Wednesday, July 6

Shyne Barrow: From Rap Star to Convict to Politician on the Rise

At an empty beach bar in Corozal, a shaggy town of a few thousand people just minutes from where northern Belize meets Mexico’s share of the Yucatan Peninsula, waves crash into a jagged, rocky breakwater. It’s 9 p.m., the kitchenis about to close, and the only people left are some young, very loud, and very sober American missionaries. Another languid Caribbean day is winding down, but my dinner companion, Moses Michael Levi “Shyne” Barrow, has no desire to linger over a meal and conversation. He’s shoveling in his fried fish, rice, and beans faster than an escaped hostage, and brushing off my questions about his remarkable life — from Brooklyn-raised rapper to convicted felon to Orthodox Jewish convert to prominent politician here in the country of his birth — with blunt rejoinders.

“I want you to be more specific, rather than just sitting here having a therapy session,” he grumbles, raising his hand to make a drink order.

Folks come to Corozal to fish, visit Mayan ruins, or increasingly, ship cocaine into the United States. That’s a problem for a tiny nation of around 400,000 people with crime so chronic, some think it’s on the brink of an all-out gang war. Shyne would rather talk about this, or education, or strengthening Belize’s judiciary as part of his quest to become the nation’s next prime minister, a position his own father once held.

To that end, he’s been on a global media offensive, trading on his starry past as a rapper in Diddy’s Bad Boy stable to raise his political profile — or, in his telling, to “sell” Belize to the world. Earlier this year, on a visit to the U.S., he appeared on The Wendy Williams Show and Drink Champs. He’s just returned from London, where he joined Afrobeats artist Davido onstage in front of 20,000 people. He was in Corozal today to schmooze United Democratic Party delegates, who in two weeks will elect him their leader. Tomorrow morning, he’ll drive two hours south to Belize City, the country’s cultural and commercial heart, to attend the funeral of a political rival’s partner. Then he’ll work his hometown constituency of Mesopotamia, a part of Belize City that’s been described as one of the most violent places on Earth. He is jet-lagged and irritable. Sentimentality is low on the agenda. So subjects like Diddy, Shyne’s late-Nineties superstardom, the club shooting that put him in prison, his pilgrimages to Jerusalem — these are “the past,” he says disparagingly. Move on.

So we do, and Shyne orders a bottle of merlot, and by the time it’s half-drained, he’s in more of a gregarious mood, talking about building a “Belizean Dream” for his people, palms outstretched like Obama, with whom he shares more than his raw-boned physical likeness. Shyne is athletic and slender, dressed in a fitted navy suit and tieless white shirt. Time has done little more than to sprinkle a bit of gray in his close-cropped hair. And that never did a guy on the campaign trail any harm. He’s got the Obama-brand optimism down pat, too. Fixing poverty in the U.S.? Tricky. Doing it for under half a million people in Belize? “We could solve it,” he says. He’s deeply engaging, if adversarial, demanding “pointed questions.” The discussion is not enjoyable, per se. But I’m drawn in.

Which is perhaps because Shyne Barrow is an actual 43-year-old palimpsest, a bunch of guys baked into one: the rap phenom, the convict, the religious scholar, the statesman. He shifts between them from one sentence to another, sometimes midsentence, and not just in his voice, which tracks from a Caribbean lilt to a Brooklyn drawl. It’s more than code-switching. It’s like different chapters of Shyne’s life are scrapping for his soul in real time.

Belizeans are grappling with this, too. Yes, Shyne is a tough kid from the streets who made it big, lost everything, and rebuilt his life. But he’s also the former leader’s son, political royalty in a nation whose crony politics continually fail to make any measurable improvement in its citizens’ lives.

“He knows both sides of the struggle, while most politicians cannot,” says Dwayne, a former Crip, at his coconut-water stand just south of Mesopotamia. “They don’t know what it is for you to be hungry, or you to be broke and your kids are crying and you don’t have any way to feed them.”

One young gang member has a more jaded view: “He’s trying to put Belize on the map. I like that.” But, he adds, once you vote someone into office in Belize, “they are good for nothing.”

Shyne in an undated photo. As a teenager in Brooklyn, he ran with the Decepticons gang.

