Jamaican Reggae’s Rude Boys Go to War

As the line between reality and performance blurs, kill increasingly means kill

  • Reggae Rude Boys

    image by Kyle T. Webster / www.kyletwebster.com

  • Reggae Rude Boys

“Him chuck mi first.”

On Boxing Day—December 26, 2003—just as the sun was rising over Portmore, Jamaica, dancehall deejay Vybz Kartel took the stage at Jamaica’s legendary Sting music festival. The annual concert, widely promoted as “The Greatest One-Night Reggae Show on Earth,” includes the most visible artists in dancehall music and has a reputation for hosting onstage clashes between feuding deejays (a term in reggae that refers not to disc jockeys but to MCs).

His entourage surrounding him, Kartel dropped maniacal taunts about “wartime” and how “lyrics win war.” Halfway into his set, he launched into the hits: “Gun Clown” and “Bus Mi Gun Like Nuttn,” hype tracks that spout the same brutal lyrics as gangsta rap. But Kartel’s songs weren’t just vague anthems to violence; they were weapons aimed at his rival, Ninjaman, a 37-year-old “senior” deejay known for his criminal record and a history of onstage clashes. The 27-year-old Kartel called Ninjaman a crackhead, dug into him about sexual abuse allegations, and then accused him of sodomy.

Ninjaman took the stage wearing a graduation cap and gown (a visual jab about being in a higher “class” of deejay). But Kartel was a local favorite, and after a strategic set of hits mixed with cheer-induced disses, he had pulled the 20,000 fans to his side. Ninjaman gave it his best shot, but after a minute of booing and bottle flinging, Kartel returned to the stage.

Then something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen: Ninjaman gave Kartel a hard shove—though who shoved whom first is disputed. (Ninjaman claims, “Him chuck mi first, mi chuck him back.”) Within a few seconds a fistfight was under way. Kartel and his crew threw Ninjaman to the ground and security guards intervened. It was the first incident of onstage violence in the festival’s 20-year history.

Bounty Killer, a then-ally of Kartel’s who was scheduled to perform that day, canceled his appearance in protest. Mobbing fans, upset by the decision, overtook the bar, threw bottles, and fired guns into the air. Afterward, the festival’s promoters tried to extinguish residual flames with an emergency peace­keeping meeting, but it didn’t go so well: Ninjaman showed up with bandages strapped across his face and refused to shake Kartel’s hand.

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