Vybz Kartel – the new face of freedom

See me, want me, give me, trust me
Feed me, —- me, love me, touch me
This whole world is cold and ugly
What we are is low and lovely
I am the most beautiful boogie man
The most beautiful boogie man
Let me be your favourite nightmare
Close your eyes and I’ll be right there

—The Boogie Man Song, Mos Def

It’s no accident that Vybz Kartel is in T&T to perform this weekend. Of all the weekends in the year, Emancipation weekend. When we allegedly celebrate freedom. When we dress up like Carnival time in costumes that we do not understand, that may or may not reflect who we are. When one group separates itself from the rest and the rest look on, unmoved. Feeling no sense of solidarity or understanding that freedom is a collective investment. I can’t say I’m terribly fond of Kartel. He’s not my generation of music, but I guess I understand why young people would like him. He appears to be the antithesis of everything that the rest of society stands for while not so subtly reinforcing age-old capitalist, sexist, racist notions on irresistible dancehall beats. But this is what freedom is about. The freedom to choose who you are and what you look like. Vybz Kartel is probably the world’s first post-black star, bending our notions of who we are or how we want to look. Because freedom was never only about getting rid of the chains. Freedom was never about one day when somebody else told you you could do whatever you wanted with the life you hadn’t known while you were busy making someone else rich.

Not much has changed and these days most people are still engaged in the act of making other people rich off their endless labour. Thinking that money can buy them freedom engages them more in their enslavement. To clothes, to Courts, to Forres Park, to sex. Kartel is the new face of freedom. Free to bleach. Free to mask himself and I wonder what Franz Fanon would make of him. And I wonder if his ancestors are glad that they worked themselves to death so that he could feel good about making himself look like a permanent minstrel. The truth is, though, that women of Africa, south-Asia, the Caribbean have been lightening their skin for centuries, but women are usually the ones prone to self-mutilation in the quest for acceptance. Kartel represents a kind of new black man. Who is no longer simply confident in the privilege of being both absolutely feared and desired at the same time. This is equal opportunity self-transformation into something more visually appealing. Because if they change the way they look maybe then the rest of the society might change the way they see black people.

The girls love off his bleach-out face, he boasts. With relief that he is finally on equal footing with the red men that run the region. Thank Jah for emancipation. If not we wouldn’t be free to be what we want to be. And at the opening of the Emancipation Village the Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism fumbles over the word decimation. Not remembering perhaps that he sang about this same thing years ago.
Decimation. Decimation. It’s a hard word to say and swallow. It’s what is happening every day to little black boys that Gypsy and his government and the Emancipation Support Committee and anyone else who expresses any interest in saving must face. But Vybz Kartel, who has in the past year become the face of post-Dudus dancehall, part gangsta, part vampire, is a challenge to those of us who think emancipation is just about one kind of freedom. These days with every other cable station carrying its own vampire show and Americans coming to make our folklore real with heat-seeking cameras and white girls boldface enough to ask Count Lopinot why he still jum-bieing the people’s lives, the cult of the undead lives in dancehall. In vocals they kill each other for fun, while their Gaza and Gully neighbours kill each other for real.

Like a ghoul out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video that used to give me nightmares back in the 80s, Kartel haunts my mind, and I try to resist the desire to dance, because I can hear his words and they are far more terrible than what he has done to his face. It’s kind of funny when you really think about it. Vybz Kartel, the voice of emancipation for young people. In keeping with the level of hilarity that exists in this country. Because if you don’t laugh, the likelihood is that you might spend all your days weeping. Or hiding. Or hiding and weeping. If nothing else Vybz Kartel with his cake soap and his tattoos and his unfathomably banal lyrics represents either the failure or the success of past generations to pass on a sense of what a diaspora African identity is supposed to be. But this is what freedom is about I guess. To be so confident in your blackness that you attempt to erase every trace of it. To be so sure of yourself that you feel no qualms about moving from disguise to disguise. Until there is no difference between you and the mask. The mask is you. The mask is real. The mask is permanent. But that’s okay because it’s white and white’s alright. That is true freedom. That is true emancipation. Because blackness is the prison that black people fear the most.

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A prophet falls

Hard drugs won’t do
You’re just behaving like they want you to
Arrogance is much different from ignorance
And I know you feel the same way too
Many live this life without having a clue
No reason why they are so sad and blue
Places to go so much things to do
Not a moment to reflect on the cycle of life

—Hills and Valleys, Buju Banton

You remember where you were when you heard Buju Banton for the first time? You were probably about 10 or so and not really that conscious of the world around you. Michael Jackson was still the coolest man in the world but then there were these things called maxi-taxis. It was probably Boom Bye Bye that you heard first. Back when homophobia wasn’t something that made sense to you. Back then there was no Facebook, no BBM, no million and one radio stations playing more ads than music for a captive young audience and agencies hiring big stars to make ads for them so that soon you can’t tell the difference between the product and the music. But these days everything and everybody are for sale.

Back in those days there was just Chinese Laundry doing a legitimate piracy service to a nation of young people desperate for a new sound. And dancehall was it. It defined our generation and everyone else, except maybe Super Cat and Shabba, fades into the background in the shadow of Buju Banton. If no one else, Buju Banton was the one who helped us figure it out. He danced between social commentary and slackness. He transformed himself into a thoughtful prophet. All the time he made us dance. He made us feel beautiful. He made us sure that we were searching. For something more and something better. Even if it was just to be able to out-butterfly your best friends. Truth be told I always loved Buju more than Sizzla. Sizzla who started off over-zealous and earnest. Sizzla who had the talk but not the walk and who fell so far from grace that now it is hard to believe that anything he ever said was true.

We always knew who Buju was. Smart man, lover, badjohn, poet. He was everything without being preachy. He asked the questions we asked about our own ghettoes. You could feel the grit of Kingston garrisons in the gravelled edge of his voice, in the way he could find himself inside a riddim like it was his skin and you were the sweat on it. You could see cockpit country and imagine that Buju was being true to his Maroon roots. Bad for spite. An escape artist. An unchainable spirit. And then you see a picture of him in shackles. And you want to vomit. You convince yourself that it’s not really happening. You convince yourself that Buju of all people could not be so stupid. The trickster allowed himself to be tricked? It’s not possible.

You could forgive Buju anything. His sexism. His homophobia. His love of “brownin” in a time when the use of skin bleaching creams in Jamaica started to skyrocket. You could forgive him all these things. But not the colossal stupidity of falling into Babylon’s trap. You listen again to his lyrics and realise that like any good prophet he has sung of his own downfall. Seen it and put his bittersweet defeat into the music that you love so much. But you can’t hear it because you are dancing and like Bob says when music hits you feel no pain. Because you are dancing to forget the pain. You are imagining that you are really a butterfly and your body can transcend the prisons of racism and unloving, and self-loathing. You escape this mental slavery and Buju is the Maroon stealing you away to some hidden bush town.

But every prophet falls. The disappointment is deep. I really wasn’t looking for you there nah, Buju. I don’t think I will recover from this star tabanca, like I still can’t get over the death of Michael Jackson. Buju Banton gets ten years. Ten years in jail. The truth is I still can’t begin to process what he did. I try to convince myself that he didn’t do it. That he’s innocent. But the evidence is damning. The verdict is guilty and Buju is going to jail. And if he’s guilty he deserves to go to jail. Notwithstanding a more intelligent discussion about the drug trade and how the desire for something synthetic and illegal bears no connection to the value of a plant that for centuries was used by indigenous people to heal themselves. And now because we know better and we’re civilised, we use it to destroy ourselves.

Notwithstanding a more reasonable stance on the drug trade and how a war against it has been used to recolonise people. How somebody still letting the cocaine pass and sometimes you need someone to made an example of. Notwithstanding an understanding of good drugs and bad drugs and tobacco being okay and rum till all of us die. These days you can’t watch five minutes of television without being bombarded by an ad about some drug, for which the side effects are a long list of illnesses that sound far worse than what you’re suffering from. These days you can’t go anywhere without meeting someone who is addicted to some over-the-counter pain killer, knocking back boxes of their favourite NSAIDs.
But Buju is going to jail for 10 years and if you do the crime you do the time. In shackles now, real physical ones to match the ones on our minds. Real physical ones to remind us that we really aren’t free. What a nightmare when you wake up to realise that the one to offer a place for escape is in prison too.