Convicted: The ‘Exceptional’ Worl Boss and the Dilemma of Social Responsibility By Sonjah Niaah
Self-styled the ‘Werl Boss’, Vybz Kartel aka Adidja Palmer, has got himself in what my father (a former police officer) would call a ‘shit pot load of trouble’. But, how does one choose to imbibe and then get a gastronomic forward offa di vomit they flush? This question has taunted me for days. As I was asked to write about the verdict, asked where are my comments on the Kartel matter, I could only think of this question. So here we go.
First of all, I do not have a practice of spending my energy on anything that my spirit rejects. This explains why I did not publish the paper I wrote years ago entitled ‘Gully vs Gaza: Theorizing Violence, Factions and Fandom in Jamaican Dancehall Performance‘, the refusal to associate with the now infamous UWI lecture (I was not in attendance and chose not to offer my book Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto), and I hesitated to comment in any medium whatsoever on anything related to Vybz Kartel.
Some appearances over the years for commentary on the Gully / Gaza feud, or other aspects of dancehall that relate to social responsibility can be found, but in the main, I have completely stayed clear of the Werl Boss and his musical empire.
Confession is always good for the soul
I am the first to admit one thing. The return of the word ‘empire’ to common usage in Jamaica because of Kartel’s reference to the Gaza Empire was immediately welcomed. It is very true that many of us have forgotten how to build empires, and this is a travesty when postcolonial societies such as Jamaica are badly, and indeed, sadly in need of the commitment, hard work, spirit and leadership required to build empires.
They absolutely rock!! So yes, I have been listening. I pay attention to what rocks my spirit and not what’s rocking others. For one who has dabbled in phenomenology, existentialism and the value of the human experience as a metaphysical phenomenon, and knowing well that the act of confession for the purpose of ultimate empowerment, integrity and personal / collective growth is crucial, beginning this post at the personal level is extremely significant. Writing for writing sake is meaningless. If I can’t speak my truth as I write, whether for academic or personal purposes, I am not moved to write. Consequently, this post which I have chosen to write had to begin with the personal, the confession and yes, it must highlight what I see as hypocrisy at the heart of many of the commentaries about the Werl Boss and his conviction.
My account here is not intended as a remembrance or chronological accounting of Kartel’s musical sojourn. I am much more interested in contributing to a rarer fare, an enterprise that is less attractive, requiring integrity and akin to the Peckian ‘road less travelled.’ All the same, a nuh every ting good fi eat good fi talk’ so I am very aware that the cause of reliving the concluded trial is not productive and neither is pronouncing on the numerous statements about the Werl Boss’ character and alleged notoriety. Those are for the court. Official or unofficial.
Heavenly or earthly. What I will say is that Jamaicans have always said, ‘if it nuh guh so, it guh near suh’, which might explain why he was judged first in the ‘court of public opinion’ that had been receiving accounts of killings, feuds, controversies, beatings, threats, fear, deep deep fear, and traumatic encounters because of the Werl Boss. Those things did not find their way into the justice system but the recent charges certainly brought a lot of ire, praise, appeal, and formidable fanaticism on the part of Jamaicans and ‘dancehallites’ at home and abroad in particular.
Looking back to the early days, when I think about it, there couldn’t have been any accident in the choice of his first stage name in the moniker Addi Banton. As he mirrored the great Bantons of dancehall such as Buju Banton, a certain destiny seemed to have been written because like Banton, Kartel’s productivity at number one hits and significance to the dancehall genre rivalled Buju Banton’s record. It also seemed to rival Buju’s reputation of being the bad man, the gun toter, drug dealer, wife beater, and bigot who has now been convicted on drug charges in the USA.
Buju has been sentenced to ten years in prison and frankly I am consistently touting the well used slogan – ‘Free Gargamel’. Afterall, when I became clear that dancehall music was my music of choice on hearing the likes of Shabba Ranks and the mighty Buju, there was hardly any turning back from the melodious drum bass tones with which they communicated in a sort of verbal divinity. I am waiting patiently for Buju’s next concert. Mi a guh deh deh pon mi ears, just like I was present for Busy Signal’s return to the stage at Sting 2012 after a brief incarceration in the USA. Yes many of our musical stars have fallen foul of the law in various jurisdictions. And, various of our stars have enjoyed increased popularity with incarceration. Jah Cure is a classic example. Now, my Buju aside, gun and drug charges are quite different from murder charges. Afterall, the Werl Boss was dealing with another kind of ‘devil’; there are certainly no reports of him cavorting with any ‘white devil’. Additionally in a weird way they both have been charged with serious crimes and are facing several years behind bars. As a mega-fan of Banton (I write about my experience of Buju in Dancehall), I totally understand how Gaza and more particularly, Kartel fans must feel. Afterall, a load of trouble has befallen their ‘idol’ and as Dutty Berry has quipped ‘who a guh tell [di girls] how [dem] body good from mawnin’? (Via
beyond the enterprise of fandom, academics such as myself have the
burden of asking relevant questions, and it seems to me that to ask
whether the court and the general public were able to decipher the Werl
Boss’ mask / entertainer persona from that of Adidja Palmer’s is about
the biggest load of bovine excrement I have heard in a while. Please
excuse this another reference to excrement, but we really examine these
matters carefully. According to Cooper in her commentary of March 16:
to concede the possibility that, ‘Vybz Kartel’ is a persona, a mask
worn by an actor to project a fabricated character. As a consequence, it
is not Adidja Palmer who has been on trial for murder. It is Vybz
Kartel. I wonder if the media’s insistence on calling Adidja Palmer by
his stage name may not have been prejudicial. Has Adidja Palmer’s right
to be presumed innocent perhaps been violated by the constant assertion
that his ‘real’ identity is actually Vybz Kartel? Has Adidja Palmer been
proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Or is it the cardboard cutout,
Vybz Kartel?” (Cooper)
Who is this “we” who “refuse to concede the possibility that, ‘Vybz Kartel’ is a persona…?”
