Words by Jesse Serwer
Graphics by Robin Clare
This past summer, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged and protests in support of basic human rights spread around the world, I interviewed dancehall icon and social critic Vybz Kartel from St. Catherine Adult Correctional Centre in Jamaica, where he is currently serving a life sentence for murder. I won’t get into the logistics of how we connected. It will be more interesting if you leave those details to your imagination.
This wasn’t my first time speaking with Kartel. I’d interviewed him both before his 2011 arrest, and since. I was the first journalist with whom he granted an interview from prison, when I profiled him for this 2016 Rolling Stone feature. We spoke numerous times over the phone between 2009 and Summer 2011, a time when he was cementing his status as Jamaica’s most influential artist since Bob Marley. So while I didn’t hear his voice answer my questions this time, or even communicate with him directly, I can confidently report that the answers printed below are 100% authentic and unfiltered. Even in text form, there is only one person who speaks and communicates exactly like Vybz Kartel.
When we spoke, Kartel was preparing to release Of Dons and Divas, one of two full-lengths he released in 2020. That project, which Kartel (speaking through social media, where he still maintains an active presence) had labeled his “Grammy album,” was the impetus for our discussion. However, I was more curious about how, with Covid-19 spreading rapidly in jails and other institutional living quarters, prison life in Jamaica was being affected. (Not much, according to Kartel.)
I was equally interested in speaking to him about his family. His other 2020 album, the hip-hop and R&B-inspired project To Tanesha, was dedicated to his common-law wife, Tanesha “Shorty” Johnson. He’d also been actively working to build careers for his sons, Akheel (known as Little Addy) and Adidja (b/k/a Likkle Vybz), both of whom were featured on Of Dons and Divas. Of course, we also spoke about the appeal on his murder case that he and his lawyers have brought to the UK’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, after it was upheld in Jamaica.
A Kartel interview, I’ve learned, is never predictable. He’s warm to questions you might not expect him to entertain, and forces you to reconsider views you might have taken for granted. He has a way of, politely (at least in our case), always letting you know who is the smartest person in the chat. I have no doubt that, if he’d stayed in school instead of dropping out to pursue music and the streets, he’d have been a champion debater. Whether in the studio or conversation, you can’t out-boss the World Boss.
Vybz Kartel was extremely prolific in 2020, as he has been throughout his time in prison — and, of course, before it as well. Of the nearly 100 tracks he’s released in the past year, the one track that stood a cut above all the rest, to me, was “About Us.” Released on Bobby Konders’ Massive B label just a week and one day before George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in Minnesota, it seemed to capture the mood of the moment that followed it. While it was a relatively minor hit internationally for Kartel, I heard it play throughout the summer on New York’s Hot 97 (where Konders hosts the long-running program Fire Sundays, formerly known as On Da Reggae Tip), where it was one of surprisingly few songs that seemed to comment on the times. It’s one of Kartel’s sharpest tracks and the source of the lyrics in the above graphic, which we commissioned from illustrator Robin Clare.
I’m not sure why this interview didn’t see light earlier. 2020 was a strange year, and a lot slipped through the cracks. Today, Vybz Kartel celebrates his 45th birthday — as much as one “celebrates” a birthday while serving a life sentence. And Babylon has revealed once more, in the loudest possible fashion, that, as Kartel would put it, dem nuh give a f*ck about us. It felt like the right time to share.
LargeUp: Recently, the world has been consumed with the Covid-19 outbreak and uprisings which began in the US over police brutality and racism. How have these events been received and experienced in the prison where you are currently housed?
Vybz Kartel: First of all, thanks for your patience. I’m happy you could spare me your time. Well, as far as I can see, there’s no Covid in prison and relatively low cases of infected persons and high recovery rates. But, what can I say? This is Jamaica.
LU: As a prisoner in the Jamaican prison system, what is a typical day like for you?
VK: Groundhog Day, the movie.
How has it changed, if at all, over the last few months? Was there concern that there could be a Covid outbreak like those in some US prisons?
VK: Well, precautions have been taken insofar as testing is concerned. And very limited [public] access is being given right now. Better to be safe than sorry.
What is your take on the reckoning occurring across society, as regards to racism and abuse of power? Did you anticipate anything like this happening?
VK: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s just facts. Did I anticipate what? Black people are powerless, so there’s nothing to anticipate.
What were your earliest experiences with racism and/or classism, and how did they shape your world view?
VK: Once you’re born in the low-income end of society, you learn quickly about your position in the system. There isn’t any one thing that I can pick out to say that was a defining moment, but my world view has definitely been shaped by my upbringing. Songs like “Poor People Land” and “Emergency” can attest to that.
Your lawyers recently returned to Jamaica’s Court of Appeal to motion for your case to be heard in the UK by its Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. What do you hope will be uncovered and revealed in this process?