David Yellen/Corbis/Getty Images

In 1996, 17-year-old Jamal Michael Barrow was headed down a bad road. His mom, Frances Myvett, had brought Jamal from Belize to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when he was seven. His father, a powerful attorney and politician named Dean Barrow, was in a relationship with another woman and forsook him. “The nigga said his two other kids were made out of love,” Jamal would tell a reporter years later. “It was devastating. That shit really fucked me up.”

New York offered opportunities tiny Belize couldn’t. But Myvett cleaned homes, and Barrow slept on the couch of their tiny apartment. No vacations, no allowance, no trips to the movies.

The gang scene lured him in. Barrow rolled with the Decepticons, a Brooklyn crew named for the villains in The Transformers, who were notorious for slinging drugs and robbing students in Flatbush — Gatbush, they called it. Barrow went by the street name Shyne — “to enlighten,” he told me: “I was always the Lawrence Fishburne from Boyz n the Hood in my block.” But in 1996, Shyne got into a fight with a kid who shot him, leaving him with a six-inch scar across his right shoulder.

It was a bloody wake-up call. “I understood that you had to have humility, had to walk away and look at the bigger picture,” he says. “I didn’t really understand that before I got shot.”

Chastened, Shyne cleaned up his act. He graduated high school, enrolled at a City Tech computer program, and bankrolled it working as a bike messenger. “I wasn’t gonna sell drugs, I wasn’t gonna get involved in criminal activity, I knew I gotta work,” he says. “And the quickest way to do that was to deliver messages. So I would ride my 18-speed from Brooklyn to Manhattan, ride around Manhattan all day — taxis were almost running me over, girls at the front desk looking at me like I was the worst thing in the world. And through that experience, music just started coming to me.”

First it was just a few rhymes scribbled on the back of his messenger clipboard — “poems,” his mom called them. But soon enough, he was writing everywhere — in class, in the bathroom. He couldn’t stop. “I don’t remember those rhymes,” he says, “but I do remember that those were some of the best rhymes you will ever hear.”

As a kid, Shyne had stood on chairs at the back of the crowd to catch outdoor shows in Brooklyn’s Little Caribbean neighborhood: Earth, Wind, and Fire; Chaka Khan; reggae; calypso; anything. He loved it. “I remember just being enthralled by the performances,” he says. “And if I wanted to grow up to be anything, I wanted to be a performer in front of tens of thousands of people.”

He’d been a shy child, but staring down the barrel of a gun had changed him, turned him “fearless.” In 1997, Shyne got hit by a white-hot laser beam of conviction that he could get up onstage and mix it with hip-hop’s best — a “burst of supertalent,” as he calls it. Above all it was “certitude,” he tells me, leaning back on his chair and tapping into the bombast of his rap persona. “The conviction that Martin Luther King had, that Malcolm X had.”

Shyne’s salty baritone bore a close resemblance to that of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, another disciple of Brooklyn’s violent streets whose parents had emigrated from the Caribbean. It was just months after assailants gunned down Wallace in L.A. that Shyne road-tested his supertalent at a barbershop on Church Avenue, Little Caribbean’s beating heart. The regulars loved it. “Barbers don’t lie — especially on Church Avenue,” he tells me. “It’s not like you gonna come in there and they’re gonna tell you what you wanna hear.”

“The metaphors and the way he put together his rhymes, I was like, ‘Man, you’re dope,’” says Robert “Don Pooh” Cummins, a record executive best known for discovering Foxy Brown. He came to Church Avenue, and offered to represent Shyne to the major labels. “Everybody knew when they heard him that this was gonna be good.”

Pretty soon everybody in the industry wanted a piece of Shyne — despite the fact he hadn’t recorded a single demo. Of all his suitors, Shyne saw a kindred spirit in Sean Combs, who, like him, had grown up fatherless in New York. He signed with Combs’ Bad Boy Records for what the press termed a “million-dollar deal.”

To Shyne, who says he believes in “an intelligent designer,” the deal was vindication from above. “I believe that the architect of the universe created the universe so you can be whatever you wanna be,” he tells me. “And your access to being whatever you wanna be is working hard, it’s sacrifice. And when you work hard and you sacrifice, that’s when your dreams start to come to reality. So, it was a sacrifice for me not to sell drugs and not to be committing crimes, and to deliver messages and go to university at night. But I had my mind set that that was what I wanted to do.”

