Reclaiming the dancehall from the homophobes

from The Guardian – Ian McQuaid
It’s been 21 years since dancehall legend Shabba Ranks declared in an interview on The Word that gay men should be crucified. Unfortunately for Shabba, pop music had reached its full quota of bigoted maniacs, and Ranks’s status as an international artist nosedived. The outburst indelibly tarnished dancehall as a style poisoned by violent homophobia, and for the past two decades a de facto ban has been laid on the music being played in gay clubs.
Now, however, dancehall’s old guard are losing ground to newer artists with no time for such prejudices, and a fresh generation of gay DJs and clubbers have started looking beyond the outdated narrative that dancehall = homophobic.
Kartel Brown is an influential DJ on the London circuit, with residencies including a stint at Bootylicious, London’s biggest gay urban night. He suggests that the influx of Jamaicans in the early 2000s shifted the landscape of the capital’s gay scene. “A lot of Jamaicans came to London fleeing Jamaica’s anti-gay laws. They were a bit underwhelmed with what the city’s gay scene had to offer, so they started creating these little private bashment parties in south London. They made the whole culture popular: you had people who were born here talking patois, eating the food, wearing the clothes, boys brucking out like they were dancehall queens.”
As these underground parties grew, the flamboyance and energy of dancehall struck a chord with mainstream gay promoters. Now, the music has become a staple at a clutch of rammed nights, from Bootylicious to new weekly party Misfits, which blends dancehall with Afrobeats, R&B and freakish electro. Misfits promoter Mark-Ashley Dupé points out that for a lot of his peers there was little controversy with dancehall in the first place. “People think dancehall is just one type of look, one type of sound, one type of identity,” he says, “but in London there are loads of young gay blacks who’ve grown up with the music, and see it differently; they’ve heard it at family events and they know it’s not all aggressive homophobia. You don’t get violent tunes played at a christening! A lot of it is just great party music that makes you go crazy, and now a lot of gay white kids are curious and want to hear more.”
With so many of dancehall’s signifiers, from Day-Glo weaves right down to the humble string vest, being co-opted and resold as mainstream culture, it was inevitable that a swathe of London’s fashion-forward gay scene would eventually choose to bypass the diluted pop appropriations and embrace the source; and now they’re having an amazing time in the process.To Dupé it makes absolute sense: “Dancehall is colourful, vibrant; if you like to let loose it’s perfect.”
Bootylicious is at Club Colosseum, SW8, Sat; Misfits is at the Shadow Lounge, W1, Wed