Pop music in 2016 simmers with the winding grind of dancehall. Rihanna’s “Work” and “Drake’s “One Dance,” two of the year’s biggest singles with 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 between them, both pull from the genre. Sean Paul, who took the sound to its commercial peak in the early Aughts, returned to Number One as a featured guest on Sia’s island-inflected “Cheap Thrills.” Rhythms and lyrics borrowed from the islands permeate recent hits by Justin Bieber, Fifth Harmony, Tory Lanez and Major Lazer, the Diplo-led project that’s built a massive global following bridging EDM and Caribbean music.
But in Jamaica, the real thing, Vybz Kartel’s “Fever,” ruled much of the summer, topping various local charts. “Western Union,” another single from Kartel’s King of the Dancehall, enjoys a similar ubiquity at present.
“There is no party in Jamaica without Kartel,” says Stephen “Supa Hype” Davis, the DJ and promoter behind Mojito Mondays, one of Kingston’s most popular weekly dancehall events. “Unless it’s a retro party, Kartel [has] to play.”
Yet this week, it has now been five years since Kartel – 40-year-old Adidja Palmer – was last free to enter a studio. In September 2011, he was arrested by Jamaican authorities for marijuana possession, and subsequently charged in two separate murder cases. He’s been in a Kingston prison ever since, the last two-and-a-half years spent serving a life sentence following a 2014 conviction for the killing of associate Clive “Lizard” Williams.
What appeared almost certain to be a career-ending setback, it turns out, has only reaffirmed Kartel’s hold on dancehall. He’s as popular and influential as ever, and even more prolific. New music from Kartel turns up weekly; more than 50 tracks this year alone have been released to iTunes, including the 14 on King of the Dancehall, his third LP in four years. A tally of songs issued during his incarceration would total well into the hundreds.
How, exactly, Kartel has maintained such productivity while behind bars remains something of a mystery. Many dancehall fans presume he must be recording in prison, covertly cutting vocals through a cellphone app. Others have even suggested certain songs were voiced by an impersonator. Musicians usually become engimas by disappearing or holding back, but Vybz Kartel has become one by being impossibly present through his incarceration. He’s released a book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, elaborating his views on topics ranging from parenting and abortion to third-world debt. He launched a clothing line, the Official VK Line; and created a literacy program which recently sponsored a robotics camp in his hometown of Portmore, Jamaica.
In an interview conducted through his lawyer, Tom Tavares-Finson, Kartel denied that he is recording in jail. The new releases, he insists, are the fruits of a massive deposit of unreleased vocal material left behind before his arrest, updated for the moment by a cadre of trusted producers.
“I’ve always been a prolific songwriter, and I record at breakneck speed as well, so I have a lot of surplus material to choose from,” Kartel tells Rolling Stone. “There is a recording studio at another correctional facility [in Jamaica] but none here … cellphones, laptops, or any Internet-capable instrument are prohibited items.”
In the years before his arrest, Kartel, also widely known by the nicknames “Worl’ Boss” and “Di Teacha,” attained folk-hero status in Jamaica with provocative lyrics, and a mischievous public persona. His expansive catalog is a confounding mixture of the profane and the poignant: Coarse strip-club anthems, heartfelt love songs, troubling revenge fantasies, scathing social critiques and earnest etiquette lessons for schoolkids, all bound together by a wily, quick wit. His duets with female artists – 2011’s “You and Him Deh,” featuring Sheba, is a great example – unfold like three-minute soap operas, plumbing modern sexual dynamics for pithy soundbites.
“He’s unmatched in terms of lyrical ability,” says Pat McKay, director of programming for reggae and gospel at Sirius XM Satellite Radio. “He creates images like the best literary writers. As humans, we have a dark side and a light side. The fact that he articulates both, and all emotions, to the degree and to the depth that he does, makes him outstanding.”
From the outset, Kartel’s career was defined by controversy. He is credited with helping to erode Jamaica’s long-held taboo against oral sex by singing about blow jobs, and became closely associated with the practice of “bleaching” – artificially lightening one’s skin using topical ointments – after dulling his once-dark complexion, and coyly addressing the topic in songs such as “Coloring Book” and “Cake Soap.” Tensions surrounding his rivalry with the artist Mavado grew so concerning in 2009 that both Christopher Coke, the then-Kingston-based drug don known widely in Jamaica as “the President,” and Bruce Golding, the country’s actual prime minister at the time, were compelled to mediate.
The concern was less that the feud might inspire violence between the two artists than among their fans. Gangs with names suggesting affiliation – whether real or imagined – to Kartel and Mavado’s crews, known respectively as Gaza and Gully, had seemingly sprouted up across Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands like Trinidad. Around this time, as his influence and the controversies surrounding him grew, he began to attract negative attention from other Caribbean governments. Barbados denied him entry for a 2010 show, and in 2011 Guyana’s broadcast commission banned his music.
