George Davis | Ninja Man's ultimate clash with 'Justice'
So Ninja Man is gone for life. Even if you accept that he’s eligible for parole after 25 years, that length of time in or outside of prison is a lifetime. So whether he wants to or not, the man born Desmond John Ballentyne in Annotto Bay, St Mary on January 24, 1966, will be a new man by the time he rejoins the ranks of taxpayers. Though he only passed sentence, Justice Martin Gayle has secured a special place in the annals of dancehall music for having silenced, subdued and confined Ninja Man to an undesirable place, a feat which many men before him have tried and failed to accomplish. The courtroom, like the dancehall stage, is familiar territory for Jamaican music’s undisputed Don Gorgon. Sting was his customised and personalised battlefield. From the brothers Red Dragon and Flourgon in 1988, the legendary Shabba Ranks in 1990, the revered Super Cat in 1991, Ninja Man has strode through the battlefield, plunging his lyrical bayonet into the heart of many who felt they had a just claim to be regarded as dancehall’s number one. Of course it wasn’t all flawless victories for ‘Ninja’ as Sting has also been the scene of some of his most spectacular failures.
A deejay from Braeton in St Catherine, Mad Cobra, stunned the dancehall when he bested Ninja at Sting 95. Most dancehall fans felt ‘Cobra’ to be mad and foolish to effectively be sacrificing a budding career by going to Sting, of all places, to challenge ‘Ninja’. But smarting from the defeat at Sting and eager to prove to his fans that the outcome was a mere glitch in the matrix, Ninja Man challenged Mad Cobra a few months later at ‘Fresh 96’.
‘Cobra’ cemented his standing as one of ‘clash dancehall’s’ finest when he repeated the trick, making the Don Gorgon look like a man who needed urgent rehabilitation from crack/cocaine addiction. Ninja Man is famous for using gimmicks in lyrics and adapting the melodies of popular songs to ‘murder’ his opponents. ‘Cobra’ kicked Ninja’s feet from beneath him with a song performed to the melody of the generational cartoon, ‘The Flintstones’. And even though ‘Cobra’ killed him lyrically and despite him confessing publicly about his addiction to crack/cocaine, Jamaicans loved Ninja Man. Their love for him perhaps grew after the incident at Sting 2003, when a rising Vybz Kartel, Ninja Man’s grandson in clash-dancehall and a man young enough to be his biological son, kicked him in the face during a fight on stage. They love him in the way boxing fans do Mike Tyson, despite watching his career being blemished by a rape conviction and losses in the ring, where he was knocked out by James ‘Buster’ Douglas, Lennox Lewis and others. Iron Mike will always be the most devastating thing many have ever seen inside a boxing ring and Ninja Man will remain the most charismatic, witty, charming and devilish deejay many will ever see performing music on a stage.
When I was a boy and Ninja Man was at the height of his powers in the late 1980s to the early 1990s, the men and teenagers I used to hang around spoke of him in reverential terms. They spoke about his Swiss wife, Joy, making it seem like having a spouse from Switzerland was equivalent to having money in a Swiss bank account. There was one fellow who cut a picture from page nine of the January 19, 1991,edition of The Gleaner, showing Ninja Man, grinning and showing the front-teeth-gold teeth, while hugging the then Joy Ballentyne.
Ninja Man is a contradiction of the highest order. A bad man. A one-man gang. A champion for masculinity who wore braids, pink, waist length hair and gowns on stage, as he sang about the art of killing people. He was a philanthropist, a mentor and a pacifier who was given the most comprehensive beating of his career by a man known as Justice but named Martin Gayle.
Ninja Man, the only performer in Jamaica’s music history who ever walked on a stage with a stone-faced expression, simply looked at fans in the crowd and watched them scream their lungs out in anticipated excitement. Without him ever uttering a word. We are unlikely to see that again. Selah.
- George Davis is a broadcast executive producer and talk-show host. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.