Clovis Brown, Wednesday, October 7 2009, Jamaica Observer
Gaza. Gully. The two words, inscribed in locations all over Kingston and Jamaica, signify internecine zones of conflict competing for supremacy in the dancehall universe here. For those who don’t know: Gaza=Kartel and Gully=Mavado. Mavado, popularly known as ‘Gully Gad (God)’, comes from Gullyside in Cassava Piece, an impoverished community in the foothills of Kingston. Kartel comes from a neighbourhood in Portmore that was once known as BORDERLINE.
And thereby hangs a tale. A story you wouldn’t find in the normal media yasso which specializes in skimming the surface and shallow moralizing. The Jamaican media generously accommodates both sinners and sermonizers, protecting the former by voluntarily gagging themselves and the latter by giving them as many column inches as their sermons demand. In the US it is citizens who usually “plead the fifth” and have “the right to remain silent”, both stemming from the Fifth Amendment of their constitution. In Jamaica the media seem to have arrogated such rights to themselves; they provide a minimum of in-depth coverage of events apparently on the grounds that the information given could be used as evidence against them!
So like me, you may not have known the etymology of the term ‘Gaza’ in the Jamaican context (Talk bout the media being eyeless in Gaza!) or why Borderline came to be so renamed. It’s a fascinating story which is intimately connected (as a batty is to a bench you might say) with this culture’s notorious attitude towards male homosexuals or ‘batty’ men as they are called here.
Shebada Ramsay, the ‘Gender Bender’
It all has to do with an actor called Shebada, the star of a super successful series of plays put on by Stages Productions. This company produces what is known in local parlance as ‘roots plays’, a kind of farcical, over the top production with picaresque characters performing or acting out the issues of the day. Sex is a big part of it, and subtlety is not, but Stages Productions whose slogan is “Comedy is serious business” always plays to full houses.
Stages Productions has also pioneered the explicit exploration of alternative sexualities and Shebada himself, whose stage persona is camp as they come and twice as provocative, sports a bleached face and gay-ish attributes that complicate the argument that Jamaica is unremittingly hostile to Gays. In fact international Gay rights groups who have targeted the island’s musicians repeatedly would do well to analyze such productions and feed the resulting insights into their jackhammer strategies at outing and combating what is touted worldwide as Jamaican homophobia.
The induction of the name ‘Gaza’ into the Jamaican firmament came about because in the very first insanely popular Stages Production, Bashment Granny, there is a scene where a policeman confronts the sinuous Shebada asking “Yu a man or yu a woman?” “Mi deh pon di borderline” declares Shebada unabashedly, emphasizing his retort with an exaggerated wag of his hips. The phrase became so popular in the context of discussions about sexuality that Vybz Kartel decided that the name of his community ‘Borderline’ had been irrevocably contaminated by association. He therefore adopted the name of the most violent place he could think of at the time—Gaza in Palestine.
Again Fernando Guereta, or Mr. Previous, as I have nicknamed him, the man responsible for the film, Why Do Jamaicans Run so Fast? has been quick off the mark. He is already in the middle of his next film, which documents the Gully Gaza phenomenon (please note he was NOT the source of information for this post). The interview with him I promised is still pending. I will unveil it over the course of the coming week. In the meantime check out these two video clips of Shebada in Bashment Granny (the relevant declaration is four and a half minutes into the first one). The second one has some priceless footage of Shebada teaching Bashment Granny how to walk and dance with credibility. Enjoy!
23 thoughts on “Eyeless in Gaza (and Gully): ‘Mi deh pon di borderline’”
OMG Annie this is such a cool piece.
Interesting piece about this most ridiculous of feuds. By the way, Gaza is in Palestine not Lebanon.
Thanks Abdel, shall correct at once! glad you visited!
Di ‘Annerable Annie – I mean, who else but you would do the work of making these seemingly paradoxical connections and so pointedly remind us about how limited and skewed our vision often is? Great post!
BTW I started writing about the Shebada phenom this summer after I returned to Chicago, so the background about the Gaza thing is great; I will cite the blog unless you work this into some other piece, yes?
Eve, Natalie, thanks for your generous responses. Nat pl. by all means cite the blog, the idea is to get people to come to it so this is gr8!
eventually will do a paper on this but by the time that’s published…!
Hail Annie Paul, Slide one…observe…rivalry generates profit whether in sports or music (or any form of entertainment for that matter). Ever seen WWE? These guys profitably create staged rivalry between groups and extreme personalities. An audience likes to pick a side, team or star (actor) to identify with and cheer for. That’s how we immerse ourselves and entertained because for a brief moment we escape reality. The sad thing is dancehall promoters / producers have unfortunately not yet learned the marketing techniques of WWE. Our dancehall rivalry keeps getting out of hand. Damn you Kartel! Gully mi seh! Just kidding!
Next slide…I have a different view on the fish (batty man) argument. People embracing on stage shebba-type or chu chu (the original gender bender/ drag queen) personalities. This on stage embrace is no real indication of our gay tolerance. The true indication is the number of ‘big men’ that are reportedly homosexual but “embraced” at community level by supporters of political parties and dancehall groups and affiliate. The prevalence of lesbians living (together) in communities and the high consumption on girl on girl porn by Jamaican men are also significant indicators of our gay tolerance. In fact, the only Gay any Jamaican has beaten in recent times is Tyson Gay. While I don’t support the gay lifestyle nor do I think it best…I like many other Jamaicans have never engaged in the anti-gay behavior being magnified in media or by gay-rights activists. Fire fi a lyad!
last slide…Kartel didn’t want persons to think of his community as an “aqueerium” because he himself has been accused of being a fish because of his association with Patrick Roberts and Betweenie Man. Additionally, the allegations against Kartel “mount” as his good friend is reported to have Kartel’s face and name tattooed to his arm. It is also believed that Kartel has used skin lightening cream – im bleach. Kartel had no choice but to go the Gaza route in order to project masculinity. How better than to associate yourself and community with VIOLENCE? Gaza!
Last slide…The present stupidity in dancehall almost makes me miss the days of Shabba Vs Ninja…and Super Cat vs everybody. Also, the present buffoonery that passes for acting also makes me miss Oliver at Large and Titus.
Peace and Love, Stero
Whatever would i do without you Stero? thanks for the amplification and filling in all the sides/slides i didn’t…
The lesbian thing doesn’t count though, coz i was discussing intolerance of male homosexuality…
but yes all of this is about the beleaguered masculinity of the Jamaican male, a subject that you know intimately!
this is literally the most intellegent take on the buju protest situation ANYWHERE. thanks again annie
awesome writeup Annie. I can still be called a youngster but I missed the days of true dancehall music and artists.
Good little lesson about the former name of Gaza, that should raise a few eyebrows
Something to consider: neither the protestors’ nor many Jamaicans’
representation of the social climate vis-a-vis queer sexuality are accurate.
OOH, the dutiful acts of denial that many Jamaicans are ready & willing to proffer (e.g. Stero) in order to counter the protestors’ claims actually end up hardening the position of the protestors. The tactics being wielded by Jacn’s who are defending Buju/denying the prevalence of anti-gay sentiment are too familiar: scapegoating, blaming the victim, stereotyping, denial, etc. Other people recognize these patterns, even if we aren’t aware of this. So, it’s past time to stop talking and behaving as if we are innocent & recognize that every response so far is a textbook example of how to marginalize minority groups (e.g. pretend they don’t exist; deny the veracity/validity of whatever they say; say nasty & mean things about them all the time; blame them for whatever it is that happens to them; intentionally try to harm them through legal sanctions & social ostracism; use moral arguments about “right” vs. “wrong” & social duty to defend the above). It has all been said and done before. However, things will continue to change in Ja., just like they are changing everywhere else. Change is inevitable. Queer folks are human beings just like the people who hate them & will continue to do what human beings always do, regardless of whether mainstream Jamaica notices: find creative ways to survive.
OTOH, the protestors are making political use of the experiences of gay men in Jamaica in some really problematic & disrespectful ways, acting as if Jamaica is indeed an oddity when it comes to the mistreatment of its citizens who are sexual minorities. That they clearly have a particular investment in Jamaica is another issue entirely, but doesn’t change that the response by Jamaicans – individuals and collectively – continues to sidestep the real problems.
They don’t get it; but neither do most Jamaicans. So, neither side is worthy of much acclaim right now.
I think that the Shebada phenom tell us that sexuality is still a contested area of social life in Jamaica, & that there are ways in which sexual diversity is being accommodated. I think that laughing *at* Shebada actually helps make the case about our lack of tolerance for sexual diversity and merely confirms what is “normal” to begin with. Again, using socially marginalized groups as a target of comedy is nothing new. The true test of the existence of such “tolerance” is whether Shebada or other stereotypically depicted characters like him, ever become anything more than this 1-dimensional comical figure, on or off stage, or in how we make sense of him even after this phenom becomes yesterday’s news.
Oppressive conditions are not totalizing anywhere, even in Jamaica, even for gay men. Furthermore, anti-gay sentiment in Ja. is not always expressed the same way every time in every place; that’s a big problem for both the protestors and the deniers. What they are proving/disproving is not quite as static or hardened as they make it seem.
In fact, in repressive conditions such as that of Ja., one is especially likely to see these occasional examples of exactly what nobody believed was possible in the first place!
So, to say that the charge of intolerance is not true *because* there are rich gay men who are not being persecuted (which is not exactly true anyway, no matter how many times it gets repeated, and by who) and lesbians living together does not really speak to the issue. Those examples don’t change the main story; they just amplify it. Anti-gay antipathy is not an either/or condition, but a both/and. If anything, those are good examples of why the society is becoming more (not less) repressive, almost desperately so. Queer folks are not staying in their “place” of invisibility & are getting harder to ignore (ignoring is not the same as tolerance); people are getting anxious & starting to displace other worries onto sexuality. For a long time the scapegoat for all social ills has been young women; now it’s gay men.
So, whether or not the Shebada phenom is a “trojan horse” of sorts (bearing what?) remains to be seen. But the here and now is still dread. And that’s what we have to deal with, until such time.
As a side note: Buju really, really needs a PR person/team. Seriously.
i think that the Shebada character represents a step forward because it means there is no longer a denial of the existence of homosexuals in our midst. not only that, Shebada is NOT portrayed as a wierd, shunnable, problematic character–he’s actually the star of the show–not easy to do if he was portrayed as a ridiculous, unnatural semi-criminal who is a dire threat to society.
i really don’t see him as the butt of vicious humour etc, in fact much of the time he’s at the centre of the comedy poking fun at others, older women, potbellied policemen etc. i think his character is far more complicated than one would expect from the intensely hostile homophobic ground that Jamaica often is or seems to be.
As for Buju i don’t defend his views, i do love some of his music though…
Hail Annie Paul, I appreciate your considered response to Natalie’s rancor. Natalie seems angry about something… the wrong issues. The only thing off about your insight was when you said… “i really don’t see [shebada]as the butt of vicious humour.” That had me in stitches from laughter.
Seriously, I think Natalie’s response(s) typify the current gay-rights mantra of bullying any person who holds a heterosexual preference of sexuality through name-calling (homophobic, bigot etc.). This mantra seems to put forward obnoxious homosexual behavior as the solution for obnoxious heterosexual behavior. Could you imagine how ridiculous it would be if every heterosexual started to call every homosexual “hetrophobic”. I guess I’m also cheese-cake-phobic because I prefer chocolate cakes. The point is sexuality is a matter of taste or a developed preference. There is NO credible scientific data indicating the existence of a gay-gene. In fact, several APA reports indicate that sexuality is fluid…based on free will…and can change based on situation e.g. confinement (prison), college etc.! Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that a person’s sexual taste is primarily developed through institutions of socialization i.e. family, religion etc. (and early childhood exposure to sexual activity…topic for another class). Hence, some gay-rights activists have sought to attack the credibility of agents of socialization such as religion. They do so to their peril, because mainstream religion will interpret this move a trying to discredit the notion that a choice could be categorized as wrong or right. This will harden their resolve to withstand the corrupting influence of homosexual advocates. The better route for people such as NataLIE (I couldn’t resist) maybe to appeal to the religious-rights’ sense of fair play and invoke Jesus’ imperative of not Judging others and leaving execution of judgment to God. Surely these “good” present-day Christians could not deny that the God of which they love to speak is merciful beyond measure and loves all mankind. (This maybe a harder sell when dealing with a Muslim…no disrespect to my Islamic cohorts…but the truth is the truth).
That said Annie keep writing…your blog space has never failed to provide me with much humour and insight.
Peace and love, Stero.
thanks for highly eductional blogging! You and “Stero” makes the world an even better place.
(dancehall ambassador, Norway)
@ Annie: Shebada is an interesting and complicated character, but after watching BG, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a step forward. It’s a step, alright, but in what direction is not entirely clear to me.
@ Stero: Priceless, as always.
“The point is sexuality is a matter of taste or a developed preference.”
“There is NO credible scientific data indicating the existence of a gay-gene.”
Sure. But, did anybody raise this question anywhere here? I don’t think so. So, that has no relevance to this conversation.
“n fact, several APA reports indicate that sexuality is fluid…based on free will…and can change based on situation e.g. confinement (prison), college etc.! Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that a person’s sexual taste is primarily developed through institutions of socialization i.e. family, religion etc. (and early childhood exposure to sexual activity…topic for another class).”
I see you were paying attention in your intro. to sociology class. Good for you.
[…]”Hence, some gay-rights activists have sought to attack the credibility of agents of socialization such as religion….The better route for people such as NataLIE (I couldn’t resist) maybe to appeal to the religious-rights’ sense of fair play and invoke Jesus’ imperative of not Judging others and leaving execution of judgment to God.[…]”
So, what’s your point? None of this speaks to anything I said. Wheel an’ come again.
Hi Nat, Stero!
Stero,thanks for the nice things you said.
And Nat i haven’t actually watched BG except for excerpts but i did go to BG 2 which was where i formed my impression of Shebada. i was surprised at the contrast between the depiction of male homosexuals in the dancehall context and this performance, again Shebada ruled, and wasn’t marginal in any way to the storyline…that said, the play itself was a particular type of farce which doesn’t really appeal to me beyond a point. it was houseful though and people were besides themselves w laughter. mostly a non-middle-class crowd.
Interesting comparison. I wasn’t thinking about DH at all. But, now that you raise the issue, it’s also important to remember that DH is full of braggadocio and all kind of mouthiness, and is really set up to promote a certain kind of excess. That’s how DJ’s, dancers, et al. get their props after all. Another kind of excess is working in these particular plays – ja-style double entendres, etc. While the same themes do come up in these two spaces, I think the formats matters a lot; DH seems a lot more serious than these roots plays; intended to make a point really. RPs are about the laugh. Shebada is undoubtedly the star of the show, because the writers have used the stereotyped antics as ways to solve all kinds of dilemmas. But Shebada is never confirmed as gay; we/audience just all use the cues we are given and bits of received knowledge about how “they” are to go along with the story. At the end of the day, it’s still a play, a caricaturing of life, not real life. And the man who plays Shebada also makes that clear. Although, I do think that even this kind of treatment does soften people’s attitudes even a little bit. Experiencing the character, even through the caricature, might make people project the likable=ness of Shebada onto young gay men who they may or have already encountered. I have to think about this some more. Thanks Annie!
on a separate point, are you going to Haiti for the ghetto biennale?
Yeah that’s the point i was mking in this post or trying to make, i now realize i should perhaps be more explicit…that the space in the bawdy, roots theatrehall for a character signifying ‘gayness’ or homosexuality in the face of the same stereotyped figure’s expulsion from and NO TOLERANCE attitude in the dancehall bears remarking. heck it might even bear being turned into a paper! hmmmmm i think i have teh abstract for a paper i might give at the upcoming Reggae conference right there…thanks Nat!
yes, i DO think that Shebada is making an impact, and that it is a different, way to persuade Jamaicans that the reaction to homosexuals need not always be hostile. remember that it’s a process, this may be the beginning of a shift in attitudes towards homosexuality…this is how it may begin…now its for gay rights groups here and elsewhere to figure out how to piggyback on this and take it to the next level. that in a nutshell is my point.
but i would never have encapsulated it so neatly were it not for this dialogue with you so thanks once again!
you know i might put up all these comments as my next post–they’re too interesting to bury here.
No problem. Funny how things are sometimes. I find myself always trying to run away from DH in my work, so I do appreciate having to do a U-turn on this one.
As I was reading through, countless retorts came to mind, until I came upon Natalie’s comments. I don’t know who you are Natalie, but understand that we are on the same wavelength here. I couldn’t agree with you more.
I’d just like to reiterate a few key points. The fact that “homosexuality” is only acceptable when it can be laughed at is hardly a sign that Jamaica is more tolerant. A large part of why audiences love Shebada is that “a joke im a joke”… effeminate boys are still teased mercilessly by their unrelenting peers who are the police of their heteronormative culture. I’m not surprised that people have been really receptive to Shebada’s character. He’ll be fine until he actually comes out publicly and declares that he is, in fact, gay- if he is.
It’s always interesting to note heterosexual perceptions of Jamaica’s tolerance levels. I am now 20 (young, i guess), but I don’t feel any safer in Jamaica now than I did 5 years ago. It takes time for real change to take place, indeed, and maybe I will witness great leaps in tolerance in a generation, but it seems hasty to assume that the public’s embrace of Shebada translates directly into a new-found respect for the rights of individuals to acknowledge and be true to their gender and sexual identities.
There is a certain misconception that the Shebada character perpetuates- that of the effeminate gay man. While it is true that some gay men are effeminate, it is certainly not the case for all. These men are just more easily identifiable as gay (they concurrently bear the brunt of homophobic violence). People find it easy to chastise gender-benders like Shebada, because their behaviour is not “normal”, but there are countless Jamaican gay men who pass as straight with ease; in other words- they look normal. How many Jamaicans know this?
It is very understandable that one might want to protect their identity online, especially when they are commenting on highly controversial issues, but I am really disappointed that anyone could harshly criticize/ discount the opinions of another, anonymously. That’s just me, I guess.
Thanks again Natalie. And thanks for providing the medium for such an engaging discussion to take place.
Welcome Fiyu pikni and thanks for your responses.
just to respond to something you said:
“it seems hasty to assume that the public’s embrace of Shebada translates directly into a new-found respect for the rights of individuals to acknowledge and be true to their gender and sexual identities.”
who suggested that the Shebada character translates directly into respect etc? Here’s what i said and continue saying:
“yes, i DO think that Shebada is making an impact, and that it is a different, way to persuade Jamaicans that the reaction to homosexuals need not always be hostile. remember that it’s a process, this may be the beginning of a shift in attitudes towards homosexuality…this is how it may begin…now its for gay rights groups here and elsewhere to figure out how to piggyback on this and take it to the next level. that in a nutshell is my point.”
‘Making an impact’is quite different from saying that this indicates complete tolerance or respect. i am suggesting respectfully that change is a process and that it starts to manifest itself slowly and i am claiming that the Shebada phenomenon is a sign of such change.
If anyone thinks that they’re going to wake up overnight and find that Jamaica has suddenly become ‘tolerant’ they’re dreaming. there is no reason to think that change on this matter will be any different from the way societies have changed their views of women and racially different people. In both those cases there were years of slowly breaking down the barriers, and stages such as the Cosby Show which i personally thought was very Uncle Tom-ish but the American public would never have tolerated a Chris Rock or Eddie Murphy right away…the Cosbys had to pave the way as unsatisfactory as they always were.
Similarly with women’s liberation. How many shows poking fun at women wearing the pants etc took place to get to where we are now where in the West at any rate women are acknowedged to enjoy equal rights?
Why do you think sexual liberation is going to be different? My point is if those who are gay/homosexual refuse to start examining some of these things in the light of how attitudes actually change and start mapping some of those changes we are doomed to stay right where we are–in a highly polarized and volatile situation.
The point is that there has been a series of extremely popular plays with a protagonist who refuses to conform to the national demand for gung ho heterosexuality. He is not a figure of ridicule, he is not portrayed as being evil or intolerably aberrant or intolerable as he would be in the dancehall.
How do we read this is what i am asking. and i read it as a small sign that attitudes may be beginning to change…
…and you disagree…however nothing much will change unless these kinds of conversations take place. Change is best negotiated not forced…just my opinion…
Actually, I’m right there with you Annie. Things are changing. I’m just very cynical because of my own experiences. I am lucky enough to be out to a very understanding and loving Jamaican family, and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that their regard for me has a lot to do with the times we are living in.
I have always believed that we need to find a way to engage the Jamaican public from within Jamaica, because there is a tolerant Jamaican voice being drowned out by the more outrageous calls for vigilante execution of people like me in Dancehall.
Isn’t it amazing, that as homophobic as Jamaica is supposedly, we are constantly talking about homosexuality. It’s an obsession, I swear. In many countries, it just doesn’t exist. So we are constantly having the conversations we need to have, and as people become more knowledgeable about (homo)sexuality, the conversations will get even more intelligent.
I’m not sure if I mentioned this, but I LOVE SHEBADA! Haha. His character is truly hilarious. And you know, when I was in Jamaica, I often heard people say, “mi no care ef im a batiman, im foni, an a laaf mi gaa play fi laaf.” That’s progress. No joke. Because now we can see the individual as different from their sexual selves, as we should.
Hope is never lost.