Plotting a Brief History of Seven Killings: An Exclusive Interview with Marlon James

An exclusive interview with new literary sensation Marlon James, in which he describes how he plots his novels, his influences and his plans for the future.

Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014
Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

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So i first posted this interview with Marlon on September 30 only to get a call from him the next day asking if I would mind taking it down for a few days because the Wall Street Journal had complained that my interview was breaking the national embargo on information on Brief History and its author. They threatened to publish their piece immediately which would have affected the NYT’s preferred position at the head of the national pipeline. I wasn’t amused but agreed to do so for Marlon’s sake though of course an interview by a Jamaican blog could hardly be viewed as national in the US sense of the word. But that’s the thing with online fora, they know no borders. So here once again is my interview with a Part 2 to follow whenever Marlon finds the time to answer the next set of questions I’ve sent him.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’s new novel which will be released on October 2, 2014, has already attracted a series of rave reviews from all the top print media, not least from Michiko Kakutani, the redoubtable New York Times book reviewer. She called it a monumental novel “sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex” in scope.

Others have referred to it as epic, and that it certainly is with its theme of war and peace in the tropics. A multitudinous cast of phantasmagoric characters populates Brief History and through them we descend into the chaotic craziness that was Jamaica in the 1970s. Marlon exposes the multiple duplicities that underlie the constant chatter about ‘peace’, an elusive concept that haunts the saga like a fetish and continues to remain beyond reach today, almost 50 years later.

James was a Kingston-based graphic designer and wannabe writer when he encountered Kaylie Jones, the American writer and daughter of best-selling author James Jones,  at a writing workshop put on by the acclaimed Calabash Literary Festival. She persuaded him to resurrect a manuscript he had discarded after being rejected dozens of times and introduced him to her publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. Thus was born Marlon’s first novel, the critically acclaimed John Crow’s Devil (2005). The award-winning Book of Night Women followed in 2009 and now a mere five years later what looks set to be a blockbuster, the apocalyptic Brief History of Seven Killings.

I sent Marlon a list of questions, handicapped by the fact that I haven’t yet finished reading his novel (he had presented me a copy of the uncorrected proofs some months ago), and he sent back his replies by email.

Marlon your new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a latter-day epic in my opinion. Did you set out to write the Great Jamaican Novel or did you just happen to write it? It illuminates the postcolonial nightmare many of us still inhabit in the 21st century by getting us inside the heads of a vast cast of characters, all of whom we get to know with some intimacy by the end of the book. Gul Panag (@gulpanag), an Indian celebrity I follow on Twitter recently said: “The trouble with reading Tolstoy (apart from keeping a glossary of royal titles handy) is keeping track of the myriad characters!! #War&Peace

Of course this immediately reminded me of your Brief History and ITS myriad characters. I once asked you how you kept track of all of these distinct voices when writing and you said you kept a timetable chart with a column for each character. Didn’t it make you feel schizoid or partitioned into all these characters I asked but you said not really, that it more made you feel like a teacher of an unruly class…or maybe a prefect. Could you tell us some more about this process, how you achieved what seems to me to be quite a feat?

I actually do use plot charts. Columns filled with characters and rows with time periods, whether years, days, or in the case of this book, hours. I think the fear people have is that this kills spontaneity; it kills story flowing in an organic way, or it just results in novels that are schematic. And yet this was my most free flowing and spontaneous novel ever. There is a nine page chapter in free verse, a six page sentence, and from pages 277 to 395 stream of consciousness monologue.

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Pages from Marlon’s notebook showing the elaborate chart he used to plot the novel.

I believe the reverse actually: that by not having a clue where you might want to go, you pick the route that’s safest, most familiar and most predictable — you just don’t realize that you’re doing it. It’s like the dog left wandering who ends up home anyway; or the poet who will never realize that it’s a lack of understanding of prosody that makes him formulaic. This is not to say that I follow the charts religiously—far from it but I need the base, just to keep track of what each character is doing at all times, and also to resist the urge to play favourites, which is a very easy thing to do. Especially when you have characters who clearly announce themselves, and characters who take a little more digging. Knowing that I had a plot point to come back to allowed me to fly all over the place with characters. And just because a plot is written down, doesn’t mean it’s not wild and crazy, resulting in an awful lot of trouble for the character. My writing day wasn’t done until I could say ‘well I didn’t see THAT coming.’

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The novel pivots on events and personalities surrounding the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, the Smile Jamaica concert that followed two days later and the even more famous One Love Peace Concert of 1978 noted for that moment when Marley joins the hands of the 2 opposed political leaders, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. This is passed off nowadays as a stroke of genius on Marley’s part without much awareness of the political machinations behind the concert, the alliances between the politicians and the dons or gang leaders who ran the impoverished, inner city vote bases for the two political parties. Also behind the scenes lurked the CIA and the realpolitik of the Cold War. When did it occur to you that all this was prime material to plumb for literary gold?