As if the question about whether Adidja Palmer’s presumed innocence
was compromised by Vybz Kartel the mask isn’t bad enough, here’s the
statement that leaves me befuddled:
“But, in all seriousness, I keep asking myself if Adidja
Palmer has been convicted beyond reasonable doubt – in the modern sense
of the legal term. I also wonder if he’s really innocent.” (Cooper)
Such questions are reasonable considering the history of failures of
justice in Jamaica and our seeming lack of commitment to reforming a
system that consistently targets the marginalised and, in particular,
disenfranchised among us. Yes, the rich buy their way out of
imprisonment by affording good lawyers and rarely are corrupt
politicians brought to justice. So our people have no trust in the
justice system, and neither do they have any trust in the people placed
to maintain law and order. On the matter of the Werl Boss’ innocence
however, a court of justice has now ruled with the help of a jury that
saw evidence to which the public was not privy. It has been said that
evidence presented was overwhelming in its proof of guilt. The fact is
throughout the trial the public did not hear of the evidence because it
was not viewed by those who could give us coverage via written or
multi-media news reports. So without seeing the evidence in the court
room presided over by Judge Lennox Campbell, innocence was thrown out
the door in the court of ’John Public’ and also in the Campbell’s court.
Not only did conflict follow the Werl Boss but so did controversy.
That is always a sign of personal trouble. The psychologists with tell
you that the inability to foster, maintain, and nurture meaningful
relationships reveals that something is outside the norm. For me the
break from the Alliance fraternity was a first sign of this which
continued with other music personalities including producers, investors,
managers, colleagues, Gaza hopefuls and even friends. Also, it seemed
after a while that ‘Vybz Cartoon’ became completely animated by people
who allowed him to levitate on the hot balloons of sunshine they blew
religiously up his proverbial derrière.
You see, the opportunity to write articles on justice for Adidja
Palmer might be used to take account of prevailing conditions and
circumstances. Such an opportunity might be used to take an honest
account of how little we know of Adidja Palmer, Vybz Kartel, Werl Boss
or Vybz Cartoon for that matter.
Perhaps Ninja Man said it best. It is definitely time for some among
us to ‘stop watching gangster show and start watching Law and Order’,
but right or wrong, Kartel has become the example the Jamaican police
have been trying to find in order to convince notorious law breakers
that they are serious about ridding Jamaica of crime and violence.
Whether you believe this or not or, believe this can be achieved in the
ways being currently pursued such as the recently launched ‘Unite for Change‘ campaign or zero tolerance being applied for various misdemeanours, is another matter entirely.
If anything, I question the intelligence that was poured into the barrage of solid lyrical incisions Kartel made in the dancehall music universe to the neglect of personal wellbeing. Afterall, witty wares peddled after being recorded on cutting edge equipment does not intelligence make. Equating coherent, cogent speech with intelligence in the overall unfolding of one’s daily life is simply not intelligent. When one provides the evidence for their own demise, blow by blow, digit by digit, then one has missed something important about the idea of the tipping point.
The tipping point is crucial. We can’t just be firing in this turbine called Jamaica, living unstoppable, invincible ‘tallawahcity’ in what
has become a crime-ridden, scarred, yet paradisiacal place.
Education is challenged, industry is challenged and leadership is challenged. Culture, particularly music, is one of our saving graces, yet some are content to ignore the evils that befall it. I am not and have never said
dancehall is to be blamed. I am not and would never say dancehall is dying. Instead, I say we are at a moment of transition. We are either going to take the opportunity now, or continue to self destruct in the powerful turbine of ‘tallawahcity called Jamaica.
