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"Bullers" and "Battymen": Contesting Homophobia in Black Popular Culture and Contemporary Caribbean Literature

From: Callaloo
Volume 20, Number 1, Winter 1997
pp. 127-141 | 10.1353/cal.1997.0004

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Callaloo 20.1 (1997) 127-141

The recent controversy surrounding Buju Banton, the Jamaican dancehall "don"--which, like so many contemporary debates about race, gender, and sexuality, has been played out in the theater of popular culture -- demonstrates the high ideological stakes as well as the discursive limits that determine current discussions of gay and lesbian sexuality and Caribbean culture. Occasioned by the circulation over North American airwaves of Banton's popular dancehall tune "Boom Bye Bye," the controversy provides a prime example of the cross-cultural conflicts and contradictions that are often generated by the increasingly globalized markets of the culture industry. The debate, as it was staged in the pages of the popular press (The New York Post, The Village Voice) and periodicals associated with the music industry (VIBE, Billboard), concerned the alleged homophobia displayed in the lyrics of Banton's song. According to an article that appeared in The Village Voice, two groups -- GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent)--joined forces in 1992 to "decode Buju Banton's bullet-riddled patois" and "embarked on a media campaign to have 'Boom Bye Bye' removed from the playlists of radio stations WBLS and WRKS." Peter Noel and Robert Marriot, the co-authors of the Village Voice article, applauded GLAAD for boldly defining the meaning of "diversity" and "tolerance" for Banton (35). Insisting on a literal reading of Banton's lyrics, Noel and Marriot state that the song "advocates the execution of gay men" and, consequently, reflects the especially virulent forms of homophobia that are rampant in Caribbean culture generally and Jamaican culture specifically (31).

Interestingly enough, the critics who have -- to varying degrees -- defended Banton also tend to rely primarily on culturally based arguments. However, these critics typically assert that Banton's lyrics should be understood metaphorically and that metropolitan critics have therefore misread both Banton's song and the "indigenous" culture from which it springs. For example, in a piece written for VIBE, Joan Morgan criticizes certain North American reviewers for their "ignorance of Jamaican street culture" and their inability or unwillingness to "grasp the metaphoric richness of Jamaican patois" (76). In addition, Morgan contends that Buju Banton's refusal to apologize for "Boom Bye Bye" "makes the most sense" given his first and ultimate commitment to the "hardcore dancehall audience" to whom Banton owes his success. According to Morgan, Banton's loyalty to this (cultural) constituency has been rewarded -- unlike what is conversely seen as Shabba Ranks' capitulation to the powers that be -- with an even greater adulation from his "true" fans (82).

Carolyn Cooper, a well-known Jamaican literary and cultural critic, has likewise insisted that Buju's gun is essentially a "lyrical" one that is meant to illustrate "the function of metaphor and role play in contemporary Jamaican dancehall culture." Consequently, Cooper argues that critics who are unfamiliar with the metaphorical qualities of the Jamaican vernacular have misread Buju's song by taking his words all too literally: "Thus, taken out of context, the popular Jamaican Creole declaration, 'aal bati-man fi ded,' may be misunderstood as an unequivocal, literal death-sentence: 'all homosexuals must die.'" In contrast, Cooper suggests that Buju's "lyrical gun" should be understood primarily as a "symbolic penis" and, therefore, "[i]n the final analysis, the song can be seen as a symbolic celebration of the vaunted potency of heterosexual men who know how to use their lyrical gun to satisfy their women" (438).

Although critics like Cooper and Morgan have rightfully exposed the ethnocentrism that typically informs dominant accounts of the controversy -- which often suggest, for example, that North American culture is more advanced and therefore less homophobic than its Caribbean counterpart -- their arguments, nevertheless, tend to reinforce a notion of culture that relies on certain fixed oppositions between native and foreign, indigenous and metropolitan, us and them, etc. Even if we concede that their arguments do not seek "to legitimate homophobia on so-called cultural grounds," as one response to Morgan's VIBE piece alleges, these critics have nevertheless missed a crucial opportunity to challenge the deeply rooted homophobia that is unmistakably reflected in Banton's lyrics and that, more...

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