Without The Dancehall Hero
Editor’s Note : The views expressed below are not my own. This is the fourth installment in the guest posts series. Written by Brandon Allwood (@BrandonAllwood), it discusses the impact, or lack thereof, of Kartel’s absence from the local music scene. Enjoy.
There is hardly a Jamaican who can say they don’t know Vybz Kartel. The one-time protégé of dancehall superstar Bounty Killa, Vybz Kartel dominated the dancehall scene for years with lyrically lethal songs and commentary that barked at the heels of societal attitudes.
Kartel has won immutable praises from music fans who simply cannot resist the urge to litter the skyline with ‘gun fingers’ and lighters or stake their claim on the dance floor whenever his infectious rhymes emanate from speaker boxes. As Kartel navigated the murky waters of dancehall, it soon became clear that the self-proclaimed dancehall hero was in a class of his own.
His hold on the dancehall scene was firm and a seemingly never-ending stream of singles kept flooding the airwaves… not that music lovers complained. Yes, there are those who refused to enjoy songs from his catalogue when they sided with any one of a number of artistes Kartel engaged in musical brawls with—but his screaming fans outnumbered the ‘anti-Kartel’ community by far.
Many have given him the status of ‘legend’, something that has caused even more contention in the dancehall arena. Contention is nothing new to Kartel though; as for every accolade there is a criticism or shady rumour that follows him. His alleged firm grip on his clique of artistes has also become the stuff of legend, along with his alleged panache for unprofessionalism, inflammatory comments in several interviews and the example he set (or didn’t) for his fans and the general public. Notwithstanding, it seemed that nothing could slow Kartel down or deter the tens of thousands of people who would descend on stage show gates in hoards to see him perform.
Eventually, something did slow the world boss down—the law. Today, the gaza don sits in prison and is facing several serious criminal charges. It has been his home for more than a year, and while his absence is noticeable his fans are unwavering. Each day they clamour for the release of their musical deity from letters to the editor to ranting on social media. The hashtag #FreeWorldBoss is a popular fixture on the social network Twitter, with everyone from the regular fan to international superstars like Drake using it to declare their support for Kartel.
Many have credited Kartel with indelibly changing the landscape of dancehall and rubbishing the established rules of play as it related to taboo subjects. He praised all the ‘freaky gyals’ defended his bleaching and proudly paraded his countless tattoos, challenging popularly held ideals about oral sex and physical appearance.
In the early days of Kartel’s controversial incarceration, many lamented that dancehall would suffer as a result of his absence from the scene. Chelan Smith, the woman behind popular Jamaican blog Adventures with Mamachel admits that the dancehall arena has changed, but not much.
“Yes, there is a change but it’s not a huge difference, His songs are still being played but you are starting to see an emergence of cultural tunes again. On the downside, his incarceration has highlighted the lack of talented up and comers who will bring dancehall into the next generation,” Smith commented.
Marlon Campbell, an event promoter and entertainment correspondent also thinks that dancehall has changed, though not in a bad way.
“For one thing, he isn’t dominating the airwaves as he did when he was free and it has given some other talented artistes a chance to shine: Konshens for example and more importantly, reggae acts such as Chronixx are being given a listening ear,” he said.
The midas touch?
Smith contends that Kartel’s popularity “is not easily explained”, admitting that she finds herself instinctively singing along with songs she personally thinks “are a little crude”.
“One thing that you cannot deny is that he is in fact a lyrical mastermind. I think the way his lyrics really fit the rhythm and his play on words are two major things that make him so popular,” she said.
Asked why Kartel is as popular as he is, Campbell quipped “firstly, he is talented and without a doubt on of the best DJs in recent decades. Couple this with his ability to tap directly into the psyche of the masses and you end up with an extremely popular force. He was also the one that would say what people thought but are afraid to say, especially in sexual matters”.
Rochelle Williams, one of Kartel’s many fans, says that the gaza boss has always been one of those artistes “who gave the people, moreover the youth who make up most of his following and the dancehall audience, what they wanted to hear—unedited, uncensored, raw, real music”.
Though Kartel languishes in jail, Williams, Campbell and Smith agree that the world boss has no equal in their eyes. Campbell simply said “for better or for worse, there is and will always be only one Vybz Kartel”.
‘Nature abhors a vacuum’
It is true, though, that since Kartel’s incarceration other artistes are currently enjoying increased presence in the media and their songs are being given more than just a cursory listen.
“Nature abhors a vacuum and with Adijah off the scene, you have heard more of other artistes and as I said earlier, people like Chronixx are now being given a listening ear,” Campbell said, continuing that he expects more new talent to rise to the surface.
With her weekly dose of new Kartel songs cut down dramatically, Williams says “with Kartel gone, the media industry will naturally try to keep the masses entertained. With Kartel out of the picture other artistes will occupy the limelight, which he and his music have occupied for years. “
For Smith, she has noticed that established dancehall artistes are reaching out to a bigger fan base now.
“You see artistes like Aidonia and Konshens coming into their own and carving a space for themselves but not necessarily replacing Kartel,” she said before weighing in on the touchy subject of radio play.
“For years artistes were complaining that Kartel was preventing them from getting their shine. But now, he is locked up and many have yet to get that “buss”. Nevertheless, I have seen new talent get some airplay and even established artistes get a little more airplay from DJs. Nothing here is absolute, but the lack of new material from Kartel would have forced everyone to go out and find the next hot song.”
Smith also said that while she believes that Kartel is missed in some areas of the entertainment fraternity, “others who saw him and who continue to see him as an obstacle to their success do not miss him at all”.
Campbell, concurring, thinks, “most are secretly happy that he is locked away”.
The show goes on
A huge factor of any dancehall song’s success is the response it gets at parties and street dances. With arguably no less than five singles in rotation at a time, its long been said that Kartel’s hold on dancehall also extended to the party scene. However, when asked if the scene has changed much, Williams says that for her it remains undisturbed.
“I think Kartel’s music is timeless… there’s no time frame or limit on a Kartel song. Songs from when he first came on the scene still get airplay. People still party with as much enthusiasm and the party scene is still the same.”
Campbell, whose line of events includes the popular party series Musique, says that other artistes have provided the ladies with “their ‘get wild’ music”.
In concluding her thoughts, Smith commented that as far as party tunes go, “we haven’t had a chance to miss Kartel”.
“Let’s be honest, Kartel has had a new tune on the radio almost consistently or it could be that his songs have a certain longevity but in reality the scene hasn’t changed in any drastic way… if any at all”.
It is reported that Kartel has thousands of unreleased tracks—and that is only expected. His voice, too, most recently found its way onto Wayne Marshall’s fast rising hit Go Hard. What remains to be seen, however, is if history will accord Kartel the legendary status he has already claimed. The masterful lyricist has made it clear, though, that the world has not heard the last of Kartel, despite his physical confinement.
“Mi FlOW like di town cable/Its no fable/No knights of di round table,/Tell Adam and Eve and Cain say mi doan Able,/ Dem bwoy deh tek mi style yet dem so brazen/But Russian/Mi FlOW like di town cable/Its no fable/No knights of di round table/Di bwoy dem bite mi style yet dem so craven/dem come in like di big fat gyal dem so Raven.” – Vybz Kartel, The Lyricist