Murder Dem: The Turbulent Saga of Reggae Stars and Violent Crime

Why have so many prominent Jamaican artists been killed or incarcerated?

At approximately 10:10 p.m. on Thursday October 9th, neighbors heard gunshots coming from the home of Lincoln Valentine Scott in the Williamsfield District of Manchester Parrish. This quiet corner of west-central Jamaica, named after the nearby sugar cane plantation, was known, not for crime, but rather as part of the “bread basket” of Jamaica. In fact, Scott chose the place for its natural beauty, and because it was far from the hustle and bustle. When police arrived they discovered his body, a fatal gunshot wound to the chest. They had no suspects or motive in the apparent murder according to the sketchy reports published in Jamaican newspapers like The Gleaner and Observer.

Lincoln Valentine “Style” Scott

Just like that: another prolific, distinguished life in music was prematurely snuffed out. Known to reggae aficionados as “Style Scott,” the fifty-eight-year-old drummer laid down beats for the best of them. His Roots Radics band, formed in the late 70s, defined the dominant roots sound in Jamaica until the mid-80s. They played with every reggae performer of note from Bunny Wailer and Gregory Isaacs to Barrington Levy. Then, when Scott met English dub producer Adrian Sherwood, they formed Dub Syndicate, which became Scott’s main focus. Their live dub band released a slew of innovative albums and was frequently touring with Scott at the helm. “We are all very saddened by Style’s murder,” says Sherwood about his long-time friend and collaborator, who tragically joins a long list of Jamaican reggae artists who have succumbed to a violent end—or, as in the case of the recently indicted dancehall deejay Vybz Kartel, been left holding the gun.

Another one of Sherwood’s friends, Prince Far-I, the “Voice of Thunder,” was murdered in front of his home on September 15th, 1983. Also that year, the child prodigy Hugh Mundell, who recorded the album Africa Must Be Free in 1983 at the age of 16, was shot to death in Kingston. International reggae icon and original Wailer Peter Tosh met a violent end in his home in Kingston on September 11th, 1987, as did Carlton Barrett, the drummer for that legendary group, who was also shot that year. Osbourne Ruddock aka King Tubby, one of the innovators of dub, was gunned down on February 6th, 1989 outside his home in Duhaney Park, Kingston after returning from a studio session.

Peter Tosh

These are just some of the names you might know, plenty of other lesser-known artists have suffered similar fates. While music is usually considered a route out of the ghetto, in Jamaica this is not always the case. A reputation for crime and violence has always plagued this island nation, and its roots run deep.

There’s a scene early on in Perry Henzel’s 1972 cult classic, The Harder They Come, acclaimed for its honest portrayal of life in the Kingston slums, where the main character Ivan, played by Jimmy Cliff, goes to see a movie at the Rialto after having recently emigrated to Kingston from the country. Scenes from Django, a pioneering spaghetti western starring Francisco Nero, are intercut with shots of the audience talking to the screen and laughing. When an army of bad guys, faces covered with red masks, descends on the deserted, western town moving ominously toward Django, he pulls out a Gatling gun and mows them down, setting off the crowd in the cinema. This scene not only illustrates how greatly violent pop culture from overseas—especially America—influenced Jamaican culture, but also how the archetype of the gunman proved to be especially attractive.

Cliff’s character Ivan is based on a true-to-life legend named Ivanhoe, better known as Rhygin, a celebrated criminal in the annals of Jamaica. The name itself derives from an African dialect meaning “fierce, powerful, or potent,” and Rhygin’s 35-day crime spree, when the country was experiencing its first mass migration from rural areas to the city during the late 40s, was also Jamaica’s first mass media sensation. Author Mike Thelwell, who wrote the novelized version of The Harder They Come, which offers an account of the real Rhygin, says, “In the whole oral tradition of the poor folk, Rhygin was a supernatural figure, who stole from the rich and represented the frustrations, aspirations, and resentments of the poor, black working class.” Jamaica’s original rude bwoy, made notorious by the media, battled a corrupt system stacked against the have-nots, winning the people’s sympathy in the process. “When his body was taken to the morgue,” adds Thelwell, “something like 5000 people went to see him.”

Jimmy Cliff in the studio

The wave of gunmen that followed during the political violence of the late 70s and 80s in Jamaica were a whole different breed from Rhygin. Known as “Dons,” as in high-ranking members of the Mafia, these enforcers for the dominant political parties, the JLP and PNP, kept whole neighborhoods in heavily populated West Kingston loyal to either party, sparking a war in the process. As the PNP flirted with Communism, the CIA flooded the country with guns, as did Cuban operatives on the other side. The situation was nothing short of gang warfare sanctioned and supported at the highest levels.

At a certain point, however, the Dons turned against their political bosses, realizing they could make more on their own in the drug trade. Former enforcers like Lester Lloyd Coke, better known as “Jim Brown,” were responsible for exporting the crime wave to places like Miami and New York, where Jamaican drug gangs like the Shower Posse, which he helmed, became formidable foes for U.S. law enforcement through much of the 80s and early 90s. Coke’s son Christopher “Dudus,” who inherited the family’s crime empire, was only recently arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2010, and afterwards convicted.

