Convicted: The ‘Exceptional’ Werl Boss and the Dilemma of Social Responsibility

Self-styled the ‘Werl Boss’, Vybz Kartel aka Adidja Palmer, got himself in what my father (a former police officer) would call a ‘shit pot  load of trouble’. But, how does one choose to imbibe and then get a gastronomic forward offa di vomit they flush? This question has taunted me for days. As I was asked to write about the verdict, asked where are my comments on the Kartel matter, I could only think of this question. So here we go.

GuiltyFirst of all, I do not have a practice of spending my energy on anything that my spirit rejects. This explains why I did not publish the paper I wrote years ago entitled ‘Gully vs Gaza: Theorizing Violence, Factions and Fandom in Jamaican Dancehall Performance‘, the refusal to associate with the now infamous UWI lecture (I was not in attendance and chose not to offer my book Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto), and I hesitated to comment in any medium whatsoever on anything related to Vybz Kartel. Some appearances over the years for commentary on the Gully / Gaza feud, or other aspects of dancehall that relate to social responsibility can be found, but in the main, I have completely stayed clear of the Werl Boss and his musical empire.

Confession is always good for the soul

I am the first to admit one thing. The return of the word ’empire’ to common usage in Jamaica because of Kartel’s reference to the Gaza Empire was immediately welcomed. It is very true that many of us have forgotten how to build empires, and this is a travesty when postcolonial societies such as Jamaica are badly, and indeed, sadly in need of the commitment, hard work, spirit and leadership required to build empires.

VyBZ KaRTEL (Emergency)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtTFKotGWew

Let me add, that ‘Emergency’ on the Siren Riddim, and ‘Turn and Wine’ on the very infectious DNA Riddim are two of my favourite Kartel tunes.

Vybz Kartel – Turn N Wine

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTF7I6tZOmk

‘Rampin Shop’, ‘Clarks’, ‘Dollar Sign’ (Money Pon Mi Mind), ‘Beyonce Wine’, and ‘Weed Smokers’ will always get me dancing.

Vybz Kartel – Weed Smokers

Vybz Kartel – Dollar Sign

They absolutely rock!! So yes, I have been listening. I pay attention to what rocks my spirit and not what’s rocking others. For one who has dabbled in phenomenology, existentialism and the value of the human experience as a metaphysical phenomenon, and knowing well that the act of confession for the purpose of ultimate empowerment, integrity and personal / collective growth is crucial, beginning this post at the personal level is extremely significant. Writing for writing sake is meaningless. If I can’t speak my truth as I write, whether for academic or personal purposes, I am not moved to write. Consequently, this post which I have chosen to write had to begin with the personal, the confession and yes, it must highlight what I see as hypocrisy at the heart of many of the commentaries about the Werl Boss and his conviction.

My account here is not intended as a remembrance or chronological accounting of Kartel’s musical sojourn. I am much more interested in contributing to a rarer fare, an enterprise that is less attractive, requiring integrity and akin to the Peckian ‘road less travelled.’ All the same, a nuh every ting good fi eat good fi talk’ so I am very aware that the cause of reliving the concluded trial is not productive and neither is pronouncing on the numerous statements about the Werl Boss’ character and alleged notoriety. Those are for the court. Official or unofficial. Heavenly or earthly. What I will say is that Jamaicans have always said, ‘if it nuh guh so, it guh near suh’, which might explain why he was judged first in the ‘court of public opinion’ that had been receiving accounts of killings, feuds, controversies, beatings, threats, fear, deep deep fear, and traumatic encounters because of the Werl Boss. Those things did not find their way into the justice system but the recent charges certainly brought a lot of ire, praise, appeal, and formidable fanaticism on the part of Jamaicans and ‘dancehallites’ at home and abroad in particular.

Looking back to the early days, when I think about it, there couldn’t have been any accident in the choice of his first stage name in the moniker Addi Banton. As he mirrored the great Bantons of dancehall such as Buju Banton, a certain destiny seemed to have been written because Kartel’s productivity at number one hits and significance to the dancehall genre rivalled Buju Banton’s record. It also seemed to rival Buju’s reputation of being the bad man, the gun toter, drug dealer, wife beater, and bigot who has now been convicted on drug charges in the USA.

Buju Banton aka Mark Myrie

Buju Banton aka Mark Myrie

Buju has been sentenced to ten years in prison and frankly I am consistently touting the well used slogan – ‘Free Gargamel’. Afterall, when I became clear that dancehall music was my music of choice on hearing the likes of Shabba Ranks and the mighty Buju, there was hardly any turning back from the melodious drum bass tones with which they communicated in a sort of verbal divinity. I am waiting patiently for Buju’s next concert. Mi a guh deh deh pon mi ears, just like I was present for Busy Signal’s return to the stage at Sting 2012 after a brief incarceration in the USA. Yes many of our musical stars have fallen afoul of the law in various jurisdictions. And, various of our stars have enjoyed increased popularity with incarceration. Jah Cure is a classic example. image

Now, my Buju aside, gun and drug charges are quite different from murder charges. Afterall, the Werl Boss was dealing with another kind of ‘devil’; there are certainly no reports of him cavorting with any ‘white devil’. Additionally in a weird way they both have been charged with serious crimes and are facing several years behind bars. As a mega-fan of Banton (I write about my experience of Buju in Dancehall), I totally understand how Gaza and more particularly, Kartel fans must feel. Afterall, a load of trouble has befallen their ‘idol’ and as Dutty Berry has quipped ‘who a guh tell [di girls] how [dem] body good from mawnin’? (Via @duttyberryshow https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJnImS89W00)

