A undeniable, yet divisive, talent, Vybz Kartel has entered into a career phase his seemingly invincible ego, as the self-designated as the World Boss, might have never envisioned: a life sentence, handed down today by Justice Lennox Campbell in Jamaica’s Supreme Court. Several roads were closed within the vicinity of the downtown Kingston courthouse in anticipation of today’s sentencing, which was originally scheduled for March 27th.
Kartel will not be eligible for parole until he serves 35 years of his life sentence, while Shawn Campbell and Kahira Jones will be eligible for parole after serving 25 years of their life sentences; Andre St. John will be eligible for parole after serving 30 years of his life sentence.
On March 13th, Kartel, born Adidja Palmer, was found guilty of the August 16, 2011 murder of his former associate Clive “Lizard” Williams, the outcome of a 58-day trial, which commenced on November 18th, 2013 -- said to be the longest in the history of Jamaica’s Circuit court. Guilty verdicts were also handed to Shawn Campbell (dancehall artist Shawn Storm), Kahira Jones and Andre St. John, who each received life sentences today. The fourth co-accused, Shane Williams, received the jury’s sole not guilty decision. Minutes after the verdicts were announced, juror Livingston Cain was charged with bribing the jury foreman to influence a not guilty verdict; Shane Williams is now charged in another murder case.
Palmer’s lawyers will appeal today’s conviction, a process expected to take between 6-12 months, said Christian Tavares-Finson, who along with his father Tom Tavares-Finson have represented the embattled dancehall artist since the trial started. The defense maintains the prosecution presented evidence that had been fabricated and otherwise manipulated including text messages reportedly sent from Palmer’s phone, after it was confiscated, allegedly boasting of the butchering of Williams’ body, which has never been found.
In August, Palmer will face charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice as related to the Williams murder case; police reported that Kartel's protégé, singer Vanessa Saddler, a.k.a Gaza Slim, and an associate, Andre Henry, went to a Kingston precinct where Saddler filed a statement claiming she had been robbed at knifepoint by Williams five days after Palmer was charged with his murder. According to police, evidence exists, including phone records, indicating that Palmer instructed Saddler to report the robbery.
“Jamaica feels this because Vybz Kartel has contributed a lot to reggae, no matter what anyone says, and we will support him in any way that we can,” says Tad Dawkins, founder of the Kingston/Miami based reggae independant Tad’s Records who have released three albums by Kartel, including his 2013 set, “Kartel Forever Trilogy”, which reached no. 11 on the Reggae Album chart.
Vybz Kartel’s conviction/sentencing is the dishonorable cap to a career strategically propelled by controversy, from the graphic sexuality on songs like “Tek Buddy” to the gruesome thug exploits recounted in “Real Bad Man”, a grizzly parallel to the alleged events that brought his judgment (“mi lass (cutlass) dem fi choppin'/mi trick him, mi trap him, di rifle dem whop him”), to the years of traded song disses between The World Boss representing his Gaza consortium of artists/supporters and dancehall artist Mavado’s Gullyside crew. The artists’ lyrical salvos were sometimes taken literally by fans with numerous fights, in defense of their preferred artist, taking place at dancehall sessions, even in schoolyards, before peace was declared in late 2009. Prior to his murder conviction, Kartel’s most debated action was the lightening of his skin from its natural chocolate brown to pasty beige to better display his multiple tattoos.
Each contentious step resulted in greater media attention, something Kartel skillfully manipulated yet proudly mocked, as he told Billboard.biz in a December 2009 interview at his Kingston Gaza studio. “I am amazed at how stupid the media can be because there are so many serious issues in Jamaica. The governor of the Bank of Jamaica is in a big scandal over money. The price of flour raise, sugar raise but everybody is on this Gully/Gaza thing, it is like a ploy to take the people’s minds off the real issues and the media is just playing along because they are simple-minded. I know how to control them and I always do.”
Kartel’s clever, often contested lyrics brought him numerous hits while his entrepreneurial savvy transformed his controversial actions into several successful products branded under his Gaza Empire. For example, prior to admitting to skin bleaching he referenced the practice in his hit singles “Straight Jeans and Fitted”, followed by “Cake Soap” then created a line of Vybz Kartel Cake Soap, generating further outrage and publicity. Whether or not Vybz’s Cake Soap actually lightened skin as he claimed, and despite the self-loathing many associate with the procedure, Vybz’s Cake Soap sold out of its initial shipment of 2,000 units in Jamaica in May 2011, without an island-wide distribution network.
Kartel’s Gaza Empire also included Daggering Condoms, the Vybz Wear line of tees, belt buckles and dog tags, and Addi’s shoes, the latter inspired by his massive 2010 single “Clarks” (featuring his Gaza Empire artists Popcaan and Gaza Slim) which prompted a surge in the price and sales of the venerable English shoe brand in Jamaica.
Despite the variety within his abundant repertoire, it’s the Kartel songs that are the aural equivalent of porn or blood splattered gangster films that have brought his farthest-reaching celebrity. Some contend his scatological verse brought the dancehall genre to an unprecedented low, an argument that surrounded dancehall superstars Yellowman and Shabba Ranks, in their respective ‘80s and ‘90s heydays. Yet both artists are now hailed as genre standard bearers. Time will tell if Kartel’s provocative brand merely pushes the envelope in more permissive times, as reflected in movies, television and other musical genres, or if he is truly an aberrant, corrupting force among a predominantly young fan base.
Justice Campbell is weighing the option of allowing Kartel to record in prison after determining if he can be transferred from the New Horizon Remand Center, where he has spent almost three years awaiting the conclusion of his murder trials, to the Tower St. Correction Center, which is outfitted with a recording studio. The judge must also ascertain whether proceeds from such recordings can be awarded to the family of Clive “Lizard” Williams.
Whether or not Kartel records new material, the strategized controversies that elevated his career trajectory are now beyond his control.
“Kartel entered the game as one of its most compelling stars and stayed that way; the impact of his conviction/sentencing will be measured over time but he changed Jamaican music,” comments Pat McKay, Director of Programming, Sirius XM, The Joint/ Kirk Franklin’s Praise (Reggae and Gospel). “How it is changed,” she says, “is on the shoulders of current music makers.”