That took some time. At first I wasn’t aware that it was a bigger story. In fact, the first character I created was the Chicago Hitman, John-John K, for what was supposed to be a noir novella. That he was killing a Jamaican who was involved in an assassination attempt was a small but still important detail. The second character I created was Bam-Bam, who was a ghetto youth raised in such hopelessness and violence that it was inevitable that he became violent. But even then I thought it was a small novel without much scope, even as his story started to involve ‘the singer.’ It wasn’t until I kept running into dead ends writing these ‘novellas’ that a friend of mine pointed out that this was a bigger novel—she saw it first, not me. It also helps that I was reading James Ellroy’s American Tabloid at the time, a novel that more than any other taught me how to recognize the bigger story and then tell it on a big scale without becoming pompous or writerly. In many ways what I wrote was essentially crime fiction. I just got out of the way and let the characters do whatever they wanted. Even my plot charts are what they —not what I wanted to do. But paradoxically, the more these voices became individual the larger this novel stretched in scope. I actually cut 10,000 words from the final draft.

How to represent Jamaican language in a way that outsiders can grasp has always been a challenge you’ve enthusiastically embraced. In Night Women you experimented with reproducing 18th century enslaved speech, in Brief History you recreate the street patois of the 1970s which must have been much easier since it would have been something you grew up speaking right? Did you also research the way Americans spoke in the 70s?  For example the kind of language diFlorio uses–Holy fucking horseshit etc–cuss words and street lingo are so time bound. How did you research this? by watching films? by reading fiction from the period?

Everything, from watching films, the grittier ones such as Scorcese’s, (since even film has invented language), to documentaries (more authentic), song lyrics, slang dictionaries, websites and youtube videos. And getting an American accent wasn’t enough—Diflorio is older and far more conservative than Alex Pierce, who works for Rolling Stone. And black American speech is different from white, especially after hip-hop, so then you have a character like Romeo who sounds like nobody else. But bear in mind that my generation was the first not to be in any dialogue with the UK whatsoever. We don’t even understand it. We were in dialogue with the US. Our cross pollination came from RUN DMC, The Cosby show and Eddie Murphy, from American commercials and Miami Vice, LL Cool J, breakdancing, Prince, Michael Jackson and the occasional trip to Miami. The Samuel Selvon narrative is foreign to us.

One of the characters in BH is Nasser, a white Syrian politician based on former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. At one point Josey Wales I think says “Peter Nasser is just another ignorant as shit naigger…” which is interesting because a ‘naigger’ is not quite the same thing as a ‘nigger’ is it? Another Jamaican writer, Anthony Winkler, who happens to be white describes the confusion that ensues in the mind of his American companion when a fellow Jamaican greets him heartily saying “Wha’appen ole negar?” Can you articulate the difference between the two? What exactly is this concept of the ‘ole negar’ whose origins you make very clear by spelling it the way you do–‘naigger’? It’s nuances like this that you wonder if outsiders to Jamaican culture will get. How can a Syrian White in Jamaican terms be considered a ‘naigger’?

Well firstly Peter Nasser isn’t really based on Seaga, in fact Seaga appears in the novel. I resisted this easy character appropriation for several reasons, one being that it would be too easy for the novel to become nothing more than a spot-the-real-person exercise. Nasser is rather, a composite of several politicians, largely because I was looking for an archetype. He’s far more cynical, far less patient, and unlike Seaga has no ear for culture. As for naigger, the first issue was spelling and I always try to make my words very clear to the non-Jamaican, at the risk of so called authenticity. I wanted the reader to see the link between naigger and nigger so that he knows that the term can be equally loaded. And yet that tension comes from the American reader, not the character as Jamaicans rarely use it in any racial context. But on the other hand, Americans get the concept of one drop very well, so in a certain way it’s a joke they understand that Jamaicans won’t. That these Jamaican men, who are convinced that they are white, are really “niggers.”

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By the way a couple of random questions. Is it Stony Hill you refer to as White Man Hill in BH? What does ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ mean? There’s more than one reference to Superman and Batman. And why does the song Ma Baker make Josey Wales laugh?

I can’t even remember. It could be Stony Hill, but I have a feeling it’s Jack’s Hill or Coopers, which used to be even whiter.  As for ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ both Barrington Levy and Junior Tucker have used the lyric in songs, but it goes back even further as a children’s rhyme establishing playground badness.  As for Ma Baker, a certain lady of the night does a certain routine that ends with a highly improbably split, all to that song.

I really wanted to interview you after finishing the book but I’m still only on page 399 with another 300 or so to go with no desire to race through it, i’m savouring it so much. I just decided i needed to send you these questions sooner rather than later because once your book comes out on October 2 you’re going to be virtually lynched by major media. I wonder if you’ll end up on Oprah’s show or has she stopped doing books? It must be fun reading all the rave reviews you’ve been getting. I see you posted the one from Rolling Stonel today. One of the things people may not realize is what an audiophile you are and what an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music you have. Brief History didn’t really give you a chance to expose that expertise or did it?

