Suriname Men United – “Public Campaign against Dancehall Artists” – Activist Report (Kenneth Van Emden, Suriname)

Suriname Men United

Activist Report from 2008 Public Media Campaign – Targeting homophobic lyrics of dance hall artists

By Kenneth van Emden, Director Suriname Men United

Email: suriname_men_united(at) || Website:

The Issue / Summary

In November 2008, the telephone company Digicel celebrated their 1st anniversary in Suriname with a free concert. For this concert two Jamaican artists, Elephant Man and Bounty Killer, were invited to perform. The promotion of this concert was huge since the phone company wanted to promote their services in order to reach the biggest population in Suriname. The above-mentioned artists are well known for their homophobic song lyrics. Lyrics like “kill batty man,” and “burn batty man” are some of the commonly used lyrics in their songs. Because of experiences in Jamaica, where these songs have an impact in terms of violence and killings on members of the gay community, Suriname Men United (SMU), a gay organization, started a campaign in Suriname to pre-empt the concert. In collaboration with a lawyer, a letter was designed and sent referencing our anti – discrimination law, to the director of the phone company, highlighting the homophobic lyrics in the songs of the performers and that the singers should adjust their repertoire. This resulted in a huge media break-out in Suriname and SMU was involved in several discussions concerning this issue. Pressured by the board of the phone company and the media, the artists used no homophobic lyrics during the concert. Because of the good advocacy plan involving the media and lawyer, we were proud to achieve this first step to a better future for the MSM community in Suriname. It was the first big action towards these performers in Suriname and we succeeded in getting the repertoire adjusted.

History of Suriname Men United – The promising action

The promising action is that through public debate in Suriname awareness is being raised on what equality before the law means. All the action-related debates were centered around the right to non-discriminatory distinctions and to be free from discriminatory treatment, a right every individual has in Suriname, regardless of the differences in religious, cultural or moral views. In addition to this rights debate, discrimination-related violence was strongly opposed by the wider public. The majority of the public voiced the existing social agreement that every individual should be free from ‘hate crimes’. Suriname Men United wrote a letter to the organizing company. Friends and other gay-friendly people were also mobilized to promote the campaign from mouth to mouth, email communication, and messages through cell phones. SMU also contacted radio stations and some gay men where inspired and went on TV to talk about the issue. The campaign consisted of a few phone conversations with the organizers and some journalists were informed and asked to bring the issue on the table during the press conference. Journalists from local news papers were also mobilized to write about this campaign. This was to provide a “murder music” dancehall dossier which gives a wide range of the lyrics sung by the artists.

The political and/or organizational context when the best action began

The Surinamese Constitution provides everyone with the right to be free from discrimination. The anti-discrimination right is articulated in article 8 (2) under the title Basic Rights, Individual Rights and Freedoms and reads as follows: “No one may be discriminated against on the grounds of birth, sex, race, language, religious, origin, education, political beliefs, economic position or any other status.”

Despite the fact that in Suriname in general everyone can live a life free from physical violence, stigma, and discrimination towards sub-populations such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) community, sex workers, and people living with HIV and AIDS are still present and that constitutes a form of psychological violence. Reducing the stigma and discrimination in Suriname against marginalized populations as mentioned before, is among other things non-governmental organizations such as SMU are aiming at in an effort to improve the lives of their constituents according to the standards set by the Human Rights Principles. Suriname is well-known for its diversity of races, cultures, and religions. The distribution of the Surinamese population by ethnicity is shown in the figure below, produced by the Bureau of National Statistics. The diverse compilation of the Surinamese population with no extreme majority of one ethnic group, has a major effect on the peaceful society that we can claim to be. A society in which diversity is embraced and valued as an asset and not seen as an obstacle. Even though all ethnic groups have their own music, reggae music is very popular among all ethnic groups.

Reggae is a music style made popular by Bob Marley whose music is still the favorite of many. Nowadays some artists promote all kinds of violence and hate crimes. This phenomenon is well-known among the Jamaican reggae artists who utilize homophobic lyrics and lyrics promoting ill-treatment of women and the LGBTQI. Jamaican artist such as Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Bounty Killer and Movado incite their fans to kill and burn homosexual men.

