Carolyn Cooper can be none too pleased that two of her high profile guest lecturers at the University have now been incarcerated – Buju Banton and Vybz Kartel. Several of her detractors will now be walking about town with a smug and self-righteous grin, the words ‘mi did tell yu!’ ready to spring if and when they buck her up.
But that would be unfair, at least in the case of Buju – for nobody saw that one coming. And the presence of that evangelical prayer warrior outside the Florida courthouse, parading up and down, loudly pleading the blood of Jesus, and claiming freedom for Buju as uselessly as Pastor Phinn had claimed election victory for Portia in 2007, was proof at least that this particular Rastaman enjoys the love and support of even elements within Jamaica’s conservative Christian community, let alone the wider society.
Now Vybz Kartel is a different matter altogether. For not only is he arguably more ‘loved’ than Buju at this specific moment in time (such are the vagaries of pop culture) but he is simultaneously more hated. But maybe ‘love’ is not quite the word to use with a figure like Vybz who doesn’t seem to ever inspire that emotion; he is simply more ‘popular’, more ‘current’. In the business of record sales and hopefully-sold-out-concerts however, it is this currency hat counts, and that counts as ‘love’.
Still, Kartel is a polarizing figure, and has risen to dizzying heights of success in much the way that an artist such as Eminem did – with lyrics and statements so outrageous, misogynistic, and disturbingly violent, that people were beside themselves with confusion, not liking the man himself but having to admit there was something compelling about his music. In other words, he polarized not only opinions, but our very selves: our feet and our sense of rhythm seemed to find pleasure in songs that our more sensible minds just could not and still cannot agree with. Weak-willed, some of us have just said ‘What the hell!’ and have gone the way of our feet, dancing a conflicted dance. But Vybz became and continues to become even more outrageous. A true provocateur. As if his lyrics and utterances were not spectacle enough, he has gone on to create bigger and further spectacle with his own body – chemically reducing the pigmentation of his skin and treating that suddenly and awkwardly beige surface as a ‘canvas’ or a ‘colouring book’ (his words, not mine) on which more and more artwork can be tattooed.
I confess now that I fully supported Vybz being invited to give a ‘lecture’ at the University. Even in hindsight, I would support it again. The basic idea that a university should be actively engaged and conversant with the culture that it sits in, that in the most productive of situations the highfalutin discourse of the academy will infect and inform the discourse of the popular and the discourse of the popular will in turn infect and inform the discourse of the academy – are principles I hold to. Cooper’s own inaugural professorial lecture, ‘Professing Slackness: Language, Authority and Power Within the Academy and Without’ eloquently made the same point. This project of initiating more expansive and inclusive conversations is one that she has stuck with and here in the UK it is the kind of thing that funding bodies demand of their academics – to have ‘impact’.
But the lecture itself! Oh Lord. I watched it, streamed on UWI-TV, and….well… no point denying it…it was a let-down.
Probably the whole thing was arranged too quickly. Or probably the open air venue of the UWI undercroft with the crowds pressing in from both sides, rather than the more contained and ‘intimate’ setting of a lecture theatre or conference room, was ill-advised. It seemed that for Vybz Kartel it was just another spectacle. Hoorah.
For the University, it was poor form. The kind of penetrating and insightful interrogation of Kartel’s sometimes disturbing ideologies, or the questions of why youth and popular culture so enthusiastically embrace him, or even the interrogation of why conservative society has so passionately and sometimes hypocritically rejected him – in short, the kinds of questions you would expect from the academy and which would have legitimized the decision to invite him in and give him a platform, was wholly absent. The silly girls who queued up to give Kartel a piece of their minds, did not in fact have much to give. They asked embarrassingly impressionistic questions, and the same one repeatedly: ‘But, but, uhm, Mr Kartel sir, aren’t you like a role model. Don’t you feel responsible for that?’ (Yawn!)
But Vybz’s rise up there on the University lectern signalled for some very alert and discerning people another very troubling rise – that of the man’s ego. To put it plainly, his head was getting too big! Kartel began to see himself not only as a distinguished professor, but as a kind of demigod. In his own words, he is a man set apart, a man with an extraordinary and unprecedented power, someone above and beyond mere mortals. In this he begins to resemble that wonderful character ‘Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov’ from Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ who, before he kills the old woman, harbours the philosophy that for certain men in this world who know that they are great, the taking of the life of someone who stands in their way is not a crime, but a duty!
The cracks began to show more obviously with the famous split between Vybz and his manager, Corey Todd. Todd worryingly stated, in his press release, that he no longer knew Vybz Kartel. The man had begun to change in front of his eyes, and he apparently could no longer ignore the kinds of physical threats that the artiste was making on him and his family.
Again, the discerning people amongst us could probably guess from Todd’s observations, and from Vybz’s antics, not just someone who was a provocateur – but deeper issues of psychic disfragmentation. But it was when Vybz released his own statement in response to Todd that he revealed most fully his true megalomaniac, delusional, psychotic, call-Bellvue-now-cause-da-man-ya-mad self. I remember reading it and thinking it was some sort of a joke from someone else trying to disparage him. But it wasn’t at all. Here are some excerpts from it. You can find the whole thing online:
I had an epiphany whilst on stage. I saw thousands of people screaming for Kartel, jumping up and down, listening to ever word that I uttered on stage, it was like the people were eating out of the palm of my hands. At that moment, something strange came over me, as I heard the people screaming for more, I suddenly realized that my calling was to be more than a Deejay. I realized that the people were not eating out my hands but they wanted to hear Kartel speak because finally somebody was telling their story in a profound no holds barred manner. …. I was finally giving ghetto people a voice – a big voice like society never heard before. I know I am not the first that has ever attempted to do this. Because when I researched I saw that Marcus, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle all spoke directly to the powers that be on behalf of the people but were ostracized and in some cases killed. ….I did not want the same fate to reach me at the time, I did not want them to muzzle me also, so I took a decision that I felt I had to, I had to trick Babylon. I realized if I kept doing outrageous and outlandish stuff, they would write me off as just an attention seeking artiste and not realize that since July 26, 2009 behind closed doors I have been writing my book and setting up my GEL (Gaza Education and Literacy) program. So they put the spotlight on me, not knowing that they were actually putting the spotlight on themselves because Vybz Kartel is not about braces, bleaching and hairstyles but I am about elevating the cause of Ghetto people.Please understand Jamaica sometimes you have to trick Babylon with confusion. If I revealed my intentions two years ago, do you think the people that control the media would report everything I do? Babylon, you have been tricked.
Enough said. Vybz’s ego continues to get bigger and bigger, and if the allegations are true, his trigger finger has become quicker and quicker. There he is, rising and rising (even today he has released a new song, while locked up). But all the while he seems to not appreciate that the old rule of physics does not only apply to objects within our gravitational orbit, but also to the career of artistes like himself: My dear Kartel – whatever rises, must one day fall.