Dancehall has given the world numerous hits and made many musicians international stars. However, the shine of success has been clouded by legal challenges for some. This article delves into notable dancehall artists who have been convicted and incarcerated:
Vybz Kartel – 35 Years to LIFE, Jamaica
One of the most iconic names in dancehall, Vybz Kartel (aka Adidja Palmer), has been incarcerated since 2011 and was convicted in 2014 for the murder of Clive “Lizard” Williams. Serving a life sentence, he is eligible for parole after 35 years…, so in 2049, we may be able to see Vybz Kartel again.
Vybz Kartel’s fans have remained fiercely loyal, launching the #FreeWorlBoss hashtag across social media. The majority of fans have been advocating for his release and questioning the fairness of his trial. Some other dancehall artists have shown support by collaborating with him while incarcerated, allowing him to release new music from prison. This illustrates his lasting influence in the dancehall community.
Ninjaman – 25 Years to LIFE, Jamaica
A stalwart of the dancehall genre, Ninjaman (aka Desmond Ballentine) was found guilty of murder in 2017, a conviction stemming from the 2009 murder of Ricardo Johnson. On December 18, 2017, Ballentine was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 25 years. His conviction was met with a mixture of shock and sadness within the dancehall community. Many fans and fellow artists expressed disappointment but highlighted his contributions to the genre.
Jah Cure – Previously served 15 years in Jamaica | Now serving 6 Years in the Netherlands
A regular to incarceration, Jah Cure, aka Siccature Alcock, was handed a 15-year sentence in 1999 after being convicted on charges of gun possession, robbery and rape. After serving eight years, he was released on parole on July 28, 2007. Jah Cure’s story has been one of redemption for many. After serving his time, he was embraced by the music community, and fans celebrated his return to the music scene, emphasizing the themes of healing and renewal in his music.
Subsequently, on October 1, 2021, Jah Cure was arrested in Amsterdam after stabbing a music promoter in the stomach. He was found guilty in early 2022 and sentenced to 6 years. He is still imprisoned in the Netherlands today.
Flippa Mafia – US$250,000 fine and 25 years, United States of America
Andrew Davis, more popularly known as Flippa Mafia, was arrested and charged in the U.S. for his involvement in an international drug trafficking and money laundering ring spanning Jamaica, New Jersey, and California in 2015. In 2016 he was sentenced to serve a 25-year sentence (including 12 years of parole ineligibility) and pay a fine of US$250,000 as an anti-money laundering profiteering penalty. Incidentally, Fortune favoured the overly braggadocious dancehall artist and had him released from the East Jersey State Prison after only serving nine years of his sentence. The terms of his parole are unknown.
Flippa’s conviction was a stark reminder of the dangers of a life outside of music shrouded in criminality. While he had his share of loyal fans, his incarceration was a point of introspection for some in the dancehall community about artists’ choices.
Buju Banton – 10 Years, United States of America
The prolific. Mark Myrie, known worldwide as Buju Banton, faced a 10-year sentence in the United States for drug charges. In December 2009, Drug Enforcement Administration agents remanded Banton to custody in Miami, where the U.S. Attorney charged him with conspiracy to distribute and possess more than five kilograms of cocaine. Released in December 2018, he served seven years before being deported to Jamaica.
After being released, Buju sold out the National Stadium in Jamaica in March 2019 for his Long Walk to Freedom Tour. The concert was well-attended and had support from fellow musicians. His incarceration was a significant point of discussion, with many in the industry lamenting the loss of his voice during his prison years.
Busy Signal – US$30,000 fine and 6 Months, United States of America
Always on the move, Busy Signal (aka Reanno Gordon) was extradited to the U.S. from Jamaica in 2012 on drug-related offences after pleading guilty to fleeing before a pending narcotics trial. Busy Signal was fined US$30,000 and sentenced to six months in prison by Minnesota State District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank for absconding bail. Busy Signal reportedly removed his ankle monitor and fled the U.S. to Jamaica while on bail in 2002.
When Busy Signal was extradited to the U.S. and later incarcerated, many fans voiced their support on social media, expressing hope for a swift return to the music scene. His songs, especially those addressing societal issues, resonated deeply with many, reinforcing their loyalty. After serving his time and being released, Busy Signal made a significant comeback, with fans and fellow musicians welcoming his return. His post-incarceration music often touched on themes of redemption, lessons learned, and gratitude, further endearing him to his audience.
Tommy Lee Sparta – 3 years, Jamaica
In March 2021, Leroy Russell, popularly known as Tommy Lee Sparta, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a total of five years in prison in relation to the seizure of an illegal gun. The courts sentenced Tommy Lee to three years imprisonment for illegal possession of a firearm and two years for illegal possession of ammunition. The sentences ran concurrently and included the time served from the day he was arrested for the crime in December 2020.
Tommy Lee Sparta’s incarceration elicited varied reactions from the dancehall community. Fans expressed sympathy on social media, highlighting his unique contribution to the genre. Fellow artists offered mixed responses, some showing support and others emphasizing the pitfalls of fame and illegal activities. Concerns were raised about Tommy Lee’s mental health due to his past openness about depression.
The incarceration of prominent dancehall artists has undoubtedly sent ripples through the genre and its passionate fan base. While these legal incidents have sometimes cast a shadow over dancehall, bringing a mixture of controversy and public debate, they’ve also ignited discussions about societal issues, redemption, and the challenges artists face. While lamenting the actions that led to these convictions, many fans express deep loyalty, often viewing their favourite artists as more than just musicians but as representatives of broader cultural narratives. Additionally, the absence of these influential figures has opened doors for many emerging artists to fill the void, leading to shifts in the musical landscape and the evolution of the dancehall sound. In a broader context, these incidents highlight the complexities of fame and the challenges of navigating success in an industry and culture where the lines between personal experiences, public personas, and artistic expression often blur.