Dancehall, at its core, is the music of Jamaica’s poor and disenfranchised, an economical, self-referential sound which crystallized in the 1980s, as downsizing reggae producers replaced bands with skeletal, electronic beats. Soon deejays – MCs who toast over previously-recorded tracks, or instrumental riddims – became the stars themselves. The genre’s most respected artists, from the pioneering Yellowman to Kartel’s mentor Bounty Killer, have adeptly addressed conditions in Jamaica’s ghettoes, while celebrating money, sexual prowess and, often, violence, whether literal or metaphorical. But few have captivated this audience – or offended the sensibilities of its detractors –as consistently and thoroughly as Kartel.
“He is just a very real person, who says what people wouldn’t say, and I think that is why people identify with him,” says Shona-Lee S. Thompson, brand manager for the Official VK Line. “Because that was probably what people were thinking themselves, but they could not say it.” Thompson sounds like she could be describing the populist appeal of Donald Trump, which goes a long way towards explaining the polarizing effect that Kartel has had in Jamaica. To Jamaica’s elite “uptown” class, his embrace of tattoos, bleaching and “di freaky gyal dem” was widely seen as unseemly. To many educators tasked with grooming the country’s youth, his influence has long appeared corrosive.
Such was the backdrop when, on September 29, 2011, Kartel was arrested at a Kingston hotel where he was filming a reality TV series and, days later, charged with ordering the July 2011 killing of promoter Barrington “Bossie” Burton. He was acquitted in that case but, was implicated, along with four other co-defendants including the artist Shawn Storm, in the death of Williams, who disappeared in August 2011. In March of 2014, after what was said to be the longest criminal trial in Jamaican history, Kartel was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years to life. He’s eligible for parole in 2049.
Police had accused the men of beating Williams, whose body has never been found, to death in a house owned by Kartel, in a dispute over stolen guns. A BlackBerry message read at the trial, which a police witness testified came from a phone belonging to Kartel, offered a chilling window into the crime: “We chop up the bwoy Lizard fine fine. … As long as u live dem can never find him.”
Yet a disc containing this and other cellular data – apparently including a leaked cellphone video, which shows a group of men including one some believe to be Kartel making what appears to be preparations for a murder – used to convict Kartel and three of his co-defendants went missing during the trial, leading to accusations of police tampering. (A fourth defendant, Andre St. John, was found not guilty). Allegations of juror corruption also tainted the proceedings: One juror was arrested and accused of offering cash to sway the jury to return a not-guilty verdict.
Following the trial, the Jamaica Police High Command released an extensive statement detailing intimidatory tactics and threats to prosecution witnesses made during the trial. In an interview with Television Jamaica, former police commissioner Owen Ellington went on to claim that Kartel was the leader of a gang responsible for over 100 murders.
Kartel, who has released some post-arrest tracks under the pseudonym “Addi Innocent,” maintains that he is not guilty. “I cannot speak much about it since it’s ongoing, but I’d like to reiterate to the fans that I’m an innocent man,” he says. He is appealing his conviction, a process that has stalled for two years while his legal team has waited for transcripts from the trial to be prepared by the courts. That paperwork was finally completed this summer.
“Once you have been convicted of a crime, you have the right to appeal your conviction and or the amount of time you were given, so I’m exercising that right as a Jamaican citizen,” Kartel says. “It’s a very delicate issue.”
For all his popularity at home and within an increasingly global dancehall underground, Kartel’s music has rarely crossed into the mainstream. Kartel’s influence, however, can hardly be quantified. Diplo has credited Kartel, who appeared on Major Lazer’s breakthrough 2009 single “Pon De Floor,” with giving the dancehall-inspired project early credibility. Drake has called Kartel one of his “biggest inspirations.” Rihanna, who featured Kartel on her 2005 debut, Music of the Sun, is said to have sought him for “Work.” Partynextdoor samples Kartel and quotes his lyrics on P3 single “Not Nice.” Fifth Harmony, the girl group formed through The X-Factor, cover 2015’s “Gon’ Get Better” on their sophomore album, 7/27.
Even Mick Jagger, mistakenly referring to the artist as “Vybz Collins,” cited Kartel as one of his two favorite rappers – along with Jay-Z – during a Twitter Q&A session last May. His most ardent celebrity supporter, though, is probably his countryman, Usain Bolt. At Kingston’s Uptown Mondaze party in December, the World’s Fastest Man made a show of paying the resident DJ, Boom Boom, to play strictly Kartel songs.
A rundown of dancehall’s most vital current artists likewise doubles as a list of Kartel protégés and acolytes: Popcaan cut his teeth as a Gaza underling before becoming the leader of the genre’s new school; Spice, Kartel’s counterpart on duets like “Ramping Shop,” has become dancehall’s leading female voice; Alkaline, a young artist who shamelessly deployed shock tactics in a quest for Kartel-like infamy, has had a string of undeniable hits.
