Vybz Kartel – More than just a bleacher

Vybz Kartel is a dancehall artist who is known for super-slack explicit lyrics and for bleaching his skin. He is currently incacerated facing murder charges. Many of us will stop at that basic, simple overview of  Vybz Kartel and move on.

I am one of those Reggae/Dancehall fans who craves for a return to the days when conscious messages abounded. There is no doubt in my mind that music has a dialectical relationship with society – with ‘reality’. Too many Dancehall songs have lyrics focusing on slackness and vulgarity (as well as violence, intoxication, etc) partly because these are the things which pre-occupy the attetion of many young people in the ghettos of Jamaica, the US, UK, etc. But the cultural and political awareness and collective organisation among Africans in the diaspora was much more intense in the 1970s and 1980s. And this was reflected in the Reggae and Dancehall of that era which lots of progressive lyrics and imagery.

The influence also works in the other direction. In other words, the messages in the music also have an impact on society. The regressive lyrics encourage people to think regressive thoughts and do regressive actions.  Many young people were alterted to a PanAfrican, Black Nationalist, Rastafarian (etc.) worldview through the Reggae and Dancehall. I personally owe a massive debt to the likes of The Wailers, Dennis Brown, Steel Pulse, Buju Banton, Capleton, Anthony B, Sizzla and Luciano for inspiring me to be proud of  my African identity and history, our militant global struggle against White Supremacy, Colonialism, Neo-Colonialism. It was in the song Revolution by Hip Hop group Arrested Development that I first heard about Kwame Nkrumah – who is now one of my key ideological influences. Sadly, I don’t see many artists who are consistently putting out these kinds of revolutionary, conscious messages in Dancehall (or Hip Hop) today.

So, I share much of the ambivalence toward Vybz Kartel. But there is another side to him than just the slackness, violence and cake soap. In fact, he is more than capable of using his undoubted intellect and music prowess to make uplfiting songs, and to give cutting social commentary. A great example is his Poor People Land (aka Mr Babylon) on a one drop riddim by Don Corleone. The lyrics are militantly pro-Black and pro-Poor, and like Anthony B’s Fire Pon Rome, he calls out big time Capitalist exploiters by name. Another example is Good Father, a tender homage to all fathers who look after and provide for their children. These songs aren’t exaclty ground-breaking, but the fact that it’s Kartel making them is significant. It means that millions of people will hear them who are maybe not paying much attention to similar songs by, say, Tarrus Riley, Lutan Fiyah or Pressure.

Interestingly, last year, Palmer complained that his conscious output is ignored by the Media. He said “Di media nah gimme nuh credit fi di reality, social conscious songs me do. Dem jus highlight the negative. Me do Mr Babylon addressing the squatter land issue in Trelawny, dem nah play it. Me do From Me Born Me Been Sufferin, dem nah play it. Me do Fallen Angel, dem nah play it. Me do Yeah Though I, dem na play it.” This is a story we have heard over and over again from artists, that when they look to cover topics other than the usual slackness and violence, the Media is not interested. Wise Intelligent (of the 90s Hip Hop group Poor Righteous Teachers) delivered a classic address at a Nation of Islam conference a few years ago where he suggested that the Music Industry deliberately dumbed-down musical output in order to curtail its revolutionary potential:

So, the fact that the vast majority of songs we hear from Vybz Kartel (and other Dancehall artists) are “niggerish” in content is partly because the Industry won’t promote their conscious material.

There is clearly more to Vybz Kartel/Adidja Palmer. This year he released a book called “The Voice of The Jamaican Ghetto”. The front cover has Palmer copying a famous Malcolm X pose. I haven’t read the book yet, but this radio programme below suggests it’s worth a read. Apparently, Palmer gives some penetrating analysis of a range of issues pertaining to the social, econimic and cultural climate in Jamaica. Check out the show here and if you read the book, let me know what you think. Peace out.

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