Well beyond the enterprise of fandom, academics such as myself have the burden of asking relevant questions, and it seems to me that to ask whether the court and the general public were able to decipher the Werl Boss’ mask / entertainer persona from that of Adidja Palmer’s is about the biggest load of bovine excrement I have heard in a while. Please excuse this another reference to excrement, but we really must examine these matters carefully. According to Cooper in her commentary of March 16:

“..we…refuse to concede the possibility that, ‘Vybz Kartel’ is a persona, a mask worn by an actor to project a fabricated character. As a consequence, it is not Adidja Palmer who has been on trial for murder. It is Vybz Kartel. I wonder if the media’s insistence on calling Adidja Palmer by his stage name may not have been prejudicial. Has Adidja Palmer’s right to be presumed innocent perhaps been violated by the constant assertion that his ‘real’ identity is actually Vybz Kartel? Has Adidja Palmer been proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Or is it the cardboard cutout, Vybz Kartel?” (Cooper)

Who is this “we” who “refuse to concede the possibility that, ‘Vybz Kartel’ is a persona…?”  As if the question about whether Adidja Palmer’s presumed innocence was compromised by Vybz Kartel the mask isn’t bad enough, here’s the statement that leaves me befuddled:

“But, in all seriousness, I keep asking myself if Adidja Palmer has been convicted beyond reasonable doubt – in the modern sense of the legal term. I also wonder if he’s really innocent.” (Cooper)

Such questions are reasonable considering the history of failures of justice in Jamaica and our seeming lack of commitment to reforming a system that consistently targets the marginalised and, in particular, disenfranchised among us. Yes, the rich buy their way out of imprisonment by affording good lawyers and rarely are corrupt politicians brought to justice. So our people have no trust in the justice system, and neither do they have any trust in the people placed to maintain law and order. On the matter of the Werl Boss’ innocence however, a court of justice has now ruled with the help of a jury that saw evidence to which the public was not privy. It has been said that evidence presented was overwhelming in its proof of guilt. The fact is throughout the trial the public did not hear of the evidence because it was not viewed by those who could give us coverage via written or multi-media news reports. So without seeing the evidence in the court room presided over by Judge Lennox Campbell, innocence was thrown out the door in the court of  ‘John Public’ and also in Campbell’s court.

Not only did conflict follow the Werl Boss but so did controversy. That is always a sign of personal trouble. The psychologists with tell you that the inability to foster, maintain, and nurture meaningful relationships reveals that something is outside the norm. For me the break from the Alliance fraternity was a first sign of this which continued with other music personalities including producers, investors, managers, colleagues, Gaza hopefuls and even friends. Also, it seemed after a while that ‘Vybz Cartoon’ became completely animated by people who allowed him to levitate on the hot balloons of sunshine they blew religiously up his proverbial derrière.

You see, the opportunity to write articles on justice for Adidja Palmer might be used to take account of prevailing conditions and circumstances. Such an opportunity might be used to take an honest account of how little we know of Adidja Palmer, Vybz Kartel, Werl Boss or Vybz Cartoon for that matter.

Perhaps Ninja Man said it best. It is definitely time for  some among us to ‘stop watching gangster show and start watching Law and Order’, but right or wrong, Kartel has become the example the Jamaican police have been trying to find in order to convince notorious law breakers that they are serious about ridding Jamaica of crime and violence. Whether you believe this or not or, believe this can be achieved in the ways being currently pursued such as the recently launched ‘Unite for Change‘ campaign or zero tolerance being applied for various misdemeanours, is another matter entirely.

NINJA MAN INTERVIEW part 1 – Onstage March 15

Intelligence questioned

If anything, I question the intelligence that was poured into the barrage of solid lyrical incisions Kartel made in the dancehall music universe to the neglect of personal wellbeing. Afterall, witty wares peddled after being recorded on cutting edge equipment does not intelligence make. Equating coherent, cogent speech with intelligence in the overall unfolding of one’s daily life is simply not intelligent. When one provides the evidence for their own demise, blow by blow, digit by digit, then one has missed something important about the idea of the tipping point.

The tipping point is crucial. We can’t just be firing in this turbine called Jamaica, living unstoppable, invincible ‘tallawahcity’ in what has become a crime-ridden, scarred, yet paradisiacal place. Education is challenged, industry is challenged and leadership is challenged. Culture, particularly music, is one of our saving graces, yet some are content to ignore the evils that befall it. I am not and have never said dancehall is to be blamed. I am not and would never say dancehall is dying. Instead, I say we are at a moment of transition. We are either going to take the opportunity now, or continue to self destruct in the powerful turbine of ‘tallawahcity called Jamaica.

So many have said it in so many ways, but the profound irony is that I choose to close with Buju Banton and Ninja Man, two dancehall artistes who are themselves convicted / charged with various crimes. Their profound invocations speak for themselves:

“…music is a spiritual ting, and when yaah do music, there’s a demonic force weh surround music enuh, weh fighting the spirit of the almighty enuh, because music is love and music is God enuh, music mek people unite enuh and music mek people be together, music mek people learn fi communicate..suh is a ting weh keep a godliness and a togetherness within people which di devil nuh like that, suh…the devil tek set pon di most powerful people,  him choose fi draw you out inna every way him can.” (Ninja Man, OnStage interview, aired March 15 on CVM Television)

“…bible? we never even into that, we go a road go play music and no know seh spiritual wickedness out there a wait pon we…” (Buju Banton on the occasion of the Rasta Got Soul album launch, April 22, 2009, UWI.)

