How will Reggae Rebound from the Vybz Kartel Verdict?

Vybz Kartel joins the growing number of dancehall stars stuck behind bars.

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Image via Complex Original
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Kartel joins a growing number of dancehall stars stuck behind bars.

Written by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)

RELATED: Vybz Kartel found guilty of murder.

Large sections of downtown Kingston came to a standstill yesterday afternoon as word spread that Vybz Kartel’s verdict would soon come. Police used barricades to block off the streets surrounding the Home Circuit Court in Jamaica’s capital city where fans of the man born Adidja Palmer have been gathering for weeks to show their support, perhaps even catch a glimpse of dancehall reggae’s biggest star during his highly publicized murder trial.

Busta Rhymes had flown in from New York to show his support, attending court with Kartel’s family, holding his grandmother's hand. “Free Worlboss!” the crowd chanted—using one of Kartel’s more illustrious aliases—as mounted police and special riot-control units stood ready at key intersections. After a 65-day trial the 11-person jury reached a swift decision in the case of the killing of Clive “Lizard“ Williams, who went missing in August 2011. Near one barricade, according to published reports, a bottle flew from the crowd and struck a female police officer on the head. Some cops reportedly pulled a man from the crowd and beat him with wooden batons before other police pulled him out of harm’s way.

This was the second murder case Kartel has faced since he was arrested at a New Kingston hotel on September 30, 2011. Last July he was found not guilty of murdering Barrington “Bossy” Burton due to lack of evidence. As Lizard’s body was never been recovered, Kartel's defense seemed confident of their chances. Prosecutors charged that Lizard had borrowed guns from Vybz Kartel and failed to return them. Using telephone records they built a case that Lizard was brought to Kartel’s home, frantically texting his girlfriend to call the police because his life was in danger. The trail of digital evidence—which defense attorneys steadfastly dismissed, charging that police had tampered with or outright fabricated it—also included a discussion of the best way to kill Lizard and dispose of his body. "Tween me an u ah chop we chop up the bwoy Lizard fine fine and dash him way inuh. As long as u live dem can never find him," read one of the messages entered into evidence. "Yeah man a mince meat dat."

Near the end of the trial Kartel delivered an emotional unsworn statement to the court. “My Lord, my hands are clean of Mr Clive Williams’ blood,” said Kartel. “If Mr Williams is dead, I sent no one to kill Clive Williams nor did I do it myself.” At every stage of the case Kartel and his defense team maintained that Adidja Palmer was being unfairly targeted because of his controversial show business persona. Courting controversy with every new song, the dancehall star has made worldwide headlines for bleaching his own skin to show off his tattoos. The influence of Kartel’s music remains unparalleled within the dancehall arena. One oft-cited example is his hit song “Clarks,” which drove a spike in worldwide sales for the British shoe brand. 

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But Jamaica's Minister of National Security Peter Bunting blamed Kartel's music for promoting crime, calling it "propaganda." Like many a reggae star, dating back to Jimmy Cliff's anti-hero Ivan in The Harder They Come, Kartel has woven his real-life conflicts with the "Babylon system" into his music and his mythic persona. Who can forget Reggae Sumfest 2010, when he was bailed out just in time for Dancehall Night, and took the stage wearing a prison jumpsuit and handcuffs. "Babylon say jail for me," he sang as the cuffs were unlocked, "Then the judge set bail for me. Somebody tell the jury Jah control my destiny..."

"The injustice' system of Jamaica is trying to use me as a scapegoat for crime, so they're trying to build a case that doesn't exist," Kartel said via email last year. "Please bear with them." Referring to his two-year incarceration as "the Kartel inquisition," he said the worst thing about the lengthy incarceration has been "not seeing my family—especially my kids."

On Thursday March 13, at about 3:30 the 11-person jury finally began their deliberation following one of the longest trials in Jamaican history. They returned with their verdict after less than two hours, and were sent back to reconsider. But in the end, the final count remained 10 guilty to 1 not guilty for four of the five co-defendants:

Adidja Palmer – GUILTY

Shawn Campbell – GUILTY

Kahira Jones – GUILTY

Shane Williams – NOT GUILTY

Andre St John – GUILTY

Kartel, 38, and his co-accused first went on trial for this case on November 20. They must now wait two weeks before sentencing. The defense has already indicated that they intend to appeal the decision. To further complicate matters, one juror was reportedly taken into custody on charges that he attempted to bribe the jury foreman.

“It’s just sad all around,” said fellow dancehall artist Mr. Vegas, who called into a local radio station to acknowledge Kartel as one of dancehall’s biggest artists, calling him “Irreplaceable” to the music business. After making a name for himself in his home town of Portmore, Kartel burst into Kingston’s music scene by writing lyrics for Bounty Killer. Kartel later became a force in his own right with songs like “New Millennium” featuring Wayne Marshall, whose rapid-fire flows marked a quantum leap, ushering in a new era of complexity in the art of dancehall.

