A music-industry charity that uses recording artists to raise awareness about AIDS and spur HIV prevention among youth has scheduled a benefit concert that aims to generate “dialogue” about AIDS in the Caribbean American community. Somehow, the organizers have concluded that the best way to accomplish this laudable goal is to hire performers who sing about killing gay people.
The July 18 concert in New York, produced by the organization LIFEbeat, will feature a long lineup of performers. Among them will be reggae artists Beenie Man and TOK, both of whom have well-known histories of encouraging anti-gay violence in their music. In one song, “Han Up Deh,” Beenie Man urges listeners to lynch lesbians, singing, “Hang chi-chi gal wid a long piece of rope,” invoking a derisive term for gay women.
These sorts of lyrics are all the more troubling given the very real state of terror Jamaican gays and lesbians live under. At least two gay activists in Jamaica have been brutally murdered since 2004.
Concert promoters all over the world, with far less lofty missions than LIFEbeat professes, have recognized the damage performers like Beenie Man and TOK inflict and have thus refused to book them. Yet, LIFEbeat finds both performers indispensable for its benefit.
When a coalition of Black gay and AIDS activists pointed out these performers’ histories to LIFEbeat and asked that they either be taken out of the lineup or forced to address their gay- bashing lyrics, the organization scoffed.
In a terse public statement, LIFEbeat explained that the concert will address the fact that “the Caribbean American community has been tremendously affected by the HIV/AIDS virus and has long kept silent about the epidemic's effect on their community for fear of being stigmatized.” While organizers were well aware of Beenie Man and TOK’s histories, the statement declared, they decided to include the performers because “dialogue opens doors, creating the opportunity for enlightenment, growth and change amongst all involved.”
We agree with that much. But so far LIFEbeat has refused to answer the question of when and where this “dialogue” will take place. As plans stand, the concert will merely provide public relations cover for performers who have encouraged murdering gay people, without asking them to address that history in any way. This neither represents “dialogue” nor encourages “enlightenment, growth and change.” Rather, it encourages homophobia, further alienates segments of our community and contributes to the spread of AIDS among people of African descent.
As LIFEbeat points out, stigma is in fact the issue. Around the world, it is clear that stigma surrounding not just HIV but the sexual behaviors that put you at risk for it drive the epidemic. Homophobia is literally lethal in too many Caribbean communities. LIFEbeat’s failure to grasp how that fact links up with HIV’s spread reflects a dangerous ignorance about the epidemic.
Using AIDS education to condone murdering gay men and lesbians is despicable and indefensible. Despite their feeble, half-hearted protestations to the contrary, that is exactly what LIFEbeat is doing.
The Institute joins those voices who continue to urge LIFEbeat to either remove Beenie Man and TOK from its lineup or require them to address their violently hateful lyrics. And we join others in the community in praying that the organization will become a more responsible steward of its crucially important mission.