The development / emergence of the action

In November 2008, Digicel, a telephone provider, organized a music concert to celebrate its first anniversary in Suriname. The artists line-up included two Jamaican artists: Elephant Man and Bounty Killer. Those two artists were scheduled to be the main performers of the music event. The above-mentioned music event had a multiple purpose; besides the first anniversary celebration it was also a huge promotional activity. The Jamaican artists Bounty Killer and Elephant Man are well known for their lyrics, which incite gay-related violence. Because of the experiences in Jamaica, where these songs are argued to have led to actual violence against gays and even murders, SMU campaigned against the scheduled performances of the two Jamaican artists. Based on the domestic anti-discrimination law, a letter was drafted and sent to the director of Digicel, highlighting the unacceptable contents of the lyrics of the performers and that the singers should at least adjust their repertoire when performing in Suriname.

Initially SMU intervened based on a one-on-one communication strategy with Digicel, but SMU soon realized that to increase the pressure on Digicel and its promotional activity media exposure was necessary. SMU adjusted its strategy and involved the media and therefore the wider public debated whether the Surinamese society should allow the incitement of violence against gays by performers such as the artists Bounty Killer and Elephant Man. This strategy resulted in huge media coverage of the matter in Suriname and SMU was involved in several debates concerning this issue. Ultimately, pressured by the board of the phone company, media, and the expressed public opinions against violence incitement against anyone including gays, no homophobic lyrics were used during the concert.

Success of the work

SMU is aware of the fact that having a public debate on LGBTQI issues is still taboo in the Surinamese society, and therefore is a delicate issue. But since the wider public actively participated in the public debate as part of the action, SMU considers the action a success already. The action has partly removed the taboo which prevented LGBTQI people from enjoying their rights and entitlements. Because of a strong advocacy plan involving strategic partnerships with the media, government officials and legal experts, we were able to send out a strong message against gay-related discrimination, ignorance, intolerance and violence. We consider this to be a first step to improve the life of the LGBTQI community in Suriname, with respect to the equal enjoyment of human rights as well as equal protection of their human rights against violations. The above-described intervention has been the first one of this nature in Suriname and we can proudly proclaim it a huge success. This action has paved the path for a lot of organizations to start networking with SMU. Also, members of the gay community were empowered by the action and its success and are more willing to come out regarding their sexual orientation. A different dialogue has started within the society on the issues of LGBTQI and the media is more willing to facilitate this dialogue in a more sensitive and less sensational manner.

Contributed intentional & non-intentional, external & internal factors of success

SMU is a member of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CARIFLAGS). Through this network the Jamaican experiences with gay-related violence stemming from dancehall reggae music are shared. SMU committed itself to act in a preventive manner to avoid similar calamities as Jamaica is experiencing. The action was fully supported by the team of SMU and members of the gay community. Several advices and reports / documents with information on the dancehall history were provided by HIV/AIDS activists and experts in Suriname, the Caribbean and Canada.

The media was also a major contributor to success; it was instrumental in the public debate as well for providing correct information on this matter. Journalists also confronted the respective artists with specific questions about their violence-promoting lyrics. Digicel, the music event organizing company, eventually also became an ally. On national television during a press conference in the presence of the performers and journalists, the Executive Director of Digicel assured that no homophobic music would be performed and that the anti-discrimination law would be obeyed.

Individuals and leaders that impacted the outcome

One of the individuals who impacted the outcome was a lawyer SMU hired to help design the letter. This method was used to highlight the importance and the seriousness of the campaign. Furthermore, journalists played a big role by giving wide exposure to the campaign. This helped SMU in sensitizing and informing the community about LGTBQI issues. Also the help and advices of several directors of NGO’s were very helpful and impacted the outcome. These people have years of experiences within the advocacy field, so sharing their experience with SMU was very useful. Interviews with gay men and women also played an important role in the outcome since they are the ones experiencing the hate lyrics as emotional violence. The help of the CARIFLAGS in sharing reports and documents made it possible for SMU to engage in discussions and dialogues with evidence-based information.

Measures to evaluate the action

This action started as a spontaneous response to a circumstance that presented itself unexpectedly and evolved and expanded into an ongoing awareness project. The initial action, which is presented in this narrative, had a clearly defined aim: communicating to the performers that within Suriname hate crime promotion is not tolerated and that they will not receive permission perform music containing any such message. The indicators on which the result was measured were: (1) the public statement by Digicel, the contractor of the performers, claiming that the performers signed an agreement to refrain from performing music that might incite violence against gays. (2) The repertoire performed was free from homophobic lyrics. (3) A post-concert survey among gay men on their opinion on the action shows that they were happy about the efforts made by Suriname Men United. Others showed their appreciation by sending emails and making phone calls congratulating SMU for not only its efforts related to the action, but also for being successful. (4) One-on-one interviews with other people also helped us to evaluate the action.