All that self-discipline came undone in those first few months with Bad Boy, when, as Shyne puts it, “everything started going crazy.” He dropped tens of thousands on cars, furs, and jewels that earned him a reputation — even by Nineties standards — as a brat. He started wearing five watches. A labelmate once walked in on Shyne trying to unjam an AK-47.

Then, in 1998, Shyne wrecked a Mercedes, killing a friend. It left him a “zombie,” producing tracks that were, by his own admission, “garbage.” Combs chewed out Shyne, telling him, “Yeah, you can rap, but I gotta teach you how to make hits.”

Just as he’d done after the shooting in 1996, Shyne clicked into gear. He was “one of the hardest-working artists that I’ve ever seen on the label,” former Bad Boy producer Harve Pierre told XXL. “He was always at the studio. … He would sleep at the studio.”

His first hit was “Bad Boyz,” a rugged diary of life on the streets with a Caribbean beat and vocals by Jamaican dancehall star Barrington Levy. If anybody thought Shyne was bullshit, his lyrics didn’t hold back: “Pour the Cristal on the way to trial/RICO Law got a nigga head hurtin’/Squirtin’ till they pull the curtain.”

The “Bad Boyz” video was shot in Kingston, Jamaica. But it was a part-homage to Belize, where Shyne would spend several weeks each summer in Mesopotamia, a tight-wound collection of concrete streets and colonial homes on the south side of the Belize River. Each year Shyne saw his absent father climb the country’s political ranks until he was crowned opposition leader with the UDP in 1998. Shyne’s resentment burned through “Bad Boyz”: “My father bust and unloaded me/Think he just finished sniffin’ a KI and dippin’ the D’s.”

But despite the family tension, Shyne never gave up on his home nation, a former logwood-trading outpost that won independence and changed its name from British Honduras in 1981. “I’ve always been a patriot, a nationalist,” he tells me over his second glass of wine. “The difference between me and other politicians is that they have an ambition to be the prime minister of Belize. They have an ambition to be the leader of the United Democratic Party. Those titles are just tools and byproducts of a purpose to serve my country and humanity. My dream has always been to change the lives of as many people as possible.”

P324991-02: Sean "Puffy" Combs with rapper "Shine"(Jamal Barrow) at the 1998 Grammy Awards, NYC, February 25, 1998. (Photo by Arnaldo Magnani)

Shyne with Combs at the 1998 Grammys. In 1999, they were involved in a club shooting that landed Shyne in prison for 10 years. “I took the fall for my friends,” he says. “But that’s the way life is.”

Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

The next morning, I take a stroll through Mesopotamia, or “Mesop,” as the locals call it. It is blistering hot, and sleepy. Folks shoot the shit leaning on garden fences or phone poles covered in “SHYNE” stencils. By lunch, there are long queues outside a couple of hole-in-the-wall fried-chicken joints, where the food gets washed down with cheap Belikin beer sold at Chinese-owned bodegas, the most visible aspect of a recent, modest immigration wave from the East.

Mesop’s most conspicuous American imports are the kids riding BMXs dressed in red; Bloods who run these couple-dozen blocks in the heart of southside. A few streets north or south, and it’s Crip territory — but Belize City’s gangs are splintering at such a rate that there could be a different crew for just about any corner.

And they’re armed. The first Bloods and Crips returned from the U.S. in 1981, Belizeans who’d fled after a 1961 hurricane flattened Belize City so comprehensively that its colonial administrators moved the capital 50 miles inland, to a podunk jungle clearing called Belmopan. By 1985, the Belizean outposts of those gangs were the fourth-biggest suppliers of marijuana to the States. Beefs were settled with blades. Bloody, but rarely fatal.

By the Nineties, guerrillas in Guatemala and El Salvador had flooded Belize with firearms. Mexican cartels piloted boats onto any one of the nation’s 450 cayes, or landed planes in jungle so dense it’s still leased out to train foreign soldiers. Toward the end of the millennium, a southside narco named George Herbert became the undisputed king of Belize’s underworld, hooking up cartels with corrupt politicians to ship coke north. But when the DEA captured Herbert in 2004, chaos broke out. By 2011, Belize City’s murder rate was on a par with some conflict zones. Last year, for the first time since 2013, the city’s murder rate dropped just below what is deemed commensurate with civil war.