Marlon James

There’s still a lot of music in it, and not all just Marley. Or rather more about musicians, from Mick Jagger’s brief championing of Peter Tosh, to the rise of hip-hop and new wave, dance hall in the 80’s and 90’s and some insider info, from the very brief and quickly aborted plan to kidnap Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton’s infamous racist rant onstage. I like to think it’s rock and roll in attitude, if not always content.

You know I’m going to enjoy watching your Twitter account blow up after October 2 when the TV appearances begin. On  Sept 22 you had 327 followers on the  26th 355*; do you use social media much? You seem to use Facebook more than Twitter right?

I was just now trying to get with Twitter, only to hear that it’s all about Instagram now

Finally, do you think you might write a kind of sequel centred around the events of the 90s and noughties leading up to the extradition of Dudus, the Don of Tivoli Gardens, glossed as Copenhagen City in BH? A kind of ‘Brief History of 73 Killings’ perhaps in reference to the official number of civilians killed by the state in the process of capturing Dudus. I mean who else could tackle that saga? And wasn’t Jim Brown’s older son, Dudus’s brother Jah T, who was briefly the don before Dudus, actually a classmate of yours?

I was thinking a sequel actually. In fact a trilogy, each taking 5 time periods and a totally different cast of characters—some of them being minor ones in this book (maybe Peter Nasser and Kim-Marie Burgess). But this book took 4 years to write and I need a break. My next book is going back in the past, way before even the middle ages, actually.

 

*By January 20, 2016 Marlon James’s followership had risen to 6,690.

Parsing Vybz Kartel’s Sentence

A pretty thorough account of the salient points of the Vybz Kartel trial along with background information.

 

Often in the course of his prolonged trial I found myself wondering if the rollercoaster life of Adidja Palmer aka Vybz Kartel was scripted by someone channeling Breaking Bad, the wildly popular American TV series about the rise and fall of a chemistry teacher turned meth dealer.  By the time the trial ended I knew it was nothing of the sort, just another wickedly original Jamaican libretto. Described by some as the country’s pre-eminent lyricist, for more than a decade Kartel ruled the roost in Jamaica as its reigning dancehall deejay (”a genre that is to the roots reggae of Bob Marley as hip-hop is to R&B”), his street cred extending far beyond Kingston, into the nooks and crannies of ghettoes all over the Caribbean, into urban America and as far away as Africa where his Gaza Empire has spawned copycats.

By late 2013 Vybz Kartel, 38, was being portrayed by the police and the justice system as Public Enemy No. 1. His fame and fortune notwithstanding, on April 3, 2014, Adidja Palmer was sentenced to life in prison with no parole possible before 35 years, after the court gave itself an extra week to determine whether the embattled DJ should be allowed to make music while incarcerated.  He had been found guilty almost 3 weeks earlier, along with three others, of the murder of one Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams, a dancer and foot soldier in the small army of roughly 30 men that constituted Vybz Kartel’s entourage. These men ensured that Kartel’’s interests were looked after and his bidding done at all times.

Courtroom runnings

It was a dramatic trial with twists and turns that kept the nation in suspense till the very end. As the Prosecution laid it out, Lizard ran afoul of the popular deejay because he and Chow, another member of the entourage, were given two of Kartel’s (illegal) guns, then failed to produce them when asked for their return.  After several futile attempts to get the guns back, Lizard and Chow were summoned to Kartel’s house where there was a confrontation between them and Kartel’s cronies. Chow managed to get away, later becoming the Prosecution’s star witness, but Lizard was bludgeoned to death.

Although the hapless dancer’s body has yet to be found Vybz Kartel and six members of his entourage were taken into police custody in September 2011. Kartel’s defence team made repeated attempts to secure bail for him but were systematically rebuffed on the grounds that the Police had good reason to believe he would try and leave the country if granted bail. Rumours were rife that the reason for this unprecedented incarceration was that the police had incontrovertible evidence, including video footage taken from the deejay’s phone, that incriminated Adidja Palmer and his co-accused.

The swirling rumours proved to be true. The trial was prosecuted largely on circumstantial evidence— involving sensational  Blackberry messages, video footage and voice notes downloaded from the deejay’s cellphone in which Kartel’s voice could be heard making threats about what he would do if the guns, coded as ‘shoes’ weren’t returned. ‘If dem want dem fren fi live dem fi return mi shoes’ he is heard to say on Voice Note 2. In other messages he asks for information on countries he might travel to, the Bahamas for instance, lending credence to the Police’s concern that he might skip bail if granted it.

The Defence team did not dispute that the voice heard in the notes was Kartel’s. Instead their strategy was to prove that the cellphones in question had not been properly secured by the police, who were careless about maintaining the chain of custody, making it possible for the notes to have been tampered with or manipulated. They also proved that other key items of evidence such as a backup disc provided by the phone company and a notebook belonging to a policeman witness had gone missing. They were able to show also that Kartel’s phone had been used three hours after being taken into police custody.

The long and tension-filled trial lasted nearly four months, ending suddenly on March 13, on the sixth day of the Judge’s summation, after a juror was accused of attempting to bribe the foreman of the jury and fellow jurors. Despite this dramatic development, which might have derailed the case had the Judge called for a mistrial, the trial was hastily concluded with the jury delivering a ten to one guilty verdict.

