A Letter From Adidja Palmer

Adidja 'Vybz Kartel' Palmer

‘Yu a Kartel mada?’ A dat one lickle yute ask me one Satday last month. Im dida walk an sell inna Tropical Plaza. ‘Weh yu seh?’ mi ask im. Im see seh mi lickle slow. So im ton i roun: ‘Kartel a yu son?’ Mi ask im, ‘Wa mek yu seh so?’ Im seh, ‘Mi see yu pan TV.'”

So I’ve now joined the band of aggrieved mothers who routinely appear on national news loudly protesting against the arrest of their sons who, supposedly, have been falsely accused of crime.

May Pen Cemetery

The youth must have seen the LIME TV interview at the Trench Town Bob Marley Tribute Concert in which I said I wanted to visit Kartel at the Horizon Adult Remand Centre. Quite an ironic name! There can’t be much of a view of the horizon from that vantage point. The May Pen Cemetery, perhaps; but that place of final rest cannot possibly be an appealing horizon for most prisoners.

It’s not easy to visit the Centre. You need a TRN card – the TRN number on your driver’s licence is not enough. You also need two passport-size photos, certified by a justice of the peace. You have to submit a formal application, which takes two weeks to be processed. And the prisoner has to agree to be visited. Last week, I got the temporary TRN card, so the distance to the horizon is decreasing.

The man and the role

On air, I did express doubts about Kartel’s guilt, based purely on my assessment of the DJ’s intelligence: Vybz Kartel couldn’t be foolish enough to think that Adidja Palmer could get away with murder! That is certainly not an indulgent mother’s stubborn affirmation of her son’s complete innocence. It’s a recognition of an essential distinction between the man and the role he plays as a DJ.

At the now-infamous lecture Kartel gave last year at the University of the West Indies, I asked him a penetrating question: Does Adidja Palmer ever disapprove of Vybz Kartel? His frank response was, “Yes.” I think Palmer knows that Kartel is an unstable character. Stardom really does make some intelligent entertainers lose their grip on reality.

Like it or not, Kartel is undoubtedly an international pop star. This January, one of France’s premier newspapers, Le Monde (The World), carried a story on the DJ in its Culture and Ideas section. According to the journalist, Arnaud Robert, it was “one of the most-read articles on Le Monde website the week it was published”. The story is illustrated with a box of Kartel’s signature cake soap and a photo of the DJ, naked from the waist up, displaying the much-tattooed canvas of his skin.

Guilty with explanation

Truth really is stranger than fiction. The same week the youth asked me if I was Kartel’s mother, I got a letter from my questionable son. Over the three decades I’ve been teaching literature at the University of the West Indies, I’ve received ‘whole heap’ of letters from Jamaicans imprisoned at home and abroad. Many of them send poems, asking for help in getting them published. Prison seems to bring out the creativity of criminals.

I once got a letter from a young man locked up at the St Catherine District prison for murder. He did not pretend to be innocent. He was guilty with explanation, a peculiarly Jamaican plea: “Miss, my action was not premeditated we had an on the spot arguement which developed into a fight knives were brought into play he got a stab and die.”

What is so intriguing about this man’s account is his poetic use of the passive voice. He did not stab the man. The man ‘got a stab’. The grammar of the sentence absolves the stabber of responsibility. The knives that were ‘brought into play’ apparently acted all by themselves. And the victim was so inconsiderate that, having got a stab, he took it upon himself to die!

Using media to slaughter

In his letter, Adidja Palmer (definitely not Vybz Kartel in this case) most certainly does not plead ‘guilty with explanation’. He declares that he is completely innocent. ‘So mi get it, so mi give it’:

“Dear Ms. Cooper,

Good day to you and i hope you are in the best of health and the highest of spirits, but I am not.

“Ms Cooper as you know i am in jail on numerous charges and i’d like to tell you that i am an innocent man who needs your help because i’m being painted as this evil ‘D.J. by day, don by night’ murderer who is society’s number one cause of crime and violence. The police is using the media to slaughter me and as such i don’t think i will get a fair trial. They are using the media to form public opinion of me that is so contradictory to the person that I really am. They (police) have tried my case in the public & found me guilty.

“Every single piece of alleged evidence, every new development in the case is thrown on t.v. as if this is a soap opera, but i can assure you that this is no movie to me. This is about my life and my freedom and i take them very seriously.

