“I decided to make my skin a living, breathing canvas”: Vybz Kartel at UWI

An account with photographs of Jamaican DJ Vybz Kartel’s March 10, 2011 lecture at the University of the West Indies.

So the great Vybz Kartel had his day at the University of the West Indies yesterday. Invited by Professor Carolyn Cooper to give a lecture titled ‘Pretty as a Colouring Book: My Life and My Art’,  Kartel didn’t disappoint. A huge throng turned up hours ahead and milled about waiting for Addi the Teacha (and Bleacha) to arrive.  Kartel came prepared to discuss and defend the bleaching of his skin, complete with a powerpoint presentation that detailed his love of tattoos–which don’t show up easily on dark skin.

My skin marks (no pun intended) many milestones in my life and represents another form of expression for me. Example: The teardrops on my face are in memory of my close friends who have died. My sons’ names on my arms represents their birth and celebrates their life. You have the Gaza thug on my knuckles which represents the community I am from, the nickname of the community, and on my chest I have Love is Pain.

This paradoxical phrase is symbolic in that it represents the relationships that I have been in where at times I have loved and lost and also it signifies that the things that you love are the only things that can hurt you. Example: The death of a loved one as opposed to the death of a total stranger…so, love is pain. For me, although tattoos are on the exterior they really tell a different story and they tell a lot about my interior and not just for show but they can serve as a history book of my life.

‘Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eye’  Kartel said, flipping the script by recalling Haile Selassie’s famous words to the United Nations in 1963, quoted by Bob Marley in his song War. Kartel’s evocation of Selassie’s eloquent anti-racist statement to defend the lightening of his own skin may seem provocative but is also an interesting plea for a post-race framework that does not automatically align bleaching with low self-esteem or racial self-hatred. His presentation was punctuated by the mocking anh ha! anh ha! fake laugh that is his current trademark.

…I further maintain that bleaching today doesn’t mean the same as bleaching twenty-five years ago…we are a much prouder race who know that we can do what we want as far as style is concerned, we dictate styles and regard them as just that–styles. So as controversial as bleaching might be right now, I bask in my controversy with cake soap as my suntan.

Actually Kartel is on the cutting edge of research and thinking about this phenomenon when he argues for the changing role skin bleaching plays in this society today. Unfortunately many of his critics argue from a position that is uninformed by new thinking or ideas; many are stuck in their own identity crises and are slave to an idée fixe that is no longer pertinent. We think nothing of purging the kink out of our hair or the Jamaican accent from our speech–both are socially accepted; but  if Black women are free to chemically terrorize their hair into limp straightness why can’t Vybz Kartel lighten his skin if he chooses to?? And why are we only mounting a hue and cry about skin bleaching downtown while deliberately averting our gaze from the many skin lightening creams such as Ambi and Nadinola used in uptown homes? The selective moral outrage is telling–this seems to be yet another case of moralizing the so-called lower classes.


Vybz Kartel by Storm Saulter, image used on one of Kartel's albums


As you can see from Storm’s photo of Kartel that was used on his 2006 album jmt, Kartel had no objection to the visual reference to the African continent in the portrait. There’s no reason to believe that Kartel has suddenly suffered an identity crisis, as per his reference to being from a proud race. If people are bleaching in Jamaica it’s because as Christopher A. D. Charles pointed out in ‘Skin Bleachers’ Representations of Skin Color in Jamaica’:

The popularity of the practice of skin bleaching suggests that it is socially acceptable. This means that light skin is socially desirable in Jamaica because there is a social demand for light skin in the country. Because light skin is a socially shared object that is socially desirable in Jamaica, this means that light skin has high social status.

Until Jamaican society chooses to alter the cultural conditions that place a premium on light skin, some Jamaicans will continue altering their bodies to meet the social demand for light skin and others will do so just coz ‘Black nah wear again’ or because like Kartel they want their tattoos to contrast with their skin instead of blending in with it.

In the meantime enjoy some photos from the landmark Kartel lecture at UWI. anh ha! anh ha!

Photos below  by Varun Baker
Waiting for Kartel...

Kartel came prepared with a powerpoint and everything
  • “I decided to make my skin a living, breathing canvas.”
  • How do you go about selling your soul to the devil? asks Kartel.

    Student asking Kartel a question

    Another question...
    Another questioner

    Donna Hope presenting Kartel a copy of Cooper's Soundclash
    Hope now gifting Kartel her own book, Man Vibes


    Author: ap

    writer, editor and avid tweeter

    19 thoughts on ““I decided to make my skin a living, breathing canvas”: Vybz Kartel at UWI”

    1. Hail Annie Paul, I’m just praying that “Addi Di Bleacha” skin lightening works well enough that he disappears before year’s end!

      Peace and love, Stero

    2. Thanks to Varun for these pics! For one thing, we get to see folks trying to eeks up demself an’ tek dem pickcha an skin up dem teet’. A lovely time was had by all, I see. Now quality of the time spent is a whole other conversation, yes?

      BTW, why was only one mike available? UWI is not that under-resourced.

      Good for VK in staging his coup. He’s now legitimized himself in this space by playing with language enough to maintain street creds while pressing some folks’ buttons. From all I hear, too bad there wasn’t much effort to engage him in a real way.

      Seriously, though – skin as canvas? That’s been done a million times over! Surely he knows, and conveyed to his audience, that the world of tattoo art is bigger than him, and is as much a feature of pre-modern times as the modern, postindustrial prison complex? I hope he wasn’t passing himself off as the only person to ever have thought of this. Next ting yuh know, Ja people a run roun’ an’ a ta’ak bout seh is a Jamaican was the first person to write dem life pan dem body. Yuh know how wi stay a’ready. Situating himself in that tradition could [have] usefully shut up a lot of folks and taught the others something new. Now, permanently altering the color of his skin for aesthetic reasons? Haven’t heard that before; most people who do that intend for the alteration to be temporary. So there it is – VK has made a contribution to the field of body art/politics.

