Not long ago, Jamaican reggae star Beenie Man (real name: Anthony Moses Davis) seemed on the verge of mainstream success. His last album had featured collaborations with Janet Jackson and L'il Kim, both a European and American tour were scheduled for the summer, and he would reach a national U.S. audience for the first time via an appearance on Conan O'Brien.
But there was a dirty little secret behind his pulsing 'riddims' and Jamaican patois: Beenie Man explicitly incited the murder of gay people. In his hit 'Damn', for instance, the singer called on fans to come to Jamaica to 'execute all the gays', and earlier songs had described hanging lesbians 'wit a long rope' and killing gay DJs. Perhaps not coincidentally, gay bashing had recently become something of a blood sport on his home island, and Jamaica's only 'out' gay activist, Brian Williamson, was found murdered in his home earlier this year.
The first sign that Beenie Man's secret was out of the closet, however, came when he was detained by London police after gay-rights group Outrage! complained that his songs violated British laws against hate speech. With his London date cancelled, Beenie Man vowed to continue his tour in Europe, but soon found himself again under police scrutiny in Belgium, where he was allowed to perform only after promising to avoid all homophobic lyrics in concert. Meanwhile other homophobic Jamaican performers found themselves picketed by Amnesty International, and seminal 'hate reggae' artist Buju Banton came under investigation by Jamaican police for an alleged armed attack on a group of gay men.
Virgin Records quickly cobbled together a vague apology from Beenie Man to 'those who might have been offended, threatened, or hurt' by his songs, but the statement never mentioned gay people explicitly, and the artist's promoters in Jamaica backed away from it in the local press. Gay activists scoffed in response. 'When someone is sincerely sorry, they acknowledge the wrong they've done and apologize to the persons they've harmed,' said Peter Tatchell of Outrage! 'Beenie Man's statement doesn't do any of those things. He's panicked by the threat that he's going to face concert cancellations all over the U.S.'
But Beenie Man's American tour—which included a stop at Chicago's House of Blues—still seemed on track. His high-energy appearance on Conan O'Brien went well (he sang the non-homophobic 'Dude'), and his publicists began cynically promoting the idea that his lyrics were indecipherable—and indeed, to many in the U.S. audience, epithets like 'battyman' and 'chi chi man' (rough translation: 'faggot') mean little.
When Boston's Bay Windows approached fans lined up for the singer's local show, however, most insisted they did, indeed, understand what he was talking about. Pressed as to whether they supported violence against gays, many shrugged, walked away, or said they liked Beenie Man more for his 'riddims' than his lyrics. 'Do you agree with what President Bush says?' one Caribbean woman argued. Several men, however, replied they did indeed believe gays should be executed. 'That's right,' one fan insisted menacingly. 'Kill them.'
But Beenie Man soon found himself forced to edit the murder out of his music. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network began mobilizing a national response to the tour, and a protest in Philadelphia was only prevented when the singer again excluded all homophobic songs from his set (an October date has since been cancelled). 'The show almost got stopped,' the singer complained to his Philadelphia audience, adding, 'Gays got it wrong. If you have sex with a man, that's your own business. ... We just don't want anyone to molest our kids.'
This craven attempt to equate gays with child molesters didn't do much to reverse his fortunes. On Aug. 6, R.J. Reynolds, sponsor of 14 of Beenie Man's U.S. dates (including the stop at Chicago's House of Blues) abruptly pulled the plug. 'In no way do those lyrics reflect the views of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco,' David Howard, an RJR spokesman, said in a statement. '(We) do not tolerate this or any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation.'
Beenie Man reportedly still has 11 confirmed dates on his tour, but gay groups are insisting the fight is far from over. Philadelphia activists are already in discussion with Clear Channel media corporation, which owns some 1,500 radio stations across the U.S., about dropping Beenie Man and other homophobic reggae artists from on-air play. 'This is just the beginning,' says Outrage!'s Peter Tatchell. 'We're now building a worldwide coalition committed to driving homophobic violence out of dancehall lyrics. These singers' careers are in serious jeopardy.'