The debate over the potentially harmful influence of the dancehall culture on youth and whether it fuels crime and violence is nothing new in Jamaica, but nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in the life and career of Adidja Palmer. Better known by his stage name, Vybz Kartel, he was convicted for the 2011 killing of an associate, Clive “Lizard” Williams, after being acquitted of an earlier murder charge. Palmer was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 after a 65-day trial, and will not be eligible for parole for 35 years.
Yet, Kartel's popularity (some call it a cult following) among Jamaican youth has not waned. Kartel continues to release new music, which is played regularly at parties. His album, King of Dancehall, topped the reggae music charts in the United States upon its release in June 2016, and was the highest selling album in that genre for the year. His book, “Voice of the Jamaica Ghetto (Incarcerated but not Silenced)”, co-written by Michael Dawson and published in July 2012, has reportedly been placed in Princeton University's library. In February 2017, the glitzy, fan-based Youth View Awards nominated Kartel in eight categories by popular vote; he won in five.
Imagine the outcry then, when Lisa Hanna — the country's former culture minister (and current member of parliament) — suggested that there may need to be “less of a democracy” when it comes to trying to instill values in youth; values that are at odds with the messages they hear from the music being played on the radio. Even though Hanna did not call his name, she singled out Vybz Kartel when she spoke about “persons we know are incarcerated…persons we know have questionable value systems”.
Her comments soon went viral, provoking an extreme and vitriolic backlash which included death threats. This social media response has caused the greatest shock waves in the public arena. One Twitter user noted:
One is free to agree or disagree with Lisa Hanna's views, but to threaten her for them is repulsive, perverse, and disgraceful.
— Corey (@Corey_WS) February 23, 2017
However, some have accused both Hanna and the prime minister of hypocrisy. A university student tweeted:
During elections both the PM and Lisa Hanna used songs from Vybz Kartel and dancehall in general while campaigning, What makes it wrong now?
— Demoye (@YPWhiteley) February 23, 2017
Another tweeted one of Hanna's Instagram updates during the election campaign:
— IG: willymac_7 (@WillyMac7) February 23, 2017
I’m an unapologetic lover of music including dancehall. But there’s no necessity for some artists to use music as a medium for promoting violence and abuse of women. The Data confirms that violent and sexually explicit lyrics have negatively influenced many Jamaican youth’s thought processes through increased feelings of hostility and aggression. These negative influences are exacerbated when we turn a blind eye to radio airplay of new productions by persons we know are incarcerated so may have been abetted by corruption in our prison system. This reality necessitates us being urgently honest with ourselves. We should be prepared to have a national discussion about messages glorifying criminality being conveyed to our children that’ll ultimately bring deleterious consequences. These messages have been pushing us towards a different society from the one in which we all say we want to live. […] I pray that all Jamaicans who value common decency will find the courage to push back against this new normal and defend Jamaica’s true culture. If we lose this battle, however unpopular the battle or its choosing may be, we will have lost Jamaica.
The chicken or the egg?
While not advocating a total ban, many Jamaicans are similarly concerned, in light of Jamaica's soaring crime rate this year, with the content of Kartel's lyrics. Columnist Gordon Robinson commented that they are merely a reflection of Jamaica's environment of crime and violence:
Much of Kartel's music (not all) is vulgar, violent and antisocial. Worse, it encourages violence. This is nothing more than a sad reflection on Jamaican society as seen by Kartel. All artistes, from time immemorial, have been social commentators. That artistes like Kartel are rapidly becoming role models for Jamaican youth is a tragedy, but not one of the artistes’ making. It's we who must tackle the societal problems identified by Kartel and reflected in his music…If the content of Kartel's music breaches the Broadcasting Commission's guidelines, as it often does, for public discourse, those recordings should be banned from the airwaves.
