Reggae's Civil War

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

It's an unsubstantiated and boldly controversial claim. It is common knowledge that the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party extend beyond politics; armed gangs in Jamaica, like all of Kingston's "garrison" neighborhoods, have, since the '70s, been aligned with one of the two. Adams's theory—which I'd never heard or read before, and did not seem out of the realm of possibility, though Mavado later denied it—is thus a chilling one.

Will the truce last? "No, not in Jamaica," replied Adams, reaching for his Red Bull again. "Like the gangs in this country, who they didn't kill in seven months they kill in seven days."

The feud has never stopped generating anxious anecdotes: allegations that the Gaza-Gully divide was inciting violence inside Jamaica's brutally overcrowded prisons, that musical selectors had been roughed up by supporters of Kartel over their Gully-centric sets, that tourists had been attacked because they played Mavado in their car outside a Gaza event. In late 2009, pre-truce, the police seized R-rated Gaza-Gully buttons sold by vendors outside several schools—the pins featured explicit, Photoshopped graphics of one artist holding another's severed head, blasting off AKs, and so on—wherein the public focus turned to corruptible children.

"Usually, there are conflicts in dancehall, but this one got out of hand," Esther Tyson, Vice-President of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools, told me. The last straw was when students at the Kingston school where she serves as principal were asked to come up with presentation topics for Jamaica's National Heroes Day celebration and suggested Gaza vs. Gully.

I'd heard the rumors and read the tabloid accounts, but I hadn't met anyone who'd been—or even knew anyone who'd been—involved in actual physical confrontations stemming from the feud. The many children with whom I chatted, who hailed from all across Jamaica's wide class divide, made their musical preferences known, but declared they'd never fight over music. In fact, Tyson herself had originally said she could put me in touch with several principals whose schools had been violently affected, then later reneged, saying those asked felt they couldn't really speak on the matter. Skeptical, I asked whether she or her colleagues bore witness to actual feud-related violence.

"I don't know of any personally, but we heard about it," she replied. "Because of the truce called, however, there seems to be a diminishing of the impact." Will it last? "I hope so." She sighed audibly. "But, probably, something else will come."

Back in New York City, Manhattan is Switzerland—home to far fewer West Indians than Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx, and thus capable of remaining neutral amid the Caribbean-related drama often present in the outer boroughs. So on Friday night at Club Element, the cavernous Lower East Side club that hosts a popular weekly Caribbean party, the mood is light. Mavado and Kartel tunes are spun in equal measure, while frequent soca interludes keep the peace; waist-wining and dancehall-feuding, after all, don't mix. Gaza vs. Gully troubles feel, appropriately, thousands of miles away.

"They're not, though," asserts Jermaine Magras, whose company, Upscale Crowd Entertainment, runs the Element party, along with other reggae and soca events throughout the city. "Club DJs here have to be careful not to spin too much Mavado or Kartel, or else they'll be branded as either 'Gully' or 'Gaza.' Once they're branded, they'll have problems." With what? "Getting what they need from Jamaican artists—dubplates, for instance," he replies, referring to the personalized versions of tunes that are the caviar of a good reggae selector's set.

"Anywhere you have a Caribbean community, you're going to see the impact of the Gaza-Gully conflict," confirms veteran WBLS radio host Dahved Levy. Sure enough, put your ear to the streets and familiar anxious anecdotes emerge: rumors about an area in Brooklyn near the 5 train lately dubbed "Gully," about schoolchildren fighting over allegiances, about clubs in Brooklyn and Queens where tensions have arisen.

"New Yorkers with friends and family in Jamaica—and that's obviously a lot of people—are going to be directly affected by the feud," explains Bobby Clarke, CEO of Irie Jam Media, which produces TV and radio programs as well as major concerts. "Especially the kids—they attach themselves to anything from Jamaica. But it's not as serious as it is in Jamaica—it's more a kind of trickle-down effect, a less intense version of the same conflict. For kids in school, for instance, you have a rival bully, so you label him 'Gaza.' "

The "trickle-down" effect brings to mind T-shirts I saw for sale on the U.S.-based website BabylonYard: brightly colored, hipster-style, and decked out in "Gaza" and "Gully" logos. I ask Clarke if the feud could, in time, become as serious here as in Jamaica. "Definitely," is his immediate reply. "Mavado and Kartel have the same potential connections to gang-related communities as Biggie and Tupac did."

It's this Biggie-Tupac echo that has made the Gaza-Gully feud so popular, especially because the reggae industry, Clarke explains, is slumping badly. Record sales are pitifully low, and New York reggae shows are fewer and farther between than they've been in years. "Kartel and Mavado are definitely two of the most talented dancehall artists I've ever seen, but their popularity is overshadowing great music that needs to be at the forefront," he continues, citing roots-reggae acts like Tarrus Riley, Queen Ifrica, and songstress Etana—none of whose buzzed-about 2009 albums earned Grammy nods.

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