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New York Times - Managing a Brand He Made Himself

vybz_kartel_new_york_times.jpgSHORTLY before 10 p.m. on the final night of Best of the Best, a reggae and hip-hop concert held over the Memorial Day weekend in Veterans Park in Miami, DJ Nuffy, the master of ceremonies, began to introduce the dancehall reggae artist Vybz Kartel. But Vybz Kartel wasn’t actually in the park, in Miami, or even in the United States. He was more than 500 miles away at Jamaica Jamaica, a fancy nightclub just outside Ocho Rios, because he has been denied a United States visa.

“And now for your feature presentation, the biggest thing in Jamaica,” DJ Nuffy roared, adding “him look like Michael Jackson.” The sly remark - referring both to the artist’s enormous celebrity in the Caribbean diaspora and to his controversial practice of lightening his skin - drew laughter and mischievous cheers from the crowd of some 10,000 who stared intently at a screen on the stage where artists including DJ Khaled, Busta Rhymes and I-Octane had performed just moments before. “Let’s welcome via satellite, live to you, Vybz. Vybz. Vybz.”

The crowd shouted “Kartel” in unison as his image filled the screen. He wore a purple suit with a loosely knotted silk tie and button-down shirt, his pale brown tattooed face framed by aviator glasses and a mane of black hair extensions. “Yo, Miami, you know what time now?” he asked, checking his wristwatch as the stuttering digital beat for “Touch a Button,” his chest-thumping challenge to rivals, started to play. Before long Vybz Kartel’s rapid-fire flow had the audience spellbound.

Over the last few years Vybz Kartel (pronounced Vibes Cartel) has become the most talked about figure in dancehall, a genre that is to the roots reggae of Bob Marley as hip-hop is to R&B. More than any of his predecessors or his peers, Vybz Kartel understands that he is not just entertaining an audience but managing a global brand. At a time when major-label interest in the genre is at a low ebb, and most dancehall artists release a smattering of singles, he will drop a full album, “Kingston Story,” on Tuesday on the Brooklyn digital label Mixpak Records. Although there will be no P.R. blitz to push the work, Kartel, 35, is highly skilled at creating controversy and leveraging the media exposure into new opportunities. The secret of his success may be that Vybz Kartel doesn’t worry about conforming to expectations; he’d rather break the rules.

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