King Yellowman Defends Gay Rights at Reggae on the Mountain

No, they don’t. They don’t know that gay people are nice people. Just like any other people. And they love reggae music. Yeah. And [gay people] love Jamaica. Yeah mon.

King Yellowman wearing a taint tank top and a blue basketball short In the hot California summer heat. Photo by Stephen Cooper

King Yellowman seen wearing a white taint tank top and a blue basketball short (not shown in this crop photo) at                   Reggae on the Mountain in the hot California summer heat. / Photo taken by Stephen Cooper

Born with albinism in 1956, dancehall music legend King Yellowman was rejected from birth. As a baby, he was found in a supermarket’s trash heap in Kingston, Jamaica. Miraculously surviving and raised in orphanages, he was ridiculed, called names, and abused. Yellowman was scorned solely because of his color. However, possessing preternatural musical talent, an indomitable will, and braveness beyond belief, Yellowman surmounted these Herculean obstacles, and more. After Bob Marley’s death, in 1981, he became one of the world’s biggest music stars, back when dancehall first took off beyond the confines of Jamaica. Indeed, a recent book review in The New Yorker of So Much Things Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley (written by Roger Steffens and published by Norton), asserts that after Bob’s death, “brash new [dancehall] stars like Yellowman, made Marley’s roots-reggae seem antiquated.”

Beating back Father Time, and even cancer – which caused him to undergo a series of life-saving but disfiguring surgeries – Yellowman is still triumphing over life’s obstacles. He’s still making new music. He’s still touring the world. And, with his patented, provocative swagger, he’s not shying away from taking strong stances on social issues

I was blessed to interview King Yellowman on Saturday, July 22nd, shortly after his electrifying performance as a headliner at the 8th annual Reggae on the Mountain in Topanga Canyon, California. Both performing, and later, during my interview, Yellowman was joined by another dean of the Jamaican dancehall scene, Papa Michigan. Best known for a string of hits with former partner General Smiley, like the 1982 chart-topper, “Diseases,” Papa Michigan, like King Yellowman, has never shied away from saying what he believes. What follows is a transcription of our discussion modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Q: You’ve said they blame you for the “slackness” style. And, for example, with your mega-hit, Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, that they didn’t know what it meant. So, they just assumed it was something sexual, and banned it from the radio?

Yellowman: Right. It’s a misinterpretation. Because, if they’re talking about “slackness,” all of  us slack. We [all] come from a woman. We have to make love.

 Q: You’ve spoken before about how you were scorned and discriminated against in your life and career [because of your albinism]. And, one of the reasons you are so loved, in Jamaica and around the world is, you took that hate and discrimination that you suffered, and you overcame it. You came out strong and said, if you want to call me yellow, let me sing to you about all the yellow babies I’m going to make. And the people loved you for it. It was a heroic thing, what you did, I think. Now, in 2013, you were interviewed on a program called “Empress’ Studio” in Kingston, Jamaica. And during that interview you said, “the biggest problem with dancehall music is the lyrical content.” Can you say more about that?

Yellowman: Yeah mon. What I mean about the lyrical content [is] the violence and the separation. They are getting in a lot of trouble with the law also.

Q: In that same Empress’ Studio interview you spoke out eloquently against the discrimination gay people face in Jamaica. And, how Jamaica suffers because of that image problem –

Yellowman: That’s the reason why dancehall suffers.

Q: Yes. And I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this by asking Jamaicans I know why homophobia remains so prevalent in Jamaican culture. Some of the things I’ve heard are: that there’s a biblical aspect with people being taught it’s a sin; that the law has not changed in Jamaica – there is still a law criminalizing homosexual acts; that people associate homosexual behavior with the molestation of young boys due to the priest scandals; and also, just a sheer lack of worldliness – not ever leaving the island of Jamaica – and therefore, not having that experience with different kinds of people –

 Yellowman: No, they don’t. They don’t know. They don’t know that gay people are normal people. They don’t know that gay people are nice people. Just like any other people. And [gay people] love reggae music. Yeah. And [gay people] love Jamaica. Yeah mon.

Q: Is there hope for change?

 Yellowman: Them keep talking, but it never happen. I don’t know why. Just the other day they say they are gonna look [at repealing] the buggery law. And then, I don’t hear anything more about it.

Q: Are you more sympathetic to discrimination than the average Jamaican? Because of the discrimination you’ve endured? Being abandoned by your parents. Thrown in a trash heap. Not adopted. Called names. All this, because of your skin color.

 Yellowman: Yeah mon. Because, we’re all one people, you know?

 Q: I understand your wife, Rosie, is related to the Marley family. Were you friends with Bob Marley when he was alive?

 Yellowman: Yeah mon. Very good friends, yeah. Because his mother [Cedella Marley] used to love me.

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