Reggae's Civil War

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

Sharon Gordon, head of the Brooklyn-based Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music—which held a forum last year entitled, "Could Dancehall Be the Ruination of Reggae and, By Extension, the Jamaica Brand?"—agrees. Dubbing Mavado and Kartel "hype masters" who are "not reflective of the Jamaican people nor their values," she says that although the Gaza-Gully feud is not as directly "impactful" on New Yorkers as it is on those in Jamaica—for those who choose sides, "it's more about the hype," she explains: The music is taking its toll in broader ways.

"Mavado and Kartel," she says, "have used the ugliness of the day-to-day existence in our underserved communities as fodder for their baseless noise that is masquerading as music." 

At the command center of the Gaza Empire—i.e., the hole-in-the-wall Kingston studio where Kartel records—a sign reads, "No idlers, weapons, loitering, and smoking of ganja." There, in a dark alleyway, a line of young men and women sit and wait silently. For what, it's not clear; the place feels like a doctor's waiting room. Occasionally, a ringtone shatters the silence. It's always a Kartel tune.

Mavado, "Gully God" and owner of "that voice"
Courtesy VP Records, Publicity Dept.
Mavado, "Gully God" and owner of "that voice"

I park myself by the door to the studio, marked "Gaza." Kartel, 34, changed the name of his community from "Borderline" to "Gaza" after the former had coincidentally become a gay slang term; he chose the new moniker because Palestinians, he told a journalist, are "serious and dem nah back down." There's already a "Tel Aviv" and an "Angola" in Kingston, so it fit right in.

After nearly an hour, Kartel—born Adidja Palmer, now also known as "Di Teacha"—emerges, sporting fitted jeans and a tight T-shirt over a crisp button-down, flashing a joker's grin and all manner of charm. I am beckoned inside, where a man who introduces himself as Not Nice is seated at the mixing board, with a slim young woman in a ponytail who looks no older than 20 in the recording booth. She would, she explains, soon be the newest Gaza sensation, but "Di Teacha hasn't decided what my name will be as yet. Di Teacha will sort it out. Di Teacha knows best."

Another woman, professionally dressed, talks animatedly on her cell phone. She mentions being the cousin of a high-profile PNP politician; the words "visa" and "arrest record" punctuate her conversation. Kartel, whose numerous run-ins with the law have primarily involved weapons charges, has not held a U.S. visa in years.

The walls are covered with Kartel: promos for his singles and the artists on his Gaza label, alongside ads for Vybz Rum, featuring the star decked out, pimp-style, in wide collars and furs, surrounded by scantily clad women. One poster features Di Teacha and the slogan "Abstinence Mek Sense"; another depicts a grinning Kartel encircled by schoolchildren above the tagline "Stay in School."

"Make yourself comfortable—I'm going to smoke a cigarette, then we do the interview," Kartel says with a sly smile. He bows out. Meanwhile, the yet-unnamed new artist stumbles through her track, which involves re-voicing Kartel's über-explicit lyrics about a "cocky" that was "too rude." It sounds like a knockoff of "Romping Shop," Kartel's 2008 hit duet with dancehall act Spice, which still earns play on American airwaves despite the fact that nearly the entire song, an exhaustive explication of a sexual encounter, must be bleeped out.

Two hours later, Kartel, not back yet, evidently still hasn't finished his "cigarette." Exasperated, I leave.

It's vintage Kartel—all smiles, all wiles. He's dancehall's Anansi: the spider trickster figure from West African lore who is always one step ahead of his detractors. When Kartel endured public attack for illicit lyrics about "romping shops" and taking girls' virginity, he came out with his own brand of condoms—Daggering Condoms ("daggering" is slang for sex)—and advocated abstinence or safe sex; when he was blasted for being too slack in his talk of girls and guns, he recorded a sappy love song or a scathingly witty political track. In a televised interview on a popular Jamaican show in late 2009, Kartel fired off rounds of talk familiar to anyone who has followed the stale discourse long surrounding hip-hop culture. He alluded to being Jamaica's scapegoat, absolved himself of responsibility for raising the country's children, said he's no more violent than classic gangster movies, and insisted that, anyway, he and Mavado didn't create the violence, but were mere reflections of it.

Kartel later shares, via his publicist, his thoughts on the feud and the truce. "Maybe it was blown a little out of proportion by the media," he begins. "But as they say, to whom much is given, much is expected. So both Mavado and I thought that it was the best thing to do so as to show the young, impressionable minds that this is only music—it's art."

Of the prime minister–brokered truce—which he dubs "not a publicity stunt"—Kartel, whose double-album Pon Di Gaza 2.0 was just released, insists, "I know it will last. The government wasn't necessary, but we welcomed their efforts and pooled resources together for the betterment of music."

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