Morals and art, from Richard Wagner to Vybz Kartel…

Last month, the longest trial in Jamaican history resulted in the dancehall and reggae star Adidja Palmer, known to millions as Vybz Kartel, being sentenced to life in prison for the 2011 murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams (news). Throughout, fans have aired views that his trial has been a conspiracy, that the Jamaican authorities are looking to use Palmer’s high profile as a means to make a showcase statement in a country known as the murder capital of the world as recently as 2005.

While many stories focus on the rumours of an unfair trial and how the imprisonment of both Vybz Kartel and Shawn Storm, two of Jamaica’s finest current crop, could affect the genre of dancehall, very few are reporting the trials of the victim’s family, who have been on the wrong end of hateful public outcries and on-going death threats. The victim’s sister, for example, Stephanie Breckenridge, who testified in the trial, has been in protective custody ever since and essentially advised to be quiet.

For some, the incarceration will only fuel a fascination with Kartel, and perhaps even introduce him to a new audience (see ‘Murderabilia’). It might even distastefully inspire a night in Shoreditch three days after the verdict called Vibe Kartel’, which features a dead face emoticon flyer design. But, for many followers of dancehall, this verdict beckons recurring moral questions that a consumer of any art form is often faced with: can you separate the art from the artist? Can you happily go on listening to and buying Vybz Kartel’s music now that you know he has brought to life his lyrical fancy, and resides in jail for, with the aid of three others, beating someone to death and chopping them up into tiny pieces?

“If we are going to play an artist's music based on their personal lives, then a lot of artists' songs wouldn't be played,” said ZJ Sparks, a female DJ who was born and bred in Jamaica, thus opening a pretty macabre can of worms...

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Vybz Kartel, ‘Yuh Love’

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Richard Wagner - antisemetic, or misunderstood?

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In 2010, Stephen Fry argued a point that shared a similar paradox. He grew up in a Jewish household and the music of Richard Wagner – part god-like composer, part Nazi Germany darling – was met with disdain by his family. However, Fry contested that “art is ornery and shaped by the sense of people and events, not by an overarching ideology”. Though he did eventually conclude quite poetically in The Independent: “Imagine a great beautiful silk tapestry of infinite colour and complexity that has been stained indelibly. It’s still a beautiful tapestry of miraculous workmanship, but that stain is real, and I’m afraid Hitler and Nazism have stained Wagner. For some people that stain ruins the whole work; for others, it’s just something you have to face up to.”

Rachel Cooke of the Guardian argued strongly when the work of Graham Ovenden, a painter and fine art photographer, was removed from the Tate’s online collection after he was convicted for the sexual abuse of children over a two-year period. Ovenden’s case is particularly interesting due to the fact that much of his work focuses on childhood, and therefore the art and crime committed seemed to be in a state of controversial choreography. It’s something we can argue similarly with the work of Kartel, since many of the controversies that preceded his murder conviction concerned the violent nature of his lyrics (see ‘Dem Bwoy’), and his refusal for three years to sign the Reggae Compassionate Act of 2007, halting ‘murder music’ aimed at LGBT communities.

Returning to Cooke’s argument however: “The idea of ‘ethical art’ is nonsense. We have to separate art from life.” She goes further on Ovenden’s removed pieces: “The qualities that won them a place in the Tate's collection can’t be extinguished – rubbed out, like chalk on a board – by the perversions of the man who created them.”

Would dancehall be dancehall without undertones of violence? Brooklyn-based dancehall producer Dre Skull offers his opinion: “Would movies still be movies without violence? Of course. I don't think violence is a primal, irreducible aspect of dancehall at all. It's a part of some songs, but not a part of the majority of dancehall. There are no songs about guns or violence on the ‘Kingston Story’ album I did with Vybz Kartel, for example, and the same is true for thousands and thousands of dancehall songs.”

We re-contextualised Cooke’s argument for fine art to music, but she still makes a strong point, and that separation is what helps us enjoy Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, or even Eminem’s ‘Kim’, without thinking either artist is a paedophile or a murderer. However, that removal from the Tate collection of Ovenden’s work suggests that the actual nature of a crime has a big impact on our conscious decision. Do we romanticise or just overlook particular serious crimes that, over time, we have become desensitised to?

Is that why we can celebrate the prominent beat generation author William S. Burroughs with a clear conscience, even though he murdered his wife and his brother bribed the jury? Why when convicted rapist Tupac Shakur returned from the grave as a performing hologram at 2012’s Coachella, it resulted in a wave of appreciative astonishment, rather than gazes of horror? Why wasn’t Chris Brown’s music banned from Student Unions, but Robin Thicke’s was? And why Sid Vicious was quite stylishly and posthumously used as the face of Converse, regardless of the heavy suspicion that he stabbed Nancy Spungen to death in 1978 at the Hotel Chelsea? And, of course, Michael Jackson.

Perhaps Kartel indirectly addressed this point in his book The Voice Of The Jamaican Ghetto when he wrote: “Babylon can incarcerate the messenger but not the message.”

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Reaction to the Vybz Kartel guilty verdict

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Is this okay? Vicious, pictured left with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, as a face of Converse

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All this would suggest we can separate art from artist, but does that become harder when faced with the actual reality of the crime? Like when we’re confronted with the gruelling open letter of Dylan Farrow regarding the sexual abuse accusations she has directed at Woody Allen. It concludes: “Imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.” It isn’t hard to imagine how equally damning these words would sound had they come from the family of Spungen, Shakur’s victim or the family of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams.

It was innocent until proven guilty for fellow stars like Busta Rhymes and Drake who flew to Kingston for the final days of the trial in a show of support, and Diplo has even carried on trying to make tunes with him. “We tried to do something with him while he’s been in jail,” explains the producer, “but it’s been difficult.” And should Vybz be allowed to make music in jail, and continue to earn a living while serving a murder sentence? It’s a question I pose to Dre Skull – he produced and co-released Kartel’s ‘Kingston Story’ album on his Mixpak label, aided the production of Snoop Lion’s reincarnation, and has had a family member in jail, making him a man painfully qualified for the question.

“This question is dependent on two factors,” he explains. “Firstly, it requires making a decision regarding Kartel’s guilt – because if he is not guilty, it would be hard to imagine anyone having an issue with him recording music while in prison. Secondly, underlying this question is a philosophical position regarding what one believes is the purpose of prison. Is prison meant to be punitive or rehabilitative or, perhaps, a mixture? Having experienced a family member in jail, I have my own personal answer to that, but clearly different people have different ideas. As a thought exercise, I would ask: should a prisoner be allowed to have a pen and paper to write letters? Should that prisoner be allowed to write poems with said pen and paper?  And if so, should that prisoner be allowed to share those poems with the world?”

In the case of Kartel, the moral high ground seems extremely foggy. According to Jamaican news outlet The Gleaner, Judge Lennox Campbell has sought information on whether someone with Kartel’s talent can be allowed to continue producing music in prison. For the listeners, it seems that separating art from artist is a much more philosophical and muddied proposition than it first seems, and the past offers little consistency for guidance. Previous cases would suggest it comes down to a very personal decision based on the nature of the crime, the content of the art itself and a wealth of consequential factors relating to taste.

In the succinct words of Dre Skull: “If an artist has done something that bothers you, illegal or otherwise, how does it feel to experience their art? It’s that simple.” It seems we as a culture are yet to come to a general consensus on how to deal with these incidences. Only you can really decide.

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Dre Skull: a voice of reason

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Noisey’s guide to Vybz Kartel

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Words: Joe Zadeh

Related: read Clash’s regular Reggae & Dancehall columns, which have tracked Kartel’s case over recent months.

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