Reggae show deemed ‘anti-gay’ canceled amid protests

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The company operating Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre has canceled the scheduled performance of a popular reggae artist after hearing from critics who claimed his messages promote violence against LGBT people, according to a company employee.

Ineffable Music Group, which took over operations of the downtown Petaluma venue in April, was exploring its contractual options to cancel the planned Sept. 27 show by the artist Sizzla on Tuesday, said Thomas Cussins, a talent buyer for the company and the Mystic Theatre.

The company committed to the cancellation on Tuesday, Cussins said, the same day that the condemnation of Sizzla from the region’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community came to light.

“Financially, it will be very difficult for the venue to cancel the show. But that’s secondary. We’re not going to promote something that supports hate speech,” said Cussins, who said the company was not aware of the concerns over the artist at the time of booking.

Awareness of the upcoming show in Petaluma increased around two weeks ago, when Todd Larson, co-founder of the nonprofit community group Queer Humboldt, began broadcasting his own concern over Sizzla shows planned in Humboldt County and elsewhere, said Gary Carnivele, a long-time LGBT community activist and host of KRCB’s Outbeat Radio. Larson’s outreach prompted the cancellation last month of a scheduled show in San Francisco, and helped draw the attention of activists to the performance in Petaluma, Carnivele said.

Carnivele was in the midst of organizing a large-scale effort to lobby the Mystic to drop the show – an effort he said could escalate to the level of street protest – when news broke of the cancellation. He lauded the venue for the decision, and added that he and other activists would be watching to see if another show, at another venue, emerged in the area.

“One success here, but as it’s happened in the past, they’ll just try to book him in another venue. Another venue could just pop up here in Sonoma County,” said Carnivele, owner of gaysonoma.com, the online successor to what was once a monthly LGBT newspaper in Sonoma County called We the People.

Critics contend that the artist is part of a reggae movement known as “Murder Music,” which includes messaging that promotes violence against gay people, Carnivele said. A 2011 white paper by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a major civil rights group, linked the roots of the movement to an extremely conservative culture in Jamaica.

The white paper singled out several popular performers as having lyrics reflective of the genre, grouping Sizzla with artists Buju Banton, Beenie Man and Capleton. Carnivele singled out lyrics in Sizzla songs like “Nah Apologize,” which he said has lines including a derogatory term for gay men in Jamaica and the threat of violence.

Carnivele said musicians connected with the Murder Music genre were a minority for reggae performers as a whole, and acknowledged that fans of its artists may be entirely unaware of the meaning behind the lyrics. Yet the issue of violence against gay men and women in Jamaica has long been an issue of concern for LGBT activists.

“Those of us who are activists have been aware of how difficult it has been in Jamaica for LGBT people for decades, and it’s not getting better,” he said.

Sizzla’s publicist, Olimetta Taal, acknowledged that Jamaican culture was more conservative than the United States in regard to LGBT individuals. She described his lyrics and on-stage messaging as cultural expression, and argued that it would be a mistake for fans to take them literally.

“What I can say is that his music is misinterpreted. His music is not to be taken at face value. It’s an expression of his cultural norms, his cultural background,” she said.

The planned performance in Petaluma was part of the artist’s first tour in the United States in eight years, Taal said.

While it was unclear what options Ineffable had to terminate the show, Ken O’Donnell, managing partner of McNear’s Saloon and Dining House and long-time booker for the Mystic, noted that the move was unlikely to come cheap. Contracts often call for the venue to pay the artist and their affiliates the equivalent of a sold-out show.

Tickets for the Sizzla performance were going for $40 each before sales were stopped on Tuesday. The Mystic holds 425 people in its main hall and 100 on its balcony, according to information from the venue’s website.

O’Donnell said he personally fielded several calls of concern regarding the upcoming performance, and that neither he nor those now operating the venue were aware of the history of criticism. Summer is a difficult time for small venues like the Mystic, he said, but he lauded the cancellation as a “smart move.”

“It was a very fast thing, and by the time it came out, everybody was just a little surprised,” he said.

Ineffable Music donated $1,000 to an LGBT organization upon hearing the first complaint, Cussins said, and the company moved to cancel the show entirely once additional complaints came to light. He emphasized that the concerns over the artist came as a surprise, and would have prompted them to avoid booking the artist if they were known.

“We do not support hate speech. We support the local LGBT community,” Cussins said.

With other shows planned during Sizzla’s American tour, Carnivele said lobbying of venues elsewhere was likely to continue.

“He’s got a full month of dates still booked around the country,” he said.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)

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