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Coca-Cola's Inadequate Response to its Sponsorship of Murder Music

In late April, Coke sponsored a concert in Jamaica that headlined notoriously homophobic artists. Since then, AIDS-FREE WORLD has attempted to engage the conscience and attention of Coke on this matter. Coca-Cola is in a position to take a leading corporate role and make a significant difference in fighting the homophobia that fuels the AIDS pandemic—if they choose to do so. Coca-Cola needs to act NOW in unmistakable and unfaltering ways to repair the harm wrought by its material support for murder musicians. Coca-Cola’s response must be stronger, louder, more effective, more meaningful and more lasting than the homophobic mayhem produced by the murder music industry. The Coca-Cola Company’s sponsorship of any murder music is inexplicable and their inaction in remedy is inexcusable.

The following letter was sent to Coca-Cola Chair of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Muthar Kent.

October 13, 2011

Dear Mr. Kent,

On October 6, 2011, AIDS-Free World made one last attempt to engage your company in an appropriate response to an appalling incident. We expected to have heard from Mr. Bucherati by now, and indicated that if we didn't, we would bring the letter to your attention. We have had no response at all. Kindly see the attached.

Best regards,

Stephen Lewis and Paula Donovan
Co-Directors, AIDS-Free World

October 6, 2011

Mr. Steve Bucherati
Chief Diversity Officer
The Coca-Cola Company
One Coca-Cola Plaza
Atlanta, Georgia 30313

Dear Mr. Bucherati:

As you know, AIDS-Free World is outraged at Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of homophobic “murder music” performed during a concert in Montego Bay, Jamaica in late April 2011. Beginning with a formal complaint lodged on May 5th, our Jamaica-based Legal Advisor for Marginalized Groups, Mr. Maurice Tomlinson, engaged in a protracted but unproductive written and phone communication with you. Your communications have now ceased altogether.

As Mr. Tomlinson informed you, it shocked many in Jamaica to learn that Coca-Cola had contracted Sizzla and other homophobic Dancehall artists to entertain at its 4-day Coke Zero Live on the Waterfront music festival. But it surprised no one when Sizzla used the opportunity provided by Coca- Cola to perform the hate anthem “Boom Bye Bye” and once again to call—literally—for the murder of homosexuals. Predictably, he incited the audience to join in his tirade, and then dared the police and concert organizers to sanction him. Just as predictably, neither the Jamaican police nor Coca-Cola uttered a word of disapproval.

Needless to say in the age of YouTube, Sizzla’s heinous performance in Jamaica—with the Coke Zero logo emblazoned behind him — has been available for the past five months for all the world to view on the internet, including those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries where this sort of vile hate speech has been outlawed. It is inconceivable to us that you have utterly failed to respond to our efforts to focus your attention on Coca-Cola’s indefensible sponsorship decision. Our patience has run out, and we are now prepared to address our concerns to Chair of the Board and CEO, Mr. Muhtar Kent.

You suggested to Mr. Tomlinson that Coca-Cola was unaware of any connections between murder music and the notoriously violent, vulgar anti-gay musicians who performed at Coke Zero Live on the Waterfront in your company’s name. We find it quite surprising that every member of the company’s local staff should number among the very few Jamaicans who are not aware of Sizzla’s global reputation for inciting the torture and execution of homosexuals. To quote Coca-Cola on the topic of “brand” and sponsorship:

“‘Coca-Cola’ is aware of what is relevant in the lives of its target market such as sport, music and fashion. Life experiences are created around these interests. By getting involved in these daily experiences ‘Coca-Cola’ meets its sponsorship objectives.

...Sponsorship involves providing financial support, creative input, media support, and experience to an important event or activity organised by another party. In return, the company receives a public opportunity to be seen to support and be associated with an event, activity or person. Sponsorship is a crucial part of a public relations strategy because it is possible to reach a target audience with a specific message.”1

In Mr. Tomlinson’s earlier communications, he pointed out at least one instance in Jamaica when the same anti-gay song performed by Sizzla was directly linked to the murder of a gay man. As you are no doubt now aware, Sizzla is proud of his reputation as a hatemonger who unfailingly uses his public appearances to encourage the murder of gays. He has been banned from the United Kingdom as well as from the USA, where The Coca-Cola Company is headquartered and where its company-wide standards are set and policies written. And yet, Coca-Cola gave Sizzla a headliner concert and material financial support—a combination that any reasonable observer would perceive as Coca-Cola’s stamp of approval on the performer, and an eagerness to associate your company’s products with his message.