I beg the singers, players of instruments and fellow Jamaicans too – take heed. Social responsibility is collective responsibility. We must rebuild the proverbial village, become our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, and ‘unite for change.’ A suh di ting set an’ wi affi tun up di love to fight against spiritual wickedness in high and low places.

I leave you with an account dubbed The Kartel ‘Kronicles‘ compiled by Richard Johnson, published on Friday, March 14, 2014 in the Jamaica Observer; and a blog post from @anniepaul which contains very telling tweets of the pre-/ post-verdict atmosphere.

Vybz Kartel found guilty of murder

http://anniepaul.net/2014/03/14/vybz-kartel-found-guilty-of-murder/

The Kartel ‘Kronicles’

(via http://m.jamaicaobserver.com/mobile/entertainment/The-Kartel–Kronicles-_16261920)

VYBZ Kartel, who, along with three of his associates, was found guilty of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams’s death, is no stranger to controversy. From his early days as a member of Bounty Killer’s Alliance, the artiste (born Adidja Palmer) has been under public scrutiny for his songs, tatooes and bleached skin. Splash tracks some of those controversial moments.

Sting 2003

The annual Boxing Day show is an arena for lyrical clashes between deejays. 2003 saw veteran Ninjaman squaring off with the up-and-coming Kartel at Jamworld Entertainment Centre in Portmore, St Catherine. Days later, both acts appeared at a press conference to denounce their actions.

Gully vs Gaza

By 2006, the feud between Kartel and rival deejay Mavado was at its peak. Their fans aligned themselves to Gully (representing Mavado’s Cassava Piece community) or Gaza (name given to Kartel’s Portmore community). This feud resulted in gangs and school groups which also declared loyalty to the feuding artistes.

In December 2009, both deejays were ushered into a meeting with ministers of government to resolve the tense situation. They agreed to a five-point plan in which the artistes would participate in a peace treaty and concert; a ‘paint-out’ day to remove Gaza/Gully graffiti from walls in communities and schools across the island; the creation of T-shirts bearing the images of both artistes, and record a song together.

Defecting from Gaza

Cracks began to appear in the Gaza Empire in late 2009 with the departure of female deejay Lisa Hype from the camp. This followed the release of explicit photos of her on the Internet. Fellow Empire members Gaza Kim and Blak Ryno also left.

Sting 2008

Six years after Kartel was involved in a fracas with Ninjaman, he was back on the Sting stage. This time as a bonafide headliner and clashing with his nemesis Mavado.

Despite a truce, elements of the feud lingered. The jury is still out as to who won this clash, but promoters certainly benefited from heightened patronage.

Ramping Shop

Thanks to a rhythm sampled from Miss Independent by American R&B singer Ne-Yo, Kartel, along with female deejay Spice, captured the airwaves with Ramping Shop in 2009. A clever marketing ploy got the buzz going. Photos of a shirtless Kartel and a scantily-clad Spice were ‘leaked’ on the Internet. A sanitised version of the song was released and momentum reached fever-pitch.

The single entered the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart.

Clarks

Wallabee, Desert Fox or Bank Robber. Leather or suede. Original or imitation, Jamaicans have always had a love affair with the British shoe company Clarks.

Kartel was able to tap into that bond with the 2010 release of the catchy Clarks. The track also introduced his protégé, Popcaan.

Clarks was popular in the United Kingdom and North America.

Bleaching

It became clear that Kartel was bleaching his skin by 2010. He would pass it off in his hit track Cake Soap, in which he attributes his lighter skin to washing his face with the laundry detergent bar. This ignited a firestorm of comments.

Sumfest 2010

The promoters of Reggae Sumfest had anxious moments in July 2010. It was uncertain if Kartel, their headline act for Dancehall Night, would make the show.

Kartel and five other men were named as persons of interest in relation to criminal gangs operating out of Portmore, St Catherine. The deejay was released just in time for Sumfest and appeared on stage, handcuffed and wearing a orange jumpsuit.

UWI Lecture

On March 10 2011, there was pandemonium at the University of the West Indies Mona campus. At the centre of the frenzy was Vybz Kartel who had been invited to speak on the topic: Pretty as a Colouring Book: My Life and My Art.

His presence at the high seat of learning raised eyebrows. Many felt the university lowered its standards by inviting the deejay to speak to students as part of a reggae poetry class by professor Carolyn Cooper.

Teacha’s Pet

Local TV station CVM made a bold move along with telecommunications company LIME and backed Kartel’s very own reality show, Teacha’s Pet. It saw 20 women vying for the artiste’s affection. The show came to a halt in September 2011 with his arrest on murder charges.

Kartel Book

In July 2012, while incarcerated, Kartel released his book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto. Written with the assistance of Michael Dawson, the image on its cover bore a stiking resemblance to an iconic photo of Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X.

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Sting 30….Who Brought It And Why Did Lady Saw Get No Money? Pt. II

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Money Money Money!

Money O!? Really? If in name and name only there is something amiss about this Sting clash between Macka Diamond and Lady Saw. Where Lady Saw was clear from her tweets that the “first set” should not be missed (implying that there would be a second appearance to vie for the prized US$30,000), Ms. Money O did not live up to her name at all. She neither fought well nor for the money.  The real regret therefore is that Miss Money O did not ‘negotiate’ her lyrical death with impeccable timing. Instead she has apparently laid blame at everything from the backing band to various elements of the production for her lyrical failure. All the same, it is not easy to step up to Lady Saw, a veteran lyricist, performer and stage aficionado, and the Money Queen made history at Jamworld. Talk about haunting words of the bad omen type, Macka’s failure to bring it at Sting 30 was summed up in @PKisses4u’s tweet “RIP MACKA DIAMOND YOUR CAREER IS #DYEDYE”.