Judge Lennox Campbell’s instructions to the jury explained the legal doctrine to be used in deciding Vybz Kartel’s guilt—that of common design. After all there was no direct evidence to prove that the deejay himself had participated in the murder. As Judge Campbell explained “…The scope was to kill Clive Lloyd Williams for the loss of a firearm. The law of Common Design is – as long as you participate knowing that was the ultimate end it doesn’t matter that you didn’t pull the trigger; it doesn’t matter that you didn’t wield the knife; it doesn’t matter that you didn’t administer the poison. Common Design can encompass a person at a gate as look out man for the police. As long as he’s there to look out, he can be charged for murder.”

The kind of security put in place by the Jamaican Police on the day of the verdict and again on the day of the sentencing, suggested that this was the trial of someone far more important than a mere music personality.  The Police blocked major roads leading to the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston, placed Police personnel in riot gear at strategic points and patrolled the area around the court with mounted Police. The diminutive Judge, known informally as Little Lenny, appeared in court flanked by four bodyguards.

During the final days of the trial American rapper Busta Rhymes attended court in a show of support for Vybz Kartel. Notably absent was anyone from the local music fraternity among whose ranks there did not appear to be much sympathy for the beleaguered DJ or sorrow over his fate. Although a large crowd had appeared outside the courtroom shouting ‘No Teacha, No school’ on the day of the verdict (a reference to Kartel ‘s nickname–‘The Teacher’) and the days leading up to it, on sentencing day there was only a modest crowd in attendance outside. The elaborate preparations made by the Police seemed like overkill.

#VybzKartel still represents #Calabar, as seen in this photo taken today after his sentencing #VybzKartel still represents #Calabar, as seen in this photo taken today after his sentencing
Vybz Kartel still represents his old high school Calabar, as seen in this photo taken today after his sentencing. Photo: @Dre1allianceEnt

 Vybz Kartel: DJ or Don? or both?

So what was the secret of Vybz Kartel’s success I asked Anthony Miller, producer of Television Jamaica’s weekly Entertainment Report, the definitive news source on Jamaica’s volatile music industry. His answer was:

The smartness, the nimbleness of mind; Kartel could string words together. In terms of that hip hop flow, spitting lyrics, he was the quickest and the nimblest and easily the most brilliant. He was the lyrical genius of his generation who flooded the Jamaican market with music. He delivered the social commentary but he also gave the public fun and games with his song about Clarks shoes (which caused a spike in sales for the company) and Ramping Shop which was banned from Jamaican airwaves for its raunchy lyrics. He outraged every sensibility in Jamaica and then he started to bleach. He always had an avalanche of new material. But there was also a sinister element, a darker element. He overreached by flying in the face of the establishment in Jamaica, by continually goading them. He always flew in the face of authority.

Opinions about Vybz Kartel vary depending on the demographic of the person you’re speaking to. Nicknamed World Boss and Addi the Teacher or ‘Teacha’ by his adoring fans his phenomenal popularity made him the envy of politicians though he didn’t kowtow to their demands. On the other hand Kartel was known to hobnob with top dons or gang leaders like Tesha Miller of the Klansman gang and Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke whose sensational arrest and extradition to the United States occupied international news for weeks in 2010.

“A lot of DJs see themselves as dons; the don is the model, so they behave like dons. Dons have the power, they have the girls and DJs are in the best position to become dons because they have the constituencies, “ says Anthony Miller.

According to ethnomusicologist Dennis Howard the nexus between political dons and musicians in Jamaica goes back to the very roots of Reggae and Dancehall. It was a symbiotic relationship, the musician needed the support of the don who often demanded a ‘big up’ while the don fed off the popularity of the singer. The globally celebrated singer Bob Marley himself was friends with a number of dons/gang leaders across the political divide so Kartel’s association with gang leaders and the underworld was by no means unprecedented. The problem was that with Kartel there no longer appeared to be a distinction between the two.

In 2009 when Vybz Kartel fans (Gaza) clashed violently with rival deejay Mavado’s fans (Gully), the two were summoned to a meeting with then Prime Minister Bruce Golding but the only person who could rein them in was Prezi–short for President– Tivoli Gardens enforcer Dudus who forced the two deejays to publicly end their hostilities at his annual stage show ‘West Kingston Jamboree’.

While Mavado seemed to heed the pleas of the government and the Police to reform himself Kartel continued along the path he had chosen, thumbing his nose at the police and Jamaican society while continuing to parlay his carefully cultivated notoriety into profits. He now diversified into other products such as a line of clothing, bleaching soap and his own rum. Perhaps the last straw for the police was the much hyped launch of Kartel’s own show, Teacha’s Pet, “a reality TV dating show surrounding the love life and career of the Artiste Vybz Kartel.” Within a few weeks of the airing of the show Kartel was arrested and the show discontinued.