VK: Nothing new will be uncovered. The Privy Council already knows the wicked ways of this colony.
Your song “About Us” struck a chord in this current moment. What inspired you to write that particular track?
You have been referring to your latest album, Of Dons and Divas, as your “Grammy album.” Why do you think this is your body of work most worthy of that recognition?
VK: Because it’s the culmination of years worth of experience and trial and error. This album is fine tuned to strike a chord on the listener. There is a song there for every situation.
Why is scoring a Grammy important to you at this stage in your career?
VK: Everyone wants to be recognized by the establishment of which [they are] a part. And, with the Grammy, it’s no different. Vybz Kartel [is] the most influential Caribbean artiste in the last 20 years, both locally and internationally. Plus, I just sold gold from behind bars from a rigged case. Sentenced because of my influence rather than on the merit of the evidence. What a story, huh?! A Grammy-worthy story!
The reggae award tends to go to artists whose names are most familiar to mainstream America, rather than those driving the culture. Considering this, what would winning a Grammy prove?
VK: Based on what you’re asking, winning a Grammy would prove nothing really because Vybz Kartel is mainstream. I’ve had songs in movies, on entertainment shows, I’ve performed on various award shows. I am mainstream enough to easily win. Then add that to the fact that I am driving the culture. It’s a win win.
Can you describe the role that your wife, Taneisha, has played in maintaining your career during the nine years you’ve been away? Was she as involved previously or did she have to step into that role once you were arrested?
VK: She is a beautiful, strong woman like all my children’s mothers. But she has been there since jump, so it means more. The joy is more potent, as is the pain. She is my muse. Well, she wasn’t involved musically at all but, since my arrest, she has been doing well for herself and for her kids as well who also do music.
Your sons, Likkle Addi and Likkle Vybz, are on this record, too. What advice have you given them as they embark on their own recording careers? Are they listening?
VK: When they get the break, you’ll know what the advice was.
We see photos of you with your family from time to time. How often do you see them? There are some interesting backgrounds in these pics. I remember one said: “Universal Studios.” Is that a regular thing, or a special treat?
VK: Not often but I don’t really want to see anyone here. That’s not really my style, so they came a few times. My daughter, too. Yeah, the backgrounds are done on the visit. Sum’n like that — A treat.
You have a lot of new artists featured on this project. People like Skillibeng and Daddy1 but also some unfamiliar names. Who are your favorite new artists in Jamaica and why?
VK: 6ix is my favourite group. Squash, Chronic Law And Daddy1. They’re my fav because they bring a new vibe to the game. Even the fact that they’re not from Kingston gives them a different sound. Which works for them well.
Given you’ve never had a chance to meet most of these artists you’re collaborating with, how are you deciding whether they are worthy of your endorsement, not only as artists but as people?
VK: Next interview I’ll let you know.
Of Dons and Divas was released on the same day as Buju Banton’s comeback project. Was that a calculated move… Or happenstance?
VK: Whatever it was, I think it was a good move still. Bringing more awareness to each other’s albums. Plus, Buju is my artiste so that was amazing, too.
What was your reaction to the recent Verzuz clash between Bounty Killer and Beenie Man?
VK: That clash was amazing. Two giants who made it to greatness before social media was even thought of… at least in Jamaica. And to see them using social media to their advantage to showcase the great historical legacy of dancehall? Trust me, it was a proud moment for me.
Are you interested in participating in something similar? Who would be the most appropriate opponent for you in such a clash?
VK: From where I’m sitting now, no I won’t. No one can Verzuz me.
You are widely known as the World Boss. Looking at the world right now, who is the leader in the free world that you most respect?
VK: What free world? The reality is stranger than the illusion, LOL. I most respect my father who raised me.
You’ve recorded an astounding number of songs. Well over 1,000 tracks. Not all of them have had a positive message. Are there any that you regret releasing, and wish you could take back?
VK: No regrets. That would be kinda meaningless. Because, when I did what I did, I knew what I was doing: Making music to the best of my ability.
Your catalog is sprinkled with some sharp critiques and observations of society. Tracks like “Thank You Jah,” “Life Sweet” and, more recently, “About Us”. With the world in its current state, do you see yourself leaning towards more conscious themes in your lyrics?
VK: No. I’m not a “conscious artiste.” What a label, huh? Guess I’m an unconscious one. People really don’t care, though. If they did, Bob Marley songs would be law. Music is entertainment and I entertain. Beyond that, I live my life the way I see it. Not the way the system says.
Listen to LargeUp’s Kartel 100 playlist, featuring Vybz Kartel’s 100 best tracks, on Apple Music and Pandora here.
Special thanks to Zoe Espitia and Juss Kool.