In the interest of branding and sales, Coca-Cola helped to inflame extreme anti-gay sentiment in Jamaica. That homophobia, in consequence, fuels the country’s HIV and AIDS crisis. Calling for the execution of homosexuals, as Sizzla did at the Coca-Cola-sponsored music festival in Montego Bay, drives gay men underground and renders many unable to safely access HIV prevention, testing, and treatment services.

With markets and employees in every corner of the world, The Coca-Cola Company is all too familiar with the ravages of AIDS, and with the profound challenges of combating a pandemic fueled by discrimination. And Coca-Cola is no stranger to the fact that stigma is HIV’s most powerful ally. In other words, Mr. Bucherati, your company knows better.

The Coca-Cola Company’s sponsorship of any murder music is inexplicable. Your subsequent failure to act immediately to ensure that Coca-Cola disavowed the sort of public frenzy of homophobia whipped up by Sizzla cannot be excused.

Months ago, you assured us that Coca-Cola had suspended all concert sponsorships in Jamaica, and had in fact undertaken a worldwide review of its sponsorship policies in all of its global markets so as to avoid another incident like the Sizzla debacle. However, you failed to commit to a timeline for this alleged sponsorship policy review, and gave us no way to gauge the review’s progress, if any has been made. We have had to take our cues from the fact that five months have passed since Coke Zero Live on the Waterfront—five months during which one might assume that Coca-Cola succeeded in its efforts “to reach a target audience with a specific message”—and from the obvious fact that Coca-Cola has the resources and capacity to initiate and complete projects with great speed, provided that it considers them important.

You claim to have submitted a letter of apology to regional Jamaican newspapers; no letter was ever published. You promised to submit an article to all Jamaican newspapers once the sponsorship policy review was completed, apologizing for the Sizzla concert and announcing the new corporate policy.

No such renunciation or new policy announcement has appeared. The fact that you were relying on free newspaper coverage was almost, but not quite, amusing to the human rights defenders in Jamaica who risk their lives daily in a country that criminalizes them for who they are. Those brave men and women show up for work at their non-profits, and grapple for funds to run paid ads begging the public simply to tolerate them and allow them to live in peace, without terror or persecution (ads that, as your colleagues at Coca-Cola Jamaica will know, the television stations have refused to run.)

Coca -Cola hasn't just fallen short of the voluntary corporate social responsibility ideals to which the company has committed itself under the UN Global Compact; Coca-Cola’s actions have affirmatively produced damage.    Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of Sizzla undermines the arduous work of Jamaican human rights groups seeking to eradicate the scourge of discrimination against homosexuals, and it undermines the work of UNAIDS and other international organizations that are attempting to reduce the HIV burden among the gay population. Until Coca-Cola takes the lead in denouncing homophobia, and takes decisive and public action in remedy, the public will be left with the impression that The Coca-Cola Company endorses violence, human rights violations, and homophobia.

Coca-Cola is a nimble global company with a capacity for sophisticated and rapid responses to any threats to its reputation. We have watched it move quickly to repair “brand damage” in other AIDS-related circumstances. We are aware of Mr. Muhtar Kent’s efforts to forge positive relationships, such as the recent partnership with UN Women. Coca-Cola states proudly that it was among the first to join the 10-year-old Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, which is now known as GBC Health. Your CEO did not hesitate to take the platform at the Clinton Global Initiative in September. Thus it is that as a company, Coca-Cola capitalizes on corporate social responsibility.

We attempted to engage your conscience and your attention on this matter. Your delays have now extended the damage done by the company’s sponsorship well past the point of easy remedies.

Coca-Cola needs to act in unmistakable and unfaltering ways to repair the harm wrought by its material support for murder musicians such as Sizzla. Coca-Cola’s response must be stronger, louder, more effective, more meaningful and more lasting than the homophobic mayhem produced by the murder music industry. You know as well as we do, Mr. Bucherati, that Coca-Cola is in a position to take a leading corporate role and make a significant difference in fighting the homophobia that fuels the AIDS pandemic.

AIDS-Free World requests your immediate response. And despite our impatience with your lethargy to date, we stand ready to provide any assistance we can to help right this dreadful wrong.


Stephen Lewis and Paula Donovan
Co-Directors, AIDS-Free World

c.c: Maurice Tomlinson, Legal Advisor, Marginalized Groups


At the "Coke Zero LIVE on the Waterfront" event held in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on April 24, 2011, notoriously homophobic Jamaican Dancehall artist Sizzla launched a scathing attack on gays.  He also performed a banned song which calls for the murder of homosexuals.  During his performance, Sizzla made it clear that he feared no repercussions for his hate-mongering, neither from local authorities nor from sponsors of the event.  As the major sponsor, Coca-Cola gave Sizzla a platform to spew his hate which, thanks to them, now flows around the world.  We call on Coca-Cola to staunch this vitriolic flood by taking concrete steps to tackle homophobia which drives MSM underground away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions. The following letter was sent by AIDS-Free World to the Coca-Cola Company.

May 27, 2011

Steve Bucherati
Chief Diversity Officer
The Coca-Cola Company

Dear Mr. Bucherati,

In a letter dated May 3, 2011, AIDS-Free World alerted The Coca-Cola Company (“Coca-Cola,” or “the Company”) to the fact that Jamaican performer Miguel Collins, also known as “Sizzla,” called for the murder of gays at the “Coke Zero LIVE on the Waterfront” event held in Montego Bay, Jamaica on April 24, 2011.

Coca-Cola’s response to our letter has been grossly inadequate. In an e-mail dated May 12, 2011, you indicated that the Company will submit a letter to the editor of a regional Jamaican newspaper apologizing for the event and “affirming our commitment to diversity and acceptance of all people.”  You also said Coca-Cola will “suspend any music sponsorships in Jamaica until we can feel assured that this type of unacceptable behavior will not be repeated at events we sponsor.”

Sizzla and other like-minded Jamaican reggae/dancehall artistes have collectively recorded over 200 anti-gay songs which are regularly performed at sponsored events locally and internationally.  Sizzla’s habitual hate-mongering against homosexuals was well-known, resulting in the revocation of his US visa. He all but had the label “Homophobe” stamped on his forehead. Despite his notorious history of anti-gay screeds at concerts, and the almost certain likelihood that such behaviour would happen again, Coca-Cola signed Sizzla to perform at this inaugural show in Montego Bay. Now, Coca-Cola pretends to act surprised —

“We clearly expressed that during the music event we expected the performers to behave in a manner consistent with our Company’s values. We specified no lyrics promoting violence or discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Diversity is one of our key values, and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.” (from your e-mail dated May 5)

— that the inevitable has occurred. We must first ask, where and how did Coca-Cola specify that the performers were prohibited from promoting homophobia? And if, indeed, Coca-Cola did prohibit such behavior contractually, why is the Company not outraged at this flagrant breach? And furthermore, where are the sanctions on Sizzla? Your response of May 12, which purports to set forth the “action steps [we] are taking to address the situation,” in fact, avoids the situation altogether. You, as Coca-Cola’s representative, promise to write a letter to the editor. You report that Coca-Cola has suspended music sponsorships in Jamaica “until we can feel assured that this type of unacceptable behavior will not be repeated at events we sponsor.” You express pride in the Company’s support of youth initiatives in Jamaica to promote safer sex as a way to address HIV. But you make no mention of specific action taken directly in response to Sizzla’s egregious, homophobic rant sponsored by Coca-Cola. How, exactly, will the Company address this heinous action?

Coca-Cola obviously did not exercise adequate due diligence with regard to the selection of Sizzla to perform at its sponsored event. Through this event, the Company further enabled Sizzla’s hate and gave him an effective platform from which to denounce the human rights of homosexuals.

Coca-Cola’s subsequent action in the wake of the Sizzla performance is woefully lacking. If, as you state, Coca-Cola was so concerned about the virulent hate typified by Sizzla and for which he and many other Jamaican artistes are well known, why were prohibitions and sanctions against homophobic performances not expressly contained in any of their contracts?  Furthermore, you have given no indication that the Company’s policy has been changed by this incident. Nor have you indicated a commitment that from now on, wherever in the world Coca-Cola sponsors a music event, specific sanctions against hate-speech will be explicitly written into a performer’s contract.

Coca-Cola has been present in Jamaica for decades and is therefore well aware that the absence of hate-speech and hate crime legislation protecting homosexuals has enabled both state and non-state actors to engage in grave abuses of the rights of Jamaican lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.  As Coca-Cola, no doubt, knows, Jamaica was named the most homophobic place on earth in a Time magazine article in 2006. International groups concerned with human rights have been trying to change that.

Coca-Cola is, itself, an international actor with a global mission: “To refresh the world, to inspire moments of optimism and happiness, and to create value and make a difference.” Coca-Cola purports to take its responsibilities as a global citizen seriously, and one demonstration of that commitment is Coca-Cola’s membership in the UN Global Compact. As you know, the Compact calls on multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola to assess their contribution to human rights recognition in the countries in which they operate by asking themselves the following questions:

•Has the company made a human rights assessment of the situation in countries where it does, or intends to do, business so as to identify the risk of involvement in human rights abuses and the company's potential impact on the situation?
•Has the company established a monitoring system to ensure that its human rights policies are being implemented?

