Music Commentary: Capleton’s Redemption Song?
Capleton’s cancellation at Boston’s Hibernian Hall suggests that reggae stars can’t easily escape their anti-gay discographies.
By Noah Schaffer
Like most journalist, my intent is to cover the story, not become it.
But I unintentionally inserted myself into this week’s music news when an inquiry I sent to the management of Boston’s Hibernian Hall about concert by dancehall reggae star Capleton resulted in the show getting canceled.
Capleton has a long history of recording songs that promote killing gays – in fact, his anti-gay catalog is so varied that he has songs about drowning gays, songs about shooting gays, songs about hanging gays, and so many songs about burning gays who “defiles the forces of nature” (along with other targets like corrupt politicians who fail to fix inequality) that he’s known as the Fiyah Man. Capleton has said his references to incineration are ‘allegory.’ That explanation has not convinced many, who suggest there may be a connection between the rage in the music of the self-proclaimed prophet Capleton and his dancehall peers and the brutal and often deadly violence that continues to plague Jamaicans who are – or are even perceived to be – gay or non-gender conforming.
Recently, Capleton has pledged not to record such controversial songs, and he has, apparently, avoided singing them on his American and European tours (perhaps because of fears that protests will trigger cancellations). Still, he has still included these songs in his Jamaican stage shows: it looks as if the idol of the ultra-orthodox Bobo Rastafarian sect is playing a cynical game, setting up a way to both keep his foreign paydays and his Jamaican credibility.
Capleton has played many concerts in Boston over the years, including at such mainstream venues as the old Avalon, which also hosted a long-running gay dance night. But his presence at the Hibernian Hall seemed especially eyebrow-raising. The Dudley Square non-profit hosts a wide variety of GLBT-friendly events, including this coming weekend’s Speakeasy Stage production of Jomama Jones ☆ RADIATE, which will see a male performance artist portraying a female soul diva.
I checked in with the venue to see whether they’d gotten any protests about Capleton, and whether they had requested that he omit his anti-gay anthems from his set list – the kind of arrangement the City of Boston made with “formerly gay” gospel singer Donnie McClurkin in 2010 after I wrote an article for the Boston Phoenix about his appearance at the City of Boston-produced GospelFest at City Hall Plaza. (In typical Phoenix fashion, the article ran with a less-than-nuanced headline.) The show went on, but Boston Mayor Tom Menino skipped his usual MC duties and the office that booked McClurkin issued an apology.
A day later I got a surprising statement from the Hibernian Hall’s management: after receiving my inquiry they had researched Capleton, found his lyrics unacceptable, and informed the outside promoter who was producing the concert that the show was off.
In a follow-up conversation, artistic director Dillon Bustin noted that the promoter’s paperwork had termed the night a Caribbean dance party without specifying who was performing. “We were caught blindsighted,” he said. With only 48 hours to show time attempting to contact Capleton’s management to vet the content of his performance seemed impossible.
For the Hibernian Hall, the decision to cancel a show that wasn’t being actively protested – and which might not have even contained any anti-gay songs, if reports of other recent Capleton shows are to be believed — was a potentially costly one. It certainly lost the revenue it would have earned from hosting a late night party on the Friday of a long weekend, and it also risked a lawsuit from the promoter, who could no longer sell $30 tickets to Capleton fans for a show that had been promoted for weeks.
For Capleton, the immediate financial impact was muted when a rival promoter ended up scooping up the dancehall star for a last-minute Sunday night show at the tiny but venerable Kay’s Oasis nightclub.
Still, every report of a cancellation makes it harder to garner for Capleton to generate future bookings and tours. Such cancellations have become such a routine part of the reggae scene that earlier this week a syndicated Jamaican music show asked callers whether artists with anti-gay discographies should return their fees to promoters if their shows get canceled. The routine disruption of tours by both protests and unrelated visa problems helped convince the prominent agent who booked Capleton in the past to largely abandon reggae. (In truth, he doesn’t need the hassle: another of his clients, pro-gay rapper Macklemore, just filled the T.D. North Garden.)
Less clear is whether the surprise move will make the Hibernian Hall a less desirable spot for future reggae events. The answer is probably not. There’s already a dearth of suitable Caribbean venues, to the point that the Hibernian Hall holds a lottery among the many promoters seeking to hold events there. The shortage will become even more acute once Revere’s Wonderland Ballroom – another venue which has hosted Capleton in the past – closes to make way for a planned hotel development. Tellingly, the same promoter whose Capleton show had been canceled went ahead presenting a “Trinidad vs. Barbados” soca dance party at the Hibernian Hall the next night.
It’s been over 20 years since a re-release of Buju Banton’s early track “Boom Bye Bye” ignited the debate over anti-gay lyrics in dancehall. (Although the now-jailed Banton apologized for the single, he was still singing it in concerts – and facing protests – years later.) Initially, dancehall defenders tried to claim free speech, but that argument would only hold water if pro-gay activists were trying to get governments to ban creative content. A more thorny issue is whether criticizing the music that arose from a poor country’s ghetto neighborhoods smacks of colonial-style interference. But those same ghettos contains gays, lesbians and transgendered residents who have good reason to fear for their lives.
Some in the dancehall world are trying to move towards a détente. Most prominent among them is Beenie Man, who issued a semi-apology last year. Even though his follow-up interviews seemed to imply that American gays were acceptable but that Jamaican gays were child molesters, the initial video was enough of a step forward that Beenie’s bookings on the European festival circuit were salvaged. The Jamaican gay rights group J-FLAG has suggested that allies abroad show their support through efforts that don’t include boycotting Jamaican cultural exports.
Other artists, like Bounty Killer and Sizzla, have stubbornly refused to apologize for their past lyrics or avoid them on stage.
Capleton seems to be sitting somewhat in the middle. He’s avoided his controversial lyrics in the U.S., and while other artists might use a concert relocation as an excuse to engage in verbal gay bashing, Capleton simply told his social media followers that “tings had to re-arrange when I came to town but Selassie govern di throne.”
Like many artists, Capleton has moved away from releasing anti-gay records, but what about his earlier recordings? That question hasn’t been addressed, and efforts by this and several other journalists to interview him during his recent U.S. tours have been rebuffed. Until Capleton is willing to confront and explain his past, it’s likely that the Hibernian Hall won’t be the last concert cancellation he faces.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.