Let me get back to the politics of Saw not being paid. It is interesting that complete role reversal took place at Sting with the Macka / Saw clash. What is striking is that whereas in sex, transactional or not, the prize is usually left with the woman either in the form of cash paid for services rendered or a baby as the product for example, this time the females got no prize / money for their generally undervalued oratory and spice in a context where the males dominate and females provide the garnish to the enterprise in their dance and of course music. This must change, and I appeal to the Sting promoters to pay Lady Saw. She did much more for the event than the Kiprich / Black Rhyno clash.

D’Angel, D’Angel, D’Angel

I couldn’t complete a review on Sting 30 without saying anything about the recurring decimal of D’Angel, who much like L.A.Lewis, became insistent about her role and place in dancehall. She was not billed to appear at Sting 30 but obviously thought she needed to make her presence felt and forever archived.

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The commentary has ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some have used the D’Angel interventions as cause to question the Jamaica Tourist Board’s long overdue sponsorship of entertainment events such as Sting.

“The JTB must take some responsibility for D’Angle (sic) or…whatever her name is’s (sic) conduct. Her conduct or lack of self control is the very reason why JTB should put some control, guidelines, screening etc. on who they allow to perform…for God’s sake….”

is how Heather Chisolm puts it in response to Silvera’s post on the disgrace of D’Angel entering unannounced, the sets of Ninja Man and husband Beenie Man from whom she has been allegedly separated. What was disgraceful is that she, like Macka Diamond and Lady Saw, were under the impression that they were eligible to contest the prize money at the times they were billed. D’Angel of course was not billed but announced she was there for a clash and wanted the money on offer to pay her son’s school fees due in January. Let’s not even think about whether she is getting child support from her husband, let’s think instead about how the females were taken for granted and not given the chance to rise to the occasion at a major clash. Why did Spice not return for example to finish the clash with Macka Diamond, perhaps in a ‘three the hard way’ scene with Lady Saw? Why did the females not get a significant place in the event and why were they not encouraged to enter the stage at the deadly 5:30am? Surely Lady Saw and Macka Diamond along with Spice and even the eager D’Angel could have handled the stage at 5:00am in a formidable clash. Why is it that the female artists are constantly having to battle that much harder for a space in this business? These answers are not clear to me and at the end of the day its all staged, but I will not be led into assuming that a solid show of the females was not deemed worthy of the pay per view bargain.

Kiprich and Black Rhyno

Could Kiprich retain the crown, and walk out with US$30,000? Ninja Man, the clash godfather brought the loot up for grabs on stage and Kiprich arrived in gear that at first seemed to be from a distant under-explored past. Kiprich’s gear was a sort of cross between desert seal / combat camouflage and Jonkonnu character pitchy patchy, linked to Egungun masquerades of West Africa. This was a highlight of the event, and perhaps within its very use, was a bit of irreverence. What came to mind is that understood or not, such symbols are critical and without performing important rituals of preparation, arrival and combat, maybe, just maybe, Kiprich took his role and mas a little too lightly and this may have led to his lyrical death. I thought the very same thing about using cocks in a fight spilling blood around Kingston without any reverence, a practice of Bogle’s prior to his death.

By the 3rd minute of the clash Kippo was stunned and had no lyrical foot to stand on. Quite frankly, though the clash lasted some 13 minutes, I was underwhelmed and moved right along to make my exit from the venue.

Overall Show Quality?

The clash-anticipating audience was now primed and prepared for lyrical battles of extraordinary proportion, but the shocking defeat by Black Rhyno left the crowd wondering why the Sting was so mild and no other artists of significance came forth to challenge Black Rhyno’s new found fortune. One could not help thinking that the pay per view imperatives of time, temperance and overall good decorum watered down the clash just a little, but even more, that the clash was way too staged and that the Supreme organizers knew the outcome. Most importantly the structure of the overall show once again did not achieve the orgasmic crescendo proportions I have been looking for since the Vybz Kartel / Mavado clash at Sting 2008. This crescendo can be achieved in a variety of ways and a show such as Sting needed to have mastered this by now at 30! As I wrote of Sting 2012, the year they got the release of Busy Signal from a brief incarceration, a serendipitous show cancellation for Konshens, and Jamaica 50 on a platter, the quality of different acts did not guarantee quality of the overall show. And, since quality acts do not a quality show make, more emphasis has to be placed on the running order of the show.

One tremendous positive of the show was that the veteran stage management by ‘Heavy D’ and the team was enough to control the likes of Macka and Lady Saw in the wee obituary-creating hours of Friday morning. Big tree or not, Lady Saw was the fired up small axe waiting to cut Macka down in fine style. As Ms. Money O ‘Dyed Dyed’, there was tremendous rage and tempers went through the roof making the clash completely volatile.

Additionally, emcees Richie B, Nikki Z, Nuffy and Miss Kitty for example were in top form as they ushered the show to the long awaited clashes. There were also no reported incidents of violence or physical damage.

Long live the Sting. I bet the promoters are proverbially laughing all the way to the bank, or let me say I hope so in these tough financial times. Afterall, it was a game changer for the dancehall promoters to utilize the available technology in promoting broad based viewership for a quintessential Jamaican product containing all the elements of dancehall culture from then till now.

