Plagued By Visa Problems, Jamaican Stars Seek Alternatives to Reach Fans

Anita Posada for WTJRC
Jah Cure performing aboard the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise.

On the third night of the Jamrock Reggae Cruise, the successful five-day festival cruise founded by Damian Marley, as the Pearl sailed between two Jamaican ports prior to its return to Miami, a top-tier roster including singer Jah Cure, vibrant young dancehall star Popcaan, versatile sing-jay Busy Signal and veteran deejay Bounty Killer brought the sold-out crowd delivered to an international audience of reggae devotees some of the island's most vibrant music. Despite the performers' contrasting styles and age differences, these artists share a major career impediment: all are without visas/work permits for the US, the UK and Canada. As such, the Jamrock cruise organizers devised an opportunity to present four in-demand Jamaican acts that American, Canadian and British reggae lovers are unable to see in their countries -- the artists boarded the ship at the first port in Jamaica and disembarked at the second.

"We applaud the Marley team for developing a key platform for Jamaican artists who can't travel to the U.S., it builds greater demand for them that can hopefully help to breakthrough their visa barriers," noted Aaron Talbert, vp of sales and marketing at New York City-based reggae independent VP Records.

On the morning following his electrifying performance aboard the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise, Jah Cure disembarked the Pearl in Ocho Rios, Jamaica surrounded by excited fans, all with cell phone cameras ready. Cure delayed his exit and graciously posed for selfies with each of them. "People came all the way from England to see me here so I am happy to take photos with them," said the Rastafarian artist whose chart-topping album The Cure is a Grammy nominee for best reggae album.

Dancehall and reggae acts have always relied on concert dates, rather than record sales, to generate income. The inability to perform in the United States, Canada and the U.K. greatly diminishes their overall earning potential and constrains the opportunities for exposure.

"Promoters are frustrated because they are recycling the same acts for shows, fans want more too. It's supply-and-demand, and the supply from Jamaica has dwindled," remarks Jamaica-born Ms. J. Lexy Brooks, founder/CEO of the Manhattan-based entertainment company VIP Connected Entertainment, LLC, whose services include booking a diversity of artists for international events. Ms. Brooks has successfully petitioned for several dancehall artists' US visas including vocal group Voicemail, dancer/vocalist Ding Dong and selector/vocalist Tony Matterhorn.

Artists generally apply for "P" visas, P1, as part of an internationally recognized group, P2 for an exchange program and P3 for culturally unique artists. They must present a contract with their petitioner, the start and end dates for their various engagements and a description of the events they will participate in. An advisory opinion, stating their qualifications, must also be submitted.

The reasons Bounty Killer, Busy Signal, Jah Cure and Popcaan cannot travel to the US are as varied as their music. In June 2012, Busy Signal (Glendale Gordon) was anticipating touring in support of his critically acclaimed Reggae Music Again (VP Records), which peaked at No. 3 on Reggae Albums chart. Instead he was arrested and extradited to the U.S. for absconding on bail over a 2002 drug case. He served two months in a Minnesota prison then was released ahead of schedule in November 2012, the presiding judge was apparently impressed with his career accomplishments and clean record over the past 10 years. He is now eligible to reapply for a visa.

Popcaan (Andre Sutherland), a protégé of dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel who generated interest following his 2014 debut Where We Come From and is a favorite of Drake, had his visa approval delayed over minor marijuana-related offenses.

Bounty Killer (Rodney Price), a mentor to Kartel and Busy Signal, lost his U.S. travel privileges in an en-masse revocation of visas belonging to five dancehall acts that took place in March 2010 Beenie Man (Moses Anthony Davis), Mavado (David Brooks), Aidonia (Sheldon Ricardo Aitana Lawrence) and sound system selector Ricky Trooper (Garfield Augustus McKoy) were all barred from travel. (Beenie Man has since recovered his visa and Mavado is now a permanent resident of the US). Homeland Security took this unprecedented step while the US and Jamaican governments were at loggerheads over the extradition of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, although a connection was never established between the artists and the reputed Jamaican drug lord. 

The U.S. Embassy's Acting Public Affairs Officer in Kingston would not divulge the reasons for rescinding those visas, but some industry members speculated that offensive lyrics in a few of the artists' songs could have prompted the travel bans. Dancehall's PR problems were exacerbated by the incarceration of megastars Buju Banton, currently serving a 10-year sentence for cocaine related charges, and Vybz Kartel, who lacked a US visa for several years prior to the life sentence he was handed for murder in April 2014.

"I won't blame dancehall's survival on immigration issues, but everything changed after 2010," Ms. Brooks opined, "and the travel restrictions placed on so many superstars has affected the image of the industry in a way that it never rebounded from."

The career trajectory of Jah Cure (b. Siccature Alcock), arguably, comprises the most controversial set of circumstances surrounding a Jamaican artist's visa woes. In 1999 Cure was a promising, 20-year-old singer -- before being sentenced to 15 years in prison on rape, robbery and gun charges. Utilizing the prison's digital studio, Cure recorded several singles that soared to the top of the Jamaican charts, each characterized by his anguished yet ethereal vocals.

As Cure's fame increased, details emerged of irregularities within the trial proceedings that led to his conviction including his rape charges being tried before a magistrate, not a jury. Soon, defending his innocence became a cause célèbre among members of the international reggae community. Cure's was released from jail early for good behavior in 2007.

Upon his release Cure headlined the Sundance Reggae Festival in Holland in August 2007; he has since performed at numerous festivals across the continent. However, his status as a convicted felon means the U.S. is out of the question.

"If I could travel to America, I could achieve much more, so I am reaching out to knowledgeable people and immigration lawyers to get the right advice," Cure told Billboard in an interview aboard the reggae cruise. "Maybe winning a Grammy would help with getting a visa; to achieve that, knowing what I have been through, I could help others build their careers."

Artists whose visas have been revoked or denied can derive great advantages by developing community relationships beyond the musical realm, reasons Jamaica-born Irwine Clare, co-founder/managing director of Caribbean Immigrant Services in Queens, New York. "Civic organizations are in better positions to lobby for artists with strong ties to the wider community," says Clare. "The nature of heinous crimes like rape and murder means a permanent bar from entering the United States, but opportunities can still be found."