After Life Sentence, an Uncertain Fate for Vybz Kartel

Dancehall star may still be allowed to record music in prison, but does his murder conviction signal the end of a genre?

Vybz Kartel
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Vybz Kartel
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Vybz Kartel has been dancehall music’s most popular and hated personality for much of the last decade, inspiring equal levels of adulation and revulsion in Jamaica with his provocative lyrics and controversial antics. A shameless self-promoter who once launched his own condom line, he’s also an astute social critic with a book in the Princeton University library.

Vybz Kartel Takes On His Critics

And, as of March 13, he's also a convicted murderer. Following a 65-day trial said to be the longest in Jamaica’s history, Kartel, whose real name is Adidjah Palmer, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison along with three co-defendants in the August 2011 killing of Clive "Lizard" Williams, an associate killed over missing guns.

In handing down the sentences to Kartel, Shawn Campbell, Kahira Jones and Andre St. John, Judge Lennox Campbell said he took into consideration that "there was a great deal of premeditation" in Williams' death, as well as the concealment of the body and attempts to destroy evidence of the crime. Williams’ body has never been found.

But the saga of dancehall’s self-proclaimed "Worl' Boss" might not be over yet. Michael Dawson, a business associate who co-authored Kartel’s 2012 book The Voice of the Ghetto and has maintained the artist’s Twitter feed since his initial arrest in September 2011, says he believes Kartel will be vindicated in the appeals process, citing missing evidence, including "smoking gun" text messages, that police testified linked Kartel to the murder. Kartel’s attorneys maintained during trial that the case is the result of a conspiracy by Jamaican police.

"This is the longest criminal case in Jamaican history and has had the most media coverage of any case in Jamaica’s history — it’s really strange that evidence would just be missing," Dawson says. "I don't believe this would be allowed if this was not Vybz Kartel on trial. He is a target because of what he sings about."

Murder conviction or not, Kartel’s recording career could possibly continue if he is judged fit by Jamaica’s commissioner of corrections to participate in a prison rehabilitation program fitted with a fully operational recording studio, according to the Jamaica Observer. Following his sentencing, Kartel was placed at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, a facility where the artist Jah Cure recorded three albums during his imprisonment there for rape in the early 2000s, with proceeds going to the rehabilitation program. Kartel’s lawyer Tom Tavares-Finson, however, denied that the artist has plans to record in jail.  

Kartel’s influence within dancehall, meanwhile, has remained intact since September 2011, when he was arrested in suspicion of the murder of promoter Barrington "Bossie" Barnes. (He was later found not guilty.) New singles have continued to issue forth over the last 30 months, though producers have insisted the tracks were recorded before his arrest and not made covertly at the Horizon Adult Remand Centre where Kartel has been housed. "When Kartel visits you, he will record five songs for you in a day," says producer Tarik "Rvssian" Johnston, whose Kartel collaborations include prison-era hits "Hi" and "Ever Blessed."

Regardless of whether he’s stockpiled an arsenal of future hits, Kartel’s conviction and sentencing clearly signal the end of an era for dancehall, a genre that has struggled to retain its international footing in recent years due in large part to the legal issues of, and controversies associated with, top artists like Kartel. Though never as recognizable or successful overseas as predecessors Sean Paul, Beenie Man or Shaggy, Kartel has been recognized as one of dancehall’s most prolific and skilled lyricists — and its most notorious provocateur — driving numerous Jamaican music trends since emerging in the early 2000s. He’s collaborated with the likes of Rihanna, Jay Z and Missy Elliott, among others, and helped bring legitimacy to Major Lazer, Diplo’s now highly successful foray into dancehall, with his appearance on the group’s 2010 breakthrough single "Pon De Floor."

"It’s impossible to overstate Vybz Kartel’s impact on dancehall over the last 10 years," says New York-based DJ Max Glazer of Federation Sound, who produced the early mixtape, From Time to Time, among other key Kartel recordings. "Dancehall is very centered around the song — the song is the thing. Kartel without question became the thing to talk about. Whether it was skin bleaching or whatever controversy, he’s kept himself the focus of attention."

With his popularity reaching peak levels in the late 2000s, Kartel underwent a Michael Jackson-like physical transformation, attributing his lighter appearance to the use of "cake soap," a household detergent containing bleach. (After toying with critics of the practice in song lyrics, he launched his own skincare line.) In 2009, the Jamaican Broadcast Commission banned "Ramping Shop," an explicit collaboration with the female artist Spice. It would later become his first single to enter regular rotation on U.S. radio.

The loss of his work visa kept him from travelling to the U.S. and other key markets at the height of his career, but while that limited the singer's financial opportunities, it only cemented his status as an underground icon. "He kind of became the guy where, internationally, everyone knows that’s the artist to shout out if you want to sound like you know what’s really going on in the streets," Glazer says.

In Jamaica, ubiquitous graffiti proclaiming allegiance to "Gaza" — an alias of the Portmore community where Kartel grew up — attests to his almost folk hero-like sway over the island’s poor youth. "He really is the spokesperson for everybody who is marginalized,” Dawson says of Kartel’s place in Jamaican music. "[Kartel’s] power doesn’t come from gun songs or sex songs; it comes from people who identify with him because they realize he is speaking on their behalf."

Fellow artists, meanwhile, have largely remained supportive despite the brutal charges against him. Busta Rhymes and veteran reggae singer Junior Reid were among those who attended Kartel’s trial. Drake has been photographed wearing a "Free Worl’ Boss" T-shirt and has echoed that support in interviews.

Kartel’s estranged ex-protege Popcaan, a featured artist on Kartel's "Clarks" before finding success on his own with 2011’s "Party Shot," was among those who expressed disappointment with the verdict. "I'm very sad. I don't wish jail for anyone, and especially not Vybz Kartel," Popcaan tells Rolling Stone. "Vybz Kartel played and still plays a vital role in the music."

At the opposite end of the opinion spectrum is an establishment which has long viewed Kartel’s brazen immorality as a cause and a symptom of the country’s ills. "He has become an example of an attempt of a society to rid itself of a negative element," says Carolyn Cooper, a professor at the University of West Indies-Mona who stirred considerable backlash when she hosted a talk from Kartel on the school’s Kingston campus in 2011. "In a sense, Kartel [has] become representative of the larger dancehall culture that is seen as something reprehensible."

Kartel must serve at least 35 years of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole.