Interview with Carolyn Cooper

Im Mai 2010 war die jamaikanische Kulturwissenschaftlerin Carolyn Cooper zu Gast in der Kölner Bar King Georg, wo sie auf Einladung der Riddim-Redaktion über die Internationalisierung von Reggae und Dancehall sprach. Vormittags nahm sie sich Zeit für ein Interview, das später in gekürzter Fassung in der taz erschienen ist.

Ms Cooper, after an unprecedented hype Jamaican music nowadays seems to
receive mainly negative press. What went wrong?

Jamaican popular music has had a long history in being accepted
internationally. What has happened is that Jamaican Dancehall music has ended
up not being about conventional politics in the sense of breaking down systems
of colonialism, but one wave of the lyrics has focused on gender politics and
particularly sexual politics. What we hear of dancehall culture is mostly the
lyrics that chant down homosexuality. This is not the entire spectrum of
Dancehall lyrics. There are people like Tanya Stephens who talks about the way
in which women sometimes end up being marginalized and they have to fight to
come to the centre stage. It seems that the international media always focuses
on the most negative thing about Jamaican dancehall culture. What I’d like to
suggest is that there may be an element of racism in it. You know, ‘The black
youths from this third world country – why do they have so much visibility?
Shut them up!”

How would you describe the sexual politics of Dancehall?

Many times when we dismiss Dancehall – we talk about ‘culture’ vs ‘slackness’.
‘Culture’ would be lyrics that deal with social and political issues, that
deal with “respectable” topics. And then slackness deals with sexuality,
whether it is heterosexuality or homosexuality because in Jamaica, because in
Jamaica, the focus of dancehall on heterosexuality is also condemned.

Since when is this opposition characteristic for Jamaican culture?

When did sex start? People have been blaming Edward Seage for the rise of
slackness saying that it was because we return to this conservative
Reagonomics people needed slackness as an alternative to politics in that
crude way. Slackness is really tunes that deal with sexuality. So there’s no
point at which you could say slackness started. Yellowman, who is supposed to
be the don of slackness, sings “Me no want! Where Fathead ya man left!” – I
don’t want what the men have eaten and left. He’s updating earlier Mento song
saying the exact same thing. In Greece BMW advertises used cars with the image
of a beautiful woman and the caption. “You know, you’re not the first.” BMW is
saying the same thing, using the same idea.

In Dancehall most DJs stage a character. Where do the motifs to create these
come from?

They largely come out of American films – Westerns and gangster movies – or
the Japanese heroic tradition. nd this mediated culture of masculinity is all
about the glamorization of violence. Ninja Man, for example, tells that when
he was a child he watched the movie “The harder they come”, which is itself an
indiginization of the Hollywood Western and he insisted that his grandmother
give him a cowboy outfit for Christmas.

And you also argue that Dancehall and the rise of slackness opens up new
spaces for women. How would you describe these spaces?

The black body in particular has been described as ugly. Dancehall culture is
opening up a space in which black women can see themselves as beautiful, which
is empowering. Reducing Dancehall culture to a mysoginist space does not
recognize that women are claiming sexual power. Just listen to Tanya Stephen’s
lyrics where she’s affirming that women desire: “Me want a man weh have a big
ninja bike fi me ride pan/ Na waan no flim flam weh nuh have de right gear” (I
want a man who has a big ninja bike for me to ride on /I don’t want a limp man
who doesn’t have the right gear) That focus on sexuality is political in the
sense that it is contesting the ideology of fundamentalist Christianity around
heterosexuality. But ironically Dancehall culture is supporting a
fundamentalist Christian condemnation which is coming out of the old
testament. When I’m talking about politics, I’m talking about power dynamics
between different groups in society and Dancehall culture largely affirms
working-class values that are outside of the definition by the respectable

So the strong homophobia is an expression of class conflict?

No, in Jamaica you have very wealthy people who have the same attitude towards
homosexuals because it’s coming out of the fundamentalist christian
orientation. A fundamentalist Christian pastor is not different than a
dancehall DJ in the question of homophobia.

Who benefits from sustaining the idea of homophobia in Jamaica?

First of all, the DJs. If you’re at a show and your performance floppin’, just
draw a battyman tune and you get a easy “forward”. That is a part of the
criticism that is coming from within Jamaican society. People say “No!”, your
lyrics have to be more than just this formula “Battyman fi dead”.

But you also say that articulating violent phantasies against gay people is
something a middle-class person would shy away from.

