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From charge to release - Songs follow cycle of justice system encounters

Published:Sunday | November 25, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Bounty Killer
Vybz Kartel

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Deejay Busy Signal, having served his time in the US, is back in Jamaica and a very happy man. While he does not seem in a rush to hit the studios with a slew of prison-related material, there are already a number of songs which cover the range of entertainers' encounters of the unpleasant kind with the justice system. Of course, this also means that many a prominent Jamaican music personality has had brushes with the law.

On Conviction or Fine from the 1986 album Brutal, Black Uhuru with Junior Reid up front traces the short distance between lock-up and court ("from City Centre to Sutton Street/my heart skip a beat/silence in the court/do you swear to tell the truth/nothing but the truth/the whole truth/I swear").

The song assesses the presiding magistrate's intention with "the judge never have no sympathy on me/all he have on his mind is a conviction or a fine".

Bunny Wailer also observes the distinct lack of sympathy in the courthouse in Battering Down Sentence from his outstanding 1976 Blackheart Man album. Noting that "skilful as I am the jailer man is going to find me", Wailer finds himself "trapped and caught and taken before judge and angry jury/pleading with men who seem to have no mercy".


When there is conviction, the incarcerated person has two options - fold under the pressure or find the strength to carry on. The first is not an option - at least, not publicly - and there is even a healthy dose of bravado in the attitude of the currently jailed Vybz Kartel. On When Shotta Go a Jail, Kartel says "mi lawyer a big Queens Counsel, so me neva worry bout bail". And on matters of diet, Kartel says "mi no nyam prison food/steam fish straight lobster tail".

That song was recorded before Kartel's present period of incarceration, beginning in 2010. Decades before, Toots and the Maytals etched a famed prison number into popular culture singing "54-46 was my number", even as innocence was protested.

Years after the recording, it was revealed that 54-46 was not the actual prison number.

In True Reflections, Jah Cure sings about the conditions during his eight-year prison term :

"Behind these prison walls

Doing my paces

Doing my time

Spending my restless nights

Visioning faces

Oh they are all crying

Prison a no bed a roses

The livity it make me bawl"

Then, upon release, there is the celebration of freedom. Bob Marley led the Wailers in singing "yes mi friend/them set me free again/yes mi friend/Mi deh pon street again/the bars could not hold me". Ninja Man references his film character from the 1999 movie Third World Cop when he deejays about a previous release from incarceration with "Deportee is back/the wickedest thing whe inna Third World Cop".


And, closing the cycle, there are the promises to not go the same route again. In the 2011 Ready Fi Dem, deejay Bounty Killer - after a series of run-ins with the law - announced "nah go no more court go talk bout Your Honour/yu know mi nah go swing no more hammer".

But maybe the most famed post-jail song comes from Busy Signal again, who deejayed "say we nah go a jail again, oh no, nah see mi a courthouse no more/no more bracelet up inna house no more".