On the evening of Thursday March 13th, shortly after his client Vybz Kartel was found guilty for the murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams, lead defence attorney Tom Tavares-Finson stood outside Kingston’s Home Circuit Court contemplating his next move.
“There is an appeal process on which we will embark upon,” he said, reflecting on the 65-day court battle that ended in defeat. “We have to accept it, and move along.”
Although Kartel was found not guilty of the murder of Barrington ‘Bossy’ Burton due to lack of evidence, in the Williams case prosecutors used digital messaging records to build a case against him and his co-defendants, although defence attorneys argued that the evidence had been tampered with by police.
After deliberating for a little over two hours, the 11-member jury handed down guilty verdicts of 10 to one against Kartel, real name Adidja Palmer, and three of his four co-accused: fellow dancehall artist Shawn ‘Storm’ Campbell, Kahira Jones and Andre St John. They are due to be sentenced on March 27th.
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Vybz Kartel, ‘Go Go Wine’
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The high-profile court case has been one of the most controversial in recent Jamaican history, with Kartel imprisoned for two and a half years without bail before the guilty verdict. Upon hearing the jury’s decision, some fans were so outraged that there was unrest in the streets, with bottles thrown and police using batons to keep the crowd under control. Sections of Kingston remained under close observation for some tome afterwards. Kartel and his team have used social media to speak directly to his fans, updating them on the case, and advising them to “keep calm… keep it safe and peaceful”. After the verdict, Kartel reached out to his fans one more time on Thursday:
“Give thnx 4 the support. Give thnx to the lawyers. Be safe; don’t give the law any reason to be upset. Gaza 4 life! Empire Foreva! One Love.”
Then he followed up with a warning: “Gaza fans, plz refrain from expressing ur views about the case in front of the police. See pic in the attached article.” The tweet included a link to an article, since removed, about Jamaican police beating someone in the crowd by the courthouse.
Despite being locked up for so long, Kartel remains one of the most influential figures in Jamaican culture and beyond. Although he delivered few performances overseas (here’s one he was meant to attend, in Rotterdam) due to travel bans that prevented him from entering certain countries, he is famous enough around the world that a fake story about him breaking out of jail was picked up by big publications back in 2011.
Kartel’s musical track record and the endless controversies he’s been embroiled in, from the Gaza vs Gully (Mavado) feud to his XXX-rated lyrics to the skin bleaching, have made him something of a worldwide obsession. Not only the biggest dancehall artist of the last five years, he’s also the genre’s biggest worldwide celebrity. He reached new heights when he took dancehall to an international level on collaborative tracks with Rihanna and Major Lazer. The Worl’Boss’s contribution to ‘Pon De Floor’ was a crucial co-sign for Diplo’s dancehall/EDM collective.
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Major Lazer feat. Vybz Kartel, ‘Pon De Floor’
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“Vybz Kartel just came out of nowhere in the dancehall world and just took over an entire genre,” said Diplo, before the star’s court case reached a conclusion. “He questioned so many things, and I love his attitude.” When asked about the potential verdict, the producer replied: “I have no idea. I think that it’s going to be very difficult for him to be innocent, but hey, good luck to him. We tried to do something with him while he’s been in jail, but it’s been difficult. Of course. As it should be.”
Since Kartel’s incarceration, “Free Worl’Boss” has become a rallying cry among his many supporters, ranging from suburban American kids to celebs like Drake. Busta Rhymes even flew down to Jamaica and attended the last few days of the trial as a show of solidarity. And when it comes to the streets of Jamaica, Kartel is the people’s artist: he sings the truth about the system, making him a hero to many and hitting home with ghetto youths who feel the brunt of the pressure.
Another ghetto youth, Kartel’s one-time arch-enemy Mavado, spoke out in support of his former rival. “We no sure if him guilty or if him not guilty, ‘cause we never there. But we can’t just judge him. Make we get up and pray for him.” He is not alone in suggesting that Kartel has been “made an example” of by those who don’t want to see the status quo of the Jamaican system challenged by people rising so far from the ghetto where they were born.
Dancehall emperor Shabba Ranks knows what it’s like to elevate in life from ghetto youth to dancehall icon. When he returned to Reggae Sumfest after a 10-year absence from Jamaica, he took time to big up Vybz Kartel (see the video below).
Said Shabba: “Right now it’s very unfortunate for poor people’s children to really obtain certain things in life, and in a minute it seems like it’s been snatched away. But I-man just wan’ tell him say from a bredda to bredda, just keep your head straight – ‘cause the best of us they send them to prison. Jesus Christ went to prison. Selassie I went to prison. Marcus Garvey went to prison. Malcolm X went to prison, Nelson Mandela went to prison. So just hold your head bredda. Caw wha? You see weh them nah kill, them cyaan dead. You see? Just hold up your head bredda. Free up the Vybz. Yeah.”
So what’s next for Kartel? There have been as many rumours and romances about what he may be doing behind bars as there were during his time as a free man – another sure sign of the unique grasp he has on the public's imagination. Whether or not he is guilty is just one of the many things people speak about.
Some stories have included accounts of him recording songs while locked away. Whether or not that’s true, there’s no disputing the fact that efforts to censor Kartel’s music or limit his impact on Jamaican society have failed. While fans await his sentencing, his book The Voice Of The Jamaican Ghetto is still in stores, his music still runs the dancehall, and his Twitter remains on and popping. As the subtitle on his book puts it, Kartel has been “incarcerated but not silenced”.
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Read Reshma’s regular Reggae & Dancehall columns here.