Last Tuesday, Renee and I checked out the Capleton Reign Of Fiyah tour’s stop at the BB King Blues Club in NYC. The opening acts were mostly yawn inducing, but Coco Tea impressed me with a great singing voice and lots of good energy. At one point the MC shouted “Where My Jamacains At?” and got a surprisingly lukewarm response from the truly diverse crowd. Renee shouted her head off, of course.
To be honest, though, my interest was in hearing one person. Capleton. I was a bit worried that the show might go on until the wee hours of Wednesday morning, but those fears proved unfounded. The show was set up in a way I’ve never seen before, in that all of the acts performed with the same backing band. When one guy finished his set he stepped off stage and on came the announcer to introduce the next act. Is that the way typical dancehall shows run? At any rate it worked out well as artists hit the stage, performed and then moved on without much dilly dallying.
When Capleton hit the stage, he sent the entire audience into a frenzy. Hips were shaken, fists were pumped, and lighters were flicked as that unmistakable voice filled BB Kings’ with the kind of fervor that the fire man is famous fore. More fire! A lone white hand held aloft a customized cellphone and a small flag with african colors. I grinned from ear to ear as capleton rushed through a quasi-medley of hits like “Who Dem”, “Dem No Like Me”, and even some slack tunes like “Good”. It’s always amused me how “conscious” dancehall artists occassionally throw out incredibly “slack” tunes. I’m not sure I can picture any outwardly religious artists from other genres mixing up songs praising the lord with songs praising of the female form.
But who cares about the contradictions? There’s just something about the man and his zeal for his beliefs that turns to dynamite when floating over heavy dancehall riddims. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a Capleton nut…I nearly lost my mind when I heard the first few chords of “Guerilla Warfare”. The fiery glares that Capleton threw out when the backing band dropped the occassional clam only added to the intensity of the performance. Say what you want about the messages in his songs, Capleton has a unique voice and the kind of stage presence that makes you forget how dorky you probably look busting out nerdy dancehall moves. You know what you’re going to get from his music, as close as we’ll ever come to rasta hardcore (as opposed to Dancehall Hardcore). Mostly shouted vocals, sick chanting, heavy beats and…ok, I’ll say it…fire. I also loved having the chance to see the show with such an awesome tag team partner. At certain points I could see Renee’s pride in her culture and joy in the music almost overwhelm her. And she can dance! Definitely one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while, one of the best times I’ve had in a while and I’m glad to add Capleton to the list of people I’ve gotten to see live.
Except for the last four songs. For some reason, he delivered the last four songs from a part of the backstage area just to the left of the stage. To the left of the stage. We couldn’t see him. Then it got weird. The last two songs were horribly mangled disco covers. Not reggae covers of disco hits mind you, he did a straight faced cover of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”. The whole crowd stood there dumfounded and wondering if it was some new crowd dispersion technique.
A few days after the show, Renee sent me an email about a potential boycott of “Reggae Fest Showdown Downtown”. The festival was scheduled for the following sunday, and featured Capleton and a bunch of other artists such as Bounty Killer and Vybez Kartel. It seems that some homosexual rights organizations wanted to protest the violently homophobic lyrics in a lot of dancehall, and stop the show from going off. Despite Renee’s disapproval, I have to say I completely understand the activists opposition to Capleton. His lyrics are in fact violently anti-homosexual. A good portion of the fifty Capleton songs I own contain atleast a passing shot at gays and lesbians. Even songs like “Pure Woman”, a riff on Bob Marley’s “So Much Trouble”, are more condemnations of homosexuality than paeans to women. Quite a few are directly targeted at gay people, and more often than not they encourage “burning up chi chi men”. In one song, the supremely catchy but somewhat disconcerting “Guerilla Warfare” that I mentioned earlier, he has the ironic lines:
Buss it up for justice and human rights, Buss it 'pon battyman and sodomites
To be fair, Capleton isn’t the only dancehall artist with a fixation on gay people. Most of the major DJs have anti-gay lyrics, and several including Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton and Beenie Man have had their careers affected by it. The reality is that in Jamaica the crowds expect to hear anti-gay lyrics, and the DJs don’t dissappoint them. When these artists attempt to crossover to the international market they are faced with a crowd that isn’t quite as comfortable
once they find out what the lyrics actually mean. Heck, I was pretty uncomfortable the first time I heard T.O.K’s song of “Chi Chi Man”, a song which features a group of young kids singing “From dem a drink inna chi chi man bar, Blaze up di fire mek we burn dem!”
Jamaicans, including my friend Renee, defend the homophobia saying that it’s a part of the ultra-religious culture. Is that really a valid excuse for it, “my culture espouses those views?” I don’t think it is, and I don’t think I’d accept it if I was the target of their vitriol. I can understand why gay rights groups throughout North America and Europe have pressured concert promoters and sponsors to disavow their connections to these artists. If the artists have a right to express their hatred for homosexuals, surely homosexuals have every right to fight fire with fire (if you’ll excuse the pun). I know that Capleton has never apologized for or tried to temper the meaning of songs that might offend American women, such as the aforementioned “Good Hole”. Why mix words when it comes to the fiyah? If it’s your culture you’re defending, and you believe you’re not doing anything wrong, stand by it! Even if that means not playing certain concerts and not selling a certain amount of records.
The reality is that the artists know that for much of their international crowd reggae is a symbol of liberal views, grass smoking, and peace and love. Burning up gay people doesn’t fit in with that warm and fuzzy good time vibe. And that’s why most of the artists, excepting a few like Sizzla, have tried to temper their stance in the international media. I heard Beenie Man address the issue on Hot 97 a few months back and he did some world class shucking and jiving. Why? Because he knows what being straight forward about his views would do to his record sales in the US. Gotta remember that international audience.
Anyway, if it’s so much of the culture, why didn’t artists like Toots, Prince Buster, Lee Perry and the like have hundreds of anti-gay songs? Does anyone remember the Prince singing, “She like when you wine or grind…burn up de batty boys”? I don’t. It’s not Jamaican culture in general that people are criticizing, just this…let’s admit it, somehwat bizarre…fascination with homosexuality.
The other argument people always use is to claim that the fire is merely symbolic, and not intended to be taken literally. That’s all well and good, but the fact is that many in the audience are taking the statements literally and acting on them. It happens. Buju Banton has recently been in criminal trouble, and there have been several incidents were groups of Jamaicans have attacked homosexuals chanting about “Fiyah!”. If the artists don’t intend for anyone to attack or harass gays, why don’t they come out and plainly state that they are against homosexuality but not homosexuals? Why don’t they condemn anyone who would take violent action based on their lyrics? Oh yeah, gotta remember the audience back at home.
Beyond that, I have a really hard time believing that the songs about shooting gays in the head, or executing them, are merely intended to be metaphorical or allegorical. Let’s be honest, when Capleton is on stage shouting about “Burning Up” this that and the other, he isn’t politely suggesting dialogue on behavior that he believes is unwise. To say anything else is to do a dishonor to the total commitement with which his views are put forth. If these artists really believe in what they are saying enough to yell their heads off about “fiyah”, and “licking a shot at a batty boy head” why try to back away from the inevitable violence that happens? Shouldn’t they be delighted?
That brings up the obvious question; how do I balance my love for the music with my disain for their unhealthy obsession with who sleeps with whom? I love passion, and that’s something that all jamaican music has in spades. But that’s not an answer. I can sympathize with gay people who are fed up with day to day harassment and violent assaults. I can understand dancehall artists who believe homosexuality is wrong and who believe they have a right to speak up about it. In the end, after about 1600 words, I don’t really have an answer.