The cartoonist who draws blood: On Vybz Kartel and Sexism

Carolyn Cooper, writing for Jamaica’s Gleaner, analyzes the controversy over Clovis Brown’s recent cartoon of Vybz Kartel, which many have found sexist and demeaning.

When I saw last Monday’s editorial cartoon in the Jamaica Observer, I wondered if Clovis Brown had finally sold his soul to the devil. I mean it metaphorically, of course. I have no evidence that Brown’s taskmaster is demonic. ‘Butch’ Stewart, after all, is one of the outstanding leaders of industry in Jamaica. Obviously, a man beyond reproach. True, he must sell newspapers. But, surely, not at any price!

Editorial cartooning has quite a distinguished history. In some quarters it is a noble profession. But in the case of Clovis, the genuine wit of the stinging editorial cartoon appears to have degenerated into little more than vulgar gutter sniping.

Caricature is one thing; sexist, racist and classist profiling is another. I will never forget the contemptuous way in which the supposedly ‘Honourable’ Prime Minister, Mrs Portia Simpson Miller, was demeaningly portrayed by Clovis during the last general election campaign.

Women seem to be particularly easy targets for this cartoonist. Just think about last Monday’s sick joke. Here’s the titillating, pornographic scenario: The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona is an open coffin from which arises ‘Prof’ Vybz Kartel, a grinning, bloodthirsty vampire. And the generic ‘patwa doctor’ – whoever that is – seductively invites the kiss of death.

Murderous message

The murderous message in this necrophiliac cartoon is not even subliminal. It’s right there on the surface. UWI is a ‘dead yard’. Jamaican popular music is a ‘nine-night’ Sankey. And academic discourse on both the music and the mother tongue of the masses of the Jamaican people is a sure death sentence.

Still, I wanted to give Clovis the benefit of the doubt. I tried to imagine that his soul was, indeed, his own. I hoped that his work was inspired by a much grander motivation than simply filthy lucre. Art for art’s sake, perhaps? Or art in the service of politics, even?

In any case, as ‘Professor’ Kartel humorously demonstrated in his now world-famous public lecture at Mona (thanks to the Internet), the mechanics of selling one’s soul to the devil can be rather complicated. Taken literally, all the precise details of the commercial transaction seem quite ludicrous:

“So this is a question now for the audience. I would like to know how one goes about selling his soul to the devil. Does the devil have a bank account? All right. Do you first put an ad in the classifieds: ‘Soul for sale in good condition’? Leave a number to call, the devil calls you, and you work out the fine print of it. He gives you a manager’s cheque for your soul; you go to his bank. A popular commercial bank, I presume. How does it go?”

I dismissed the selling-of-the-soul explanation and began to explore other possibilities. However generous I tried to be, I just couldn’t come up with a satisfying account of Clovis’ disturbing cartoon. Let’s suppose I’m the ‘patwa doctor’. What had I done to make the cartoonist conclude that I would solicit the deadly embrace of a blood-sucking vampire?

My inviting a pop icon to speak at the UWI cannot reasonably be regarded as a death wish. Universities across the globe do this kind of thing all the time. Some of them even have departments of popular culture in which our own Jamaican music is taken seriously.

And as for that dismissive ‘patwa doctor’ label! Clovis does not seem to know that Creole linguistics is a perfectly respectable academic discipline. I might even have become a ‘bona fide patwa doctor’ if I’d been aware of linguistics as an option when I first went to university. As it turns out, my PhD is in English literature, and I teach the subject for a living. I also ‘hug up’ my mother tongue, Jamaican.

And why is Kartel pictured as a vampire? His misapplied ‘cake soap’ may be far less deadly than other chemical products many of us routinely use. Having tried in vain to find a rational explanation for the vicious, blood-sucking cartoon, I’ve concluded that ‘Clovis head tek ‘im’.

Tabloid pedigree

Quite frankly, I really don’t care if the cartoonist decides to put me in a nappy and reduce me to a cry-baby – or whatever other infantile diss he may conceive. That’s a small price to pay for speaking out against the way in which the Observer seems to be revelling in its downmarket, tabloid pedigree.

In the 1990s, I used to write a column for that newspaper. In those early years, the Observer aspired to be a quality broadsheet, in spite of its tabloid format. These days, the pretension of professionalism appears to have vanished, particularly in the editorial cartoon. Now it’s all about cheap laughs.

And Vybz Kartel has bitten back. It had to happen. There’s a wicked cartoon on the Internet, attributed to Kartel. Clovis stands on the sidewalk wearing a T-shirt that reads, ‘Bruk Pocket Hungry Belly Badmind Clovis’. Sobbing, he confesses, “That’s why me envy Kartel so much, you know. He getting all the money and the girls while I’m in a boring underpaid overworked job. Nobody knows me or cares who I am while he gets all the fame and money. Even my mom an me auntie an all of me female cousin dem gone with him … .” Kartel cruises past in his Benz with all of Clovis’ beloved female relatives.

I suppose all is fair in the cartoon wars. But the truth is that Clovis Brown is well-known. And even if he hasn’t quite sold his soul to the devil, he does make a good living. It’s just a pity that his take on life is sometimes so vampirish.

Visit Carolyn Cooper’s  bilingual blog at Email feedback to and

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5 thoughts on “The cartoonist who draws blood: On Vybz Kartel and Sexism

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