices about who to recognize with nominations and trophies,” GLAAD spokesman Rich Ferraro told Hatewatch.
It’s no exaggeration that Banton’s lyrics are hateful. Even in the original Jamaican patois, the meaning of his most notorious anti-gay song, “Boom Bye Bye,” is clear enough: “Boom bye bye/Inna batty bwoy head/Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man/Dem haffi dead.” Translation: “Boom [the sound of a gun] bye-bye/In a faggot’s head/The tough young guys don’t accept fags/They have to die.”
This year’s awards competition might have been Banton’s last chance to win; this week, his trial on drug trafficking charges opened in a Miami federal courtroom. The singer is charged with conspiring to buy a shipment of cocaine from an undercover officer. If convicted, he could be sent to prison for life. He has been under house arrest for months, but was released briefly on Jan. 16 so he could perform in a concert to raise money for legal expenses.
Some of his fans believe the U.S. government or gay activists framed him. According to the AP, Banton took the opportunity to stoke his fans’ conspiracy theories and accuse his opponents of racism. “Why they want to see Buju Banton cry?” he called from the stage. “It is because I said ‘Boom Bye Bye?’ Is it because I say I Selassie I? Is it because I’m black and not shy?”
British human rights activist Peter Tatchell is the international coordinator of Stop Murder Music, a campaign with supporters worldwide who urge sponsors to pull funding from offending artists, pressure venues not to invite them, and organize boycotts and protests when they perform. Fans of Banton and other Jamaican artists “say we’re attacking these artists because they’re homophobic,” Tatchell told the Southern Poverty Law Center last summer. “That’s not true. We’re attacking them because they’re inciting the criminal offenses of violence and murder.”
In a 2004 editorial, Tatchell, who is white, rebutted charges that his campaign against Murder Music is motivated by racism. His purpose, he wrote, is “defending the rights of black gays and lesbians to live in peace, without threats to murder them. It is therefore laughable the way some sections of the black press suggest we are waging war against black music or the black community. Our targets are a tiny number of artists. Our reasons: they incite the killing of lesbians and gay men.”
Banton is not the only internationally known Jamaican performer who sings about torturing and killing gays. Beenie Man, Sizzla Kalonji, Capleton, Elephant Man and the group TOK have equally violent anti-gay songs in their repertoires. But Banton — who according to The Associated Press has had more No. 1 hits than late reggae icon Bob Marley and has collaborated with renowned Haitian singer Wyclef Jean and the punk band Rancid — sets himself apart not only with his success but with his open taunting of LGBT people and their supporters. In 2009, less than a week after sitting down with a group of San Francisco gay rights activists hoping to start a dialogue, Banton declared, “This is a fight, and as I said in one of my songs, there is no end to the war between me and faggot[s].”