Dancehall Don Vybz Kartel Faces a Life Sentence for Murder, But His Influence Isn't Going Anywhere
Words by Saxon Baird
Could this be the last we’ll see of Jamaica’s biggest dancehall star Vybz Kartel? That’s the question on the minds of dancehall fans and Jamaicans alike over news last week that the Jamaican superstar had been convicted of murder.
Incarcerated since 2011, the trial of Adidja Palmer AKA Vybz Kartel has carried on in dramatic fashion on the island with countless delays, lost evidence, key witnesses suddenly rescinding statements, rumors of foul-play on the part of Jamaica’s police force, gossip to the effect that Kartel has been voicing tracks from jail and countless delays in the trial proceedings. Now after a 65-day trial, the longest in Jamaican history, a guilty verdict has been reached and it doesn’t look like Kartel will be a free man anytime soon.
While he won’t be sentenced until March 27th (Jamaican legal experts expect a 25 to 40-year sentence) and his lawyers are sure to appeal, Jamaican dancehall will have to eventually get used to a waning presence of Vybz Kartel. Now the question is not will Vybz go free but how will the dancehall and the Jamaican music scene be affected by the absence of its biggest star?
Kartel is a polarizing figure in Jamaica who has often disregarded any social norms of Jamaican society, whether it’s by bleaching his skin or his explicit lyrical content. Kartel’s challenge to the status quo in Jamaica is often what grabs the headlines of the island’s papers. But beyond his controversial public persona lies a gifted, complex and versatile artist whose “midas touch” on the mic has raised the bar of excellence by which all other DJs are now judged.
“What he has done musically is great for the industry and will resonate for years to come,” asserts Tad Dawkins of Tads Record, which released Kartel’s recent three-disc Kartel Forever full-length last year. “It’s not to be forgotten or taken lightly,” he says.
Despite being incarcerated for over two years, Kartel remains musically relevant. He continues to release numerous hits using vocal tracks recorded supposedly before his arrest. Many of these songs are featured on the sprawling 61-track Kartel Forever.
Bleak as things seem, Brooklyn-based producer Dre Skull who produced Kartel’s 2011, Kingston Story album is thinks there is even more to come from Kartel: “I expect Kartel songs will continue to be released for some time. “He has been so prolific for so long, it’s hard not to imagine that there are still more songs to come,” Dre Skull wrote via email last week.
On the mic Kartel’s lyrical content has varied greatly over his career attesting to the many talents that have contributed to his popularity. Hits like “Summertime” and “Clarks” were catchy anthems that had wide, crossover appeal. Yet, other popular cuts like “Real Badman” expose the grimmer side of a scene that has often been marred by violence, blurring the lines between the fiction of the music and real life, particularly in light of Kartel’s murder trial.
The raunchy “slack” themes and “badman” lyrics are often criticized by figures in Jamaica’s government and the conservative section of its population who see them as having a negative influence on the island’s young people. In 2009, the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission outlawed “vulgar” and “violent” lyrics from the island’s airwaves while recent “anti-gang” legislation aims to actually criminalize violent lyrical content. Early last year, Jamaica’s Security Minister Peter Bunting laid blame on Kartel and his lyrics for Jamaica’s high crime rate. Bunting’s statements verbalized what some in Jamaica already believed: Vybz Kartel is public enemy number one.
Regardless of the controversy around the “badman” lyrics, Dre Skull doesn’t think these types of lyrics will go away, even in the wake of the Kartel verdict. He also believes there are reasons why these lyrics are a part of dancehall, alluding to the social and economic struggles many on the island face.”I think ‘badman’ lyrics are very different from committing ‘badman’ crimes, so I kind of doubt there will be too much of a change over time,” he opines.
Neil Edwards, the senior A&R director at VP Records, the largest reggae/dancehall label in the world, agrees, “People need to separate art from reality. If I wake up this morning and I am vexed at the world, I might want to hear something angry so I might play a ‘badman’ song. Or maybe it’s a pretty day and things are bright and I will want to hear something uplifting. It’s based on how people feel.”
Coinciding with Kartel’s arrest over two years ago, a new breed of artists have kick-started a roots reggae revival in Jamaica that exists far from the controversial, lyrical themes and public persona of dancehall artists like Kartel. Headed up by Chronixx, Protoje, Jesse Royal and a number of others, the roots reggae movement seems to only stand to gain in popularity and attention with dancehall losing its biggest star. It is also likely to gain support from many of those who have been critical of Kartel’s music and lifestyle.
To Max Glazer of Federation Sound, this growing movement is not necessarily due Kartel’s incarceration, but rather something the Jamaican music scene often goes through. “Beyond Kartel, we’ve been overdue for this phase in the cycle,” says Glazer who produced early Vybz Kartel mixtapes such as From Time to Time that helped set the precedent for Kartel’s career. “It’s been a very long time since the last really strong ‘roots and culture’ wave has come around with dancehall running the place in Jamaica for a very long time. And a lot of that is due to the overall impact of Kartel who really made himself bigger than the music. Kartel was kind of an x-factor that got thrown into play,” he continues.
Glazer also points out that despite the differences between the new movement of “culture” artists and those like Kartel, they aren’t necessarily in opposition to each other: “I think the ‘roots and culture’ artists are essentially using just a different ‘instrument’ to fight the same battle that many of those in the dancehall scene are all about. It’s a different energy and there’s a positivity in the presentation but [they] are fighting for the poor and the youth of Jamaica, not for the [Jamaican] crown’s legal system.”
To Tad Dawkins, though, a message might have been sent to dancehall artists in the aftermath of the Kartel verdict. To him this might result in some artists gravitating towards this “roots and culture” sound and style, while others will attempt to do both genres citing I-Octane’s recent album My Journey as an example. Like Glazer, Dawkins is quick to point out that things could change quickly. “We’ve been here before,” Dawkins says alluding to past changes in popularity within the Jamaican music scene, “and we know that all it takes is one big dancehall star or hit and everything will turn over again!”
Regardless of Kartel’s pending absence from the limelight and the growing popularity of the reggae revival, Dre Skull insists that dancehall will continue to evolve and persist: “Kartel is a singular person and I don’t think his place will be filled. He’s been an incredible artist for a long time but I don’t think his specific place needs to be filled in-order for dancehall to continue to thrive.”
Neil Edwards, who has worked in varying capacity with other dancehall stars like Busy Signal and Mavado, feels similarly: “Vybz Kartel was a very strong force in modern dancehall but I think that dancehall will remain strong,” say Edwards. “He’s so talented and a very great artist who was definitely a ground-breaker. But I am sure that there are a lot of other artist out there, even some we haven’t heard of yet, who are going to come and make their mark on dancehall.”
Edwards is quick to not write off the continued influence of Kartel either though. “What Kartel did as an artist was very bold. He made a statement physically, mentally and lyrically. So I definitely feel he will still be an influential character in dancehall for time to come,” he reflects.
Max Glazer agrees with these sentiments and thinks that the musical side of his legacy is strong enough to remain a major part of wherever dancehall goes from here. However, Glazer adds that the reason Kartel’s influence will resonate for a long time to come goes beyond his music, saying “The character of Vybz Kartel, outside of the dancehall, has been able to affect the psyche of dancehall so much more than anything I’ve ever witnessed. The psyche, the culture, the public persona of dancehall is really where he grew to be so big. If you just take his big songs and records, they don’t alone put him in the place where he’s ended up. It’s more than just the music.”
Saxon Baird is a writer and radio producer located in Brooklyn. A majority of his work focuses on the Caribbean. He tweets @Saxonius.