To the U.S. government, Christopher "Dudus" Coke is Jamaica's Al Capone. But for many Jamaicans, he's more like Robin Hood-and he's also a player in the local music business.
After the U.S. government issued an extradition order for Coke on Aug. 25, 2009, over alleged drugs and arms trafficking offenses committed in the United States, a number of reggae artists headed into recording studios to voice their opinions on the man known in Kingston as "the President." Foremost among them was veteran roots reggae singer Bunny Wailer, whose "Don't Touch the President" portrays Coke as a benevolent "Robin Hood from the neighborhood."
"Dudus is a man of peace who makes sure people in his Tivoli Gardens community don't commit crimes," says Wailer, a founding member of the Wailers alongside Bob Marley.
Among Kingstonians, stories abound of how Coke has funded children's education, paid for senior citizens' medication and reduced crime levels. But that's in stark contrast with Coke's image as leader of a gang widely blamed for more than 1,400 murders. Coke is the current leader of Kingston's notorious Shower Posse, co-founded by his late father, Lester "Lloyd" Coke.
The Jamaican government declared a state of emergency in the capital city May 23 as police fought gun battles with Coke supporters who oppose his extradition to the United States. The subsequent violence has reportedly led to the deaths of more than 70 civilians as police and army units continue their hunt for the alleged drug kingpin.
His music business connections involve his Tivoli-based company, Presidential Click, whose offices have now been converted into a police post by the authorities. It stages two major annual concerts: August's charity show Champions in Action and the free pre-Christmas extravaganza West Kingston Jamboree. Both events have featured some of the biggest names in reggae and dancehall including Shaggy, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Queen Ifrica and Tarrus Riley. Their future is now uncertain.
The most recent West Kingston Jamboree, held Dec. 7, 2009, at Tivoli Gardens' community center, was notable for the public ending of a feud between dancehall superstars Vybz Kartel and Mavado. In front of several thousand cheering fans, the pair embraced and performed songs together. By brokering their appearance, Coke ended a longstanding musical war fought initially through the artists' ultra-violent song lyrics, before spilling over into intermittent skirmishes between their rival fan bases.
"Getting warring gangs in Jamaica to sign peace treaties is something Dudus did regularly," Mavado's manager Julian Jones-Griffith says, "so Mavado and Kartel looked at it like, 'If he can stop men out there from killing each other, then what is our lyrical feud to squash?'"
Through the years, Coke has been name-checked in several dancehall songs-not surprising, given popular music's tradition of romanticizing outlaws, from "Stagger Lee" to the Mexican drug lords extolled in modern-day narcocorridos.
Two of the songs that have mentioned Coke were Wayne Marshall's "It's Evident," which revels in "rolling high like the President" and Soltex 3000's "Killa Walk Prezzi Bounce." Both were initially issued in 2006 on Greensleeves Records' "Redbull & Guinness" compilation.
Others have taken a more tongue-in-cheek approach. "Which Dudus," the title track to the album released in January on Boardhouse Records by Twin of Twins' (brothers Patrick and Paul Gaynor), asks, "How dem go look for Dudus and dem nah find bin Laden?"
Current circumstances have revived attention for "Which Dudus," with plays on Jamaican commercial stations including Hitz 92 FM, IRIE FM and ZIP FM. "It's just social commentary, about the respect he commands from people," Patrick Gaynor says. "It's not political."
Wailer claims he recorded "Don't Touch the President" as a message for Jamaicans, not for commercial purposes. But the song, which was released digitally in October 2009 through his Solomonic label, is widely available at online stores, including iTunes. No airplay monitoring data exists for Jamaica, but the song has been picking up airplay during the state of emergency on stations like IRIE FM and Roots FM.
The reggae veteran adds that he wrote the song-its prescient lyrics warn of civil unrest in western Kingston-because he knew "what would result from moving him away from his people; they haven't even touched the President and yet so many people have died."
International coverage of the bloodshed has brought gloomy predictions from Jamaica's government of hundreds of millions of tourism dollars being lost as visitors stay away. But some local industry observers believe it may also be a watershed moment in the evolution of dancehall, which has been widely criticized for its violent lyrics.
"The unrest may cause a shift in lyrical content, forcing artists to look deeper at the messages they send," says Dylan Powe, a former A&R representative at Atlantic/Big Beat Records. Powe signed reggae acts Inner Circle and the late Garnet Silk to the label in the early '90s and is currently the manager of Kingston-based Swatch International sound system (known as Swash International outside Jamaica).
Despite his pro-Coke stance, Wailer concurs. "It's the uplifting messages heard in roots reggae that put Jamaica on the map," he says, "so our artists need to get back to that."