Friday, April 4, 2014

The Vybz Kartel Tragedy and Dancehall’s Future

A major feature of Jamaican dancehall music has been the glamorisation of violent images and personalities over the years. Many dancehall artists have come to exemplify the image of the bad boy, the rude boy, the shotta and the don. Dancehall has created a powerful subculture and even counterculture of its own spreading throughout the Caribbean and even internationally as it is big in places such as Germany, Japan and South America.

Despite its international acclaim a strong element of violence still persists. As Jamaican cultural expert Brenda Pope has noted, the gun remains a symbol of liberation as well as masculine and personal power in dancehall music.

At the heart of such lyrics are often poor communities suffering from unemployment, teenage pregnancy, poor housing and neglect. Some have argued that such lyrics are merely symbolic of the day to day struggles of ghetto people. However the lyrics are more than symbolic, they are often the lived reality of many of the artists who have originated from such backgrounds and find a way of expression through music. 

The guilty conviction of Adidja Palmer more infamously known as Vybz Kartel brings to the fore these issues of violence, representation and the double impact of dancehall music. 

There is no doubt that Kartel is one of the most gifted artists to emerge onto the dancehall scene in the last decade. Whether or not one agrees with his lyrics, his writing ability is exceptional. Kartel became the iconic figure in dancehall music and for some the voice of the poor people. From his lyrics to his skin bleaching, Vybz rum, his own condom brand and even shoe line, his popularity soared. He has had international collaborations with the likes of Rihanna, Jay-z, Pharrell and Eminem and the popularity of songs like Clarks saw him featured prominently on international television. 

All of this of course was mired by controversies such as the infamous Gaza/Gully rivalry between himself and former label mate Mavado. The rivalry spread across the seas even to influence many young people here in Barbados. A show was promoted as a Unity concert featuring the two artists but a strong public outcry forced the intervention of the late Prime Minister, the Hon. David Thompson and its subsequent cancellation. 

At the time, as head of the Barbados Youth Development Council my opinion was canvassed on whether the artists should have been allowed to come for a Unity concert and Youth Forum. Personally I saw nothing wrong particularly with the youth forum. I welcomed the idea of young people interrogating the two gentlemen over their actions and the negative reverberations they caused.

As with most things in Barbados, the more conservative forces won out, never mind that only a few months before, both artists had performed on the island with no objection whatsoever. As was expected, the ban had the opposite effect. Kartel’s popularity soared with local radio DJs seemingly protesting the ban with a heavy rotation of his songs for weeks on end. 

In months to follow Kartel would accept an invitation by the UWI Mona, Cultural Studies department.  A presentation similar to the youth forum was held with Kartel being heavily bombarded with questions about his skin bleaching, his violent lyrics and sexually explicit content.  Kartel was clearly on the defensive as he attempted to make a distinction between Kartel the entertainer and Adidja Palmer the father, son and ordinary human being.

He tried to further distance himself from his influence, but the clear message from the gathering of very conscious youth was sent; to whom much is given much is expected. Yet this artist has produced songs such as Life We Living, Poor People Land, Ghetto Road and more recently School. These songs have drawn attention to the plight of the poor and even encouraged his young audience to take stock of their lives and educational opportunities. This is interesting since Kartel cannot claim to have been impoverished and destitute like some other dancehall artists. During his trial, his sister who is a high school senior teacher lamented that Kartel was raised in a good home with both parents who insisted on education and strong morals.  

Kartel has therefore created his own fantasy world as evidenced by his self-proclamation as ‘World Boss’. One has to admire his business ethic and the vision to take his music globally. However inflicting violent punishment on dissenting members of his music label and being implicated for the heinous act of murder must be strongly condemned. An artist with more sway than any politician in Jamaica has forfeited his chance to become a true champion for ordinary people, to give them a voice and the hope of a way out through the music industry.

The debacle of Vybz Kartel or ‘di Teacha’ as he also calls himself is a lesson to all young people: that power, influence and money used for the wrong means can lead to self-destruction. There is still a place for dancehall music and its artists. The other way is shown through Shaggy’s recent concert in aid of the Bustamante Hospital for Children. If only such acts can be replicated with a greater focus on the use of dancehall for good, we can see greater positive transformation in the lives of the many ordinary young people who follow this music.  

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