Look up “controversy” in the Jamaican dictionary and you might find a photo of Adidjah Palmer, a.k.a. dancehall star Vybz Kartel. The 35-year-old launched his career over a decade ago as a ghostwriter for Bounty Killer and has since dominated Jamaican airwaves with outré, tongue-twisting tunes about everything from X-rated antics to ghetto politics. He’s dominated gossip columns, too, whether for his much-hyped feud with fellow dancehall deejay Mavado, which ended in a meeting at the Prime Minister’s office; the name of his crew – Gaza, a name he also bestowed on the neighborhood outside Kingston in which he grew up; or his chameleon-like appearance: Kartel’s ever-lightening skin has generated plenty of angst about so-called “skin bleaching” in Jamaican culture. On June 21st he releases Kingston Story (Mixpak Records), a collaboration with Brooklyn-based hip-hop/electro producer Dre Skull. The no-holds-barred artist talks music, business ventures and cultural politics with Rolling Stone.
How did you and Dre Skull come to record an album together?
A while back, he had a track sent to me, asking me to voice on it. And it was a bad dancehall track – authentic. I thought he must be a Jamaican living abroad. When I spoke to him and found out that it was a white man from New York, I couldn’t believe it – I was awe-struck. The track became a single, “Yuh Love,” and he offered to do an album together. So he flew into Jamaica several times and we recorded it. It’s different from every other album I’ve done.
Because many of the tracks have as much a hip-hop feel as a dancehall one?
It’s Dre’s interpretation of dancehall music, so it has American influences – it’s a fusion. And I love that fusion. It affected me lyrically – it opened up my vocabulary and made me want to say more than just gun lyrics or just talking about fuck[ing].
You’re especially known for controversial tunes about that last topic.
Yes I am. But there is an art to the sex track: As raw as it is, I deliver it in such a way as to be palatable. Take, for example, [the Billboard-charting single] “Ramping Shop.” The melody, the flow – it’s smooth. The way I deliver the lyrics makes up for the rawness, the slackness, of what I’m talking about.
Thanks to songs like that, you’re often criticized for having a negative influence on Jamaican society – for promoting sex and violence in a country with an extraordinarily high murder rate.
In a third-world culture like Jamaica, crime and violence is rampant because of lack of social infrastructure for ghetto youth. There is corruption on all levels of society, from political corruption to corruption within the police force and the overall private sector, and all of that has led to the [decline] of society. Then society wants artists to take the blame, and be scapegoats labeled as role models? No, man, fuck that! I don’t want that title.
So you see yourself as a scapegoat?
Let me break it down for you. I live in [the wealthy Kingston neighborhood] Norbrook. The kids in Norbrook listen to the same Vybz Kartel lyrics that the ghetto youth listen to, so why aren’t the kids in Norbrook behaving like the ghetto youth in Tivoli or Jungle? It has to do with social upbringing – it’s society. And it starts with the family, which is why I always say “family first.” My kids listen to my lyrics and I don’t see them running rampant. It’s the fault of society, of postcolonialism, of politicians – and then people want to blame artists. I refuse to take that blame.
If you had to compare yourself to someone in hip-hop, who would it be?
Jay-Z, because I am a lyrical prodigy and I am also an astute businessman. I have done things business-wise that no other dancehall deejay has even tried to do.
I started Street Vybz Rum, and I have a club in Kingston, The Building. For the future, I am working on a new tonic wine, which will hit the streets by Autumn. Vybz Wear is my clothing line and it will launch for the summer: belt buckles, limited edition t-shirts, sneakers called “Addis,” dogtags – but we prefer to call them “Gaza tags.” And I also have my cake soap brand – a face soap that lightens the skin and removes blemishes.
NEXT: Vybz Kartel responds to criticism of his skin bleaching
Speaking of, are you tired of being asked about your appearance – about skin bleaching, especially?
It’s played out – come with something different, man.
OK, how’s this: You’ve said that a black man bleaching his skin is no different from women getting weaves and hair extensions. Do you still think so?
Hell, yeah. And cosmetic surgery. Or when a girl straightens her hair, or gets collagen or silicone. I have said in a statement that when everyone stops doing all of that shit, we can all live naturally ever after. But until then, fuck you all!
How many tattoos do you have?
I don’t know at this point. I’m just filling in the few spaces that are left. I put two bugs in my ear – a spider and a ladybug. I just put the “13” under a Jason tattoo I had done, near the M16 rifle on my left arm. I’m getting one as we speak – the tattoo artist just walked outside.
You blasted an excerpt from a book you’re going to publish. Have you started it?
It’s almost finished. It’s social commentary on ghetto life as seen through the eyes of Vybz Kartel. Trust me, this is going to be very detrimental to Vybz Kartel’s freedom because it’s a no-holds barred book, looking into taboo topics like political corruption, abortion, extrajudicial killings, how religion is used to keep ghetto youth under mental bondage. It’s called Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto (Or Gaza, If You Prefer). Each chapter is named for a social commentary track that I recorded – and it will remind people of how many so-called conscious tunes I do.
You’re also about to star in a reality show to air on Jamaican TV in the fall. What’s it about?
This will be another first for dancehall music: a reality show similar to Flavor of Love. Twenty girls from all over the world, vying for the quote-unquote love of Vybz Kartel, vying for my heart. Wherever that is.
What are the do’s and don’ts for a lady who’ll date you?
The biggest do – it might sound very chauvinistic but I love submissive females. Can I say that?
Your nickname is “The Teacha,” and you recently gave a lecture about your life and your art at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. Could you give up dancehall for a professorial post one day?
Sorry, UWI. I love to teach, but not at dancehall’s expense – I’ll never give it up.
Would you visit the real Gaza?
That’s what I would love to do – can you hook it up? I heard it’s very complicated, as far as the borders and getting through.
It can’t be much more complicated than getting your U.S. Visa back, and you haven’t had one of those in years.
Ha! I already gave up on that, a long time ago.
What might surprise people about Adidjah Palmer?
Everything I do surprises people. Tomorrow I might put in color contacts, or go right back to being black. What you can expect from Kartel is the unexpected.