What Now for Jamaica's Vybz Kartel?

The trial is over; Jamaican dancehall artiste Vybz Kartel has been convicted and sentenced. One blogger, who has been following the entire affair with great interest, today posted an in-depth analysis of the courtroom drama, the enigma of Vybz Kartel and his music and the interesting ways in which his conviction provides an insight into Jamaican society, its judicial system and its politics.

Active Voice began by admitting that the whole thing at times seemed larger than life:

Often in the course of his prolonged trial I found myself wondering if the rollercoaster life of Adidja Palmer aka Vybz Kartel was scripted by someone inspired by Breaking Bad, the wildly popular American TV series about the rise and fall of a chemistry teacher turned meth dealer. By the time the trial ended I knew it was nothing of the sort, just another wildly original Jamaican libretto.

For those not familiar with Kartel or his meteoric rise in the music world, she explained:

Described by some as the country’s pre-eminent lyricist, for more than a decade Kartel ruled the roost in Jamaica as its reigning dancehall deejay (‘a genre that is to the roots reggae of Bob Marley as hip-hop is to R&B’), his street cred extending far beyond Kingston, into the nooks and crannies of ghettoes all over the Caribbean, into urban America and as far away as Africa where his Gaza Empire has spawned copycats.

Like most compelling stories, though, after the rise came the fall:

By late 2013 Vybz Kartel, 38, was being portrayed by the police and the justice system as Public Enemy No. 1. His fame and fortune notwithstanding, on April 3, 2014, Adidja Palmer was sentenced to life in prison with no parole possible before 35 years, after the court gave itself an extra week to determine whether the embattled DJ should be allowed to make music while incarcerated. He had been found guilty almost 3 weeks earlier, along with three others, of the murder of one Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams, a dancer and foot soldier in the small army of roughly 30 men that constituted Vybz Kartel’s entourage. These men ensured that Kartel’’s interests were looked after and his bidding done at all times.

The post also explored the nuances of Kartel's “dramatic” trial, which she said were full of “twists and turns that kept the nation in suspense till the very end”:

As the Prosecution laid it out, Lizard [the victim, whose real name is Clive Williams] ran afoul of the popular deejay because he and Chow, another member of the entourage, were given two of Kartel’s (illegal) guns, then failed to produce them when asked for their return. After several futile attempts to get the guns back, Lizard and Chow were summoned to Kartel’s house where there was a confrontation between them and Kartel’s cronies. Chow managed to get away, later becoming the Prosecution’s star witness, but Lizard was bludgeoned to death.

Although Williams’ body has not yet been found, Vybz Kartel has been in police custody since September 2011 and was never granted bail on the argument that he would attempt to skip the country. The post continued:

Rumours were rife that the reason for this unprecedented incarceration was that the police had incontrovertible evidence, including video footage taken from the deejay’s phone, that incriminated Adidja Palmer and his co-accused.

The swirling rumours proved to be true. The trial was prosecuted largely on circumstantial evidence— involving sensational Blackberry messages, video footage and voice notes downloaded from the deejay’s cellphone in which Kartel’s voice could be heard making threats about what he would do if the guns, coded as ‘shoes’ weren’t returned.

Active Voice went on to explain the approach of Kartel's defence team:

The Defence…did not dispute that the voice heard in the notes was Kartel’s. Instead their strategy was to prove that the cellphones in question had not been properly secured by the police, who were careless about maintaining the chain of custody, making it possible for the notes to have been tampered with or manipulated.

The blogger, Annie Paul, revisited how the trial ended, with one juror being charged for attempted bribery of the foreman, which put the entire court process dangerously close to a mistrial. Instead, the jury delivered a ten to one guilty verdict. Paul also offered insight into “the legal doctrine to be used in deciding Vybz Kartel’s guilt — that of common design”:

There was no direct evidence to prove that the deejay himself had participated in the murder. As Judge Campbell explained ‘…The scope was to kill Clive Lloyd Williams for the loss of a firearm. The law of Common Design is – as long as you participate knowing that was the ultimate end it doesn’t matter that you didn’t pull the trigger; it doesn’t matter that you didn’t wield the knife; it doesn’t matter that you didn’t administer the poison. Common Design can encompass a person at a gate as look out man for the police. As long as he’s there to look out, he can be charged for murder.’

The post noted that the high-security response from the authorities surrounding the case was indicative of its importance, but in an interesting juxtaposition, local support – from both fellow musicians and fans – dwindled when the reality of the situation became apparent:

During the final days of the trial American rapper Busta Rhymes attended court in a show of support for Vybz Kartel. Notably absent was anyone from the local music fraternity among whose ranks there did not appear to be much sympathy for the embattled DJ or sorrow over his fate. Although a large crowd had appeared outside the courtroom shouting ‘No Teacha, No school’ on the day of the verdict (a reference to Kartel ‘s nickname–‘The Teacher’) …on sentencing day there was only a modest crowd in attendance outside. The elaborate preparations made by the Police seemed like overkill.

So was Vybz Kartel DJ or Don? The post attempted to answer that burning question:

Opinions about Vybz Kartel vary depending on the demographic of the person you’re speaking to. Nicknamed World Boss and Addi the Teacher or ‘Teacha’ by his adoring fans his phenomenal popularity made him the envy of politicians though he didn’t kowtow to their demands. On the other hand Kartel was known to hobnob with top dons or gang leaders like…Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke whose sensational arrest and extradition to the United States occupied international news for weeks in 2010. [Read more about Global Voices’ coverage of that story, here.]

According to ethnomusicologist Dennis Howard the nexus between political dons and musicians in Jamaica goes back to the very roots of Reggae and Dancehall. It was a symbiotic relationship, the musician needed the support of the don who often demanded a ‘big up’ while the don fed off the popularity of the singer. The globally celebrated singer Bob Marley himself was friends with a number of dons/gang leaders across the political divide so Kartel’s association with gang leaders and the underworld was by no means unprecedented. The problem was that with Kartel there no longer appeared to be a distinction between the two.

Paul rehashed the infamous feud between Kartel's “Gaza” crew and rival DJ Movado's “Gully” supporters, explaining that while the latter appeared to reform himself, Kartel “thumb[ed] his nose at the police and Jamaican society while continuing to parlay his carefully cultivated notoriety into profits”:

He now diversified into other products such as a line of clothing, bleaching soap and his own rum. Perhaps the last straw for the police was the much hyped launch of Kartel’s own show, Teacha’s Pet, ‘a reality TV dating show surrounding the love life and career of the Artiste Vybz Kartel.’ Within a few weeks of the airing of the show Kartel was arrested and the show discontinued.

Then came one of the questions that has been hotly debated in the blogosphere; the post offered an interesting perspective:

Why were the Jamaican police so single-minded in their determination to put Vybz Kartel behind bars? Stories abound. The Minister of Justice…had been touring Montego Bay, center of the vicious Lotto Scam conglomerate, which preys on elderly American citizens, scamming them out of thousands of dollars of their savings each year. The Minister was under pressure from the Americans to smash the criminal enterprise [but] was told by residents that he should go easy on the scammers because what they were doing was, after all, merely a form of reparation – collecting monies due the citizens of Jamaica for the years of free labour provided during the era of plantation slavery.

When the astonished Minister enquired further into the source of such unorthodox views he was referred to a song by Kartel called ‘Reparation’ with the catchy refrain ‘Dem call it scam, 
Mi call it reparation’.

Although Kartel’s lyrics were never explicitly used against him in the trial, they would have been on virtually constant rotation in the minds of the Judge, Jury and Prosecution. In addition to the song about Reparations there were any number of gangster lyrics issuing from the prolific hit machine known as Vybz Kartel.

Paul suggested that the performer's appearance – and notorious skin bleaching – may have got under some people's skin:

Perhaps the thing that most cemented Kartel’s image as a demonic creature who had to be contained for the safety of the public was his unconventional appearance, aided by the increasingly visible tattoos embellishing his bleached skin. This more than anything literally marked Kartel as a devil-worshipper in the eyes of fundamentalist Christian Jamaica.

In interviews Kartel would often refer to himself in the third person, drawing a distinction between himself, Adidja Palmer, the responsible father and citizen and his more reckless deejay persona, Vybz Kartel.

She also referred to Kartel's recent book, titled “The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto”:

Some think the book was published because Palmer knew he had to lay the groundwork to shift public perception of himself as a common criminal. That may be so but in the process he managed to harness a cynicism about the system — coded as Babylon in Jamaican parlance — that has great currency. Though his music is viewed as having no explicit political message his concept of ‘Gaza’ has the resonance that rival DJ Mavado’s ‘Gully’ never had though both are metaphors for the underclass that spawned both musicians.

Perhaps the best way to understand Gaza is to see it as a new identity – underpinned by a Ghetto pride ideology. Although Kartel intended Gaza as a response to the lopsided landscape of opportunity in Jamaica that renders the poor socially invisible, the concept rapidly grew legs and migrated all over the world, an indication both of his talent and the globalization of inequality that disproportionately affects ghetto-dwellers worldwide.

Another point Paul made – which many netizens expressed via social media – is the widespread perception of a double standard of justice for different classes in Jamaica. She referred to the recent acquittal of politician Kern Spenser on corruption charges and suggested that the continued imbalance could eventually lead to public unrest:

The Director of Public Prosecutions herself expressed shock at the verdict saying that the evidence against him had been overwhelming. But for most people the Kern Spencer verdict was par for the course. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of politicians, police and big businessmen who have ever been convicted of any crime in Jamaica.

Jamaican Police and the country’s legal system now have to prove to cynical Jamaicans that they not only have the will and drive to successfully bring rogue DJs to book but also the numerous rogue policemen, politicians and businessmen still at large. If not, as Kartel’s song ’Sup’m a go happen’ warns Jamaica could be on the brink, like Egypt, like Tunisia before it, of ‘something happening’.

Does all of this mean that Vybz Kartel has been left with no options? Apparently not. His legal team is already prepared to appeal both the verdict and the sentence:

For them what was unique about this trial was the unprecedented use of digital evidence by the Prosecution. The irony of course is that had Kartel simply used a code to lock his phone the Police could never have got into it to find the incriminating evidence they did. The deejay’s lead attorney Tom Tavares-Finson told me days before the sentencing that he expected Kartel to be sentenced to 35 years. Tavares-Finson is hopeful that since he has been requesting and receiving transcripts of the court’s proceedings on a daily basis, he has about 80% of what will be needed to mount the appeal in hand already. He thinks Adidja Palmer stands a good chance of having the guilty verdict overturned by the higher court and his client is of the same mind.

His Twitter account echoed that confidence with this tweet:

The rest of the “Jamaican libretto” remains to be written.


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