Today, cocaine is Belize’s biggest black-market commodity, flying in under the nose of a government that has a tiny military and no radar systems. When cops do capture a drug plane, its crew and payload disappear. Rival Belizean cops have even engaged in shootouts while loading planes. “It’s a small country,” says former cop Abdul Marin Nunez, now a social worker. “Before a plane travels, it has to send its manifest to the Ministry of National Security. So, they are aware that the drug planes are coming.”

Shyne likes this subject — it’s one that lets him twist the knife into members of the UDP’s rival People’s United Party, whose current leader, Johnny Briceño, is the son of a convicted drug trafficker, and who’s weathered plenty of his own scandals, including an alleged oil bribe in 2011. (“It’s certainly ironic to have a prime minister whose family is affiliated with drug trafficking,” Shyne notes.) As far as his plan to address the issue, Shyne knows his country is far too small to bust cartels — the Sinaloa organization has more than double the number of members than there are people in Belize City. Rather, he’s focused on strengthening Belizean governance to keep criminals on their toes. “You can’t have a solution to crime that is not inclusive of penalties, and not inclusive of consequences to criminal action,” he says. “And you see the judiciary drop cases left and right due to lack of evidence.” He wants to raise cops’ salaries, too: “Why go the extra mile when you can’t make ends meet and you’re going from paycheck to paycheck?”

But fundamentally, Shyne is more interested in laying the foundation for a nation where regular people don’t wind up jobless and searching for a quick buck. “Let’s make student loans available at low interest rates, and make it like the States, where you don’t need to pay unless you’ve got a job,” he says. “The average family doesn’t have the money to put their kid through school … so they’ll be stuck.”

Eric Adams, New York’s former gang member turned mayor, who also preaches about educating the city’s youth, is a source of great inspiration. “In America, with all its problems, you can get a mortgage, you can build your house, you can get an education,” Shyne continues. “I want to create a Belize where everyone has access to the ‘Belizean Dream.’ It doesn’t matter who you are: If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll get access to education, you’ll get access to finance to start your business, to build your house.”

That might not be enough. MS-13, the L.A.-born Salvadoran gang feared for its indiscriminate killing, has recently made landfall in Belize. “If we let MS-13 come in here,” Nunez says, “that’s going to spell mayhem. There is going to be carnage here.”

Carnage is something Shyne knows about.

Dear America, I’m only what you made
Young, Black, and fuckin’ crazy

Please save me
I’m a lost cause
But what about the rest?
Don’t them suckas deserve a chance?
Somethin’ better then shootouts, liquor stores, and food stamps
Maybe if y’all teach them niggas a craft and a trade they wouldn’t have to play that corner.

By late 1999, Shyne had put the car wreck behind him and awaited the release of his self-titled debut LP. It was 16 tracks about drugs, sex, and gang violence. But the opening salvo, a spoken-word poem called “Dear America,” showed glimpses of the politician he’d become once his home turf relocated a couple of thousand miles south.

The incident that would eventually prompt that move took place just before the end of the year, on Dec. 27, in an infamous club shooting that became a tabloid-fed pop-culture moment. That night, Shyne, Combs, and Combs’ then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez were at Club New York in Times Square when Combs knocked a drink from the hand of Matthew “Scar” Allen, a well-known Brooklyn roughneck. In the ensuing fracas, somebody threw a stack of bills at Combs, who witnesses said fired a bullet into the air. Shyne pulled a 9 mm Ruger pistol from his waistband and fired it too. Three people were injured.

Combs and Lopez fled in a Lincoln Navigator driven by Combs’ chauffeur, who ran 11 red lights before cops pulled them over, finding a gun on the seat. Shyne had already been nabbed outside the club. He was hit with eight charges, including three counts of attempted murder.

