Vybz Kartel, come on down

I believe that many lessons may be drawn from the recent murder case involving Adidja Palmer (aka ‘Vybz Kartel’) and four other defendants. Everyone who had some notion of the case is likely to have an opinion about what went on before, during and after it. Thankfully, we have a democratic society with a good amount of freedom of speech, so everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and should express it if he or she so desires. I am not going to go to a place where many will travel–putting the case into some context that suggests it is the pinnacle of a great change in Jamaican society, even if I wish that change would hurry up and come. I prefer to make some simpler points.

Adidja Palmer can be separated from Vybz Kartel (VK) in our minds

Adidja Palmer-Vybz Kartel
Adidja Palmer-Vybz Kartel

, but it is very hard to see them as separate in body. Whatever we think that VK did, we have to ask ourselves what embodiment went with the action. The singing and dancing and writing of lyrics under the stage name ‘Vybz Kartel’ were a turning point in the development of Adidja Palmer. At a certain stage, Palmer got left behind and Vybz took over in the public’s consciousness. Vybz then had great success, was heralded for his ‘iconic’ lyrical and musical gifts. He showed he had a great understanding of the society in which he lived. He developed trappings of power, even naming his organization ‘Empire’–which seems grandiose, but money and power tend to do that to people’s self-perception. He began associating with richer people and people in different walks of life who wielded power. He was able to send his child to a private school. He created Street Vybz Rum. He hosted a weekly dance party Street Vybz Thursday. He got fame in a big way. hosted his own reality television show “Teacha’s Pet” on CVM Jamaica broadcast channel, the first reality television show hosted by a dancehall artist in Jamaica. He was a full-blown celebrity. He spoke at UWI, at the invitation of Professor Carolyn Cooper: he got academic approval, of sorts. He established his own label Adidjahiem/Notnice Records. He was ‘Mr. Business and Mr. Music’.

Still, Vybz Kartel was showing signs of a less-than perfect person. He got into disputes with fellow musicians. He gained notoriety for his lyrics, which contained obscene and violent references. He was banned from the airwaves; he also was banned from performing in some countries. He faced charges in 2011 for murder, conspiracy to murder and illegal possession of a firearm; he was bailed in that case but kept in jail on another murder charge , concerning the death of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams(for which he was just being tried).

While Vybz was feeling his vibes, Adidja was somewhere else, some would have us believe. Perhaps, in the evening, a man in felt bedroom slippers and a warm cup of cocoa would pull out a copy of The Bible and read some verses. Maybe, he lamented what had happened to put him in the background and let Vybz get all the light. This is pure speculation, of course. Alternatively, Adidja was fully aware of who and what Vybz was, and the persona was just a front behind which the real, living Palmer could masquerade.

I had an interesting time with some ladies yesterday, while we discussed this topic. Here was my postulation. Imagine that a man looking like Adidja Palmer drove his car into the front of the bank and killed 6 people standing in the teller line. He gets out of the car and says “Sorry about that, I wasn’t driving or in control of the car. My persona was behind the wheel. Got to dash.” What would most sensible people think? Let Adidja Palmer walk out of the bank and wait for Vybz to come in and own up to this deed? Somehow, that “It wasn’t me” line doesn’t seem to be one that people would accept. Does it matter what the deed was? I think not.

If the person, who has two personalities, was my neighbour and associate would I feel differently? Would I say, “Man, Adidja wouldn’t do such a thing. Maybe he lost his mind.” That would help me understand. Or, “He’s pretending to be Vybz; look how he’s acting crazy.” That would also help me understand. I might even suggest that Adidja get counselling and work out the issues that were behind this split personality, that seemed to be so far apart, dare I say like Jekyll and Hyde. But, let’s leave that splitting aside for the moment.

Jamaica saw many things during the case. We saw saturated media coverage. That meant that for many it was a first look into how courts work and how the justice system functions. Judges, lawyers, juries, bailiffs, etc. The arguments and facts were sometime very complicated to follow. Many times we were given a sight of things that were not so clear and perhaps not so easy to believe. Telecom experts who told us that technology seemed more limited than we were often told it was. Cloned chips? Tampered text messages? Phones that couldn’t be traced? We heard about procedures that were shoddy at best and downright suspicious at worst. Evidence that was missing. Evidence that was open to tampering. We saw jurors run a foul of the judge and health problems that meant one had to be excused.

At the end of the case we saw what we had been awaiting: the jury were given instructions and went off to deliberate and came back with a verdict. The verdict was reached quite quickly. For some, that seemed strange. I did not think so. I did jury service when I was 18 and just a university student. Juries discuss cases as they proceed. Many jurors have their minds made up early. Many need lots of time. In the jury room, time is needed when opinions are divided and people need to be persuaded to change their views. If views are aligned, decisions can come quickly. The verdict was guilty for four of the five accused, including Palmer.

