Upon returning Jamaica this past summer, I couldn’t help but delve into a number of things during my stay: The food, the Olympic fever, the Jamaica 50 hoopla and the always vibrant party scene.
Mind you, I hadn’t been to a party since migrating over two years ago but figured that it might be a bit different given that Dancehall’s landscape has truly changed over that time regarding quality and the off-stage troubles affecting some of the genre’s elite, most notably, Vybz Kartel. But no matter where I went, whether it was a session, regular hot spot or even on the bus, it seemed like more Kartel songs were being played across the board, nearly every wine from a girl at a party was from a ‘Teacha’ track. Heck, probably the loudest I’ve heard a crowd in a long time came when the famous line from his ‘Back To Life,’ song started playing inside QUAD.
“Listen, yuh cyaah get p** p** a prison, a next man have yuh gyal when yuh missin, stay far from war, dat a copper and lead, yuh cyaah get head when u dead,” a packed QUAD sings in unison. By then it hit me that one thing hasn’t changed, Kartel still rules the Dancehall scene.
It’s now been a year since Vybz Kartel’s arrest and subsequent incarceration on murder charges and, let’s just put this to bed; OF COURSE the Dancehall landscape misses him. Ever since Kartel’s legal situation took shape last September, Dancehall circles have been in a frenzy considering his absence. This has become increasingly obvious as radio stations and DJs seemingly play his songs more often while several fan pages, t-shirts ,concerts and even tattoos have been dedicated to the ever-growing ‘Free Worl’ Boss’ campaign. I’ve even had girls tell me that they won’t truly enjoy themselves at parties if a Kartel song doesn’t play, despite the fact that some of them hate his guts.
It’s also quite obvious that Kartel has been missed given the meteoric rise of his polished protégés, Popcaan and Tommy Lee throughout his absence. While the two of them combined don’t measure up to Kartel’s lyrical and physical status as a Dancehall legend, the fact that each artiste has talent and is associated with the ‘Gaza’ cause has elevated them to levels that neither Popcaan nor Tommy Lee could have dreamed of. It begs the question of whether or not either would enjoy similar success if Kartel was still a free man today but regardless of the answers presented, there’s no doubt that ‘Di Teacha’ and his ‘Gaza’ movement has rubbed off on the masses, both to positive and negative results.
On one hand, the ‘Gaza’ movement has become increasingly popular, especially since public figures from sprint legend, Usain Bolt to Brazilian soccer prodigies, Neymar and Pato keep throwing up that sign shaped like a ‘W’ for their legions of fans to see, showing their support for ‘Di Teacha’. On another front, that unbreakable attachment to Kartel has created dangerous precedents, given that seemingly everything that ‘Di Teacha’ and his disciples do will be pardoned, most recently, the ‘demonic references’ Tommy Lee makes in his songs being ‘just music’ in the eyes of fans. Additionally, every blog or social media page that I’m on, there’s some group of ‘Gaza’ followers always bashing people who say the least critical thing about Kartel or any ‘Gaza’ artiste, which is sad and uncalled for and I’m sure I’ll get the brunt of that criticism once people read this column.
Don’t get it twisted, Kartel is an all-time great entertainer and will always have relevance within the industry but Dancehall surely hasn’t died since his absence as new superstars like Konshens have flourished carrying the genre’s mantle, proven by his plethora of top ten hits as well as his performance at Usain Bolt’s Tracks and Records last week. Furthermore, established Dancehall megastars like Mavado, I-Octane, Tifa, Aidonia, Lady Saw, Cham, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man have proven that they’re more than capable of ensuring that Dancehall music doesn’t lose its luster without Kartel leading the way.
Plus, let’s not forget that the Dancehall/Reggae industry has endured blows like the one that Kartel’s predicament has caused as these respective genres have survived the temporary loss of Busy Signal from the scene as well as the long-term absence of Grammy-winning superstar, Buju Banton due to their own legal troubles. The music undoubtedly loses some of its aura and prestige with so many of its top-tier acts serving time but the fact remains that the Dancehall/Reggae industry should learn from these predicaments and do its best to make sure that quality continues to be produced by artistes left to carry the burden while ensuring to make better decisions while off-stage.
So, one year after Kartel had his freedom temporarily put on hold, the question shouldn’t be if Dancehall music misses Vybz Kartel? It should be can Dancehall still produce hits while he’s gone? Should Kartel’s legal fate take a turn for the worst in November when his cases will be heard and tried in court, fans and industry players alike must be prepared to move on and support those artistes making names for themselves in their own right. Kartel will always have a stronghold within the Dancehall scene but if that law enforcement continues to hold on to Jamaican music’s most polarizing star, will the fans and artistes be strong enough to ensure that Dancehall’s legacy will be forever intact? Only time will tell.