As I tell my students continuously it is the lack of knowledge and respect for Jamaican culture which explains our angst over Jamaica’s entertainment product and culture. This is coupled with the overwhelming moralistic censorship stance we take in relation to cultural manifestations such as dancehall. There are definitely aspects of our culture which requires rethinking but that is a collective process which will not be advanced without respect. We must proceed on the basis of respect even as we critique ourselves. Productive engagement has to be on the basis also of understanding and knowledge. The people who create and perpetuate Jamaican popular cultural manifestations such as dancehall operate with an intrinsic understanding that they too want to achieve the universal imperative – bloom, bear fruit, be beautiful and be seen to be beautiful’.

Oh, while Dutty Paul was spotted at the Sting venue enjoying the show being given by some of his most admired dancehall acts, I’d love to see him next year on stage making a serious step in re-connecting with his Jamaican supporters. Selah.

Sting 30….Who Brought It And Why Did Lady Saw Get No Money? Pt. I

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There are Questions and There are Questions

So let me get this straight!!!!!! What did Lady Saw get paid for winning the well-executed clash against Macka Diamond who was compared to a Jackass last year by Spice? Is it only the men who get paid in dancehall for winning? Let me answer this question and say why it is a question that matters right now by way of a personal (not academic!) review.

Never mind that there are veteran artists keeping alive the longstanding debate about whether there is any such music as dancehall, versus reggae as the descriptor for the genre of music. Never mind that the theatrical and the ridiculous often go hand in hand in Jamaica where L.A. Lewis, a most delusional Jamaican, has been able to command undeserved attention way more than the government has invested in Jamaica’s entertainment industry over the last fifty years, with his latest being an intention to audition for the Voice in 2014.

Never mind that people are questioning the judgement of the Jamaica Tourist Board’s decision to allocate financial support for Sting, based on the character of the lyrical no-holds-barred blood-letting clash character of the event and what 2013 brought. Entertainment gurus such as Lloyd Standbury have even gotten in on the act asking alongside the picture of Ninja Man responding to a spread-eagled D’Angel stage right,  ‘is this what the Jamaican government ministers of Tourism, Entertainment and Culture endorsed and sponsored?” Never mind that Ministers such as Lisa Hanna or former ministers such as ‘Babsy’ Grange understand and thoroughly enjoyed the Sting product on show this year. I submit that such arguments / questions border on hypocrisy, moral grand standing and a lack of understanding of the role of governments in facilitating cultural development. However, they are not my focus in this post. Let me get back to the meat of the matter.

As I walked into the Sting venue around 12:25am at their 30th milestone, I was pregnant with excitement, anticipating the show of the year! Under no circumstances could I have missed Sting!  Not after my review last year and follow-up questions recently. I was keen to see what the Boxing Day staple event had to offer. Apart from seeing the dancehall insiders, people and fashion watching, I was keen to observe the way the show unfolded, see Mavado and Wyclef Jean, and of course one of my personal favourites – the real Don Dada and Wild Apache himself (the very first DJ I saw live at my high school way back in 1985). It was my last event of the evening having attended Ellis International’s 10th Christmas Comedy Cook-up and premiere of Dahlia Harris’ moving theatrical production To the Finish Line.

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Rap and The Refugee

The Sting bill was uncharacteristically inclusive because of the attempt to appeal to a wider audience. This year the show offered rappers and… Well Wyclef and rapper 2 Chainz didn’t bring it for many. Some contend Wyclef was really selecting and was more animated enjoying performances by Mavado at the front of the Sting stage. We are all still trying to figure out whether 2 Chainz’s appearance impacted either the Sting audience via pay per view or those present at Jamworld.

Top Performers

Let me begin with Super Cat. He was not on top form with a hoarse throat but the characteristically dapper dude delivered his hits many were looking forward to hearing. ‘Si Boops Deh’, ‘Dolly My Baby’ and ‘Tan So Back’ were among the litany of hits from the Apache-style liturgy. While it was nothing reminiscent of the Don Dada at his height in the Sting 1991 clash with Ninja Man, the performance along with those of Brigadier Jerry, Josey Wales, Burru Banton, and Major Mackerel sealed it for me as foundation dancehall music ultimately won at Sting. A taste of such stalwarts was well worth it.

Beenie Man, Aidonia and Mavado were definitely worth seeing, Beenie Man retaining his signature performance style and making clear that as the King of the Dancehall he can ‘Dweet Again’ anytime. Mavado who played with his own band connected with the audience through lyrics and the snazzy pair of designer shoes he threw into the crowd. He gave of his hits including ‘Give it all to me’ with Nicki Minaj, and ably reminding viewers that ‘at the top its just us’.  I was also looking forward to Harry Toddler, Sizzla, and I-Wayne but none of them really held the audience’s attention like Sizzla did. Elephant Man was absent with no explanation.

The Clash

Dancehall animates itself in performance modes such as the clash of which Sting remains the last bastion. Performance, props, timing, temper and temperance, skill and style are all uniquely critical to this enterprise and many still don’t understand that it is a fundamental part of our present and our past. The significance of this entrenched working class celebration is taken to various levels by characters such as Ninja, Samurai or Demon in what is now a commercial Christmas event in the tradition of Christmas dances that took place even on the slave plantations centuries ago. These characters can be seen as  effigies of traditions such as Burru drummers who walked neighbourhoods singing about community folk at year end with wit and often embarrassing wisdom. Dancehall is Jamaica’s premier street theatre and Sting is the heavily anticipated premier one night event.

