The Unseen Sides of Jamaica's Most Notorious Murder Suspect
Last year's furor over Vybz Kartel's bleached skin pales (pun not intended) in comparison to his current predicament -- has the best lyricist in dancehall gone too far? Or does he still have redeeming qualities? Rishi Bonneville makes a case for the defense.
Words by Rishi Bonneville
The charges against Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel keep piling up. Yesterday, the artist was remanded (again) by Jamaican authorities for “attempting to pervert the course of justice” according to the Jamaica Gleaner. He is due in court on May 8th.
This new allegation against Kartel is the most recent in a very long line of accusations that began last October when he was detained for marijuana possession. He was subsequently charged in connection with two murders when a burnt corpse was found in a house he frequents. The Jamaican police claimed to have video evidence implicating him in the deaths, and he has since been implicated in a plot to undermine the investigation.
While this is by far the most serious situation he has found himself in, controversy has encircled Kartel (real name Adijah Palmer) for years.
The Timeline of a Trouble-Maker
In 2003, as a newcomer, he had an on-stage fistfight with legendary artist Ninjaman at the annual Sting festival, earning the ire of the authorities as well as many old-school Jamaican gangsters.
In 2008, he performed again at Sting, clashing this time with his former label-mate Mavado. Their ongoing feud pitted two poor neighborhoods — the “Gaza” and “the Gully”— against each other, and Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding eventually intervened to broker a truce and avoid the possibility of violence.
In 2009, Esther Tyson, a columnist for the Jamaican Gleaner, called Kartel’s latest radio hit “filth.” He responded to her in print, but the song, “Rampin Shop,” was subsequently banned by the government.
Then came the sudden change in his appearance, which, despite his denials, prompted allegations of skin-bleaching and hair extensions. His oddly paler skin infuriated many popular reggae stars like Mr. Vegas, Sizzla, and Luciano, who accused him of disrespecting reggae music, black women, Rastafarianism and generally leading the youth astray.
Vybz Kartel’s ability to provoke is unparalleled (and possibly calculated — he told MTV Iggy ”I am controversial because I want to be”) as he’s managed to unite both the Jamaican authorities and reggae royalty — two groups who usually do not agree — in opposition to his immorality. The murder allegations have now cemented this view of Vybz as corrupting influence on the youth and a self-hating, destructive hedonist.
The perception is self-inflicted (“I am Vybz Kartel the outrageous; I am Vybz Kartel the businessman” he told MTV Iggy last year) but it hides another reality: Vybz Kartel has challenged his rigid, unequal society in several unprecedented ways, taken steps to see changes around him, and offered—more so than any other contemporary reggae artist—a coherent vision for a more egalitarian Jamaica.
Here we zone on six of his most important (and overlooked) contributions.
Good Vybz: Conscious Music
Dancehall’s late-1990s socially conscious lyricists have been missing in action for the last few years, and “Di Teacha” has been a exceptional substitute.
In the void created by Sizzla’s spotty performances, Buju Banton’s imprisonment on drug charges, and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s artistic wanderlust (after collaborating with Nas he is know working with Mick Jagger), Vybz Kartel has produced, quietly and steadily, a dazzling array of his own brand of conscious music.
In songs like “Dutty Babylon,” and “Ghetto Road” he vividly exposes the hardships of Jamaican city life — desperate young mothers, the poor who languish in jail, an the absence of work — invoking images of lodgings made of “zinc and board,” children who never “nyam (eat)” since morning and lamenting “what’s the black woman’s future?” Although somber, a hopeful message usually shines through, best evidenced on “She’s Holding On,” and “Life Sweet.”
In “PoorPeopleLand” he bravely questions the powerful Matalon family, controllers of the Jamaican banking sector, decrying that in the name of development the landless poor are being forced out of their homes, each turned into a “refugee in my own country.”
A full collection of his conscious music would fill several albums. In these songs, he faces Jamaica’s difficult problems with specific, poignant, and refreshing language combined with haunting melodies.