So many have said it in so many ways, but the profound irony is that I choose to close with Buju Banton and Ninja Man, two dancehall artistes who are themselves convicted / charged with various crimes. Their profound invocations speak for themselves:
“…music is a spiritual ting, and when yaah do music,
there’s a demonic force weh surround music enuh, weh fighting the spirit
of the almighty enuh, because music is love and music is God enuh,
music mek people unite enuh and music mek people be together, music mek
people learn fi communicate..suh is a ting weh keep a godliness and
a togetherness within people which di devil nuh like that, suh…the devil
tek set pon di most powerful people, him choose fi draw you out inna
every way him can.” (Ninja Man, OnStage interview, aired March 15 on CVM
“…bible? we never even into that, we go a road go play music and no
know seh spiritual wickedness out there a wait pon we…” (Buju Banton on
the occasion of the Rasta Got Soul album launch, April 22, 2009, UWI.)
I beg the singers, players of instruments and fellow Jamaicans too – take heed. Social responsibility is collective responsibility. We must rebuild the proverbial village, become our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, and ‘unite for change.’ A suh di ting set an’ wi affi tun up di love to fight against spiritual wickedness in high and low places.
I leave you with an account dubbed The Kartel ‘Kronicles‘ compiled by Richard Johnson, published on Friday, March 14, 2014 in the Jamaica Observer; and a blog post from @anniepaul which contains very telling tweets of the pre-/ post-verdict atmosphere.
Vybz Kartel found guilty of murder
The Kartel ‘Kronicles’
VYBZ Kartel, who, along with three of his associates, was
found guilty of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams’s death, is no stranger to
controversy. From his early days as a member of Bounty Killer’s
Alliance, the artiste (born Adidja Palmer) has been under public
scrutiny for his songs, tatooes and bleached skin. Splash tracks some of
those controversial moments.
The annual Boxing Day show is an arena for lyrical clashes between
deejays. 2003 saw veteran Ninjaman squaring off with the up-and-coming
Kartel at Jamworld Entertainment Centre in Portmore, St Catherine. Days
later, both acts appeared at a press conference to denounce their
Gully vs Gaza
By 2006, the feud between Kartel and rival deejay Mavado was at its
peak. Their fans aligned themselves to Gully (representing Mavado’s
Cassava Piece community) or Gaza (name given to Kartel’s Portmore
community). This feud resulted in gangs and school groups which also
declared loyalty to the feuding artistes.
In December 2009, both deejays were ushered into a meeting with
ministers of government to resolve the tense situation. They agreed to a
five-point plan in which the artistes would participate in a peace
treaty and concert; a ‘paint-out’ day to remove Gaza/Gully graffiti from
walls in communities and schools across the island; the creation of
T-shirts bearing the images of both artistes, and record a song
Defecting from Gaza
Cracks began to appear in the Gaza Empire in late 2009 with the
departure of female deejay Lisa Hype from the camp. This followed the
release of explicit photos of her on the Internet. Fellow Empire members
Gaza Kim and Blak Ryno also left.
Six years after Kartel was involved in a fracas with Ninjaman, he was
back on the Sting stage. This time as a bonafide headliner and clashing
with his nemesis Mavado.
Despite a truce, elements of the feud lingered. The jury is still out
as to who won this clash, but promoters certainly benefited from
Thanks to a rhythm sampled from Miss Independent by American R&B
singer Ne-Yo, Kartel, along with female deejay Spice, captured the
airwaves with Ramping Shop in 2009. A clever marketing ploy got the buzz
going. Photos of a shirtless Kartel and a scantily-clad Spice were
‘leaked’ on the Internet. A sanitised version of the song was released
and momentum reached fever-pitch.
The single entered the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart.
Wallabee, Desert Fox or Bank Robber. Leather or suede. Original or
imitation, Jamaicans have always had a love affair with the British shoe
Kartel was able to tap into that bond with the 2010 release of the
catchy Clarks. The track also introduced his protégé, Popcaan.
Clarks was popular in the United Kingdom and North America.
It became clear that Kartel was bleaching his skin by 2010. He would
pass it off in his hit track Cake Soap, in which he attributes his
lighter skin to washing his face with the laundry detergent bar. This
ignited a firestorm of comments.
The promoters of Reggae Sumfest had anxious moments in July 2010. It
was uncertain if Kartel, their headline act for Dancehall Night, would
make the show.
Kartel and five other men were named as persons of interest in
relation to criminal gangs operating out of Portmore, St Catherine. The
deejay was released just in time for Sumfest and appeared on stage,
handcuffed and wearing a orange jumpsuit.
On March 10 2011, there was pandemonium at the University of the West
Indies Mona campus. At the centre of the frenzy was Vybz Kartel who had
been invited to speak on the topic: Pretty as a Colouring Book: My Life
and My Art.
His presence at the high seat of learning raised eyebrows. Many felt
the university lowered its standards by inviting the deejay to speak to
students as part of a reggae poetry class by professor Carolyn Cooper.
Local TV station CVM made a bold move along with telecommunications
company LIME and backed Kartel’s very own reality show, Teacha’s Pet. It
saw 20 women vying for the artiste’s affection. The show came to a halt
in September 2011 with his arrest on murder charges.
In July 2012, while incarcerated, Kartel released his book, The Voice
of the Jamaican Ghetto. Written with the assistance of Michael Dawson,
the image on its cover bore a stiking resemblance to an iconic photo of
Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X.
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