Intended and unplanned outcomes

The intended outcome was a music concert without homophobic music. The unplanned outcome was the expansion of the response into a more structural movement which includes all forms of discrimination and exposure to violation of rights. The enthusiasm among all involved partners for our success has motivated them to stay on board and continue to support the efforts to improve the quality of life of the LGBTQI community. The media is more sensitized on the issue of LGBTQI and therefore reports in a less sensational manner on LGBTQI news items. Also the public sector – in particular law enforcement – is also more aware of their role to provide equal protection from violence to the LGBTQI community, and similarly the LGBTQI community is more empowered to speak out and demand equal treatment. There were no unintended negative outcomes or potential negative outcomes or backlash from bringing this issue more into the public. The only negative outcomes were that people who are against homosexuality aired their opinion on the radio. A lot of people were happy with this campaign, since it also used the point of view of the Surinamese constitution, which states that discrimination is against the law. Recently two concerts were held where Jamaican artists Beenie Man and Movado performed. The organizers stated in the press conference and also on TV and radio that none such lyrics may be used. Suriname Men United was even asked to view the show on cd, to find out if the shows were free of homophobic lyrics. The work of the organization is getting more recognition and companies are getting involved in decision making when it comes to the screening of the shows for example.

The challenges and how to overcome

Fear for backlash: One of the challenges for us was in the beginning the thought of getting out in the open to start a huge campaign like this. It was the first time and we were a bit afraid of stepping out on such a level. But through encouragement from others and positive thinking we did the first step.

Empirical data: The event manager stated that the contracted artists do not belong to the

category of “murder music“ performers. To disprove this statement we provided him with a dancehall “murder music” dossier where both of the artists were fully described. The impact of the music on violent behavior though, is not supported by reliable evidence.

Moral and religious views: Part of the public opposed the action by expressing stigmatizing and discriminatory remarks towards homosexuals. Arguments were posted such as gays should not get any sort of attention nor should they receive this level of facilitation. The positive profiling must be stopped. Claims were also made that SMU was promoting homosexuality publicly but that the gays should keep their activities private. Even claims like gays are preparing to take over the country were made. These remarks were predominantly of a moralistic and religious nature.

The alliances / linkages forged to ensure success

The most strategic partnership SMU made was with the media. All possible formats of media exposure were utilized. For example, written newspaper articles in support of the action were regularly published. Several radio stations invited SMU to send a representative to participate in call-in informative programs with the possibility for the audience to call and ask informative questions or to express their opinion on the action. A local television station also exposed the action by inviting gay men for a live discussion on the issue while short videos were aired of people on the street who expressed their opinion on the action. The Caribbean community was approached for their assistance. They provided SMU with a dancehall “murder music “dossier. This dossier consists of names of the reggae artists and their songs with an explanation of the homophobic lyrics. Also experiences and reports of activities undertaken against the respective artists in the Caribbean were shared.

The contribution to a broader movement or cross-movement goals

The unplanned outcome is the expansion of the response to a more structural movement which includes all forms of discrimination and exposure to the violation of rights. The enthusiasm among all involved partners for the action’s success has motivated them to stay on board and continue to support the efforts to improve the quality of life of the LGBTQI community. The media is more sensitized on the issue of LGBTQI and therefore reports in a less sensational manner on LGBTQI news items. Also, the public sector, in particular law enforcement, is also more aware of their role to provide equal protection from violence to LGBTQI people, and similarly the LGBTQI community is more empowered to speak out and demand equal treatment. The media board has also become more vocal on the impact of music and other media products on behavior of children and viewpoints on equal treatment of different sub-populations such as women, homeless people etc.

Skills and lessons learned in the process

1. Know the strengths and weaknesses of your own organization, but also those of your


2. Make sure you understand the battle you are embarking on.

3. Have a good understanding of the problem you are facing.

4. Understand the different dynamics involved (e.g. political, religious, legal, cultural sensitivities).

5. Have access to documentation and evidence-based information.

6. Involve as many strategic partners as possible.

7. Strive to set-up an inter-disciplinary team with, for example, lawyers, policymakers, educators and media workers.

8. Ensure that your constituency supports the action

9. Set achievable goals. For example, in our case don’t prevent the performance, but demand an appropriate repertoire. This approach helps to satisfy both the needs of the fans of the artists and your constituency’s needs.

10. Involve your constituency from an early stage.

11. Communicate clearly before, during, and after the action with all involved parties.

12. At all times utilize the power of information by constantly feeding the public with correct information.