“Pretty like a coloring book:” Challenging Social Taboos
He bleaches his skin, wears hair extensions, sports braces, is covered in tattoos and promotes the joy of oral sex. He may have a tongue ring.
These life choices may give artists who rail against deviant behavior (like Mr. Vegas – check “Heads High”) stomach pains, but do they mean Vybz Kartel really wants to be something other than a straight black man?
Caribbean scholars investigating the matter of skin bleaching have delinked it from black shame. Instead they propose, as Kartel has said, that in our post-modern world it is more of a style choice (albeit unhealthy), like coloring or straightening one’s hair.
And while Kartel’s sung anti-gay lyrics in the past, when asked about Jamaican men who bleach (an activity associated with gay identity) he recently said, “Vybz Kartel is a tolerant fellow, as far as Jamaican society goes.” His choices are trangsressive, disturbing to a postcolonial society still recovering from the British.
Ultimately, it’s possible that his embrace of the downtown NYC “cool kids” style will help create social space in which alternative lifestyles — including the hot button issue of sexual orientation — will be more accepted.
In Jamaica, where roughly one of out seven poor people is illiterate, Vybz Kartel reads. Everything.
In several interviews he revealed some favorites, including Decoded by Jay-Z and an obscure text entitled Egyptian Philosopher.
He also may be the only dancehall artist writing a book. As he told MTV Iggy, “I’m trying to get Black people to read more [laughs]. You know they say–if you want to hide something from a Black man just put it in a book. I want to change that misconception about Black people. I’m looked up to by a lot of teenagers in Jamaica and I think that this book will get a lot of them to read more.”
Entitled Voice of the Ghetto: Social Commentary For My People (so far released in excerpts),the book connects his writing to his music, and he claims each chapter will be pegged to a social issue. This emphasis on literacy (which the United Nations uses as an indicator of a country’s development), is unprecedented for an audio/visual artist in Jamaica.
And he message is consistent; at the end of the video for his controversial tune “Teenage Pregnancy,” a bass-buzzing duet with Gaza Kim, he stops the music to ensure that his teenage fans understand the point: “where there is future there is hope….don’t take school for a joke.”
Breaking Free: Independence Through Social Media and Digital Technology
For decades, reggae artists have been beholden to American and British-owned record companies for promotions, distribution, publicity and performances. But Vybz — who has been without a US Visa for several years and has “given up” on getting one — has successfully maintained an independent global presence using novel social technologies.
In January, he uploaded a grainy webcam video of an acapella snippet of “Coloring Book,” an ode to tattoos. It generated hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube. When the official video debuted a month later, the internet buzz had already reached a fever pitch of anticipation. Kingston Story, his experimental collaboration with Brooklyn electronica producer Dre Skull, landed him in the New York Times and on the cover of The Fader.
The album, sold directly through iTunes, debuted at #7 on the Billboard Reggae Charts. He is active on Twitter (@iamthekartel) and there is a Tumblr dedicated to his random BBM stream. He performed at Miami’s Best of the Best concert via satellite. He is a savvy presence online and finds creative ways to get his music out to the world, by himself.
Supporting Female Artists
Dancehall is an industry dominated by men — from the sound systems and studios to the production companies. There are very few successful female artists. Of the few women who do get recognition, most are/were romantically linked to a prominent male artist (e.g. D’Angel — Beenie Man’s wife).
So it’s almost shocking to note Kartel’s frequent and consistent collaborations with female artists. No other dancehall artist comes close in this respect.
And as he said in a recent interview with MTVUK, this is not by accident: “Vybz Kartel is an artist that brings back the female artists; they stand alone because they’re female artists making good music.” One would expect that this commitment would have garned more attention, but it hasn’t.
Perhaps the never-ending controversies surrounding Kartel have obscured his more positive contributions. Perhaps “good” Vybz (socially conscious) and “evil” Vybz (murder suspect) are so diametrically apart, it’s difficult to handle the cognitive dissonance. But as Tupac, another unpredictable tattoo-laden lyricist once explained: “Out of anger comes controversy, out of controversy comes conversation, out of conversation comes action.”