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."

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.

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.

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."

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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