Now, as Senior Journalist Janet Silvera has rightfully declared on her Facebook page in Bulletin #6, “Sting 2013 was much more than Saw, Macka and D’Angel…” Indeed it was much more than what eyes beheld at all, especially the innovative international reach to over 30 million via pay per view deals negotiated by newest of the Sting partners, Joe Bogdanovich of Downsound Records. My attempts to stay away from such comments have been largely successful but I must dwell a little on some.

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So let me get straight to it! With the preceding media hype, the longstanding feud and the stage set for clashing for a fee of US$30,000 Muma Saw, the dancehall lyrical queen, came hot, hyped and hyper-prepared.

2013: The Year of ‘Saw’

After riding rough in heels on top of Shaggy in fine erotica style into 2013, Lady Saw sealed her longstanding place and resurgence in the dancehall business in true ‘chat to mi back’ form.  The ‘Heel’s On’ rough ride, and remix with Flo Rida, gave Saw a comeback which shocked fans because of her age and stage in a highly dynamic male-dominated business. She came, she saw and she conquered! The ritual of final transition for all ‘chatti mout’ gyal finally came. As she transitioned from the erotica of ‘Heels On’ into combat mode, guided ably by veteran band Ruff Kutt, she donned the requisite trappings of attitude, costume and champion lyrics to bury her opponent in the ‘6 ft. 6’ resting place she ably created. So masterful was the blow-free encounter that adrenaline levels of the crowd shot through the sky reaching planet Jupiter which could be seen thanks to Jerome Hamilton’s snazzy App I was introduced to on entering the venue.

Without lifting a leg, lying on the floor or begging school fee money in D’Angel style, Saw gave an enraged but lyrically sound

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perfomance. As Mel Cooke, senior entertainment writer at the Gleaner put it here, 

“…[the crowd] got enough musical guts and blood to last a while in the earlier going, as an enraged Lady Saw, who still kept her lyrical wits about her, gutted a hapless Macka Diamond.”

By the time Lady Saw said ‘line up mi money too….send out di mongrel’ it was really all over because Macka’s immediate retort was ‘A wha do some dutty gyal?’ with her only other interesting intervention being about Saw’s Hummer apparently auctioned because of tax evasion, and Saw’s ‘heel’ being broken. When she touched on John John with whom Saw, otherwise known as Marion Hall, has had a troubled relationship, Saw responded to Macka’s advice about ‘being a lover rather than a stalker’ with the fact that Macka has never been seen with a man.

All in all it was a tracing match in which Lady Saw tried her best to keep the lyrics as the focus instead of the tracing. Eventually, Macka said she died trying and proved she wasn’t a coward. Emphasis on Macka’s sexual orientation consumed the end of the clash but then again, this is a preoccupation for Lady Saw who along with Beenie Man are the only two decrying the pleasures of oral sex in 2013. It says a lot about sexual conservatism in Jamaica, sexual hypocrisy and the transitioning norms around sexuality and sexual orientation. But this is not my focus.

The long and short of it is that Lady Saw, who used to help Macka write for clashes, anticipated that the Money O queen was going to forget her lyrics, that fear would take over and she would buckle under the pressure of the onslaught. As Lady Saw said in her interview with Boomshots.com, ‘Macka Demon is a liar…a mix-up girl…who she stepped away from…someone who she was never friends with’. Its finished for now. Let’s see if Lady Saw will ever get her wish to properly use the lyrics she prepared in a full length clash with Macka.

Stay tuned for Sting 30 – Part II.

Sting Set to…..Rock? It Better!

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A round up of recent news reports on what is arguably Jamaica’s best one night show suggests Jamaican music fans, dancehall in particular, are in for a ‘higher level, boombastic, so special, guh hard an’ done’ performance! Afterall, Downsound is back on board for Sting 2013 following the exciting partnership for the 2012 staging; Mavado who is hot from his recent collab with Nicki Minaj is set to take the stage; Super Cat, 2Chainz will headline adding retro dancehall pedigree and an international flavour to the line-up ; and, the show is going global to some 315 million targeted across five continents through partnerships with top broadcasters. 

ImageKnown for its yearly clashes and hardcore performances, Sting is promising the show of a lifetime befitting the maturity of thirty years in prime form. We will get an appreciation of the old reggae and dancehall styles, the crossovers, the new blood and the clashing too. Sting needs to be commended for maintaining the highly anticipated product for thirty years in spite of economic and other challenges.  Joe Bogdanovich of Downsound Records fame has successfully partnered with Supreme Ventures for the staging of Sting 2012 and the partnership returns this year in celebration of the important milestone. Bogdanovich is clear that ‘reggae and dancehall will be shown in a positive light’ and as part of the challenge of achieving high international standards, his mission remains that of uplifting the Jamaican music industry and making shows such as Sting part of the calendar of events visitors come to Jamaica to consume. I am clear, and the promoters are too, that Sting is an asset as a creative product adding to the varied cultural milieu we boast as a nation occupying a dot on the globe.

First held at Cinema 2 in New Kingston in 1984, I have attended a number of its stagings at Jamworld. Last year, I said this about its 29th staging and I can only hope that my concerns about the product will be heard.Image Image 

The Best Ever Sting? What Did 2012 Bring?

