• Kesa Janes

LGBTQ+ Representation in Music with Shuzzr

Pride is something to be celebrated all year round, but is especially celebrated during the summer months, as June is observed as Pride Month. Shuzzr, an entertainment publicist and alumnus of SUNY Brockport, was featured in Billboard magazine this summer talking about LGBTQ+ representation in the music industry and the dancehall genre of music. I had the opportunity to reach out to Shuzzr and talk further about his interview, how studying at SUNY Brockport had an impact on him and where he is now, and what he has done to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ representation in the music industry. I got to learn a lot about a new genre of music that I had never heard of, and representation of the LGBTQ+ community within a culture that I was not familiar with.

Q: Dancehall is not a very well-known genre, I know I have never personally heard of it until I read about it. Can you describe it in your own words?

Dancehall is a subgenre of reggae music which embodies the hardships, and aspirations of an oppressed society not just of within the shores of Jamaica but minorities elsewhere. Its essence and core are raw which themes varies from politics, sex, sexuality, gender, masculinity, and forms of expressions. Yet though its unfiltered and complex, it captures all your senses, its Jamaica’s heartbeat – a movement in its right stemming from the resistance during slavery and against classism post slavery.

Q: In a recent article from Billboard magazine, it reads “Dancehall is from a country where the culture of homophobia is praised and embedded in its fabric. It has evolved in the past few years, but there is still violence against us.” What is the culture like? What are some of the social norms or expectations in place?

The culture that exist in Jamaica as in most places throughout the Caribbean is one where masculinity is constantly redefined, and sex/gender or relationship only exist between a male & female. From a colonial heritage, the culture requires that males/men be tough, don’t cry, demonstrate masculinity at all times. I had to contend with stereotypes and learn how to not just adapt for survival. It was life or death as even displaying feminine traits or tendencies by a male in Jamaica could lead to you losing your life. So, even if the individual were not queer at all, the retribution could be deadly.

From a young age, males tend to engage in sexual practices with females and often risky sexual practices. This behavior or norm is reinforced through the island’s African heritage and also music and other socioeconomic factors. Looking at the society at large, most families are not the typical monogamous type. There is a lot of broken homes as males through social structures need to measure up to society definition of masculinity and as such entertain multiple female partners and often have children with them. Social norms or expectations required men to live up such and other heterosexual activity. Unlike other cultures, heterosexuality constantly evolved and was reinforced through music, lifestyle, and other political and social structures.

Growing up in Jamaica was a challenging, fun, and a self-rewarding experience. I grew up in a typical Jamaican household; from being forced to attend church and learning Christian values to growing up financially stable, somewhat, and surviving in a society which constantly enforced and redefined masculinity, life was interesting. I went to a typical lower school and then off to high school, but ‘growing up,’ as it suggests, meant finding yourself. From a tender age, I knew, and I could say others as well, that I did not align with the stereotypical attributes or definition of what was deemed ‘manly,’ or masculine. It more lends to either I was a spoiled kid who had effeminate traits or as the society called a sissy, batty man*, gay, fish and the list goes on.

Navigating your queerness in a society that was and probably still is the most homophobic place on earth doesn’t even underscore the struggle each child, young man, or woman has to own and deal with in the face of other social challenges like poverty. I have been attacked, chased, bullied, gotten into fights, lost out on opportunities because of my queerness. There is not many social programs or structures at home, or otherwise, to foster such diversity. I must say, however, advocacy groups such as Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays (JFLAG), Jamaica Aids Support (JAS), USAID programs, and the individuals that work there helped and continue to help many others find their identify and fight for protections, seek remedies, and provide aid to the disenfranchised minority.

Q: What made you decide to come out knowing that it was frowned upon by many in Jamaican culture?

My decision to share who I am given the backlash, was a matter of coming full-circle and at peace with who I am. Living in fear and oppressed for majority of one’s life is burdensome, especially in a society that would have you killed just for being who you are or suspected to be as such. When I decide to come to terms with that part of my life publicly, it was about taking back my power from individuals that held me hostage to my own self. Truth be told, I like the stir the pot and challenge authority or thoughts and through my mischievousness and curiosity I found freedom irrespective of all that I would have and has lost.

In a sense, at that point in my life I evolved. I didn’t just get strength to fight for myself but friends, loved ones and others like me who had lost their lives or where constantly being discriminated against, and needed to know that WE deserved to be seen and heard – claiming our space & right.

Q: What would you want to see done to make the dancehall genre more included in conversations about the LGBTQIA+ community within the music industry?

A more robust international effort recognizing the various talents that exist within the industry. Giving queer individuals like myself more opportunities and recognition to demonstrate to the world that they are more than their sexuality will help to strengthen and reaffirm their right and their place.

Dancehall-reggae music and culture, its practioners and gatekeepers of the genre just like any other look to various groups, charts, publications for validation. We need to see the international community not just embrace it but lead the way. The world can remember when Frank Ocean won his Grammy Award(s) how iconic such a moment was for the queer community in the U.S.

Just imagine a queer young-man like me presenting an award at the Grammys for the Best Reggae Album Category? How impactful such a moment will be on the genre and region given reggae-dancehall is arguably the ‘most homophobic musical genre’ in the world. We must all help to remove the stigma and taboos around expressions, sexuality, and gender as we foster respect, tolerance at all levels.

