Reggae's Civil War

Why Mavado and Vybz Kartel might be the Biggie and Tupac of Dancehall

Reggae's Civil War

I traversed four Caribbean islands in the past two months and spied one common denominator: graffiti. Scrawled precipitously on a cliff suspended above the lush mountains of Saint Lucia, on the aluminum siding of a rum shop in French Saint Martin, on the concrete walls of a Trinidad office park, on accessible surfaces covering urban and rural landscapes across Jamaica, one of two words made its inevitable appearance: "Gully" or "Gaza."

No island-hopping tagger is responsible—blame Jamaican music's latest, scariest personal feud. "Gaza" refers to a swath of the working-class town of Portmore, home of Vybz Kartel, the man voted, in a recent poll, the island's most popular dancehall artist. "Gully" is for the Kingston neighborhood (a line of shacks, really, along a stretch of gully known as Cassava Piece) where fellow dancehall star Mavado was born. Initially, the two were musical teammates, protégés of the artist Bounty Killer, but since 2006, they've engaged in near-constant lyrical warfare. In track after X-rated track, Kartel has called Mavado a pseudo-gangsta, dubbing him "Mafraudo" and claiming to have had sex with his mother. Mavado retorted that Kartel was, among many other things, a "battyman" (a gay slur, in a country that takes such accusations very seriously), a skin-bleacher, and an atheist. The feud came to a head at a major stage show in late 2008, when the two stood face to face before a rowdy crowd—Kartel decked out in full army gear, Mavado sporting a Lone Ranger–style black mask—and engaged in a heated clash, hurling insults at each other as Kartel carted out a coffin with "R.I.P. Mavado" printed on it. Soon thereafter, Mavado abruptly marched offstage.

After this show—at which fights were said to have broken out between fans, who still argue passionately about whether Mavado or Kartel was the victor—the feud intensified to the point where much of the dancehall community, along with legions of fans, were compelled to decide: Are you with Gaza or Gully? In the Jamaica Gleaner, critic Ian Boyne lamented the fact that entire dance sessions and even neighborhoods were dangerously divided: "If your car is even passing one of these sessions, and you don't happen to know whether it is Gaza or Gully territory," he wrote, "you are in danger. You don't even have the right to play the opposing gangster in your own car or SUV. What a life!" Even the fastest man on earth took sides: At Usain Bolt's post-Olympic welcome-home party, the gold medalist allegedly marched into the DJ booth and decreed that only "Gaza" tunes should be played at his parties. "And anybody nuh like dat," he supposedly declared, "can jump inna gully."

The feud generated such attention that in December 2009—a year cursed by Jamaica's highest-ever murder rate—the country's two most-high-profile men intervened. Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who previously called the Gaza-Gully conflict "one example of the negative influences that destabilize us as a people," requested a meeting with the two artists. Before and after the powwow, which involved four government ministers and a bishop, Mavado and Kartel strutted through the prime minister's office providing myriad photo ops: shaking hands, laughing like old pals, and modeling shimmering jewels and designer shades.

The real peace decree, though, came just before the meeting, when the two DJs took the stage together at a Kingston concert and Kartel called Mavado "my brother." The performance was, by all reliable accounts, coordinated by so-called community leader Christopher Coke, a/k/a "Dudus": current target of a U.S. extradition request on drug- and weapons-trafficking charges and the son of gangster icon Jim Brown, who was the founder of the legendary Shower Posse gang that ran much of Jamaica, New York, and Miami in the '80s.

It has all the makings of a straight-to-DVD classic: one prime minister, one alleged "don," two "gangsta" dancehall artists, and a soundtrack of scathingly good diss tracks. In Jamaica, the same boundless, indigenous creativity that has produced a wealth of classic music and art has also produced, well, creative tactics both political and criminal. Gaza vs. Gully was thus perceived as supercharged hip-hop beef, pumped up by dint of arising in a country defined, for decades, by dire gang conflict and some of the highest murder rates in the world. But which has generated more undeserved hype: the angst provoked by the Gaza-Gully conflict, or the high hopes pinned to this official, uneasy truce? I flew to Kingston to find out.

There, in a small bar called Medusa's, I ran into Reneto Adams, retired senior superintendent of the Jamaican police force and a man with quite a reputation: In 2004, he stood trial for the murder of four civilians; before his acquittal, he recorded a dancehall track entitled "To Protect and Serve," which named the so-called bad men he'd be coming for next. "Gaza vs. Gully is an extension of the gangs and criminal activity we have in Jamaica," Adams told me, setting down his Red Bull. The feud stands out from the many beefs in Jamaican musical history, he continued—citing Derrick Morgan vs. Prince Buster in the '60s, and Beenie Man vs. Bounty Killer in the '90s—because "earlier feuds did not incorporate violence. Furthermore, this one is also political: Gaza is predominantly PNP, and Gully is predominantly JLP."

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