Public Enemy No. 1

Why were the Jamaican police so single-minded in their determination to put Vybz Kartel behind bars? Why was he considered such a menace to society? Again stories abound. The Minister of Justice, Peter Bunting, had been touring Montego Bay, center of the vicious Lotto Scam conglomerate, which preys on elderly American citizens, scamming them out of thousands of dollars of their savings each year. In fact the Minister was under pressure from the Americans to smash the criminal enterprise. As he visited area after area he was told by residents in each community that he should go easy on the scammers because what they were doing was, after all, merely a form of reparation–collecting monies due the citizens of Jamaica for the years of free labour provided during the era of plantation slavery.

When the astonished Minister enquired further into the source of such unorthodox views he was referred to a song by Kartel called ‘Reparation’ with the catchy refrain ‘Dem call it scam,
Mi call it reparation’.

Foreign exchange is good fi di country
Franklyn, USA, Sterling England
Every Ghetto yute fi a live like di big man
Mansion bigger than Hilton

The catchy tune was even quoted by American TV host Dan Rather in a 60 Minutes expose of Jamaica’s Lotto Scam, adding to the pressure on the Jamaican government to rein in the criminal elements who were preying on America’s elderly. Although Kartel’s lyrics were never explicitly used against him in the trial, they would have been on virtually constant rotation in the minds of the Judge, Jury and Prosecution. In addition to the song about Reparations there were any number of gangster lyrics issuing from the prolific hit machine known as Vybz Kartel.

Perhaps the thing that most cemented Kartel’s image as a demonic creature who had to be contained for the safety of the public was his unconventional appearance, aided by the increasingly visible tattoos embellishing his bleached skin. This more than anything literally marked Kartel as a devil-worshipper in the eyes of fundamentalist Christian Jamaica. As if he realized this, Kartel addressed the issue as soon as he was given a chance to speak for himself in court.

My Lord, I bleach my skin, I am heavily tattooed also but that is merely superficial. That is a part of the persona of Vybz Kartel not Adidja Palmer. I am a normal person like anyone else.

In interviews Kartel would often refer to himself in the third person, drawing a distinction between himself, Adidja Palmer, the responsible father and citizen and his more reckless deejay persona, Vybz Kartel. There was a market demand for a character such as Vybz Kartel, he explained, and Palmer was going to exploit the lucrative niche—after all he had children to feed.  His 2012 book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, begins by saying, “I start this book in the same way that I start each day of my life, with a Thank you Jah for giving me, Adidja Palmer, the inspiration to be Vybz Kartel. “

Gaza

Inspired by Jay-Z’s 2010 autobiographical narrative, Decoded, Kartel’s book, co-written with Michael Dawson, is a combination of lyrics, their interpretations, anecdotes, philosophical reflections, and autobiographical information. Written very much in the mode of a teacher analyzing and explaining the world, it was also a resounding call–Gaza mi seh!–for ghetto people everywhere to get together and stand up for their rights. “Its not a moral war, it’s a financial war, dem nuh waan ghetto yute fi have house n car,” goes the catchy line from one of his songs. “Incarcerated but not silenced” and “I pray this book helps to change Jamaica forever,” say blurbs on the cover with an image portraying Kartel as a Malcolm X type figure.

Some think the book was published because Palmer knew he had to lay the groundwork to shift public perception of himself as a common criminal. That may be so but in the process he managed to harness a cynicism about the system—coded as Babylon in Jamaican parlance—that has great currency. Though his music is viewed as having no explicit political message his concept of ‘Gaza’ has the resonance that rival DJ Mavado’s ‘Gully’ never had though both are metaphors for the underclass that spawned both musicians.

Vybz Kartel flashes the ‘Gaza’ sign as he exits the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston yesterday. The entertainer was given life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 35 years for his role in the August 2011 murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams. (PHOTO: BRYAN CUMMINGS)
Vybz Kartel flashes the ‘Gaza’ sign as he exits the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston yesterday. The entertainer was given life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 35 years for his role in the August 2011 murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams. (JAMAICA OBSERVER PHOTO: BRYAN CUMMINGS)

Gaza is the name Kartel gave the locality he comes from in Waterford, part of the bedroom community of Portmore, on the outskirts of Kingston. Inspired by the fierceness of the inhabitants of the original Gaza Strip in Palestine, Kartel adopted the name of this embattled settlement in the Middle East, and the shibboleth of his supporters around the world became Gaza mi seh! Usain Bolt has been one of Kartel’s most avid fans not allowing other deejay’s music to be played at his parties and giving the Gaza sign whenever he was in the limelight. Many of Jamaica’s top athletes are Gaza fans though they may be slowly backing away now.

Perhaps the best way to understand Gaza is to see it as a new identity–underpinned by a Ghetto pride ideology–a defiant “Yes, we’re from the ghetto and we’re proud of it” stance. Although Kartel intended Gaza as a response to the lopsided landscape of opportunity in Jamaica that renders the poor socially invisible, the concept rapidly grew legs and migrated all over the world, an indication both of his talent and the globalization of inequality that disproportionately affects ghetto-dwellers worldwide.

