Illustration by Nick Gazin
Last week, dancehall deejay Vybz Kartel entered a courtroom in Kingston, Jamaica, with a green and white Calabar High School jersey underneath his suit. Calabar is Vybz's alma mater, an all-male secondary school located in Kingston, and Vybz is one who always represents where he comes from—so much so, he's made his hometown of Portmore, the infamous ghetto just west of Kingston, world-famous under the moniker "Gaza City" through his music. The power of these kinds of gestures was not lost on the hundreds of people protesting outside the courtroom in his defense as Judge Lennox Campell sentenced him to life in prison.
Unlike one of his cohort who cried tears during the reading of the verdict, the 38-year-old had a blank stare on his face as the jury's ten-to-one guilty decision came down, convicting him of murdering Clive "Lizard" Williams. Balking at the decision, uniformed school children outside the courthouse shouted the chant, "No teacha, no school!" ("Adi Di Teacha" is one of Vybz's many aliases.)
Vybz's trial was one of the most talked-about events in Jamaica, inspiring hundreds of headlines and editorials in print, on TV, and on the internet. It went on for 65 days—the longest in the history of Kingston's criminal courts. The news that Vybz might (he plans to appeal) be in prison until he's either dead or 73 years old was earth-shattering for dancehall fans in Jamaica, a country where he is larger-than-life. The artist, whose real name is Adidja Palmer, has amassed a cultish following through his music, which runs the gamut from gritty tales of street life and raunchy sex to poignant critiques of the government and religion. Young people love Vybz so much, they buy Vybz-branded condoms, booze, and skin-bleaching cream. And in Gaza City, the nexus of his "Gaza Empire," massive murals of his face adorn countless cement walls.
Vybz's recent trouble with the law has taken place during a time in Jamaica when law enforcement has admittedly been targeting dancehall performers. When Vybz was first charged on September 30, 2011, Assistant Commissioner Ealan Powel said the arrest was part of a police sting on artists. "We have an interest in at least ten other members of the entertainment industry, some of whom have been implicated in a number of murders and shootings." Later, Security Minister Peter Bunting cited Vybz lyrics as "propaganda" promoting crime. When Bunting added a clause to an anti-gang bill specifically targeting Vybz's music, it became a point of contention for dancehall fans. The clause would have made it illegal to use any kind of symbolism that promotes whatever Bunting considers to be a criminal organization. Vybz's "Gaza" would have been criminalized. Damian Crawford, a junior minister for tourism and entertainment, called the bill an attack on lyrics. "If Gaza is really a gang, both myself and Usain Bolt would have been charged," he said. (Gold medalist Bolt famously flashed the Gaza sign at the 2012 Olympics.) The clause was eventually taken out of the bill. Still, to many it seems that it's not just Vybz Kartel but dancehall that is on trial in Jamaica.
When Kingston's Flying Squad first surrounded Vybz's New Kingston hotel room back in 2011, he wasn't arrested for murder—they pinched him for a spliff. After locking him behind bars for three days on the marijuana charge and seizing his phone, the police slapped him with murder charges. First, police said he gunned down club promoter Barrington "Bossie" Burton in St. Catherine. Last year, the court found him not guilty of that charge. But his second murder charge, for the killing of Clive "Lizard" Williams (which he scored only three weeks after he was arrested for pot possession), stuck.
According to a statement from Lizard's family, the 27-year-old was a dancehall fan who was "lured into the company" of Vybz's Gaza Empire. Vybz's alleged motive for slaying Lizard revolves around two missing guns. On August 16, 2011, Lizard's girlfriend said she received texts from Lizard when he was believed to be on his way to Vybz's house in Havendale with his friend Lenard Chow to admit that they were responsible for the lost guns. She claimed that he told her he was so scared, he was shaking. According to Chow, they pleaded to Vybz in his living room that they would pay him back. While they begged, a deejay named Kahira Jones grabbed a hold of Lizard. Chow ran into another room. When he came back he said he saw Lizard's body lying motionless on the floor, with Vybz's barber, André "Mad Suss" St. John, beside him holding a building block in his hand.
Lizard's family does not have a grave to mourn over. His body is still missing. Vybz and his conspirators allegedly chopped him into pieces so small that they allude detectives to this day. "Tween me an u a chop we chop up the bwoy Lizard fine fine," read a text police said was sent from Vybz's cell phone. "Yeah man a mince meat dat... As long as u live dem can never find him."
Vybz's ultimate conviction was based on incriminating statements, like that one, that authorities say they discovered on his phone. Recordings were leaked to Jamaica's Nationwide News last weekend that bare the distinct timbre of the Worl' Boss. On the tape, the voice says things like, "Dem cyan find two of mi shoes wey dem have... Mi a kill one of dem." ("Shoes" is slang for guns.) They also have Vybz on tape allegedly ordering Shawn "Storm" Campbell—another deejay—to help him in offing Lizard, saying, "You a mind reader brethren, because me nah killup myself."
Vybz's plan to appeal the conviction comes as no surprise. Those in Vybz's camp maintain that the reason the prosecution can't locate Lizard is because he isn't dead and has left Jamaica using a fake passport. But at the same time, Vanessa "Bling" Saddler, another Gaza deejay, claims Lizard robbed her after Vybz's arrest for his murder. Now she's facing charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
Vybz's attorneys have also accused the police of manipulating witnesses and evidence. They claim the incriminating texts were sent after his phone was seized. And they claim Chow was coerced, pointing to a handwritten letter delivered to the defense by his aunt that admits he was lying. They even had a handwriting expert verify the note in court.
One of Vybz's producers, Dre Skull, who's based in Brooklyn, said Vybz spoke to him privately about corruption in Jamaica before his arrest. "It's a complicated situation to watch the trial unfold and try to piece together the facts and accusations," he said. "There are aspects surrounding the treatment of evidence in this case that clearly would not hold up in the US judicial system."
Vybz's has been locked up for more than two and a half years, but to the dismay of his detractors, he is still releasing new music. "He is supposed to be detained, and has been so now for close to two years. So imagine my bewilderment when I hear a disc jock announce that he had a new song by the 'Teacha' to premiere!" wrote one angry citizen in an open letter to editor of the Gleaner. Vybz has stanchly denied that he's recorded any new songs behind bars and insists that his latest tracks were recorded before his arrest. But that has not stopped speculation. When Vybz's jail cell was searched last September—in connection with another murder he was never charged for—police seized two mobile phones and a flash drive.
After his sentencing, his attorneys again denied claims that Vybz would be able to record behind bars. If he did record in prison, he wouldn't be the first. Inside the Tower Street Prison there is a studio and a low-frequency radio station called FREE FM.