Vancouver Art & Leisure’s “PranceHall” puts a spring in the step of dancehall music

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An article by Kate Wilson for The Georgia Straight.

“Gay men, lesbians and queers must be assassinated”, Vybz Kartel announces in Jamaican patois on the huge 2003 dancehall hit “Bedroom Slaughteration.”

Dancehall might be one of the world’s hottest sounds right now—just ask Drake, whose explosive new album Views showcases three dancehall-inspired “riddims”—but shocking homophobic lyrics like these are far from uncommon in the traditional Caribbean genre. So pervasive in Jamaican culture, dancehall has spawned a whole subcategory dubbed “murder music” for its role in inciting violence towards different sexual orientations.

Aiming to tackle that stigma, local arts collective Vancouver Art & Leisure are flipping the script on dancehall’s hate lyrics.

Launching an LGBTQ-friendly night of reggae and dancehall in one of the city’s famously queer-positive venues, organisers Marcus Marshall and Camille Heron are taking matters into their own hands. Not just aiming to throw a great party, Marshall and Heron are dedicated to educating Vancouverites about a genre that has contributed to the deaths and displacement of thousands of Caribbean people.

“The idea came to us out of nowhere,” Heron recalls. “One of the songs we were listening to together just had this horribly offensive term for a gay or lesbian youth. That sparked a heated conversation about just how homophobic dancehall really is. Our event is a response to that.”

“Republic and Calabash also have a dancehall night,” Marshall adds, “but they’re definitely not promoting any kind of cause like we are. We’re very unique in that way. This event is pioneering—it’s the first of its kind in Vancouver. A lot of people in our city are extremely unaware of how much hate activity happens in Caribbean culture, and in Vancouver’s own communities too. We want to change that.”

Despite Marshall and Heron’s passion for the cause, the night nearly didn’t happen. Adamant that PranceHall could only take place with genuine dancehall DJs at the helm, the organisers found it difficult to enlist performers willing to be associated with an LGBTQ-positive show. Which makes sense when their records suggest listeners should drop everything to go “shoot queers with big guns”.

Fortunately, Marshall and Heron managed to strike a compromise. Some of Vancouver’s best dancehall DJs agreed to join the bill—but only if each could play under an alias.

“For resident DJs, spinning is their bread and butter—it’s literally how they make their living,” Herons points out. “And the dancehall community is so unwelcoming towards other sexual orientations that we totally understand the performers’ reticence in putting themselves out there to promote an LGBTQ event. They’re happy to get behind the decks, but only if they can hide behind a different name. Honestly, it speaks volumes to the homophobia that plagues dancehall. We just want to be able to protect them from any backlash—it’s not ideal, but it’s a start.”

Alongside those premier performers, Marshall and Heron have lined up a number of surprises to make sure Vancouver’s first queer-friendly dancehall night is a resounding success.

“We’ve picked resident dancers for the event—Raymond, Zozo, Ross and Amelia,” Marshall lists. “There’s going to be some great visuals. And we’ve got an oxygen bar there too, brought to you by the Whiffing Well. We wanted to have something a bit different, and who doesn’t like getting a bit high off oxygen? Don’t worry, it’s all legal! It’s there in case you need a breather,” he says with a laugh.

And if all that didn’t sound good enough already, a large majority of the night’s profits are going to be donated to Rainbow Railroad—a charity that provides refuge to LGBTQ individuals in second- and third-world nations who are vulnerable to homophobic violence.

“In Jamaica, where my family are from,” Heron recounts, “even being suspected of homosexuality leads to a forced displacement from a person’s home. He or she will have to live in the sewers, which are called ‘gullys’. And the government are making plans to literally flush these people out further into the countryside, where they can be at risk of anything because it’s actually a jungle out there. Rainbow Railroad provides homes, HIV testing, and other resources for these people so they can become members of a community again.”

“We’re giving away 20% of all our profits to the charity,” Marshall adds. “And we’re really hoping that this first launch event is a success, so we’re able to increase the amount that we can donate the next time. We’re aiming to give 30-40% in the future. This is really the jumping-off point for us—we’re praying the night snowballs.”

So much more than just a booty-twerking bonanza, PranceHall aims to shift opinions in the city by reminding Vancouverites that homosexuality is still illegal in a number of Caribbean communities.

“At the end of the day,” Marshall says, “we’re a movement. We’re a generation of people who do believe in speaking for a greater cause. Yes, it’s going to be a good time. But there’s a lot more going on here too.”

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