Caskets of victims of the violence in Kingston are left in a cemetery on May 28, 2010. 73 people were killed in an effort to capture Christopher Coke.

Jamaica remains a dangerous place. Last year, according to a report by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), it had the sixth highest homicide rate in the world behind only Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Marlon James, author of the recent novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Press, 2014), which explores the intricate web of people associated with an attempt on Bob Marley’s life in 1976, says, “There are areas that have a culture of violence. West Kingston has a culture of violence. But I think culture could be a very glib and superficial way of looking at it. I don’t think it’s a culture—it’s politics, it’s money, its extortion, it’s crime. I think it’s an economics problem.”

“If a city is progressing, poor people are going to move there, and when people move there and you have nothing in place, you’re going to end up with slums in inner cities,” James continues. “You’re gonna end up with Kingston, you’re gonna end up with Watts, you’re gonna end up with favelas. In those sorta desperate situations, of course you’re gonna have crime and poverty and sickness and disease and early death.”

While the ghetto provides an incubator for all kinds of destructive tendencies, there is an undeniable creative force emanating from there as well, evident in the long list of artists and musicians, from Bob Marley on down, who trace their humble beginnings to the Kingston slums. Neither Motown nor Muscle Shoals could compete with the sheer amount of sounds coming out of Jamaica and having an impact worldwide.

Jamaican shantytown

Thelwell notes, “Music was a ghetto product—something coming out of the black working class in the ghettos. So a lot of reggae musicians would come out of those communities and the dons felt like they could influence or intimidate them. Or some of the reggae musicians were gunmen, you know? They had been acculturated in this culture of violence.”

It’s all about the Intra, di Ruga, di Beretta, di Luga,
Di Brico, di Lauma, di Glock, di Wringer,
Di Astra wi mek yuh body colder than Nebraska
Yuh diss di Yardy mobster, then we crack yuh like a lobster
Di AK nuh play play, mek blood run like Alize
Marrow fly gone pan holiday, nuh diss Kartel any day
~Vybz Kartel, “Guns Like Mine”

On February 27th, 2014, Adidja Palmer, better known as Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel, and three associates were convicted of the murder of Clive “Lizard” Williams, another associate who allegedly stole two guns from the artist. After a trial lasting 65 days—one of the longest in Jamaican history—the jury deliberated less than two hours before delivering the guilty verdict. Upon sentencing in April, Vybz received life in prison with no possibility of parole for 35 years.

To put this in perspective, imagine Jay-Z or Yeezus being locked up for life. Vybz Kartel might be known in America for his remixes and collaborations with Rihanna, Missy Eliot, and Busta Rhymes, but in Jamaica, he is the reigning don of dancehall. “Vybz Kartel is certainly one of the most important and influential artists in the history of dancehall,” says Max Glazer of New York’s Federation Sound System, specialists in dancehall and reggae for the last 15 years. “When you talk about someone having total mastery over the art of deejaying [in Jamaica, the art of chatting lyrics] and total control over the psyche and consciousness of dancehall worldwide,” he adds, “No one has done what Kartel has for as long as he has. He is still running the streets, despite having been off the streets in prison for over 3 years.”

He has already recorded two albums behind bars, Kingston Story (2011) and The Voice of The Jamaican Ghetto—Incarcerated But Not Silenced (2013), both of which cracked Billboard’s Top Ten Reggae chart. Kartel is also an entrepreneur with his own brand of condoms and rum, and he did for Clark’s—following his hit song of the same name—what Run-D.M.C. did for Adidas or Ghostface did for Wallabees.

Controversy also clings to Kartel like a wifebeater. From lyrics celebrating sex and violence, to his well-publicized beefs with other artists, he embodies the outlaw-figure that Jamaicans love, and love to hate. His famous feud with former collaborator Movado even incited street fights between each other’s supporters—Gaza (or Portmore, Kartel’s hometown) versus Gully—reminiscent of the politically-inspired violence of the 70s. Things went so far that Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding had to step in to mediate a truce in December 2009.

According to reports in Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner, Kartel was taken down after voicemail and text messages linked him to the murder of Williams, whose body was never found. He is also up on charges that he tried to tamper with the jury from his trial. Kartel’s story is a cautionary tale of karma coming back around to bite you. Though achieving great heights as an artist and entrepreneur, he could never sever ties to the streets that made him who he is. “Just cause you came out of the ghetto doesn’t mean the ghetto came out of you,” says James. “If the ghetto didn’t come out of you, it’s going to follow you.”

Regarding the death of Style Scott and so many other musicians, he adds, “A lot of these killings, some of them are random, some are robberies, some are just because Jamaica is violent, but some of them are something that everyone’s connected to and most times you only know half the story.”

Sherwood says, “The real reason for Jamaica’s shocking violence now is poverty and very young people respecting the gunman as they have little or no opportunities at all.” This dark underbelly is a part of Jamaica that tourists seldom see. Even those who try to transcend their experience through music are not immune to the realities of life in such an environment. No one is.

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