Vybz Kartel Gives His First Interview In Four Years Amidst Life Sentence

Vybz Kartel
Scott Gries/Getty Images

Vybz Kartel poses for a photo backstage during MTV's Tempo network launch celebration Oct. 16, 2005 in St. Mary, Jamaica.

A mock news clip announcing residents of an undisclosed ghetto community in Jamaica "are fuming about treatment meted out by security forces" opens the commentary "Worldboss" from embattled dancehall artist Vybz Kartel's new album Of Dons and Divas. "We are tired of this, we nah stop block the road until the prime minister come. We want justice!!" thunders dancehall artist Lisa Mercedez, who's featured alongside RedBoom, their voices joining a chorus repeatedly chanting "worldboss, worldboss, worlboss." The ferocious verses by Kartel, a.k.a. World Boss, slam political party alliances pitting poor people against each other, and demand accountability from politicians while ridiculing their empty promises, with a dash of humor: "Government have a dumb plan, commissioner eats dumpling, how dem a target bad man, what about good man? Where the job? Where the program? Bag a speech, bag a slogan, what you talkin' 'bout, Gary Coleman?"

The injustices expressed by Kartel throughout "Worldboss" align with his legal team's opinion on his 2013/2014 trial, his murder conviction for the killing of associate Clive "Lizard" Williams and the April 3 denial of an appeal to overturn that decision, handed down almost two years after the July 2018 appeal hearing. Three days after the release Of Dons and Divas, on June 29, Kartel's lawyers will return to Jamaica's Court of Appeal and make a motion to have his case heard by the UK's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the final appellate court for Jamaica. "An important question we will put to the Privy Council is whether or not Kartel received a fair trial; the judge was duty bound to ensure that his constitutional rights were protected, and that was not the case," comments Isat Buchanan, lead attorney in Kartel's appeal. "Regardless of the outcome at the Court of Appeal, we are going before the Privy Council because the rules allow it; we should be there by the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021."

Commenting from the St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility in Spanish Town where he is serving a life sentence, eligible for parole in 2046, Vybz Kartel (born Adidja Azim Palmer), 44, in his first interview in nearly four years, condemned the Jamaican court system and welcomed the chance to have his appeal presented to the Privy Council. "I would like to say re the Privy Council that I am going to be out soon. Law and statute are what the council deals in, not corruption. The appeal hearing in Jamaica, just like the trial, was a joke, a kangaroo court, a circus."

Not everyone feels that way, however. Following the appeal denial, a release from Mr. Williams' family stated, "We are pleased with the outcome of the verdict from the Court."

Billboard's interview with Vybz Kartel was coordinated by Zoe Espitia, co-founder with Aaron Mahlfeldt of Zojak World Wide, distributors of Of Dons and Divas and the world's largest digital distributor of Jamaican music. The interview questions were emailed to Espitia who sent them to Kartel; Kartel's responses were sent to Espitia who emailed them to Billboard. Of Dons and Divas, which drops on June 26, was produced by Vybz Kartel Muzik and Short Boss Muzik, the labels owned, respectively, by Kartel and his common law wife, Tanesha "Shorty" Johnson.

"Being in prison for the last nine years definitely took a toll on my family, my parents and especially my kids, early on. It caused me and my woman's (Shorty) relationship to be destroyed as far as intimate love is concerned but we're very cool and have never been in a better place," Kartel commented; two of Kartel and Shorty's three children, Jaheim (Likkle Vybz) 17 and Akheel (Likkle Addi) 15, are pursuing music careers and make appearances on Of Dons and Divas. "I deffo think they'll do extremely well in the game, or they can't say 'Addi a me daddy,'" offers Kartel, who has seven children, noting, "they're all happy so I consider myself a real G that handles his business."

Incarcerated since Sept. 29, 2011, following his arrest at a Kingston hotel for possession of marijuana, Kartel was charged within days with the July 2011 killing of promoter Barrington "Bossie" Burton. Acquitted in that case, Kartel was implicated in the August 2011 murder of Lizard, whose body has never been found. Following a 65-day trial, he was handed a life sentence.

With TV, newspapers, radio talk shows and social media debating each gritty detail, Kartel says he cannot get a fair trial in Jamaica. "Since I got arrested, over 11,000 people have been murdered in Jamaica; the general public couldn't care less because Vybz Kartel or another star's name isn't mentioned," Kartel stated. "Everyone is concerned with where Lizard is. Kids have been murdered but, whatever, they're just kids...elderly have been murdered but that's nothing...they were gonna die anyway. 'WE WANT JUSTICE FOR LIZARD!!!' is their cry. F--king idiots. Over 11,000 people and no national outcry. I don't even blame government as much anymore because as the Jamaican saying goes, 'if patient don't care, what doctor must do?' So, there is no fair trial."

When asked how he's endured nine years behind bars, he offered, "I'm a very stubborn person, that's where I get my strength from. If you're gonna say Kartel being in prison will end his career, I'mma do everything to show you're an idiot."

In a recent interview on CVM TV's On Stage, Buju Banton said when he went to jail in 2010, Vybz Kartel was dancehall's most popular artist and when he was released in December 2018, "a Kartel me see run the place same way." How has Kartel maintained his dominance from behind bars? "It's a secret like the Colonel's recipe. The true secret to success is commitment, hard work, smart work, self-analysis and most important, humility," he responded. "Once I face a riddim (rhythm track), I'm not worldboss, just a man with a pen, paper and a track. Other artists are working hard, so I think it's just the formula."

Of Dons and Divas continues Kartel's proven blueprint, juxtaposing the sacred ("Say A Prayer"), the profane ("Bad Gyal") or combining both ("Jump On The Beat"). "No Prison" is, surprisingly, a love song; "Militant Coup" depicts a sexual takeover and he'll likely strike gold again with the pop/dancehall/reggaeton flavored "Cute Rider," produced by JonFX.

"A winning formula never really changes, it just gets wider, more 'depthy' so it's Kartel in his usual vybz," he says. "This album has more features than the new S Class Benz, a new generation of dons and divas."

Exactly how Kartel recorded Of Dons and Divas' 18 tracks remains a mystery, since recording isn't allowed in prison; the World Boss' cryptic response didn't provide an explanation. "Many people say YES! VYBZ IS RECORDING IN PRISON!! But where's the proof? But this is Jamaica where you don't need proof to imprison someone. For the record, I'm not authorized to answer such 'above pay grade' questions so I'll say, 'a tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear it.'"

Despite the headline generating explicitness heard on some of his biggest hits, Kartel's vast catalog contains many songs addressing inequalities faced by poor Black Jamaicans (issues he explores in great depth throughout his 2012 book The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, co-authored with Michael Dawson). Yet, even with current movements calling for societal reforms, don't expect a rush of commentaries in Kartel's music. "Reggae and dancehall music have always brought awareness to the plight of the poor, but the truth is, how much more awareness do we need?" he asks. "Music has shed as much light as it can on social injustices. Evil doesn't sleep so the good messenger cannot rest, either. The message must be broadcasted but I think music is overrated in the amount of change it can bring; we gotta get up and go do if we want som'n tangible."