On the heels of all the successful events in 2012, with Shabba’s Sumfest appearance as my massive moment, the big end of year buzz resided with Sting in the face of a declining dancehall calendar of events for December. This year the anticipation levels were locked in because on a platter was given the release of highly anticipated Busy Signal from a six month sentence served in a Federal United States prison. On that same platter was the hottest DJ of the year Konshens who fortuitously had a date cancellation. Then there was the devil-devouring lot, long awaiting the chance to pour holy water on Uncle Demon (aka Tommy Lee), while Macka Diamond and Spice heated it up over who was blacker!!? In other words, Sting, long known for and successfully retaining its place as the last bastion of the Jamaican dancehall clash performance mode, and dubbed the greatest one night show in Jamaica, had it good for the 2012 edition. Add to this the Supreme Promotions alliance with don of Downsound Records Josef Bogdanovich signalling new levels of cooperation, needed capital and media ops for ‘slapping cash’ into the hands of desired acts.

The line-up was enormous. I wanted to hear Busy Signal, Konshens, Mavado (who did not appear), Macka Diamond and Spice who didn’t clash afterall, and Ninja Man in particular. I expected Kiprich to deliver in his usual style and I was anticipating what the wrestling-labelled tag team clash would bring. But what did 2012 really bring? Some seem to be following the hype when hot air has in fact turned cold.

I arrived at the venue around 1:30am in somewhat of a panic because patrons were encouraged to arrive for the 12:30am appearance by Busy Signal. Well, recognising that Specialist was the act in performance, my heart settled and I decided to walk the venue from back to front, and side to side to check out the mood, fashion, those familiar faces and of course the security in place. By the time I settled into the crowd it was time for Etana who delivered in usual appealing style with tunes such as Roots, Wrong Address and Wifey.

The 2012 edition of Sting was divided into six categories, and if I must say so myself, a fine compendium of choices for a one night show. These were 12 Disciples of Dancehall, Best of Reggae, Independent Ladies, the Fantastic Four (Nature, Droop Lion, Iba Mahr and Chronixx), Three the Hard Way and Next Generation.

After Etana, the next time my focus reached the stage was for the announcement of Chronixx who is now seen as the next big act out of Jamaica: consummate performer, bright, lyrically adept, genre flexible, settled and has his goal squarely in front of him. I was then impressed by Nature, an act I was seeing for the first time who used the stage admirably with his conscious Rastafari-inspired contribution. Then, soon enough Romain Virgo did not disappoint. I’ve been paying attention to him, seeing him mature, watching his management choice and waiting for his next releases.

Around 3:36am when Busy Signal was being introduced by the studio recording Michael Anthony Cuffe so ably delivered, I got in gear for the performance I had anticipated. I quickly left the VIP area and settled into the crowd again because some performances have to be experienced in the midst of the most energised crowd constellation, what Kamau Brathwaite refers to as ‘congregational kinesis’.

So much was right about Busy’s performance. His oratory on prison life interspersed between timeless selections such as ‘Nah Go a Jail Again’ was masterful. It was Busy’s year at Sting 2012: hijacked from a flight on his way from Britain, incarcerated and having suffered many a nutrition and other woes behind bars, Busy’s maturity and professionalism was evident. We were treated to new releases, a fine tribute to Buju with Dean Frazer on saxophone, plus the gospel medley with a children choir dressed in full white. Busy Signal signalled his heroic status in dancehall and his delivery went a long way for securing more street love among two important blocks – the christians and the Buju fans who are impatiently anticipating his release. When his set was completed, in fitting style, Busy was presented with the Game Changer Award by Joe Bogdanovich.

Konshens my other favourite touched the stage at 4:37am dressed in what was trendy athletic / casual gear, with delivery typical of his successful year as he performed crowd favourites such a ‘Gyal Sidung’ featuring Darrio who is getting his much needed break alongside Konshens.

It wasn’t until daylight that the anticipated Uncle Demon, Tommy Lee Sparta hit the stage to deliver what seemed to be a well rehearsed set backed by Ruff Kutt Band. Though one perceived by many to be in need of holy water there were no attempts to perform any exorcisms either by Ninja Man, Bounti Killa (absent from Sting 2012) or I Octane. Of course his red and black outfit signalled confidence and hard core competence based on the year-long success he enjoyed.

In true Sting fashion, orchestrated or not, the popular Popcaan of Gaza camp fame had his set interrupted by Black Ryno’s appearance on stage which he announced with some obviously troubling Gaza loyalty invocations. Word on the street is that they are no longer members of Kartel’s Portmore Empire, but curiously street credibility relies on paying homage to such musical edifices. Ryno walked on stage during Popcaan’s set which triggered pushing and the movement of much security personnel to the stage. No one was either visibly or reported hurt but Popcaan was quickly asked to depart, the last of him being seen with a mob moving out of the venue. The task was then left to I Wayne and Lutan Fyah to pour lyrical water on the various factions and fiery atmosphere left by the skirmish.

I decided to leave at this point, daylight, in fact way past dawn, approximately 6:45am, for a number of reasons. On my way home, approximately 7:10am I was hearing reports of Sizzla’s performance and the fact that he did not disappoint. My decision to leave had less to do with security and safety than with my disappointment in the fact that as one of the greatest one night shows in Jamaica, and in its 29th staging over 28 consistent years, the organisers of Sting have still given themselves wiggle room for mediocrity.

So much was problematic because performances alone have never a stage show made. A great line-up was essentially sacrificed by less than perfect stage management, security inadequately deployed especially after the announcement that the show had moved into the clash segment, and a running order which was not managed, therefore not delivering a consistently created crescendo effect. No excuse can explain why great acts didn’t touch the stage by 6:45am. One good thing which stood out for me in terms of the organisation and character of the show was the short band changes.