Yes and no. It’s complicated. But I’m not using complication as an excuse for
unpleasant truth. Jamaican culture is decidedly homophobic. But middle-class
and working-class Jamaicans do not always use the same language to express
their perceptions of homosexuality. The working-class speak Jamaican and the
middle-class largely speak English. This is where is gets really complicated.
In the Jamaican language, graphic metaphors are often used to express abstract
ideas. So a middle-class Jamaican may say in English, “I don’t approve of
homosexuality.” A working class Jamaican may say the same thing in Jamaican,
using exaggerated metaphorical language that sounds like literal violence:
“all battyman fi dead.” The same disapproval of homosexuality is expressed in
two different languages with different resonances. When Buju Banton sings
“Boom By By inna batty bwoy head/ Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man/Dem haffi
dead”, he is engaging layers of metaphor. First the words, “boom by by,”
simulate gun fire. In addition, Buju speaks the literal-minded language of the
Old Testament book of Leviticus, translating its violent condemnation of
homosexuality into the vivid Jamaican language. That expression – “all
Battyman fi dead”- literally it sounds as though he’s saying that every single
homosexual man must die. I read it as a way of saying “Like in the bible,
homosexuality is wrong.” There’s a form of mediation that takes place in which
people’s real anxieties around homosexuality are transferred into a language
that allows them to express this anxiety in symbolic language which itself
stops them from actually engaging in physical violence.

This would mean that homophobic lyrics are a form of catharsis.

That is what I argue. But the catharsis may be incomplete.

You call these anxieties “heterophobia” – the fear of difference.

The real problem with homophobia is not the fear so much of same-sex
intercourse, but the fear of people who are perceived as different. It’s about
the construction of community: Who’s inside and who’s outside? I do understand
that if I were gay I would take it as what it sounds like – a direct threat.
And politically it makes sense for gay people to do that, so I understand your
MP Volker Beck.

Beck also claims that his and other people’s anti-homophobic actions are
successful. He claims that there are singers in Jamaica that distance themselves
from battyman tunes. I’ve read that there was first, very, very small Gay Pride
march in Montego Bay a couple of weeks back as far as I understand. What is your
opinion on that?

I don’t know that Beck is responsible for the emergence of gay rights activism
in Jamaica. In the 1990s, the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, Allsexuals and Gays
was established largely with the help of Jamaicans not resident in Jamaica who
wanted to provide support for local gay rights activists. That said, it is
true that gay rights activists that are not Jamaican, who know nothing about
the culture, have helped to tarnish Jamaica’s image globally, so much so that
J-FLAG has had to distance itself from some of those external gay rights
activists. J-FLAG has said: “These are our sisters and our brothers and our
uncles and our aunts that you’re gonna destroy if in our name you’re telling
people not to buy Red Stripe, to not go to Jamaica, to boycott Jamaica. No, we
are Jamaican.” That is the complexity of the negotiation taking place all the
time. And one of the problems is that Gay rights activists do not know about
the way in which Gay people in Jamaica created spaces for themselves to

How would you describe these spaces?

Spaces where they can freely party and live together, unbothered by the rest
of the society. We’ve always had gay people in Jamaica, they have mostly
stayed in the closet. Even in the so-called ‘liberal north’ it’s only recently
that gay people are out. Jamaica is changing, but not as rapidly. The former
prime minister of Jamaica has been routinely “villified” as gay. In fact, the
JLP actually used the rumour of P.J. Patterson being gay as a political
weapon. So the prime minister had to go on radio and say “My credentials as a
life long heterosexual person are impeccable”. The fact that this discourse
could enter politics means that the society is in a state of contestation.

German activists often subsume Jamaican homophobia under the legal term
“Volksverhetzung”, a crime that is mostly associated with denying the atrocities
of Nazi Germany, which include both homophobia and racism.

Many Jamaicans object to homophobia being equated to racism because they see
racism as an entirely different kind of discourse in which the black person is
being made identical to the gay person and they will say: “Yeah, it’s a
pressure, but it’s different.This homosexuality is ‘abnormal’ and blackness is
normal.” But if you push that same person they will concede that pre-judgment
is being made about a person based on sexual orientation, “race” and it runs

But historically speaking there are only few parallels.

Jamaicans would argue that racism and homophobia are completely different. But
they also understand that “all is fair in love and war.” Gay rights activists
in the war against homophobia will use whatever weapon they can. They know
that if they claim that Jamaican Dancehall DJs are like Nazi German
terrorists, they will get an easy “forward.” Just like the DJs who get an easy
forward for chanting down homosexuality.

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