NEW YORK – A reggae concert meant to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS is coming under fire from some black gay bloggers and activists who are incensed that the lineup includes two artists they consider to be anti-gay.
Among those scheduled to perform at the July 18 show at Webster Hall are Jamaican dancehall artists Beenie Man and the group T.O.K. Protesters have asked the concert's organizer, LIFEbeat — The Music Industry Fights AIDS, to drop them or force them to publicly denounce controversial lyrics in their songs.
"The idea that they would invite artists who encourage murdering gays and lesbians is so outrageous, insulting and unbelievable," activist Keith Boykin said.
But concert organizers, while rejecting the anti-gay lyrics, said including the commercially successful performers in the show would allow them to reach an audience they otherwise wouldn't get to, pointing out that dancehall, a beat-driven form of Jamaican music, remains hugely popular despite controversy over its lyrical content.
John Canelli, LIFEbeat's executive director, said he felt strongly that the performers' presence would "create dialogue around AIDS and the Caribbean-American community" and an "opportunity for groundbreaking change and good to come from it." The artists aren't being paid, he said.
"By both artists agreeing to perform at an HIV/AIDS prevention concert in 2006 shows they have recognized the devastation this disease has had on their communities and that they want to effect some positive change," Canelli said, adding the artists agreed before the protests not to use any "potentially offensive lyrics" at the show.
Canelli said LIFEbeat rejects the anti-gay lyrics and violence against any group of people.
Beenie Man and T.O.K. have released songs that speak pejoratively of gays, called by slang terms such as "chi-chi" men and women or "batty" boys in Jamaica. The Beenie Man song "Han Up Deh" calls for a lesbian to be hanged, while T.O.K's song "Chi Chi Man" suggests the burning of gay men.
Blogger Jasmyne Cannick said LIFEbeat was using the wrong strategy.
"If it was an artist with a history of Jew-bashing or slurs against African-Americans, would you keep the artists in the show?" she asked. "They never would've been invited. For some reason with gays it's acceptable."
She added that there were other artists without the controversy whom the organizers could have invited.
T.O.K. and Beenie Man released statements through a publicist.
"T.O.K. has definitely matured over the years, and our music and its subject matter reflects that," the group said.
Beenie Man said, "AIDS is an epidemic that doesn't discriminate. It's not a gay or a straight thing, it is a fight for life, and I'm proud to stand with LIFEbeat in the fight against a disease that exists regardless of one's sex, race or sexual orientation."
Rob Kenner, editor-at-large at Vibe magazine, said dancehall lyrics suffer from "quick and sloppy translations" by detractors. The lyrics, Kenner said, go beyond homosexuality and address issues of spirituality, empowerment and family unity.
"When you become versed in the music form that they practice then you start to understand what the words they're saying really mean," Kenner said. "If Beenie Man and T.O.K. were really the monsters the protesters portray them to be, their music careers would've ended long ago and they would've been locked up long ago."
The protests come less than a week after scheduled concerts by Beenie Man and Buju Banton, another dancehall performer, were canceled in Britain after activists said the artists had reneged on an agreement they made last year to stop using anti-gay lyrics.
Gay protesters have pressured concert promoters, venues and awards shows into canceling performances.