When I tried to express my feelings about Sting 2012 I was greeted with the following responses:

“But Sting’s aesthetic is not intended to get it completely right anyway…ghetto people something is always evolving – unpredictable and thus not for those expecting the Jazz and Blues type of catharsis…” JS

“But that is STING. For dancehall it was pristine.” NS

In other words, “that’s just Sting”. There is a culture that’s unique and that also means one should accept mediocre standards in a context where we are building / maintaining a reputation as world musical superpower. But in such a context, is there room for mediocrity? If controversy is the aim, then certainly one can strive to be at the top of even that game. The fact that there is a link between events held in Jamaica and the ‘heads to beds’ number outcomes for the Ministry of Tourism and ultimately the country’s foreign exchange piggy bank is also another point for consideration. Whether we know it or not, major music events drive visitor arrivals up and we must remain cognisant of viewing this one night show as a catalyst for greater cultural and economic development in a holistic sense. Realistically, how many patrons really walked away thinking that they left the show on a high, having got their money’s worth? I certainly didn’t.

Finally, my question having missed the tag team clash is — why would Tony Matterhorn have agreed to team up with tired Merciless in the first place, and to go gladiator style with veteran Ninja Man and adept Kiprich at that?? Hah sah.

 

 

 

Mavado: Soul, Satisfaction, and ‘Something’ Missing…?

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I went specifically to hear the man with that soulful voice, one who I consider to be naturally gifted. I wanted to see a mature Mavado performing with command, consistency, and connecting with his audience through hit after hit after hit. Afterall, he’s not short of hits! But alas, that Mavado was not present, even when one takes account of the obvious distinction between an artist’s recorded music as shown here versus his / her live performances.

Now let’s set the record straight. No, I’m not a Gaza fan, just in case you think my evaluation has anything to do with greater support for a Gaza artist. I have been really ‘listening’ to Mavado for some time, and while I was observing the Gully / Gaza feud for academic purposes up to 2010 (see my presentation on feuds, fandom and factions here), I have been observing ‘something’ else in Mavado and around the Jamaican music business for some time.

Ever since traveling to Montego Bay for Dancehall Night at Sumfest 2007, I haven’t really seen Mavado in a commanding performance. Perhaps the hype over the then new artist took hold of the near 30,000 who turned out. But that performance for me was remarkable. I had been listening to his tracks such as ‘Real McKoy’, ‘Weh Dem a Do’, ‘Dying’ and of course ‘Gully side’, all recordings on his Gangsta For Life album, and which I reference in my book Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto in commenting on dancehall’s relationship to the street.

I am a Mavado fan and when I heard he was a headline act on the Arthur Guinness anniversary show, I was elated. No, exuberant, excited, anticipating…. I could make an assessment of the now ‘mature’ Mavado who has wowed me since 2007. You see, Mavado, in spite of his early career feud with Vybz Kartel – battles over which DJ is the best lyricist, clash artist, summer song sensation, or girls man – what appeals to me about Mavado is his SOUL.

The one thing about Jamaican music which is not to be missed is the soul of the people which gets translated into sound, be it ska, reggae, rocksteady, or dancehall. The soul of Jamaica resides in the transmissions through sound we have given the world as the largest exporter of music per capita. And, like Uroy, Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Big Youth, Charlie Chaplin, Admiral Bailey, Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton or Sizzla, Mavado has successfully transmitted that soul through his music. It is the vocal quality, the everyday experiences that have made him a Jamaican man, growing up in the Cassava Piece innercity community, his socialization in the church at a tender age, and reign as the Gully Gad. All these have contributed to the making of a soul inextricably tied to the Soul of the Jamaican nation.

But this SOUL does not determine whether you can hold an audience spellbound drinking your every move and word, much like Buju Banton did for me at Sunsplash 2006 or as Junior Gong did at Jamaica Jazzfest 2012. The business of music has different strands, skill sets, training needs and systems of assessment and success criteria. Mavado has not really got that with the weight of his voice, the love he gets from audiences at home and abroad, there is still ‘something’ missing.

I want to call this missing element, this something larger than any Mavado performance or recording – management, or more pointedly the business of management. Management has several components which includes identifying needs of the artist in a holistic sense, whether in the realm of training (for overall fitness, vocal range / conditioning), identifying strengths and weaknesses, and plotting / planning / charting the artist’s career taking account of the life cycle, its stages and the requirements at each stage. Then there is the matter of the training / experience of the manager him/herself bearing in mind that many of the managers in the Jamaican context have learned on the job, by trial and error with the relatively small population of ‘extreme talents’. This, among other things, has led industry insiders such as veteran keyboardist / musical director Nigel Staff to argue that a Jamaican music industry does not exist.

Mavado’s journey with management has been an interesting but not unusual one. He started his own label in 2011 (Mansion Records) and later announced he had signed a deal with the DJ Khaled-led We The Best Music Group. I consider Mavado an artist in training but it seems for the past 5 years something of the understanding of the difference between live performance and recorded music went missing. I expect that this is something a management team would be most concerned about addressing, and while I am focused here on Mavado, it applies to other Jamaican performers.

I am suggesting that the audience at any stage show is left unfulfilled when an artist cannot deliver his tunes, especially newly interpreted and extemporaneously orchestrated, to affirm the SOUL of the music, the Jamaican people and our place in the musical globe. Too many artists believe ‘touching’ a tune, ‘pulling it up’ and moving to another tune affirms their quality as an artist. Such a practice, given the constraints of time in many a stage performance, is irritating unless it is a dancehall clash where the tempo is heightened, and sign of an unrehearsed, weak performer at best.

We must get it together managers! We must get it together performers. It is the soul of our music that we must keep at the forefront of our minds, the soul of the Jamaican people, indeed the soul of the reggae/dancehall transnation.

Selah.