      I wonder if this lecture is his formal baptism into performance art/studies? We will stay tuned; I smell a university student in the making; if so, I hope he goes one step better than Ragashanti. But, given his personal politics, I won’t wait around for that transformation. Are you thinking of publishing his talk on S/X?

    3. Hey Stero!thought of u earlier today, home on Sat…Nat, no, he was just explaining his personal motivations…in the Jamaican context these are highly original and novel, and therefore in many books, evil…just finished listening to him on OnStage, the man is coherent, up to date, and provocative…if only more of our top rung businessmen were half as imaginative or resourceful…

    4. VK has a severe entrepreneurial talent. He creates the craze and then fulfills the demand. It’s scary!
      I enjoyed his interview ON Stage but he kept referring to ‘the system’ and has not acknowledged that in the Jamaican situation, entertainers are more ‘the system’ than any political leader. He knows the influence he has but he is not very rational in saying he should not be an example, because he even used the word ‘control’ to describe the effect he has on especially younger people.

    5. Disagree. I think the point he’s making which is a very valid one, is why are ppl not as outraged and ready to do something about the systemic problems that may make some children more vulnerable than others instead of focusing on the DJ and asking that
      they tailor their performances?

      and its something i find remarkable. ppl getting their knickers in a knot about the influence on children who daily have to negotiate the most dangerous circumstances in the places they live, threatened by toxic fumes, waste, disease, police and gang bullets, internecine violence and we’re worried about what they’re putting on their SKIN??

      1. remind me of everytime I see days of our lives on local tv is branded as “16 and older” but if you look at the american age requirements its “13 and older”. Maybe our local kids are 3 yrs behind. I not saying that america is a good model to follow though, lol.

    6. Personally I was more disappointed with the lack of serious engagement on the part of those who were supposed to be intellectuals. I’m sorry but Carolyn Cooper and Donna Hope came off to me as a bunch of wagonists trying to drum up hype for their books and uwi departments. Sure VK is articulate and not just an ignorant entertainer, but he always has and continued at the lecture to proclaim his complete disregard for the collective future of this country that he is making so much money off of. His only concern seemed to be his own fortune and those of his children..or should I say his sons, because he didn’t mention any tatoos of his daughters’ names.

      Why didn’t the gender department ask any questions about the derogatory ways that he talks about women in his music? Did anyone ask him if he lets his own children listen to his songs or go to dances as happens with many children today? While I do agree with him that it is his not his job to raise Jamaican children, the fact is that he profits gladly from the fact that so many of them lack proper parental guidance and supervision and so can take on the edicts of his music well before they are mature enough to consider the ramifications.

      Finally, while I hear him on the point that skin bleaching for him is just a style, I will propose that for many it is much more than that. When you have women taking newborn babies to dermatologists after having bleached them, and people suffering from all sorts of skin conditions as a result of years of bleaching, then in my mind it may be a little bit more than just a style… that is unless destroying your body is in vogue at the moment.

      1. agree with much of what you say, he was asked about his kids and he emphatically said no, he wouldn’t let them hear it, much as actors and actresses might not want to let their kids partake of the adult content that they are part of creating. i see no contradiction there, there’s a lot of stuff that’s exclusively for adults, you could also ask all of the creators of such content the same question. Would you allow your children to watch/drink/consume this product and the answer would obviously be no. so?

        Surely you’re not laying the blame for moms who take their babies to dermatologists at Kartel’s door? His point is that HE isn’t doing it to advance his social status, attract more women, or any of the reasons most ppl who do it say they’re doing it for, because he already has all that. For him its just a style…why should he pretend otherwise? some ppl do it for style so??

        The point is the broader pathology of bleaching is linked to social and cultural biases embedded in this nation’s psyche that then plays out in economic terms for the individuals concerned, the lighter skinned you are the more options you have, and THAT is why women are doing what they do to their babies. This problem must be addressed at the deep structural level in order to discourage such behaviour and won’t be attained by disciplining DJs.

        In India Bollywood will have to star dark-skinned ppl in central roles, not exclusively as criminals, ayahs, and go-go dancers, for the obsession with light skin there to be addressed, Jamaica isn’t the only country with this problem. Shah Rukh Khan freely advertises skin lightening cream in India, what Kartel is doing and saying is far more complex and interesting and deserves better than the knee jerk reaction of selective moral outrage.

    7. I made sure to write my article before I read yours because I know everybody has their own opinion on the issue – even people who don’t listen to Dancehall seem to be coming out of the cracks commenting on how its tearing down the very fabric of Jamaica life and corrupting our young girls. I don’t see why its a crime to be successful unless you are a gunman.

      Eitherway this argument will only get seriously when it stops being a uptown vs downtown war of words and morals.

      1. HI Owen, thanks for the comments…yes the social schism needs to stop being so unbridgeable, and i think the understanding needs to come from the more literate segment, unfortunately that doesn’t seem forthcoming…look forward to reading yours….

    8. Thanks Annie for this very interesting account. I got here from Carolyn’s page….now I know.


    9. Wondering if VK is allowed 2 bleach in prison where he is now, or if he will come back being black again….. (lol) just wondering

      1. 🙂 We’re all wondering actually…from time to time he appears on TV as he appears in court and doesn’t look discernibly darker yet…thanks for leaving a comment!

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