If you follow Jamaican music in any sense, you likely know by now that dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel was convicted of murder last week.
I am not sure what exactly could be said about Vybz at this point that hasn’t already been shouted time and time again. But I do have a few thoughts.
1. The Music
I think wondering what dancehall and the Jamaican music scene will be like without Kartel’s presence and persona is an interesting question which I pose in a forthcoming article via MTV Iggy. There’s somewhat of a consensus that dancehall has sort of been floundering in popularity and direction, particularly since Kartel was incarcerated in 2011. In addition, a roots reggae revival (which I’ve covered quite a bit) has grown in popularity on the island. Furthermore, soca has started to grow in popularity outside of Trinidad, perhaps pose to overtake dancehall in some sense. Finally, 2 Chainz, an American hip-hop artist, headlined Sting this year. Point being that, indirect or not, Jamaican music has been changing since Kartel was jailed. Assuming his appeal fails to set him free, Kartel’s presence (not his influence) will wane and it will be interesting to see the direction Jamaican music, and in particular dancehall, goes from here on out.
However, it’s also important to remember that dancehall isn’t this wholly connected body even if it is written about it this way. Artists work independently and many of them are likely unaffected by the Vybz verdict.
2. “Badman Lyrics”
There’s been a running idea in tweets, op-eds and articles that the police force in Kingston was trying to make a statement with this trial. Apparently, this is something of a landmark case in Jamaica where new methods of obtaining and examining evidence was being used, the same kind of technology they use in the UK and US, etc. With this being made public, many believe that there was extra pressure to obtain a guilty verdict in an effort to sort of prove its capability.
In addition, Jamaican musicians who often challenge the status quo of Jamaica’s conservative tendencies with x-rated lyrics and “badman” lyrics are singled out (scapegoated if you will) for the “ills” of Jamaican society. Kartel, to many, was seen as public enemy number one in this regard (See Jamaican Security Minister Peter Bunting’s comments on Kartel). Clearly, Kartel’s conviction will be seen as a real victory to this sect of Jamaica. And in many ways, could send a message to musicians. After all, Jamaica has never been shy to try and restrict its artists (see most recently: Broadcasting Commissions ban violent and vulgar lyrics from the radio).
The one-two punch of statements being made against “badman” lifestyle and the desire to prove its new “crime-fighting” technology sends a message and one wonders if the badman lyrical content might wane a bit in dancehall a bit out of fear of “pressure from Babylon.”
3. The Power of Music in Jamaica
I personally feel I know too little about Vybz outside of his music to make any type of judgement on the man. I think the Jamaican music scene is complex and I think music matters more socially and politically on the island that it does in the U.S. In the United States, it has been a long time since music resonated really resonated on a level where it produced real reflection and debate about the society we live in (sorry, Miley’s “twerk-gate” doesn’t count). In Jamaica, from what I can tell it still very much does and regularly.
It’s also important to remember how small Jamaica is. There are 2.8 million people on the island which is roughly the population of Chicago. To make a crude comparison, the gang violence in south Chicago has carried over in its music with the likes of rapper Chief Keef and company being rather upfront and outspoken about the violence to a point where Keef got into some “hot water” mocking the death of a fellow rapper from an opposing gang on Twitter a few years ago. The violence in Chicago amongst these gangs and young rappers is a big deal in the United States but it’s particularly a big deal and a problem IN these communities in Chicago. It’s magnified there. For those of us outside of Jamaica, we should approach this trial and all its opinions and aftermath similarly, the island is small in size and population. We have to remember how small it is and how the actions of its music stars resonates so much more that it does in a country like the U.S. (where I live) with 330 million people. To connect the dots, when I was last in Jamaica, a traveling friend was chatting with street vendor about the Gaza-Gully conflict and at one point the vendor turned the whole conversation around and asked, “Why wouldn’t you fight over music?” Perhaps, spotlighting at least one popular viewpoint of music’s importance in Jamaica.
Whatever your opinion of Vybz, the trial, his music or dancehall, you have to take into consideration the context of the place where these things take place. This isn’t just some DJ arrested and convicted for a serious crime. This is a major figure in Jamaican society whose actions, music and words have real social significance that is way too complex to suss out in a blog post, an article, tweet or op-ed. Be weary of quick opinions. It’s more about whether or not he really is guilty of this heinous crime. It runs much deeper.
4. Further reading!
I’m hard pressed to find anything worth reading about Vybz and the impact of this trial right now. Maybe it just needs some time. But Carolyn Cooper’s op-ed in the Jamaican Gleaner poses some interesting questions. Read it here. And while you’re at it, you might as well read Vybz’s published letter to Carolyn Cooper and her response.