Negrophilia: On Beenie Man

The Jamaican dance hall is little more than a yard, an open space bordered by booming cavernous speaker boxes where, in the main, men gather to listen to and demonstrate their outlaw cowboy prowess by riding rhythms like bucking bronco’s that parody the ills of Jamaican society. Much of dance hall’s initial style was fashioned off popular 1960’s wild western movies and a macho posturing that seemed to sublimate the history of black male powerlessness and submission that stretched back to slavery. With the advent of mafia films, drug culture and prison life, possies mutated into ganstas and in the late 1990’s the prevailing aesthetic was a defiantly transvestite garishness, accompanied by deejaying that spoke not only to social injustices and gunman rivalries but also to the secret liaisons of prison life, its accusation and denials. Like avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp's creation of an alter ego Rrose Selavy, the smouldering tensions of dance hall were not lost to commerical markets and despite difficulties of translation and a clear understanding of it’s puns, dance hall’s raw realism was packaged for youth consumption. Beenie ManThis is ‘Beenie Man’ one of Jamaica’s foremost and best loved dance hall djs. Despite his rastafarian roots references, pictured here with a bandana tied around his locks and an earing in his left ear, his image challenges viewers to label him gay. It reflects the style of some of Jamaica’s most deadly gangsters who wear outrageously gaudy and feminine clothes, colour and perm their hair and pluck their eyebrows in defiance of Jamaican homophobia. Singing since the age of 10, Beenie man is admired for his musical persistence and how he used skill to navigate his way out of Waterhouse, one of Kingston’s most violent ghetto areas, to the heights of ‘bling’, winning the MTV award for best DJ in summer 2004. The name ‘Beenie man’ describes his small wiry physique, this combined with outrageous dress, jewellery and dancing that borders on the risque, created highly charged live performances. But it is his lyrics that have been most significant, at a time when Jamaican music seemed moribund Beenie man was one of few djs along with Bounty Killer that seemed to have the pulse of youth culture winding up a crowd to hysterical gunfire pitch with social satire, politicised and sexualised lyrics and blood and fire condemnations. Beenie man’s lyrics are aggressively homophobic, voicing the ambivalence of a culture where male authority can only be asserted through brutal role play. It is this type of highly charged performance that made Beebie man a huge underground success locally and internationally but brought him under public scrutiny as he joined the entertainment mainstream. In fall 2004 Beenie man hit a wall, OutRage! Britain’s most vocal gay movement called for the cancellation of Beenie Man’s tour claiming that lines from his Han up deh album that lyricised ‘hang chi chi man (slang for gays) with a long piece of rope’, was a call to murder homosexuals. The furor effectively stumped Beenie Man’s career who was even abandoned by sponsors in America and Jamaica. Beenie Man’s music for all its crudeness professes an intimacy that recognises the self as the locus of our physical and psychic mutilation. It’s popularity hinges on his ability to echo a plea for power that is more pathetic than punitive. Its primitivised crudity, at its most poignant, demonstrates how black men are still grappling with the region’s complex cultural history, emasculation and a more clear definition of the self. His lyrics reach into what Benitez Rojo has called the ‘black hole’ of our plantation existence to recover a sense of loss and yearning. How that journey is made is unprescribed and deeply personal, denying, discovering, digging and ditching the social and sexual deviances that have disturbed the collective psyche. In the end Beenie Man was forced to issue an apology; it read

"It has come to my attention that certain lyrics and recordings I have made in the past may have caused distress and outrage among people whose identities and lifestyles are different from my own," …. "While my lyrics are very personal, I do not write them with the intent of purposefully hurting or maligning others, and I offer my sincerest apologies to those who might have been offended, threatened or hurt by my songs. "As a human being," he continued, "I renounce violence towards other human beings in every way, and pledge henceforth to uphold these values as I move forward in my career as an artist."

OutRage! called Beenie's statement hollow.

"It's also necessary for him to either buy up the CDs with his songs that encourage the killing of gay people or to donate royalties for those songs to an organization that supports victims of gay-bashing attacks," their spokesman Tatchell said. "We can't accept any apology as long as he's still profiting from these songs."

Today, in an era when gender issues and ‘other’ theories are on the ascendant, black dance hall imagery and its musical articulation seems homophobic, vulgar and completely out of step with an urbane atmosphere of tolerance. Jamaica’s dance hall Kings and even Queens have been challenged by gay groups to short-cut there anger and fast forward to a place of acceptance and broadmindedness. A post-modern culture that has fed off modernism’s sexually expressive freedoms seems to clash with another culture desperately seeking Africa not in search of the primitive but to reclaim its sense of manliness.