Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Vybz Kartel: Murda Ina Di Dancehall

Over the last month, Adidja Palmer, better known as Vybz Kartel, has landed in jail under investigation in connection with a number of murders, shootings and gun running. At this point, he has already been charged on account of two murders, the possession of firearms and marijuana while the remains of a charred body have recently been found in one of his houses. The jailing has caused a media frenzy, not because of the violence surrounding the charges but because Vybz Kartel is also one of the greatest dancehall artists ever to come out of Jamaica.

It seems we may have seen the last of Vybz for a while. It is a major blow to the dancehall scene, and Gaza fans (a Jamaican ghetto posse) are aghast at the idea of losing their ‘Emperor.’ Others are relieved that he is locked away, finding the dancehall artist a menace and poor role model for Jamaican youth. Either way, Vybz leaves a trail of controversy in his wake as he is known to do. After all, Vybz is not shy about promoting himself as a violent badman with lyrics gloating that he ‘talks with gunshot’. Yet he is one of Jamaica’s most popular stars with a huge influence on society, especially inner city ghettos. So it comes with little surprising that many are hoping this will take him out of the limelight and give him a prison sentence (this is not the first time he has been arrested). I don’t want to join the chorus of apologists for Vybz. Lyrics like ‘Mi buss throat like weh butcha do fi get di beef’ leave me a little disconcerted to say the least, especially in current circumstances. And yet, for the morality forces to come crashing down on Vybz for setting a bad example seems a bit short-sighted.

Yes, Vybz promotes violence in his songs and bigs up the bad boy culture. But in many ways, perhaps this is the extreme example of a music and a culture that already exists. Jamaica has a long history with violence in music coming from the ghettos. Today’s dancehall culture glorifies violence. And back in the times of ska and rocksteady, the rude boy culture did the same thing. Listen to Desmond Dekker singing “007” or to Derrick Morgan telling us all that “Rudie don’t fear cos he is tougher than tough.” Look to the powerful men of gangster films and classic Westerns that were shown regularly in Jamaica, for rude boy culture modelled itself partly on these hugely popular films and their invincible heroes. Dillinger and Clint Eastwood have both been taken on as pseudonyms by reggae stars, while Prince Buster, the self-proclaimed ‘original rude boy’, has a song named ‘Al Capone (guns don’t argue)’. The Harder They Come looks in many ways like a Jamaican Western, depicting the lawlessness of the Kingston ghettos. In it, the clueless, penniless country boy is sincere but ridiculed; the wised-up gun-toting, drug-dealing rude boy of the city is stylish, powerful, and crucially, admired. In the harsh environment of the ghetto, the image of a powerful hero is surely a tempting one. Rude boys and their culture of violence have been linked up with honour and respect, offering a path of escape for dis-empowered youth.

Ghetto life provides little opportunity for financial gain and a comfortable life. In Jamaica, political strategies have divided up the inner cities into garrisons. Drug dons, such as the recently extradited Dudus Coke, rule over areas and fill the glaring gaps in infrastructure in areas abandoned by politicians. As noted in another blog, in a world lacking in leadership, people create their own. Rude boys reconstructed society through violence and their exploits were sung about in ska and rocksteady. Even if many artists left a question mark over whether they approved such behaviour, Rude Boy culture became ingrained in the dance hall. Guns have been seen (and promoted) as an expression of power. This has now been take to an extreme. Violence and gun play is so naturalised in dancehall music now that a ‘lick shot’ - the sound of a gun going off - is a sign of appreciation. The criminality in Vybz’s lyrics and artist persona are just a step further down this track. If found guilty he should be condemned for committing murder, or course. But it would perhaps pay to take a step back before berating dancehall artists alone for their promotion of violence and their effect on society.

Vybz’s latest tune is called "Worl’ Boss," a blatant boast of the power he has achieved through his music and violent persona. After his practically obligatory bragging about how many women he can get, the lyrics tell us::

Badmind people no like me
A so it go, a so it go
leggo me nuh, leggo me nuh
Money me a look fuh inuh
Ghetto yute haffi rich
Ghetto yute haffi have ting
It a mi wish, it a mi wish
Jah jah put food ina mi dish
So mi seh sumting like dis

Back in the times when Bob Marley was a youth singing with the Wailers (also known as the ‘Wailing Rude Boys’), he sang an apologist tune for the rude boys that echoes "Worl' Boss"  called "Let Him Go":
Rudie come from jail cos rudie get bail
You rebuke and you scorn and you make him feel blue, so
(Let him go) Got to let him go
(Let him go) I beg you, let him let him go
Yes, many many lyrics from Vybz are shocking and his real life behaviour is often controversial, but with "Worl’ Boss" he gives us a timely reminder: he was looking for money. Ghetto youth have to find money to put food on the table. So he sings something like this song, which begins and ends with his boasting about how many women he can have because he is the bad man in the club. And by doing so, he has been rewarded with plenty of money. It is not the violence itself that has made him rich but his talent in the dancehall and his promotion of a violent persona, tying into a line of Jamaica’s music history. Without media support and a fan base, Vybz would have remained the more anonymous Adidja Palmer.
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