The ‘Shit-stem’

While the Jamaican judiciary jubilantly celebrated Vybz Kartel’s guilty verdict and sentencing as a resounding victory for itself it is worth noting that alleged crime boss and head of the Shower Posse Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, now serving a 23 year sentence in the US,  was never charged or prosecuted for breaching the law in Jamaica where he lived. Similarly David Smith, who defrauded investors across Florida and the Caribbean out of more than US$220 million was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison in the US. Although he operated out of Jamaica, Smith like Coke, was never charged or prosecuted for any crime or misdemeanor in Jamaica.

And then less than a week after the guilty verdict was announced in the Kartel case, Kern Spencer, a young politician belonging to the ruling party, was found not guilty of significant fraud and money-laundering charges in relation to the distribution of energy-saving light bulbs, a gift from the Cuban Government. The Director of Public Prosecutions herself expressed shock at the verdict saying that the evidence against him had been overwhelming. But for most people the Kern Spencer verdict was par for the course. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of politicians, police and big businessmen who have ever been convicted of any crime in Jamaica.

Jamaican Police and the country’s legal system now have to prove to cynical Jamaicans that they not only have the will and drive to successfully bring rogue DJs to book but also the numerous rogue policemen, politicians and businessmen still at large. If not, as Kartel’s song ’Sup’m a go happen’ warns Jamaica could be on the brink, like Egypt, like Tunisia before it, of ‘something happening’.

Kartel’s defence team will now prepare to appeal the verdict and the sentence. For them what was unique about this trial was the unprecedented use of digital evidence by the Prosecution. The irony of course is that had Kartel simply used a code to lock his phone the Police could never have got into it to find the incriminating evidence they did. The deejay’s lead attorney Tom Tavares-Finson told me days before the sentencing that he expected Kartel to be sentenced to 35 years. They were already focused on the appeal. Tavares-Finson is hopeful that since he has been requesting and receiving transcripts of the court’s proceedings on a daily basis, he has about 80% of what will be needed to mount the appeal in hand already. He thinks Adidja Palmer stands a good chance of having the guilty verdict overturned by the higher court and his client is of the same mind. As the twitter account known as Adidja A. Palmer @iamthekartel tweeted:

GazaArmy. we nuh deh pon nuh mourning ting .Addi said “Justice how ever long it takes will prevail,a so Haile Selassie sey.”so we a move fwd

POSTSCRIPT: Since the sentencing of Adidja ‘Vybz Kartel’ Palmer and his co-accused on April 3 there have been some interesting developments. The very same day the Police High Command issued a statement detailing among other things the security challenges they had faced in the course of the trial and the numerous “attempts to pervert the course of justice” they had been confronted with. It now is much clearer why they were so determined to put Adidja Palmer behind bars.

Another interesting piece of information came from Shawn Storm’s attorney Miguel Lorne, who revealed that his client had been offered a plea bargain that would have resulted in a much reduced sentence for him. His client turned down the offer, sticking by Vybz Kartel and in the process, also receiving a life sentence.

And yes it’s true. Kartel’s lawyer, Christian Tavares-Finson IS the half-brother of Junior Gong or Damian, Bob Marley’s youngest son. Lead attorney Thomas Tavares-Finson who headed the defence team was once married to Cindy Breakspeare, whose son with Bob Marley he helped raise. Tom and Cindy have two children of their own, Christian and Leah. Incidentally Tavares-Finson Sr. is a highly sought after criminal lawyer with a star-studded list of former clients such as Grace Jones, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Bounty Killer, Mavado, Sean Paul and Shabba Ranks, who retained him to defend them against charges ranging from cocaine possession to ‘using profanity’, a uniquely Jamaican offence. In more recent times Tavares-Finson, also an Opposition Senator, was most wanted Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke’s lawyer until forced to step aside due to his political obligations.

“As Jamaican as Ackee and Saltfish”: Cindy Breakspeare, Part 2

Part 2 of my 2007 article on Cindy Breakspeare written for Riddim magazine…

Beauty pageants and contests have always been of enormous importance in Jamaica, a vexed and competitive arena that was biased in favour of light-skinned or white girls who defined the ideal of beauty in Black Jamaica. With her green eyes and fair skin Cindy was the embodiment of the “hallowed sororities” of light/white beauty queens produced by the Anglophone Caribbean and thus the ideal candidate to represent Jamaica at Miss World. Unfortunately for her the Manley government in an acknowledgment of the black power movement sweeping through the Caribbean had banned beauty pageants and the Miss Jamaica contest in particular as politically incorrect.

Cindy’s obstacle-filled path to the Miss World competition is a tale in itself. Suffice it to say that after winning the coveted title Cindy spent a hectic year fulfilling her Miss World duties with gusto and returned to Jamaica a celebrity in her own right. About the contest she says that, “It ended up being my ticket and my passport to seeing the world, I always refer to it as my Dale Carnegie course. It really was a job for a year. To me there was nothing else…its not as though I was studying medicine or law or anything else like that and left it to take time out to do this pageant. For me it was an opportunity so I made up my mind to capitalize on it as much as I could.”

