Why can blacks bash gays?

Observations on homophobia

Imagine the uproar if the gay singer George Michael put out a single that advocated the killing of black people. His music career would be finished and he'd be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred and murder. Yet black artists are calling for the burning and shooting of queers - and getting away with it. Worse than that, they are nominated for prestigious music awards.

Top reggae stars are releasing records in Jamaica and in the UK that advocate the lynching of gay people. TOK's homophobic single "Chi Chi Man" goes: "From dem a drink inna chi chi [gay] man bar/Blaze di fire mek we dun dem!!!! Dun dem!!!!/Rat tat tat every chi chi man dem haffi get flat/Chi chi man fi dead and dat's a fact".

Music industry chiefs - including the BBC - have responded to these hate lyrics by promoting them. Last year, Radio 1 defended playing "Chi Chi Man" on the grounds that it was part of Jamaican culture. The BBC only recently pulled the plug on these artists, and only because of protests by the gay rights group OutRage!

Homophobia was at the forefront of the recent Music of Black Origin (Mobo) awards, where the performers Elephant Man, TOK and Capleton were nominated as "Best Reggae Act" - despite their lyrics, which urge the incineration and gunning down of gay people.

Equally inflammatory is Capleton's hit "Bun [burn] Di Chi Chi", which was previously promoted on a BBC Radio 1Xtra Top-10 chart.

The nomination of these homophobic performers at the Mobos is, surely, the moral equivalent of the Brit awards nominating a racist entertainer who incites the killing of black people. But incitement to racial hatred is a crime; inciting anti-gay hate is not. It is lawful and gay victims have no redress.

Prejudice in pop is not an abstract issue. The bigotry of these artists helps to fuel queer-bashing violence, as I discovered when I dared to protest outside the Mobo gala night at the London Arena. I was attacked by a hysterical, homophobic mob mouthing the hate lyrics of their reggae heroes: "Kill the batty boy" and "Kill chi chi men". Set upon by 25 mostly black teenage music fans, I was kicked, punched, spat at and pelted with beer cans, coins and cigarette lighters. My crime? Holding up a placard with the words: "Mobo rewards anti-gay hate". Together with four colleagues from OutRage!, I was forced to flee under police escort.

Black lesbians and gay men suffer the most from the hatred stirred and legitimated by these lyrics. As a Jamaican neighbour of mine once proudly boasted: "Back home, if we discover a gay, we stone them to death." A few years ago, more than 20 suspected gay men were massacred in a prison riot in Kingston. The crushing strength of black homophobia explains why there are no openly gay black superstars. Not one world-famous black athlete, politician or entertainer is "out". The response of black MPs and community leaders is depressing. Although many privately are appalled, few speak out against the hate lyricists and the violent homophobic attitudes of sections of black youth.

One who does is the commentator (and New Statesman columnist) Darcus Howe, who called the lyrics "sad, sick and sorry". But, he added: "If singers and record companies want to do this, it's up to them. I'm very careful about banning people, especially if they are artists." Howe is not surprised by the failure of black MPs to speak out - but he argues: "They have to battle for black people, you have to battle for gay people." Yet who, I wonder, will battle for black gays?

The silence of many black leaders gives anti-gay bigotry free rein in parts of the black community. Yet if Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson and Desmond Tutu can take a stand against homophobia, why can't British black leaders?