We also saw something that we honestly did not expect. We often hear about corruption in Jamaica, but by its nature it’s hard to see. But, we saw it live and direct in the courtroom. Within minutes of the verdict, we heard that one juror was to be charged with five counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, by offering a bribe to the jury foreman, which had been reported. So, it was true: money comes into cases to try to steer verdicts.We still have to wait and see if the charges sticks and what else emerges.

Towards the end of the case, public emotions appeared to run high. People began amassing around the courthouse, showing support for Vybz Karkel and Adidja Palmer. Reports are that this was a ‘rent-a-crowd’ affair. Jamaica has 17 percent unemployment and 40 percent youth unemployment. Offer people money for light or no real work and they would be fools to turn it down. Think of it like ‘Christmas work’ but without a cutlass and rake. There were some violent incidents with crowds breaking police barricades and some bottle-throwing, I understand.

Now, the verdict has been given and the court of public opinion is in session. Some stridently claim that ‘the system’ was against the accused and there could not and was not a fair trial. I’m not sure if that same argument would have been made if the verdict had been innocent. It may seem strange to some that the same system smells sweet if you get what you want, but stinks when you don’t. I’ve not figure that out, yet.

Some intellectuals have put forward arguments that centre on the ‘creative genius’ or ‘icon’ status of Vybz Kartel-Adidja Palmer. I hear those arguments, but don’t understand what they are meant to prove in terms of what was the charge. Many great artistes are flawed, some severely so. We read almost daily of ‘stars’ who are in trouble with the law. Just this morning, I read about Kanye West and a battering charge. I don’t think I need to list all the instances. Some of these flawed characters appear more associated with some musical genres, say hip-hop and rap in the US. Some American artistes have openly claimed criminal backgrounds, eg Ice T (bank robbery), Snoop Dogg (marijuana and firearms). But, Jamaica has its notoriety, eg Buju Banton (cocaine trafficking and firearms). Such flaws are not unique to musicians. It may be part of what it takes to be great in ‘creative’ fields; it could just be part of the human condition.

Many people see the case as exceptional in that money and position (albeit gained through music) did not seem to sway the court decision. Many wonder aloud what would have happened if the case had concerned someone identifiably from Jamaica’s upper classes.

We saw the Director of Public Prosecutions happy that the prosecution case held up. She has begun an inquiry into procedural inefficiencies and revamping the protocols relating to the storage of items pertaining to cases before the courts.

Nothing is perfect in the world. I saw the justice system working and it seemed to perform well. Are there flaws? Sure. The system is compromised in many ways, however, importantly by negative feelings about the police and their impartiality and honesty.

People have vested interests. Did those dominate the proceedings? I don’t think so in any clear way.

This is not the end of my deliberations, but it’s enough food for thought for today.

Christmas is here…well, nearly

“Rip van Winkle, wake up!”

The last few days of Tessannetasia have been like a 20-year sleep, allowing me to forget about the other Jamaica that was there before I looked the other way and tuned into The Voice for two straight nights. Now, I have to get back to what some would prefer us to focus on all the time–“serious news”, they call it. So, what did I let myself lost sight in Jamaica?

  • Crime, especially murders (some 1,100 and counting).
  • Road accidents (300 deaths for the year is quickly approaching).
  • Minimum wage increase (from $5,000 to $5,600 per 40-hour work week, as of Monday, January 6, 2014. Also, effective January 6, the minimum wage for industrial security guards, will be increased from $7,320.40 to $8,198.80 per 40-hour week–a 12 per cent increase, during a period when inflation has risen about 18 percent). IMF programme (US$30.8 million disbursed to Jamaica).
  • The PM’s travel schedule (with or without fatuous justifications from PNP politicians). I heard that she gave an interview to a local TV channel, so her relative silence with regard to the local media is no longer an issue: Jamaicans love nine-day wonders.
  • Vybz Kartel’s trial goes on. What’s new?
  • The Cuban light bulb scandal goes on. What’s newer?
  • Bad roads (Thank you Tessanne for making their “worst” condition an international issue :-)). Thank you Ministry of Works for taking the point.
  • Trinidad (Who’s still boycotting?). Their central bank just downgraded its growth forecast from 2.5 percent to 1.5 percent for 2013. Surely not because of you know what?
  • West Indies cricket (Can they win a match?).
  • Who is Clovis ridiculing?
  • The Jamaican dollar’s continuing decline.

And beyond our shores?

  • Santa “is white” (I heard it on FoxNews, so it must be true). I guess that means Megyn Kelly believes he’s real (he is a man?).
  • Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 5.39.51 AMThe Chinese are on the Moon. What does that mean for its environment and possible development options. Intergalactic logistic hub up there?
  • The UK has been battered by “severe weather”, with wind gusting at over 70 miles per hour. So severe that football matches have had to be abandoned or suspended mid-kick for weird things like hailstorms. What’s the world coming to?

Some people have taken the whole Tessanne-winning thing and seen it as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark time. How could they be so crass? Of course, what we all need is more despair and signs of insensitivity towards each other. We all need a good dose of more grief. Who has time to smile at someone’s wonderful achievements when they could be poring over the obituaries of persons’ lives snubbed out callously?