Nevertheless she was glad at the end of the year to be able to resume her blossoming relationship with Bob Marley which had continued during her reign; in fact the London press had made a mini-scandal of their affair billing it as a romance between Beauty and the Beast. It may be hard to imagine today but in those days it was not difficult to demonize Marley with his locks and Rasta livity. In fact Marley was similarly typecast by the middle and upper classes in Jamaica to whom Rastafari was anathema.

Bob Marley - Cindy Breakspeare - 454 x 349

Nevertheless Cindy was committed to her relationship with Bob. Now that she had experienced the dizzying heights of being judged the most beautiful woman in the world she was keen to settle down and create a life for herself. Realizing during her coronation year that she was pregnant with Bob’s child Breakspeare decided that it was time to start the family she herself had never had. Marley and she had a surprising amount in common, “We definitely were both passionate about the idea of being healthy and keeping fit”. Cindy’s vegetarianism– the only flesh she would eat was fish–had attracted a lot of attention during the contest. In those days such fussiness about diet was not as common as it is today.

The decision to return to Jamaica wasn’t difficult although Cindy turned down several international modeling opportunities to do so. “I think by then I had had my fill and I wasn’t maybe so hungry for travel, I wasn’t so hungry for the idea of stardom coz it was really intense. Within 24 hours you go from being a small island girl that no one has ever heard of anywhere to being on the front of every newspaper that you pick up in London and they’re in your personal life and of course my relationship with Bob was much talked about because it was considered very outrageous and that put me through a lot of anxiety…”

She had always loved to draw and paint and back in Jamaica Cindy was approached by Donna Coore, the wife of Third World musician Cat Coore, to start a business called Ital Craft making jewellery from shells and other natural objects. Ital Craft went on to become immensely successful; at its height the hand-made jewellery found its way into stores like Bloomingdales, onto the runways of Paris and in sixteen locations in the Caribbean.

Cindy disputes the claim that Marley had funded the start up with huge sums of money.

“It’s like Ital Craft –- that the start up money for that was some hundreds and thousands of dollars.  Rubbish! We started Ital Craft with J$2500, Donna Coore and I. That was the shell capital that we started the company with, it seemed like a lot of money at the time but certainly nowhere near what has been written I think it was in the Don Taylor book.”

About Bob’s involvement in the business Cindy said:

“Not so much that I would ask but that he would think it was a wonderful idea because he was very supportive of any creative endeavour, any initiative and he just thought it was wonderful and he would come up there late at night when he was finished with studio work and whatever and pull up a stool and say ‘I’m a tradesman you know, what you need me to do for you now?’ and in fact one of our big driftwood tables – I had dug up a tree root from out of the sand out at Hellshire Beach — he leveled it and we put a glass on it. He loved to be involved in any little thing like that. And himself and another little youth from Hope Road leveled the top of that table for us and we put the glass on it. But he just loved the creative energy because he was so steeped in the creative process himself, he loved to see it in other people and since he was in a position to encourage it he would go to London and he gave a girflfriend of mine 500 pounds and said Now go and buy anything you can make jewellery with—beads, cords, bindings anything—I didn’t ask him, he just came back and presented me with this enormous duffel bag full of things and said ‘see a few little things here to make some things?’ Well girl, it was like xmas had come two hundred times over. Wonderful. He was very inspirational that way and when he went to Australia he bought a lot of shells for us and had them shipped. And he bought us like our first drill press to make tiny holes for the jewellery because we were using a dentist’s drill up until then.

“So he was very very encouraging and very inspirational. He always wanted to buy me a fancy car and I kept saying I need a van, I really need a van to transport stuff around, get out to the beach and  take up things like these big pieces of driftwood. I always was the kind of person who went for practicality and functionability over just what we call profile nowadays—yeah, a two-seater sports car is great, it can go really fast but can it do anything else? you know that’s always been my way of looking at things. So every now and then I’d keep saying I need a van so finally one day he just drove up the hill in this big blue Ford Transit van, walked inside and said ok see the key here? I said what?! And he said well didn’t you say you need a van, well there’s the van. I had no idea and it didn’t have to be a birthday present or a xmas present if it was just something that you expressed you needed in order to make another part of your life function that much better well ok well I can get you a van. And that’s how he was.”

To be continued…

“As Jamaican as Ackee and Saltfish”: Soul Rebel Cindy Breakspeare Part 1

Excerpts from my 2007 article for Riddim magazine on Cindy Breakspeare…

Photo: Source unknown

Ever since Cindy Breakspeare gave the annual Bob Marley lecture last week interest in her story has heightened. I had interviewed her in 2007 for Riddim magazine. The article appeared in German in Riddim and it just occurred to me that I could publish segments of the English original here on Active Voice. Enjoy!