Kartel's international profile is major—he recorded with acts like Rihanna, Busta, Nicki Minaj, and Major Lazer and gets periodic shout-outs from Drake on social media. But those details barely begin to describe his overwhelming popularity within Jamaican dancehall. A certified lyrical genius and radical stylistic innovator, Kartel possesses a rare blend of personal charisma and strategic acumen that's allowed him to make himself one of the genre's biggest worldwide stars despite being unable to travel to most of the biggest international reggae markets due to visa restrictions.

The Jamaican novelist Colin Channer, founder of the Calabash literary festival, told the New York Times that “Kartel is one of the best writers in any form to come out of Jamaica in the last 15 years,” he said. “It’s just that he likes to write about nothing but sex and guns.” His outrageously explicit songs—like “Ramping Shop,” featuring Spice, which became an international hit—endeared him to his fans in direct proportion to the degree to which it outraged police society.

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Whenever Kartel does turn his attention to the plight of the poor in Jamaica, as on songs like “Ghetto Youth” and “Emergency,” the songs make a powerful impact with listeners, even as poverty and social injustice continue apace. During his incarceration, Kartel published a book called Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, which made his case that Jamaican society is designed to keep people like him down. Before its publication he predicted that the book would cost him his freedom or his life. Now those predictions feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy, if not a foregone conclusion. During the Gaza vs. Gully beef of the late 2000s, authorities alleged that Kartel was not just a musician, but more of an "area leader," also known in Jamaica as a don. Kartel's defenders say that he was taken out at the height of influence, much like Bob Marley before him. He joins reggae superstar Buju Banton, who was targeted by a Federal sting operation and is currently serving ten years in U.S. prison on dubious drug charges, and dancehall artist Flippa Mafia, who stands accused of running an international drug ring. Busy Signal was freed just over a year ago after an old drug case caught up with him.

"Since the police were so confident and diligent and resilient in this case," the dub poet and radio host Mutabaruka tweeted the night of the verdict, "we can assume they ago be dat way every case?" Even among those who believe Kartel may not be totally innocent, there is a sense that the authorities put inordinate effort into making sure Kartel was put away because they disapproved of his influence on society. Shortly before his arrest, Kartel was reaching new heights of mainstream acceptance as his reality show Teacha's Pet debuted on Jamaican TV. His hit "Cake Soap," which encouraged skin bleaching, and which was accompanied by Kartel's own line of facial soap, particularly enraged his critics.

Nor was Kartel's influence limited to making hit records. His Portmore Empire, aka the Gaza crew, produced and promoted artists like Shawn Storm, who was convicted with him, as well as Popcaanand Tommy Lee, who have become major stars during his incarceration (along with former Gaza affiliates Gaza SlimBlak Ryno and Ja Vinci). While these artists continue to profess their loyalty to the man who launched their careers, rumors that Kartel is unhappy with them have circulated. "Betrayed is the order of the day in any money-making business,” Kartel said in an email interview. “So yes they did [betray me.] Before I came to jail I booked for Tommy and Papi. Since my remand, they've both been signed to new booking agents, people who wouldn't have looked at them before I turned them into stars, but who are benefitting from my hard work."

Kartel has bigger problems to think about right now, but there is no doubt that his legacy looms large over dancehall music. Not only his direct proteges, but newer artists like Alkaline are building on Kartel's sound and strategic use of media hype. (Alkaline has waves by tattooing his eyeballs and singing about girls tickling his bottom.) There's no doubt that the future of dancehall reggae will be built upon foundations that he helped to lay down—even as rootsier artists like Chronixx define themselves in opposition to it. (His hit song "Odd Ras" includes lines like: "When the whole Jamaica bleach them face, we nah follow nobody.") In this post-Tessanne Chin era, when a little-known Jamaican singer can be win a major TV talent show, and dancehall music is now created everywhere from Germany to Japan, will Jamaican culture turn away from the roughness of dancehall altogether? Only time will tell.

Kartel’s former colleague Mavado, who later a long-running rivalry with him and clashed him twice at Sting, expressed support for his fellow dancehall star. “God knows everything," Mavado told Reshma B of Boomshots. "At times most of us go through a certain struggle. But the greatest thing is when you go through the struggle and come out tomorrow as a man. With Vybz being on trial right now, people say a lot of things. I don’t know if he’s guilty or not guilty because I wasn’t there. Being who we are and the kind of music we sing and the place where we’re from, people already made up their own verdict, which is a guilty verdict. They want to see us mash up inna life. Make we pray for Adi,” he said of Adidja Palmer. “Make we get up and pray for him.”

And while we're add it, might as well say a prayer for the music too.

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