Busy Signal and his knight in shining armour
Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
Busy Signal is no damsel in distress. True, he's in extraordinary trouble: jailed and facing extradition. But Busy is definitely not a damsel. ''Im a man.'
All the same, I'm sure the DJ is relieved that Queen's Counsel K.D. Knight agreed to represent him in his extradition case. Armed with the weight of his expansive legal knowledge, brightly shining Knight has insisted that even though Busy has waived his right to contest the extradition, he should only be facing the absconding charge mentioned in the warrant.
Incidentally, when was the last time you read the words Queen's Counsel and DJ in the same sentence? Things are picking up for dancehall culture. There was a time when DJs were pariah. No 'self-respecting' attorney-at-law would take up a DJ's case. But things and time do change. Even DJs are presumed innocent until proven guilty. They are entitled to a fair, even if expensive, hearing.
In a Billboard.biz article posted on May 22, music journalist Patricia Meschino gives a summary of Busy Signal's court case in the US. "Minnesota District Court Case No. 0:02-cr-00054-JMR-FLN: USA v Gordon, with a Glendale Gordon being charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, three counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine (Level 4) and a third charge of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The 'Level 4' is an indicator of conspiracy to distribute five or more kilograms.
"A former resident alien of the US, Gordon purportedly removed his ankle bracelet tracking device and fled to Jamaica prior to sentencing."
'Nah Go Jail Again'
As I listened to the plaintive words of Busy Signal's Nah Go Jail Again, I wondered what would happen if cocaine were decriminalised in the US. Of course, there was a time when cocaine was a perfectly legal recreational drug. It was not until 1914 that the Harrison Act was passed in the US Congress, making it illegal for the drug to be dispensed except with a medical prescription.
Given the widespread demand for the substance, the trade ended up in the hands of criminals. It's a familiar story. Trafficking in alcohol was a crime in the US from 1920-1933. Criminalisation of the drug created wealth. It is alleged that even a supposedly respectable family like the Kennedys had relatives who amassed a huge fortune selling bootleg liquor.
In his song Nah Go Jail Again, Busy gives a haunting account of the trauma of incarceration. He confesses why he had to flee the US prison system: fear of generic violence, as well as the specific threat of sexual abuse:
"Mi seh thugs deh pon dah side yah and di stiff deh pon di other,
Caan diss no man weh a do life inna dem yard ya,
Get beatin from the warden if yu go round di order,
Yu caan drop no soap pon di border like Shebada
Caan have a next man a plait yu hair,
Caan have a next man a spot yu rear,
Caan have so much money and food pon yu commissary
And a gwaan like you naa share."
There are pull factors as well as push. The prospect of making it legally in the outside world motivates Busy Signal to cut and run:
"Seh wi naa go a jail again - oh, no!
And wi never gonna fail again - oh, no!
Like a ship wi a go sail again - oh, oh!
You would a never see mi call mi friend fi bail again
Naa see mi a courthouse no more - oh, no!
No bracelet up inna house no more - oh, no!
Mi step out and hold mi own fi sure - oh, oh!
Real hustlers a road a mek money galore."
Reggae Music Again
Since stepping out of the US, Busy Signal has been holding his own for sure as a very successful dancehall/reggae artiste. His latest album, Reggae Music Again, released in April, is a stellar achievement. In a BBC review, Lloyd Bradley, author of Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, describes the album in this way:
"Busy Signal's deserved reputation as a hardcore dancehall deejay often overshadows his bringing a fresh tunefulness to the genre in recent years, expanding its scope and extending songs' longevity. With Reggae Music Again, he builds on all the clever musicality of 2010's DOB to produce an album that, appropriately for the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's Independence, immerses itself in reggae music heritage."
Busy Signal is the cover story for the forthcoming issue of Riddim, Germany's upscale reggae/dancehall magazine, with a bi-monthly circulation of 45,000 copies. Last Monday, I got an early morning call from Ellen Köhlings, who co-edits the magazine with Pete Lilly. She was distraught at the news of Busy's arrest. Just when the artiste is riding the high wave of success, it looks as if his ship 'naa go sail again'.
I expect that Busy Signal's endorsement contracts will be cancelled. Pepsi-Cola Jamaica has already pulled the Pepsi Bubbla advertisements in which he appeared. I suppose Red Label Wine will follow suit. As soon as an artiste gets into trouble, advertisers immediately distance themselves. Innocent or guilty, the DJ becomes an outcast.
Busy Signal's case raises a number of questions. How, if at all, can the legal systems in the US and Jamaica accommodate reformed criminals - whether they are DJs or not? What purpose would be served by sending Busy Signal back to jail for the crimes of his youth?
Conventional justice demands that the guilty pay for their crimes, I know. But in what currency? Is incarceration the only legal tender? Is mercy nothing but counterfeit justice? Does reformation not count at all? It would be such a tragedy if the artiste's musical career were to be permanently disconnected.
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.