Vybz Kartel is dancehall’s biggest star and most beloved folk hero. He’s also its newest face.
Bleaching, in Jamaica, can mean one of two things. 1. Applying prescription-only steroid cream for extremely off-label use, leaching the pigment out of your skin cells to create a whiter complexion, or 2. Staying awake until daylight. In the 48 hours I spend chasing Vybz Kartel—who for the last few years has reigned as the undisputed emperor of dancehall—around Kingston, it’s clear he’s doing a lot of both. Indeed, his vampire-like schedule is a deterrent to getting close to Vybz Kartel. About the time I step off a 10AM flight at Norman Manley Airport, he is on the phone to say that yes, he is in fact still up from his Thursday Street Vybz party the night before but is ready to link up anyway. And that’s the last I’ll hear from him while the sun is still up.
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Vybz Kartel, you might still know him as the taunting voice on Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor.” Maybe you’d recognize his urgent patois singing the plaintive I can’t stop fucking you! on 2008’s unlikely crossover hit “Ramping Shop.” Or you might know him as the embodiment of Gaza—a nickname for his section of Portmore, a garrison suburb just outside Kingston—in the Gaza/Gully feud that divided not only dancehall but all of Jamaica after Kartel split from Bounty Killer’s Alliance crew. At a particularly bad moment, Kartel’s Honda Accord was car-bombed outside his home in the posh Kingston neighborhood of St. Andrews, and the feud took on such a life of its own that the most important figures on the island were forced to intervene. Ultimately, a truce required the combined diplomacy of a police chief, the prime minister and alleged drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who brought the two together onstage at his West Kingston Jamboree in 2009, just before Christmas.