“My charges are merely allegations, but they are giving the public the impression that i am guilty and that is not fair to me or my family.

“I have been to court on numerous occasions and saw hundreds of accused men who are charged with heinous crimes like murdering children, killing police officers, burning & shooting whole families and i have never once saw police on t.v. discussing the development of those cases, much less every week, as in my case.”

To be continued. . .

Paying Tribute To Trench Town

Two Saturdays ago, Jamaicans of all social classes converged in west Kingston for the 12th staging of the Bob Marley Tribute Concert, ‘Trench Town Rock’. It was the largest crowd ever. With an entrance fee of $300, the concert was clearly designed to be inclusive. Bad as things may be for so many people in Jamaica right now, JEEP or no JEEP, most could probably afford to come to the show. No need to jump the fence.

The Trench Town concert, sponsored by LIME, was the first of two in honour of Bob Marley that were supported by our warring telecommunications companies. Digicel’s free concert was held in Emancipation Park the next day. In a clash worthy of Sting, LIME and Digicel waged a noisy battle for dominance using popular music as the weapon of choice. The clear winner of the concerted war was certainly the audience, which was very well entertained at little or no cost.

Trench Town police station

The police locked down the lengthy Trench Town tribute at about 4 a.m. I asked the senior officer on duty if anyone had complained about noise and wondered why he couldn’t have exercised discretion and allowed the show to go on. He admitted that nobody had made a complaint. It was a matter of principle. The cut-off time on the permit was 2 a.m., and he had given almost two hours’ grace. I could see his point. The organisers ought to have known that with the large number of ‘and many more’ performers on the show, they couldn’t possibly have ended at the approved hour.

Coming around like tourists

Still for all, given the extraordinary nature of the celebratory event, common sense ought to have prevailed over principle. The Bob Marley Tribute concert pays respect not only to the singer, but also to Trench Town. It brings into the legendary community visitors who would ordinarily steer clear of what they see as a dangerous place.

Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley mocks these outsiders in Welcome to Jamrock:

Dem only come around like tourist

On the beach with a few club sodas

Bedtime stories, and pose

Like dem name Chuck Norris

And don’t know the real hard core

The ‘tourist’/’Norris’ rhyme underscores the DJ’s disdain for tourists of all stripes – whether domestic or international – who claim to know the real hard core. Instead, they betray their ignorance. They are just posing, playing a role in a television drama. Living in a world of bedtime stories, they assume that they can always retreat to the security of their ‘safe’ homes.

Residents of Trench Town have no such illusions. They know intimately the prison of alienation in which they are forced to live. As Bob Marley puts it in Trench Town:

Up a cane river to wash my dread?

Upon a rock I rest my head?

There I vision through the seas of oppression?

Don’t make my  life a prison

Desolate places

An unidentified victim of the 2010 Trench Town massacre; photo The Guardian

The visionary Bob Marley ‘sighted’ the power of music to free the people from imprisoning stereotypes: “They feel so strong to say we’re weak.” But Marley is definitely ambivalent. He knows all too well the very real economic and political power that ‘they’ wield with great authority. So he turns his statement into a question: “Can we free the people with music?”

Salome with the head of John the Baptist, Caravaggio painting

Drawing on his knowledge of the Bible, Marley does not give in to despair. He declares: “In desolate places we’ll find our bread.” This is a reference to the story of the retreat of Jesus after he learns about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is told in Matthew 14, verse 13, English Standard Version: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the town.”

And this is how the bread comes into the story: “Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ But Jesus said, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘We have only five loaves here and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’

Patriarchal mathematics

Eurocentric image of Jesus and his followers

“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up 12 baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

In the patriarchal mathematics of biblical times, only men count. If each man came with his wife and two children, the number of people fed would rise to a whopping 20,000. Add a concubine or two and that’s at least another 5,000: a grand total of 25,000, by my irreverent calculation. And there were even leftovers!

If only Sista P could look up to heaven, say a blessing and break bread that magically multiplies to satisfy the hungry crowds! She wouldn’t even need to fix the JEEP. Of course, the real miracle would be turning “another page in history”, as Marley says, and emancipating ourselves from slavish dependence on politicians to feed us.

The reggae industry, with its roots in Kingston’s concrete jungle, has unquestionably demonstrated that creativity can both free and feed the people. Cynics ask, “Can anything good come out of Trench Town?” Paying tribute to his adopted yard, Bob Marley responds with a liberating “yes!” that resonates across the globe.