Taking the rap

United Kingdom-based gay activist Peter Tatchell’s gay rights pressure group Outrage! was furious when reggae artists Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel were in this year’s Music of Black Origin (Mobo) Awards, to be held at London’s Royal Albert Hall at the end of the month. And they had every right to be angry — songs by these two acts contain lyrics that are violently anti-gay. After much debate, Mobo organisers withdrew the nominations of these artists earlier this month.

While finally winning out against lyrical gay-bashing, Tatchell’s tactics to persuade the artists’ fans to reject the homophobia of the Jamaican ghetto will hardly have endeared him to the black community at large. He went as far as to call for a boycott of the Mobos and for the BBC to pull the plug on screening it — effectively demanding to put Britain’s biggest black awards ceremony out of business.

Previously, he called for other Jamaican reggae artists to be banned from Britain or face criminal charges.

In their initial nominations, the Mobo voting academy of DJs, promoters and record industry insiders were merely reflecting the fact that acts such as Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel are popular — and their audiences are more interested in the bass, the beat and the rhythm than they are in the content of the lyrics.

What Tatchell doesn’t understand is that, traditionally, music (along with sport) has been the only way for many urban black people to rise above inner-city poverty. When he tries to drive black musicians out of business, he is effectively advocating cutting off their escape route.

Following Tatchell’s prominent recent campaigns against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Muslim cleric Sheikh al-Qaradawi, some are beginning to ask what he has against people of colour. Tatchell argued recently that the Mugabe regime was “worse than apartheid”, an astonishing denial of one of the world’s worst-ever suppression machines. And he had the cheek to accuse the Jamaican Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, of having a “slave mentality”. Yes, massa.

Whether it’s Africa, the Caribbean or the Middle East, it is undeniable that many cultures are more conservative than those of Western Europe.

Many of these views have their breeding ground in poverty and lack of opportunity. Before condemning other parts of the world and their people, Tatchell should recognise that Europe has hardly been the most tolerant place. Even if we put to one side the Holocaust, slavery and global plundering, we should not forget that women’s and gay rights are a relatively recent gain. Change, when it has come, has been gradual and powered internally — not handed down via diktat by some outside force.

Tatchell’s heavy-handedness will not have won anyone over. Certainly, there are times when strong-arm tactics are required in the battle for justice — but dealing with marginalised minorities is not the same as dealing with governments or powerful institutions. Instead of seeing a sympathetic figure trying to engage with them, black people see only a white man acting like a modern-day missionary, trying to impose his views.

Many of us despise the massive investment and promotion of gangsta rap by the record industry. Its lyrics and imagery promote violence, misogyny, and an extreme machismo that has spread like a cancer among black youngsters and is now infecting white youths, too.

It used to be that music artists represented the whole spectrum of black society. To get a record deal now, young black kids have to prove they are from the “street”, most shamelessly epitomised by the artist 50 Cent, promoted as the man who’d been shot nine times and survived. What message does this send out to the ghettos?

Were Tatchell to storm the record industry’s gleaming towers, rather than targeting those at the bottom of the pile, there would be many people prepared to stand by his side. — Â

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday