With the homeless and supposedly gay boys of New Kingston running rampant throughout the Golden Triangle (for that is certainly the image the alarmists have been trying to paint), my friends Ronald and Esther have pointed out that a new phase of the national debate on homophobia has opened. For suddenly there is this idea of the Good Gay and the Bad Gay.
The Bad Gays can be several people of course, but the street boys of New Kingston have become the most potent example of the phenomenon. At worst, they are prostitutes and thieves and they spread diseases. Importantly they have no behaviour. They are willing to use stones and knives and, worst of all, an exaggerated effeminacy in order to defend themselves. Theirs is a flamboyance which polite society frankly finds objectionable. An article in the Jamaica Gleaner of April 7, narrates the recent incident of a few of these flamboyant Bad Gays being involved in Carnival Road March 2013 and the fracas that erupted when a few spectators objected with stones to their carrying-ons. An online respondent to the article captures the mood of many Jamaicans when she objects to another online user’s (Billy Bob’s) defence of these Bad Behaving Gays. Even as text, you can hear the Upper St Andrew lilt in her voice:
Billy Bob, you have not seen the way these men act. It’s beyond outrageous. They taunt the crowd, Some take off their clothes and make lewd, suggestive and VERY unwanted gestures. I cant even express the scene I saw when i was out on Saturday night. And they just LOVE an audience. It’s pure performance, so I can just imagine how they behaved on Sunday! Their obstreperous actions go way beyond beyond demanding rights and/equality.
[I tried for a whole week after reading this to casually use the word ‘obstreperous’ in a sentence, but alas, I failed 😦 ]
Amazingly, the Good Gays have now become none other than J-Flag (what a turn around!) – men who might unfortunately love other men, but who at least are educated, professional, and they don’t steal from you. And though it seems quite unfair to invoke him in death (as if closed up in the coffin he is, ironically, released from the proverbial closet), the Patron Saint of the Good Gays has become none other than the honourable Professor Rex Nettleford. Saint Rex – so the talk goes – at least had the good decency of never having ‘come out’ in his life. His was a mode to be copied: professional accomplishment, national service, discretion, restraint, etc. Why can’t all gays be more like him?
Now it cannot escape our notice that in this new discourse of the Good versus the Bad Gay, that what is being policed is class as much as sexuality. The educated and professional gay is suddenly enlisted in his own oppression. For while he might be a man who has sex with men, at least this one transgression happens in the confines of his private bedroom. Outside, he knows how to behave, and this makes him superior. He is better than the misbehaving miscreants of Jamaica Carnival 2013. And I would dare to say now, that in as much as the good middle class gay man buys into this new discourse is as much as he is in danger of being an ungrateful bastard. For the very space he has begun to enjoy is at least partly due to the unwitting advocacy of those he now turns his nose up to, those who have made themselves so extreme that his once intolerable behaviour has become tolerable, his own misbehaviour now accepted as good behaviour.
That soca music advocates and to a great extent engineers a space for ‘misbehaviour’ is a point so blindingly obvious it almost does not need stating. But so called ‘misbehaviour’ in the context of Carnival is a slippery thing to define.
Good behaviour – that which adopts certain standards of decorum, restraint and politeness, is in fact inappropriate for Carnival and therefore would arguably constitute, if not bad, then at least ‘wrong or incorrect behaviour’. On the other hand, behaviour which rejects traditional notions of decorum, restraint and politeness are quite appropriate, and therefore good and correct.
Almost any song could be used to illustrate this point, but Fayanne Lyon’s ‘Miss Behave’ from last year’s carnival, and ‘A Little Wine Never Hurt Nobody’ by Patrice Roberts in this year’s carnival are as good as any.
Fayanne Lyon’s song recalls the year before (presumably 2011) in which she behaved quite badly. 2012 finds her in a repentant mood. In this new year’s carnival, ashamed of the excesses to which she gave into the year before, she promises that she won’t get on toooo bad. She sings that she will ‘limit [her]self to jump and wave’. The action sounds almost demure, a church woman’s light praise. But of course such restraint was never going to work. Though she tells herself, mantra like ‘I wont get mad, I won’t get crazy, I won’t get mad, I won’t get crazy, I won’t get mad, I won’t get crazy’ this falls apart when she hears them sing ‘Drop on the ground and roll!’
The song of course is not only a recounting of Fayanne’s loss of resolve, her getting caught up in the Carnival Spirit, but it becomes an imperative as well. This ‘drop on the ground and roll’ is an instruction for the listener to follow. We too are encouraged to misbehave with Fayanne. We too should find ourselves, like her, ‘inside the band, wining like a madwoman, (we) flag in (we) hand/(we) jumping up in front the bad.’
Incidentally, this action of dropping on the ground and rolling suggests on one level, pentecostal fervour – a woman so overcome by the power of the holy spirit that she has fallen on the floor, rolling about and forgetting her modesty. More metaphorically, and yet more directly, in the context of Trinidad Carnival and fetes, it imagines a woman lowering her knees (dropping on the ground) and rolling her behind. In Jamaica however, at Beach Jouvert 2012 when the song played, many took to its first literal meaning. They dropped themselves in the sand of James Bond Beach, or on the slightly muddy terrain of the grounds, and rolled around as if they had either found or lost religion. And in this way, their behaviour was even more excessive, more outrageous than the song was actually advocating for in its own home territory. And this is something I want to provoke throughout this blog-essay – for behaviour and misbehaviour are necessarily defined differently in different cultures. So what happens when soca and its advocacy for misbehaviour migrates and occupies a Jamaican context. How do we hear its instructions, and what kind of misbehaviour do we perform?
One other story about Fayanne’s song and its reception in Jamaica last year. Last year I found myself at a party on the rooftop of Giscombe ‘sGym. [Now why a gymnasium would name itself after what seems to me a clear homonym for male ejaculate (jizz-cum) is something that deserves a whole other blog or essay, but let’s leave that alone for now.] So there we were at, Giscombe’s Gym and the song Miss Behave played. The excitement was palpable. This was certainly a hype song for carnival. But while several women began to drop and jiggle and roll, I noticed that several men were almost trembling at the effort to restrain themselves and their bodies that wanted to behave outrageously. But perhaps the setting wasn’t completely safe – ejaculate homonym notwithstanding – and so several of these men, their hips undulating, decided instead to hold on tight to the railings. Of course they were really holding on to themselves. They, at least, were ‘good’.
Patrice Robert’s hit this year continues Soca’s project of reforming so called bad behaviour into good behaviour, and indeed deploring so called good behaviour as inappropriate and bad. The act of stealing (tiefing) is a crime, but if what is being stolen is a wine, then Patrice assures the revellers that nothing is wrong with that.
You not in danger
If you wine on a stranger
And it ain’t no crime
If you take a little wine
You not in trouble
For a little bubble
You cyah get lock up
for a little wuk up
Wine up on a bumper
Push back on a zipper
If he eh have no behavior
Just start giving him pressure
Roll yuh waist now
The man here is imagined standing behind the woman, impassive, restrained. What here is described as ‘no behaviour’ – is in fact a subversion of what would usually be considered good behaviour. The woman is instructed then to give him pressure, to roll and roll and roll her waist until he too gives himself over to the less respectable but more acceptable excesses of bad behaviour.
Now let us go back to James Bond Beach – to Beach Jouvert 2013, and to the playing now of Patrice Roberts’ song at about 8’o clock in the night. Something of the scene should be set however – for this is a fete in its final two hours. Alcohol has already been consumed in great portions, but importantly the paint has already been thrown and night is falling. What you should understand then that everyone looks a little bit like everyone else. Gender and sex, under this dual covering of night and paint, have become ambiguous. The Selector has not long ago shouted into the mic, ‘People, this is the point where anything goes!’ consciously opening up a space for misbehaviour.
And this is what I see: a man, a few yards away from me makes his whole torso fall – puppet style – head touching toes, and starts to gyrate his behind. Another man, noticing, and probably obediently listening to Patrice Roberts (Wine on somebody now! Wine on somebody now! A Little Wine Never Hurt Nobody!) approaches and starts to dance against him. The first fellow looks back, squints, and for all of half a second seems surprised at the gender of the person dancing against him. But it is only for half a second. He then seems to shrug. It is soca after all. It is a space for misbehaviour, so he begins to roll his waistline, giving the other guy pressure. This erotic dancing between two men turns into a line of three, then four, then five men. Men misbehaving with each other.
I admit I felt a little afraid for them – this public display. But in the end nothing happened. This wine didn’t hurt anybody. They weren’t stoned and no one seemed to care very much. But I also think about the kinds of men these were – lawyers, doctors – and I must ponder again what is really being policed: class, or sexuality?
At the end of the night I had called a friend and I narrated all of this to him. I could feel him frowning over the phone and he said, indignantly, that is the problem with Soca. It bring out the worst in us! That could never happen in dancehall!
This is an obvious point, and yet I was struck by it – dancehall so often seen as the place to articulate rebellion and transgression was here presented as a disciplining space. In dancehall you don’t leh guh, or free up. In dancehall, you can’t misbehave in certain ways.
And I wondered then if I could agree with my friend – that soca brought out the worst in people. For maybe it was bringing out the best – not a space for misbehaviour per se, but for alternate behaviours and right beside it, a space for tolerance.
But the space for tolerance didn’t last long. Carnival in Kingston had a crowd that was much more mixed than Jouvert’s crowd. There was both uptown and downtown clearly represented – both good and bad gays. And now that the revelry was not hidden under the cover of night and paint, and the men were persisting in their bad behaviour – they were summarily stoned by an outraged public looking on. And depending on who you hear it from, it seems their biggest crime wasn’t even their flambuoyance on the streets, but that when they were stoned they did not accept it passively. They flung missiles back into the crowd. Yes – these were definitely the bad behaving gays in all their glory, dancing and standing up for themselves, and never cowering.
I imagine these men, before their little wine had hurt themselves (and also a woman in the crowd), marching as if to Machel Montano’s Soca Monarch winning tune of 2012:
I telling you baby,
Is de feeling de music bring yeah –
I can’t behave at all!
I wining like a mad man
Who want to watch can watch me
I come to get on bad, and
if you vex, den I sorry!
Is like every fete
Have de number to mi cellphone
When bacchanal does call me
I just cannot say no!
De vibes cyaa done! De vibes cyaa done!