Reggae's Civil War

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

The evening after the Kartel blowoff, I hear more of the same from the man dubbed the "Gully God": 28-year-old Mavado, born David Brooks. Opening the door to the humble studio belonging to Daseca, the trio who produced many of the hits on Mavado's two albums—2007's Gangsta for Life and last year's Mr. Brooks . . . A Better Tomorrow—I'm all but knocked down by the force of that voice. Mavado's signature "singjay" style has not just a tear in it but a full-on wail, capable of transforming any song, however fierce, from an homage to violence into a fervent lamentation.

Through the glass I make out only the glitter of Mavado's watch and platinum chain. When he emerges from the booth, he paces the room and looks at the floor, wringing his hands in search of lyrics for a track that's evolving into a story about "wicked and evil people" who try, in vain, to kill him. It's a laboriously slow songwriting process, and the result is, as with many of Mavado's hits, lyrically lackluster—he rhymes "people" with "vehicle"—yet overwhelmingly compelling; Mavado can sing the Yellow Pages and make it sound profound.

Thinking of the scene in "Gaza" the day before, I'm struck by how utterly illogical the feud is: Mavado and Kartel are like yin and yang, bringing such strikingly different skill sets to the table that the notion of them competing is confounding. Kartel, golden-tongued lyricist and wily trickster, is the head; Mavado—reserved and reticent, yet the bearer of a heartrending voice—is the heart. Kartel, ever the ladies' man, represents the feral exuberance of adolescence; introverted Mavado projects the gravitas of old age.

"When two great artists such as me and Vybz are at odds, it's big," Mavado explains, taking a break on the steps outside the studio. "But the whole musical rivalry doesn't even make Mavado a better person. Mavado always been doing good songs, even without a rival." He cites his new work: recent collaborations with Alicia Keys, Akon, and Shyne, and his new track "Starlight," in which he asks, "Somebody tell me/Why di Gully and di Gaza fight."

"Whenever I'm in the studio, it's a hit song—I don't do 100 songs, but what I do, I make perfect," he continues. It's a direct reference to Kartel, known for manic recording sessions followed by the release of track after track—many of them mediocre, one or two of them likely a hit.

"There are artists out there"—I take this as another nod to Kartel—"who feel they can't reach a certain level on their own, so they look to battle. Sometimes, artists try to pull down a next artist—some crab-in-a-barrel thing, you get me?" And as for "the Gully-Gaza thing," Mavado insists it was "mostly because of the kids—the kids get very wrapped up in it. Me and Vybz, we could have dealt with it without the government." I think of a cartoon I'd seen in a Jamaican newspaper: the prime minister, decked out in a "gangsta" T-shirt, gold chain, and backward cap, telling a suit-clad figure marked "IMF," "Sorry, I have a more important meeting"—and opening a door marked "Gaza/Gully meeting." It's certainly easier, after all, to "broker peace" between two artists than between two political parties who've been warring for decades.

Several proposed projects were agreed upon at the meeting that day: joint school parties, a paint-out day to cover "Gaza-Gully" graffiti across Kingston, a peace concert, T-shirt giveaways, musical collaborations. Did they come to fruition? "I'm a very busy artist, and I guess Vybz is the same," comes Mavado's answer. So will the peace last anyway? "I'm always at peace. At times, dem niggas get me violent, but"—he smiles, something I've never actually witnessed before—"I'm all right now."

Pressing him on this, I ask if Mavado vs. Kartel can ever end up like Biggie vs. Tupac. "Most people do have me and Vybz on a Biggie-and-Tupac level," he replies. "But I'm not really focused on that, because they are two deceased—they are two dead people. Me and Vybz's situation is music different from that because I want to live on, you know?" He pauses, taking a deep breath.

"And I guess Vybz want to do the same."

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