When asked in a radio interview about her origins Cindy Breakspeare once said “I’m as Jamaican as ackee and saltfish”. The comparison to the national dish was particularly apt as the codfish used in it is often imported from Newfoundland, Canada. Ackee of course is a strange fruit considered inedible in many places because of the potent alkaloid toxins it contains. Jamaicans however eat it with gusto. Apt too because Cindy is the product of a Canadian mother and a Jamaican father; coupled with her white skin her bi-cultural heritage is what often subjects her to questions about her eligibility to be considered Jamaican.

I started thinking about this article after listening to numerous radio interviews with Cindy Breakspeare over the last five or six years. Who was this extraordinary woman? I was struck by her voice and the down-to-earth sincerity it radiated, her healthy sense of humour, her refusal at a certain level to wield the celebrity that is her entitlement or even to take it too seriously. This was in stark contrast to the social columns of Jamaica’s newspapers–filled with the affected poses of individuals whose lives are completely banal and vapid, their only claim to fame being their  disproportionate control of the resources of this small postcolonial nation.

Cindy on the other hand had not only been the favoured consort of the first (and to date the only) global musical superstar from the third world—Bob Marley—shortly after meeting him  she had become a celebrity in her own right by winning the Miss World competition in 1976. In those days this was an even rarer achievement for an unknown from a small developing country than it is today. As for Cindy’s Marley connection, many of us would have given our eyeteeth just to have heard Bob Marley in concert live, let alone to have enjoyed an intimate relationship with this extraordinary musician whose fame and influence have grown exponentially since his untimely death almost thirty years ago.

Cindy actually bore Marley a son, Damian, or Junior Gong as his father called him, who has turned out to be an outstanding singer and songwriter in his own right. Damian, more than any of his half brothers and sisters, has seemed the reincarnation of his father–the champion of poor people’s rights, the shamanic performer chanting down Babylon. Some Jamaicans, however, criticize Damian Marley as an example of an “uptown browning,” suggesting that he lacks street cred, something essential to good Reggae.

The success of Damian’s 2005 hit ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ silenced most critics. In any case this sort of criticism rarely originated in the streets where people appreciated the younger Marley shining a spotlight on their plight. The question is where did he get this social conscience from? From where did he get his unflinching penchant for reality and plain speaking?

Without a doubt this was partly a legacy of his legendary father who had died when Damian was only 2 years old. But having the same legendary father had not led the other Marley siblings to produce music of this caliber. What if some of Damian Marley’s outspoken lyricism actually came from his famous mother, the beautiful Cindy Breakspeare?

Judging by the interviews I had heard with Cindy I began to suspect that far from being a pampered member of any VIP club the young Marley had actually benefited from a double dose of radicalism: Not only was he his father’s son he also had a mother who had flouted the values of Jamaican society, turning her back on the wealth and privilege that could have been hers and embracing a countercultural lifestyle that was far from glamorous then no matter its currency today.

Who was Cindy Breakspeare exactly? Born in the fifties to a Canadian mother and Jamaican father Cindy was brought up in Jamaica and went to school at Immaculate Conception, a local convent school, as a boarder. Having to be a boarder at such an early age while difficult and challenging taught Cindy independence and self-sufficiency.

I went to Immaculate at the age of 7. I think when you’re separated from your family at that age you have to make a lot of decisions for yourself at a very early age–so you learn to trust your instincts, your own instincts, at a very early age; you develop your own value system, your own sense of what’s right and wrong for you. You tend to move away from being a sheep and doing what every one else wants because you don’t have that safe cocoon; you have to follow your own feelings a lot more. Yes, this feels right for me and no that doesn’t and yes I like this and no, I don’t like that and maybe because there is no family constantly directing and supervising and saying no, you can’t do this and no you can’t do that you just tend to wend your own path and after a while you just kinda don’t know any other way to be–you just dance to the beat of your own drum.

While going to a convent school gave her the foundation of a good middle class upbringing her own family life was fractured and unstable so that when she finished school she was on her own, fending for herself and looking for any opportunity that might come her way. At 19 Cindy had been out of school for a while and done many different jobs. There was no money for further studies; her parents were separated, her father now in Canada and she had to get out there and hustle for a living. “I worked at a furniture store for a while, I worked at a jewellery store, I ran a nightclub, I worked at the front desk of what was then the Sheraton, now the Hilton, so I did many different things and eventually found myself at this restaurant …Café D’Attic.”

Café d’Attic was Jamaica’s first health food restaurant specializing in “fruit platters and salad plates and very healthy sandwiches…It was very health-oriented and attracted those who were looking for something other than your greasy spoon, your fast food”. It was during this period that Cindy met Bob whose own preoccupation with healthy food and ital living brought him to the restaurant. This was also what brought Mickey Haughton-James, the owner of a fitness club called Spartan there, a momentous connection that ultimately led to Cindy becoming Miss World in 1976.  “So Mickey came and began talking to me about leaving there and coming to be involved in Spartan. He had not opened it yet but he was looking for someone he felt embodied health and beauty. “I was looking for opportunity, always, always looking for opportunity. Whatever looked like the next good step to take, take, let’s roll with it. So I went to Spartan.”