One of Coca-Cola’s stated values is diversity, “as inclusive as our brands.” Presumably, Coca-Cola decided to join the Global Compact because the Compact’s fundamental principles aligned with Coca-Cola’s mission, vision and values. These of course, include “Be[ing] a responsible citizen that makes a difference by helping build and support sustainable communities.” If Coca-Cola is to take seriously the Global Compact — not to mention its own vision, mission, and values--it must address issues of oppressive and deadly discrimination. Homophobic discrimination in Jamaica drives members of the LGBT community underground, away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions. Jamaican men who have sex with men (MSM) regularly report being afraid to purchase water-based lubricants because of the threat of being “outed” and so they play Russian roulette with their lives, utilizing less effective (and often no) methods of prevention and protection against HIV.  If Coca-Cola is to live its values in Jamaica, it must take every possible action to challenge this homophobic discrimination that gives rise to MSM and LGBT deaths from HIV and AIDS, and challenges directly the project of “helping build and support sustainable communities.”

The Coca-Cola-sponsored event in Jamaica, and consequently, Sizza’s homophobic rant, has impact far beyond Jamaica. The event’s promoter no doubt recorded it for global distribution and Coca-Cola’s support of this event provided Sizzla with a global platform for his homophobic hatred. Had Coca-Cola undertaken due diligence, it could have prevented, if not the event itself, as least its participation in it. Now, Coca-Cola must take responsibility for its failure, and for the resulting consequences.  

Coca-Cola hasn't just fallen short of the voluntary corporate social responsibility ideals to which it has committed itself in the UN Global Compact. Coca-Cola’s actions have affirmatively produced damage.  In our first letter, we advised you of two instances in Jamaica when the same anti-gay song performed by Sizzla was directly linked to the murder of gays. We have also pointed to the fact that research undertaken by the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus indicates that over 82.2% of Jamaicans consider themselves homophobic and the majority of these individuals listen to the type of music performed by Sizzla. Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of Sizzla has therefore undermined the arduous work of Jamaican human rights groups seeking to eradicate the scourge of discrimination against homosexuals as well as any attempt at reducing the HIV burden among the MSM population.

Our critique of Coca-Cola’s failures lead to an inevitable conclusion: the Company cannot fix its disastrous and damaging behavior simply by promising to write a free letter to the editor and temporarily suspending sponsorship of performers like Sizzla.  It must and should do more to address its ethical responsibility to members of the marginalized and vulnerable homosexual Jamaican community it serves.

Specifically, we call on Coca-Cola to:

1) Within seven (7) days of the date of this letter, immediately publish a full-page advertisement in the Sunday edition of the three major Jamaican newspapers (the Jamaica Gleaner, the Jamaica Observer and the Sunday Herald) as well as a full-page advertisement in the Western Mirror denouncing Sizzla’s homophobic performance and expressing support for sexual diversity;

2) Issue a formal statement explaining that it will no longer sponsor artistes who are known to have performed and refuse to apologize for homophobic songs;

3) Include a clause in all future sponsorship agreements prohibiting homophobic speech or actions against performers, and in the event of a breach, specifying sanctions, including a termination of the sponsorship arrangement; and

4) Sponsor a concert in Jamaica devoted entirely to artists who have not engaged in homophobic slurs, and that specific condition would be the centrepiece of the advertising for the concert.

Although Coca-Cola is a multinational corporation, it is based in the United States. As you know, the US has been a leader in challenging homophobic speech by dance-hall musicians from Jamaica, and is doubtless dismayed by Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of such musicians. The US is not the only government to feel this way. Doubtless other governments, and civil society activists, were they to learn of what was done by Coca-Cola in Jamaica, would be equally horrified and outraged.  

Coca-Cola is present in 200+ countries. It can stand beside governments that seek to challenge homophobia by demonstrating its real — not rhetorical — commitment to diversity and to sustainable communities. It will take real integrity — another of Coca-Cola’s core values — to adopt the actions we prescribe above. Coca-Cola has the opportunity to live its values and contribute positively to a discrimination-free future in Jamaica, but only if it decisively addresses its mistakes.

Sincerely yours,

Maurice Tomlinson
Legal Advisor, Marginalized Groups
Montego Bay, Jamaica
On behalf of AIDS-Free World
Stephen Lewis, Paula Donovan
Co-Directors, AIDS-Free World