Columnist, comedian and poet Michael Abrahams added:
I support freedom of artistic expression, so I defend Kartel’s right to express himself. Even if his songs were to be banned from the radio, our youngsters would have no problem obtaining them from the Internet. What we need to do is look into ourselves and take responsibility for creating an environment in which a dancehall artiste who often spews violent lyrics, and is incarcerated for murder, has one of the greatest influences on our youth..
In contrast, human rights activist Jaevion Nelson wondered:
Why are all these media entities playing Kartel's music? Are they not complicit in promoting a convicted murderer?
— Jaevion Nelson (@jaevionn) February 23, 2017
However, many young Jamaicans agreed that the impact of dancehall on crime and violence is overstated. One shared his personal Twitter poll, in which followers thought politicians were by far the greatest contributing factor:
— It's Me… Saggle (@saggle2012) February 24, 2017
‘We are not a society that holds heavily to censorship’
Prime Minister Andrew Holness has taken a measured approach. Having just passed his one-year anniversary in office, he is doing the media rounds. In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, he stressed the importance of education in changing mindsets, explaining, “We have a liberal democracy’, we can’t escape that. And […] we are not a society that holds heavily to censorship. That shouldn’t mean that we allow everything to get in the public space. So the important thing that […] a liberal democracy must develop, if it is not going to censor, is […] literacy and education. In other words, you combat negative information with positive information.”
Damion Crawford, a former government colleague of Hanna's who was once the minister responsible for entertainment, opined on Facebook:
I don't agree that Kartel music should be banned… and all research shows no causal impact of dancehall to violence. However the response to a difference in opinion is a disgrace to Jamaica, Dancehall and Gaza nation. How on earth gunshot, rape, murder, stoning etc reach in a difference of opinion…. you not just state why you think the music should not be banned ? Unuh a make more enemies than friends for dancehall with this BS.
Kartel's prison ‘studio’
The underlying question, which Hanna also raised, is how and why Kartel is allowed to enjoy a flourishing career while remaining behind bars at Kingston's high security Tower Street Correctional Centre. One young Facebook user asserted:
I personally don't believe someone who is an incarcerated and convicted murderer should be allowed to continue to ply his art of music (especially music for the most part that really adds no value to life in liberating the masses who need direction). Means of rehabilitation my foot. If I'm an architect or doctor I gave up my freedom being in prison and will not be allowed to practice. This country and its justice system is laughable. It is an insult to give Vybz Kartel this opportunity. #Disgraceful breed of hypocrites we are in Jamaica!
Community activist Nazneen Jones agreed. Citing an article in which one DJ advised the prime minister to “stop putting blame on our music and start holding people accountable for their own behaviour and actions,” she expressed concern over the extremes of the dancehall culture:
Dancehall music is not the sole problem of crime and violence but it has heightened abuse towards vulnerable women. Some dancehall music are tools for violence, the lyrics itself are sharpened weapons. Some will argue that dancehall music is our culture, but then again it depends on each individual's thought or definition of what their culture is. Imitating dogs, spiders and shoving bottles down my throat is NOT my culture.
Police tracking ‘malicious’ social media posts
Meanwhile, the Jamaica Constabulary Force has been actively pursuing malicious, defamatory and threatening social media posts — including those against Hanna — with their search focusing largely on Facebook. The police have been charging Jamaicans under The Cybercrimes Act, which came into effect quite recently. Public relations practitioner Elon Parkinson warned:
Those who are busy deleting threats made against Lisa Hanna will soon find out that Facebook erases nothing. Police investigation now in full effect. You'll need a lawyer, not a new profile.
The debate continues in the media, where the head of Nationwide News Network (which first aired Hanna's statement) described a video for which Kartel won a Youth View Award last month as “porn”. In a few days, the station will broadcast a show hosted by the energetic TalkUpYout media project, in an effort to thrash out the issues with young people:
— IG: TalkUpYout (@TalkUpYout) February 25, 2017
Meanwhile on Twitter, Vybz Kartel Radio may have summed up the adored DJ's feelings on the matter:
— Vybz Kartel (@VybzKartelRadio) February 24, 2017