Q: You are referred to in the Billboard article as a publicist and the founder for Shuzzr PR. What does Shuzzr PR do, and what is your job like? What are some of the responsibilities?

In 2009, I decided to become an entrepreneur after finding a love for brand management, public relations, and communication. Shuzzr PR was created and has been making waves ever since. My job as a business owner and publicist means seeking clients, making pitches with the hope that they would retain my services. My services over the years have ranged from crisis communication, content development, social media management and promotion, writing and disseminating press releases, developing EPKs, music and video promotion, arranging interviews and coaching clients for such. With these services, I help my clients refocus their standing in the media/public domain. My job is not just about just creating awareness for my clients through placements in various press outlets but rather ensuring said client(s) image, and or public perception is always in good standing. I help to foster communication between all the stakeholders.

Q: What made you want to get into public relations?

From time to time we hear people say that their careers found them, this I can truly attest to. Public relations found me as I did not go seeking for it outright. I was in the U.S on an internship program when a friend of mine namely, Gaza Kim, got signed by Neo-King of Dancehall Vybz Kartel to his then infamous group called GAZA or Portmore Empire. Upon my return to Jamaica, she confided in me about an alleged assault that had occur and the toxic environment in which she was forced to work or with which her career in music was held hostage to. We spoke about it and I encourage her to speak up and fight for her freedom which she did with my help. At that point, I became more than a friend but a spokesperson for her publicly & trusted advisor. While navigating her through the media and legal firestorm that had ensued from her public acknowledgement of the alleged assault, I realized that I have love and gift for public relations and crisis communication.

Q: As a publicist, who are some people you have worked with in the music industry? Which ones were your favorite to work with?

My career in reggae-dancehall music has allowed me to work with talented individuals and musical heavyweights from the genre. I must say that I am very much indebted to the list of talents for working with me over the years. From Billboard charting acts such as Dovey Magnum, Tifa, Vershon, RDX, Blak Ryno, Lisa Hyper, Versatile, Erup, DJ TYGGA TY and many others. I even had the pleasure of partnering on several projects with/for Grammy-award winning artiste Morgan Heritage. All my clients are uniquely different but if I should state my favorite it would be RDX, Vershon, and Tifa. The level of respect they have displayed on all levels is beyond words and I can say that they have moved from being just clients to being friends.

Q: Do you think there has been any progress in regards to representation of the LGBTQIA+ community within Jamaican culture? What can be done in your opinion to make the progress that those communities need?

Yes! The fact that I can do this interview and many others is not just progress but continuous progress. I have lived to see PRIDE celebrations in Jamaica and dancehall artiste performing at such. I have witnessed reggae-dancehall artists express their queerness and watched a genre and culture break down taboos around so many sexual practices. I have seen so many artistes apologize for homophobic music they have released in the past and a drastic reduction of homophobic lyrics. While it can be said that an acceptance for homosexuality does not exist within the culture and it remains illegal, we have seen a more tolerable society in recent years. All we need in my opinion to further the progress is just more awareness, education, dialogue, and acknowledgement. That is why I started my initiative called “Pride in the Islands” as I seek to help advocacy groups throughout The Caribbean strengthen the groundwork they are doing. I would implore and hope that SUNY Brockport, will muster its resources and support me.

Q: You’re an alumnus of SUNY Brockport. Tell me about your experience there, and how it helped to get you to where you are today.

My experiences at SUNY Brockport was filled with many highs and lows. As a young black man, it was challenging and rewarding. I learnt how to navigate my way through institutional structures that were not necessarily conducive. If I should be honest, and I cannot speak to the changes that have been made in the past 4 years but there needs to be a more genuine focus on the fostering diversity on the campus. Not just through yearly workshops or acknowledge a club or movement but ensuring that all stakeholders reflect it in their daily activities on campus. SUNY Brockport has helped me to become a better at navigating life. From providing me with a formal training/education, to fostering friendships and learning how to challenge the world and myself. Lecturers such as Dr. Thorpe, Professor Andrea Newman, Dr. LeSavoy and others have left lasting impressions on my life. I would not be the man I am today in the U.S if it were not for them.

Q: What are your hopes for the future in regards to your career, dancehall, LGBTQIA+ representation in the music industry and in day to day life?

As it relates to my future, I hope that my career in music/public relations will only continue to advance. I am seeking out more opportunities in media as I hope to cross over into mainstream media and entertainment or even politics here in the U.S. Its always been about been chasing the story and getting the work done with the hope of finding not just material success but personal fulfilment. Who knows, I may end up writing for The New York Times, Forbes, Rolling Stone or even the next Press Secretary for The White House or end up on radio. I like a challenge, so I am optimistic about the future. Wherever the road takes me, Dancehall/Reggae will always be a part of it as its who I am. It is the heartbeat of an island that gave me life and as for my queerness and representation, what queerness? I only see Shuzzr.

*The term batty man is derived from the word meaning buttocks, and therefore is used as a derogatory term for men who have sex with other men.

You can donate to "Pride In The Islands" here.