"Homophobic" lyrics

British authorities weigh free-speech issues in deciding whether to charge reggae star Beenie Man with inciting violence against gays.

By Tania Branigan

Published August 17, 2004 12:35PM (EDT)

Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and a leading barrister were meeting yesterday to discuss whether charges could be brought against Jamaican reggae star Beenie Man over lyrics that allegedly incite the murder of gay men and lesbians. The move coincides with attempts by leading companies to dissociate themselves from the homophobic lyrics of the singer and fellow dancehall artists including Buju Banton.

J-Flag, a Jamaican gay rights group, believes that violent lyrics have contributed to attacks upon and even murders of gay men and lesbians in Britain. Campaigners across Europe and the United States say their protests against the controversial stars are now bearing fruit.

Puma, the sportswear company, last week announced that it would not support singers who performed songs with antigay lyrics or made "hate statements of any sort," following controversy over Buju Banton's appearance at an Olympics show it was sponsoring.

Last week tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds dropped Beenie Man from a tour it had organized in the U.S., saying it did not "tolerate this or any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation."

Peter Tatchell, a spokesman for the gay rights group Outrage!, said yesterday: "The campaign against murder music is escalating across the U.S. and Europe. We're teaching these singers that inciting homophobic violence does not pay. It is costing them dear in lost revenue and income."

But a prosecution over the lyrics would be contentious, with complicating factors including arguments over free speech, varying translations of the patois Beenie Man uses and the question of who should face charges for which offenses. The director of public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, has taken personal responsibility for the case, an indication of its sensitivity.

Chief Superintendent Clive Driscoll, the officer leading the Metropolitan Police inquiry, said: "It's a difficult investigation. I have no wish to stop someone's freedom of speech. But by the same token, I would not want offenses to be missed." He added: "We will be looking at whether there are grounds for prosecution and if the answer is yes, then who will be liable to prosecution. That's where the complications will come in."

A CPS spokeswoman said: "An offense of incitement can be committed through a performance of written material or its distribution or broadcast. It doesn't just cover the writing itself."

Beenie Man's new album was released yesterday on Virgin Records. But a spokeswoman for the label's owners, EMI, stressed that none of the controversial lyrics appear on tracks issued by Virgin. She declined to comment on the label's decision to sign the singer. The songs that allegedly incite violence have been released on smaller labels, most if not all of which are based in Jamaica.

They include lyrics such as "Hang chi chi gal wid a long piece of rope" ("Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope") and "Tek a bazooka and kill batty-fucker" ("Take a bazooka and kill gay men).

Outrage! hopes that last year's prosecution of extremist Muslim cleric Abdullah el-Faisal for soliciting the murder of Jews, Hindus and other non-Muslims has set a precedent for bringing a charge of incitement to murder.

It might also be possible to bring charges under the Public Order Act, such as using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior. However, that would require someone to have been put in fear of immediate unlawful violence. A defense lawyer would be likely to argue that a singer could not expect those individuals to be put in fear when he recorded a track.

There is no offense of inciting homophobic hatred as there is in the case of racial hatred. Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, said: "It's absolutely appropriate that there should be legislation [protecting the gay community] that matches incitement to hatred in relation to race. In a civilized society the right to free speech does have constraints, and one of those is that you shouldn't incite violence against other people."

Earlier this month Virgin Records issued a statement from Beenie Man, which offered his "sincerest apologies to those who might have been offended, threatened or hurt by my songs." But the following day the head of his management company in Jamaica said that the statement was "not an apology" and that the singer reserved his right to criticize "the homosexual lifestyle."

Tania Branigan

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