– Ryan Jobson; Guest Contributor & Editor
Independence Dreams and the Gaza Don
A Review of Vybz Kartel’s The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto
The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto: “Incarcerated but not Silenced.” Adidja Palmer aka Vybz Kartel and Michael Dawson. Kingston: Ghetto People Publishing, 2012. xvii + 271 pp. (Paperback US$ 24.95)
Who is Mr. Palmer?
My first encounter with the enigmatic dancehall deejay Vybz Kartel (fka Adija Palmer) arrived on the pages of The Beat, a now-defunct world music publication that my father never hesitated to bring home from the newsstand. Born a British subject in Mandeville, Jamaica during the twilight of colonialism in 1960, my father eventually settled in Kingston, where I was born thirty years after. Fate, though, brought me to the postindustrial landscape of Kingston, New York, rather than the iconic urban center of my ancestral home. Dancehall music was played sporadically throughout my childhood, though “roots” reggae remained king. When dancehall did come over the speakers the endearing musings of Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse were favored over the ‘slackness’ of a Bounty Killer or Lady Saw. All the same, I dove headfirst into the brief review of Kartel’s debut LP, Up 2 Di Time, a release widely acclaimed as the signpost of his meteoric rise to dancehall royalty. Included beside the review was a black and white reproduction of the album cover, featuring a brash Kartel adorned in a Houston Rockets throwback jersey and gesturing with conviction at the camera. Here was the future of Jamaican popular music—young, unabashedly downtown, and as the reviewer opined, “hyped on urban American culture.” Yet Kartel offered much more than a “mimic man” of his African American compatriots, as the Trinidadian novelist wrote of his countrymen decades earlier. Instead, he defied convention as a markedly Jamaican artist who crafted his brand through a series of promotional concerts in New York and Boston. Perhaps revealing the open secret that to be Jamaican is, and always was, a transnational production. As one Kartel collaborator, Wayne Marshal, mused in his contribution to the album track, “New Millennium”: “Dis a di new millennium/A different ting a gwaan.” Indeed, this was a new era for dancehall, fueled by the heightened reveries of an international market.
Nearly a decade after his initial release, Kartel arguably sits at the height of his international popularity, and the nadir of his personal life, as he remains behind bars awaiting trial on homicide charges. The publication of The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto: “Incarcerated but not Silenced” is timely, granting rare access to a figure otherwise sustained by a sporadic stream of previously unreleased tracks circulated following his imprisonment. Perhaps it is appropriate that we hear Kartel’s grievances against this backdrop, in which his case is yet to be heard nearly one year after his arrest. Irrespective of the accusations he faces, his take on contemporary Jamaican affairs is one that should be heeded by dancehall enthusiasts and critics alike.
A tale of two cities
At the heart of his manifesto is an appraisal of Jamaican society as inherently dualistic. Keeping with the themes first explored in his UWI-Mona lecture in March 2011, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto concerns itself with the separation between Society, the realm of the Jamaican elite, and Gaza (or the ghetto), occupied by the island’s black underclass. In his words: “there are two Jamaicas. One of the biggest fallacies one can come up with is ‘Out of Many One People.’ As I said in my UWI lecture, Jamaica is one of the most duplicitous and divided countries as we are in no way one people. There is a clear ‘uptown’ and a clear ‘downtown’. Dancehall is downtown music and that is why it is fought so hard…Uptown is afraid of Dancehall. Why is this so?” This argument is not new, memorably articulated by anthropologist M.G. Smith as the “plural society” thesis and exemplified by the exodus of wealthy Jamaicans following Prime Minister Michael Manley’s infamous declaration that there was no place for millionaires under his socialist-leaning administration. Despite the short-lived migration of my own family to Orlando in 1977, archetypical of the Society that Kartel rails against, the soundtrack of my youth prompted me to take seriously his lyrical oeuvre, valuing dancehall as a mode of expression and political protest, and unlike its forebear, one that emanates unapologetically from the garrison communities of Kingston. That a Society child now hangs on Kartel’s every word speaks to the potential of a still unrealized project of decolonization, which as he observes, rests on “Dancehall [as] one of the few places where uptown meets downtown on an even playing field.”
Dancehall music remains the constant thread throughout the book, as each chapter bears the title of a Kartel track and offers an extended meditation on its lyrical content and conceptual origins. His language is raw, and critiques are easy to come by. To name a few, his vision for a new Jamaica rests heavily on a hetero-normative and patriarchal view of the nuclear family, and the controversial topic of homophobia in Jamaica is never broached. Such critiques are necessary, and one can only imagine what would unfold were Kartel to denounce discrimination against queer communities as rapper Jay-Z did earlier this year. Still, this is not to say that Kartel does not make a number of provocative and encouraging claims that resist the accepted orthodoxy of respectability in postcolonial Jamaica. In the text, Kartel proclaims himself an agnostic, defends the rights of sex workers, addresses the taboos of rape and incest, and forcefully denounces the destructive “free market” policies impressed upon Jamaica by the International Monetary Fund. Accordingly, the avowed iconoclast nonetheless borrows from his Rastafari brethren, indicting Babylon as the systemic force behind the sustained fissures of the “two Jamaicas” he describes. Babylon is no mere abstraction for Kartel, however, carrying with it the critical purchase of an oft-cited “superstructure” in Marxist social theory. But it is this creative use of vernacular that endows his criticism with its potency as he conjures the silenced voices of Gaza, otherwise termed the “ghetto,” “downtown,” or “folk.” Not unlike the invisible and seemingly mythical dynamics of the international economy, Babylon comprises power structures with no identifiable or singular point of origin. As evidenced in the aforementioned discussion of respectability and morality in Jamaican society: “Despite what Babylon says, it is merely a view, a feeling, or an opinion put forward by a set of people chosen at random by our god-like politicians who dictate how Society is supposed to run.” His skepticism here is not limited to the church, but is extended to the theistic values that equally undergird religion and politics in Jamaica. Through techniques of disavowal, Kartel proposes a Caribbean future disentangled from the vestiges of a colonial order presumed dead for half a century.
The Color Purple
On this note, the debate over skin bleaching appears only tangentially through much of The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, though the fourth chapter, “No Love for the Black Child,” is devoted to the subject. Kartel uses this chapter to affirm once again that he finds no conflict between his use of “cake soap” and positive black self-identity. His defense rests on his status as an entertainer and provocateur par excellence, crediting his indulgence in bleaching with spurring a national conversation on the state of black consciousness in Jamaica. This is clearly the most difficult aspect of Kartel’s creative repertoire as an artist who moves seamlessly across several performative registers: the badman, the dandy, the organic intellectual. Post-bleaching, Kartel appears viscerally stirring, pale and nearly unrecognizable compared to the burgeoning deejay on the cover of Up 2 Di Time. Yet for Kartel, bleaching is a practice of subversion that resists the panoptic surveillance of Babylon. He writes, “the problem with living by other people’s rules and wishes, is that I am not sure at what point I stop being myself and start being who they want me to be.” While the reproach levied at Kartel is unquestionably legitimate, it is useful to consider his bleaching as a harbinger of affairs in the Caribbean postcolony, where the camouflage of patois and dancehall dress is quickly outpaced by the technologies of surveillance that Kartel includes under the umbrella of Babylon. His skin is merely the latest (or last?) frontier of the trickster, heralding the impending uprising of the masses, or as Kartel says, “Sup’m A Guh Happen.”
Teaching the fisherman
In an essay entitled “The Role of the Intellectual in the Caribbean” published in 1985, Bajan writer George Lamming describes a “sense in which the word intellectual may be applied to all forms of labor which could not possibly be done without some exercise of the mind. In this sense, the fisherman and the farmer may be regarded as cultural and intellectual workers in their own right…Caribbean society has been crippled by this artificial status which separates the educated from the uneducated, although experience of our middle class confirms that literacy may sometimes be a form of enslavement.” Heeding Lamming’s definition of the Caribbean intellectual, it is imperative that the commentary of Vybz Kartel be acknowledged and subjected to debate as we plot the ensuing fifty years of independence and beyond. It was with great sense of gratification that I handed my copy of The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto to my father, an Ivy League educated Jamaican expat, to hear his thoughts on the many issues that persist nearly four decades after he emigrated from the island. Just steps from the Yale University campus, two members of Society grappled with questions that the Gaza don had posed to us.
Ryan Cecil Jobson is a PhD Student in African American Studies and Anthropology at Yale University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org