Here’s what you need to know—dancehall artiste Vybz Kartel, born Adidja Palmer, is on trial for murder. Arrested at the height of his lucrative international career, he has been legally incarcerated for thirty months awaiting the decision now before the court. While eleven souls determine his innocence or guilt, in the court of public opinion a larger trial is simultaneously taking place. The defendant? The justice system itself, charged again and again with inefficiency, corruption, and prejudice. Call it a labouring class action suit, on the books forever, with two million plaintiffs.
For our disenfranchised majority, who may lack the income, literacy or leisure time to read opinion columns, social commentary arrives via dancehall music, which speaks just as eloquently, in our dominant language, and for free. Super Cat, Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer, Ninjaman, Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Sizzla, Busy Signal, Mavado, Vybz Kartel—a long line of lyrical preachers for whom, as often as not, prison is just a waystation on the road to immortality and a house in the hills. They speak—powerfully, poetically, presciently—for and about the people they leave behind without leaving them behind.
To arrest an artiste is thus to martyr them, to muzzle a voice validated by millions. Hundreds storm the Supreme Court bastille each day, clamouring for the release of their self-appointed ‘World Boss’. On the cover of his book, ‘The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto: Incarcerated but not Silenced’, Mr Palmer poses as civil rights icon Malcolm X. And his Twitter account channels anti-establishment sentiment to 76,000 followers: “This is a classic case of the system vs ghetto, [the] poor [and] dancehall” and “The war [between us and] Babylon is over 400 yrs old [and] we still a [fight]”.
This gnawing sense of injustice is responsible for our current hydra, where corruption and criminality snake from the alms house to Gordon House, and threaten to choke our society. A failed government, according to landmark sociologist Max Weber, is one unable to maintain ‘a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical violence’. Let’s review the state of our state.
Swaths of Kingston are run by area dons through equal parts fear and benevolence, leaving Members of Parliament a choice between collusion and impotence. Removing these garrison leaders instigates civil war, as in the bloody extraction of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke in 2010, when uniformed officers faced armed opposition from the people they are sworn to protect.
For their part, our police force continues to be more force than police, killing 255 men, women and children last year. The comparable number for all of Britain? Zero. British ex-cop Hamish Campbell, now Assistant Commissioner of the Independent Commission of Investigations, says “there is a widespread belief that the [Jamaican] police are killing people who can’t otherwise get to the courts”.
Why? Because our courts are impossibly backlogged, with over 400,000 cases in the queue, some describing acts so barbaric, judges deny bail even though a potentially innocent person will live for years in an inhumane constabulary jail. To put that jaw-dropping (and officially disputed) number in perspective, if we never added another lawsuit, and cleared ten a day, the last holographic docket would wrap up somewhere in the year 2123.
Yes, our institutions fail, badly and regularly, so most of us have lost faith over time. But when everyone is watching, as we are now with Mr Palmer’s trial, it’s a rare opportunity to restore that faith in a single deposit. All of us—rich and poor, defense and prosecution, Babylon and badman alike—are better off when the system works. When everyone does their job, from janitor to judge, that simple but powerful display of competence has an outsized impact. It reinforces the social contract binding us in this experiment called Jamaica, and reminds us that we are, imperfectly, out of many, one people striving toward common goals. It makes us a nation.
As Vybz Kartel offers, echoing Buju Banton and a long line of musical forebears: “The life we live, it hard and poor/ that’s why them fight ghetto yute more and more/ but ‘memba, we go on and on and on”.