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat/Please do put a penny in the old man’s hat/If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do/If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!

Branded Jamaica

If I believe what I read yesterday, I would think that some Jamaican musical artiste is “appalled and disappointed”. Reports indicated that her appearance at the Rastafesta event in Canada has been cancelled. imageQueen Ifrica has been engulfed in a public firestorm since she used her moment on stage during Jamaica’s Independence gala to denounce homosexuals. Significantly, the Ministry of Culture, which put on the event, was not amused: it issued a statement where it regretted that an artiste had used the platform “to express her personal opinions and views on matters that may be considered controversial, rather than to perform in the agreed scripted and rehearsed manner”. She is, of course, entitled to her personal opinion, but should she have used her own time and space to do that, rather than at a government-organized public event?

Russia found itself recently in a similar swell of international disapproval because of its policies regarding propaganda supporting homosexuality. Russia is entitled to make whatever policy it wishes, but how did its views sit with athletes who have to visit the country to compete in the World Championships last week and what happens if they engage in the banned propaganda? The matter
takes on a different tone when Russia hosts the next winter Olympics, and its policies are set against the Olympic ideals of friendship, fair play, and solidarity.

Both artiste and country might have fallen on the same thorn, homosexuality, but similar controversy has faced others over other touchy issues. In the USA, those for or against gun control or abortion, for example, have had their views assessed and been forced to reconsider. China has found itself facing international condemnation of its human rights records. Years ago, South Africa’s apartheid policy was a hot potato.

In the Caribbean, I remember Barbados’ prime minister banning Jamaican dance hall artistes, Movado and Vybz Kartel, from visiting the country in 2010, citing concerns about consequences from their violent lyrics. Also Vybz Kartel was banned in other Caribbean due to his profane lyrics. Time was when Rastafarianism was vilified as both a religious and cultural movement in Jamaica. But, isn’t time a wonderful healer.

One simple modern truth is that you cannot hide in this world. Modern technology now puts any seemingly obscure event into the eyesight or earshot of the whole planet. A policeman beating a suspect. A politician saying something offensive. A burglar creeping through a window. All are now easily captured as images and sound, then shared. That wasn’t Queen Ifrica’s problem, but she seemed to forget that her provocative comments would be seen and heard, not just in little Jamaica, but also in a bigger country she was about to visit, and worldwide. Canada has a more-liberal attitude toward homosexuality and someone should have suggested to Queen Ifrica to hold her comment till after the rasta gig. Maybe someone did but she couldn’t resist the rush of excitement on stage in front of 25,000 spectators. I wonder if she had planned to give the same anti-homosexual message in Canada; we may never know.

Whether Jamaica realizes it or not, it has a multidimensional image in the rest of the world. Sure, it’s great to be known for producing fast runners like rain. We love to be loved for our music. But, the world knows us, also, for a range of less-flattering traits. All the recent talk about ‘brand Jamaica’ and whether that would be tarnished by revelations of failed drug tests by star athletes did not tackle the prospect that Jamaica has many brand marks. One brand is its violence: that is why some countries give their citizens severe warnings about personal safety when visiting the island, and why all-inclusive resorts are popular. “Jamaicans are violent. Beware!” The message is clear. Tourists are warned about driving on our roads: “Jamaican drivers are dangerous and reckless.” The message is clear.

Another brand is that the island is a drug paradise. Tourists may believe that smoking cannabis is legal and that they can get away with toting a spliff. Sorry! Jamaica tries to correct that image, but, I suspect the message is lost.

Jamaica is branded an economic failure. Some will try to contest that view; others will say only the blind cannot see it. The fact that we are trying anew with an IMF arrangement is clear enough to me.

One more brand is the country’s anti-homosexual stance, often seen as uncompromising and very violent. This is not something to deny, but it’s also something that the rest of the world seems to lie less about the island. We are not alone, but we are renowned.

Queen Ifrica could have wanted to promote that last brand. Was she naive to do so just before a gig in a country with a more-accepting philosophy? Canadian reactions shouldn’t have been unexpected. Perhaps, the adverse Jamaican reaction was novel. Did she, who seems so wise in her social and political observations, just lose the plot? I wonder if she’s getting ready to assail us on other dislikes she harbours. Watch out politicians. ‘Don’t cry, Mr. Bunting’ may soon seem like a nursery rhyme. Look out media moguls. Watch out other fans. Will the Queen call out at her next Jamaican concert those who bleach their skin? The mouth is ready to bite more hands that feed it? Why don’t I think so?

Jamaican ambassadors, formal and informal have their hands full trying to present their country at its best. I don’t know whether Usain Bolt has had to field questions on all or some of these brand images. Maybe the PM, on her recent jaunt to China, has had her ear bent. Did Canada’s High Commissioner to Jamaica have a word with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in private or formally about how our Queen may be seen as an unwelcome guest?

Just as a brand may sell well, so too may it be taken quickly off the shelves. Sponsors running away from brands is often a bad sign. Tell that to the athletes. Who’s running to buy brand Jamaica? Who’s getting ready to clear us off the shelves?