Kartel is unimpressed by the genre’s progress, decrying the “imitators, lookalikes and soundalikes” he says are recycling his old lyrics and themes. “When I was on the street, other artists used to say, ‘Oh, I’m just as good as Kartel, he’s just on top because of this or that, his controversial persona,'” he says. “Now I’m off the street, and out of their way. No one can fill the shoes.”
He praises Drake and Rihanna’s recent flirtations with dancehall – he’s heard “Work” and “Controlla” – but notes that their embrace of Jamaican sounds has not lent more visibility to locally produced music.
“I think the reason Jamaicans themselves haven’t gotten that crossover love is simply promotion – major record labels pumping money and resources into a Vybz Kartel or Mavado, getting the nationwide U.S.A. radio plays, things like that,” he says. “Jamaican music is very popular worldwide so it wouldn’t even be that hard to do, you know. It comes down to companies willing to push the product.”
The best moments on King of the Dancehall, released through Kartel’s Adidjaheim label, T.J. Records and Florida-based distributor Zojak Worldwide in June, illustrate why, had his personal path panned out differently, he likely would have found that support.
On “Fever,” he revises what would otherwise be an X-rated refrain by delivering lines in “gypsy,” a sort of Jamaican Pig Latin. On “Can’t Say No,” he breaks down a sexual proposition in mathematical terms, promising a conquest, “We go together like [a] Venn diagram.”
In Kingston – and other Caribbean cities, too – Kartel’s music is never far out of earshot. From almost the moment you step out of Norman Manley Airport, his rapid-fire, staccato delivery and signature ad libs (a high-pitched laugh; a guttural, mistrustful “awoah”) become perceptible, coming out of cab windows, and roadside rum shops. Graffiti pleding allegiance to “Gaza” – a term Kartel has applied to both the Portmore, Jamaica community where he grew up, and his now-disbanded crew of affiliated artists – still populates walls across the island. Many believe Kartel could soon be walking these streets again, too.
Tavares-Finson says he expects a hearing on Kartel’s appeal to occur early next year. “We are very confident we will have a succesful outcome,” Tavares-Finson says. A number of issues arose in the trial where we feel the judge made erroneous decisions. A number of jurors were employed as agents of the state and, had that information been given to the defense, they certainly would not have sat on that jury. That has come out [in the trial of the] juror who was charged with attempting to bribe other members of the jury.”
Kartel’s defense in his trial was predicated on the notion that Jamaica’s institutions colluded against him – that the police and courts were motivated to convict and silence him. A mistrust of authority generally colors the views of Kartel’s Jamaican supporters – much as it has colored Jamaican music since the days when Bob Marley sang about chasing “crazy baldheads” and Junior Murvin decried police and thieves in one breath. This helps explain why, in spite of his conviction and the gravity of the crime – in a country which consistently has one of the world’s highest murder rates – he is no less loved, or more hated, than he was as a free man.
“He is a voice for the majority of the population that is undereducated, and who are living through the things he is able to express in his music,” McKay says. “He speaks to them.” The New York-based broadcaster recalls visiting Kartel in prison on a trip to Kingston around 2014. The time they were allotted to meet was taken up largely by other visitors and prisoners saluting the artist. “There are so many young males that have a lot in common with the subjects that Kartel addresses exqusitely and, for that, he gets an exquisite amount of respect.”
Numerous artists have continued careers through long prison sentences, but the persistent torrent of new music that have come out of Kartel’s camp feels unprecedented. It’s almost been as if he’s never left.
“I don’t think if someone else was to come along with the same circumstances, the same thing would happen,” says Jason “Jay Will” Williams, the director of Kartel’s “Fever” and “Western Union” music videos. “This is unique. Vybz Kartel has always been a trendsetter and someone [whose] work ethic and hunger for success separated him from everybody else.”
Since our interview, Kartel seems to have discarded the pretense that he’s been inactive in prison. His social media accounts have become increasingly active and personal, reacting to recent developments like the lyrical feud between his former protégé, Popcaan, and his old rival, Mavado. Three new tracks released last month take direct aim at the latter, who’s met them with volleys of his own. Kartel’s participation in the revived Gully-Gaza feud, once again dominating the conversation about dancehall in Jamaica after a seven-year lull, would appear to confirm what most observers have believed for years: That a catalog as prescient as the one Kartel has issued from prison could not possibly be constructed from lyrics recorded only before his arrest. Yet, such an unlikely feat also feels strangely plausible from Kartel, a coup de grace from an artist who has always styled himself as a trickster, steps ahead of his peers and detractors.
“Nobody really knows where the songs are coming from, apart from Kartel and the producers,” Supa Hype says. “[But] if they allow Kartel to do it, nobody has a problem. The whole country cool with it, from the government right down to the little people.