As he and Combs awaited separate trials (Combs was charged with weapons possession and for bribing his driver to take the gun charge on his behalf), Shyne’s star continued to rise. “Bad Boyz” was the hit of the summer of 2000, blasted out of Chevy Tahoes and on stoops up and down Church Avenue, and when Shyne was released that September, it placed fifth on the Billboard 200. Shyne was even invited onto Bill Maher’s ABC show Politically Incorrect, where the host asked him about guns in rap culture. Shyne responded: “You know, the NRA, the gun lobbyists, they make guns. You know, ain’t no Uzis made in Harlem. The problem is all to do with economics. What you’re doing is you’re ignoring a problem that exists in America, and that’s why that problem is going to continue.”

Jamal Barrow also know as Shyne mugshot in April 2002. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images)

Mugshot, April 2002.

Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images

On March 15, 2001, a Manhattan jury found Shyne guilty of assault, gun possession, and reckless endangerment. Judge Charles Solomon sympathized with the young star’s “very, very bad decision,” but added that he had discharged his pistol in a club “as crowded as a subway in rush hour,” and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Myvett was stunned. Her son’s lawyers “didn’t do their job for him,” she complained. They “were working more for the other guy” — Combs — who’d sunk his protégé by calling a witness to testify that the mogul had never in fact fired his weapon at all; only Shyne had. Lopez never took the stand, and Combs was cleared of all charges.

Today, Shyne doesn’t have much to say about the shooting, other than that he paid “a heavy debt — some would say an unreasonable debt — for something I didn’t even do.” He kept quiet about the case throughout his time at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, earning him yet more street cred. “I took the fall for my friends,” he says, repeating a line he’s no doubt told many before me. “But that’s the way life is.”

Combs rebranded himself P. Diddy after his trial and released the single “Bad Boys for Life.” (“It’s official,” he rapped. “I survived what I been through.”) But Shyne had had enough of his mentor. He broke his contract with Bad Boy and signed a $3 million deal with Def Jam. In 2004, he released Godfather Buried Alive, 12 of whose 13 tracks were recorded before his prison term began (he rapped “For the Record,” a 50 Cent diss track, down a crackling prison phone line). It took shots at Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, the War on Drugs — and Combs: “See through niggas take they time like a man/We don’t snitch we don’t sing on the stand.”

The warden had to limit media visits, such was the clamor for hip-hop’s headline criminal. But Shyne had other ideas. He studied Judaism, the religion of his great-grandmother, a descendant of the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews. He fasted and kept Shabbat, refusing visitors between Friday and Saturday nights.

“I wasn’t seeking anything,” he says, when I ask whether religion was a way to pass the years inside. “I practiced sciences. I was a wizard. I fasted for six months of the year, sunup to sundown. I would only eat at night and early in the morning.” Just as he had done after being shot, Shyne turned to God. He changed his name to Moses Levi and kept kosher.

“I always had certitude,” he adds. “But when I found the science of Judaism, it worked. Every day, someone would try to kill me. And by God’s grace I never got a touch.” One day while playing basketball in the prison yard, Shyne dunked on a sex offender. “Guy must have been like six feet six, he was a monster,” he recalls. “Then he threw the ball at me, and I just struck him.”

The next thing Shyne remembers was waking up on the asphalt with nothing but a sprained foot. “He could’ve killed me,” he says. “I could’ve dropped the wrong way, he could’ve taken a weight and bashed me.” It was divine intervention, Shyne concluded: another reward for knuckling down.

In 2009, authorities released Shyne on parole, and he signed another deal with Def Jam. But he was undocumented, and four weeks later, customs officers deported him to Belize. As a convicted felon, they would not allow him back into the U.S.

Fortunately for him, Shyne was now Belizean royalty. The previous year, Dean Barrow had become the country’s leader, and his brother had represented Mesop since 1993. Father and son patched up their relationship, and Shyne was appointed a “music ambassador” to Belize, telling an XXL reporter he wanted it to become a “Central American Dubai.”

But his dreams of creating a music mecca went largely unrealized. First, he ended up racking up a huge, unpaid bill at one of Belize City’s most exclusive penthouses. Then, in 2011, he organized a concert at one of the city’s soccer fields, partly to promote the upcoming release of a new single, “Messiah,” promising to perform alongside Barrington Levy, local artists, and at least two of Def Jam’s acts. But neither Levy nor the Def Jam artists showed.

Amid the controversies, Shyne left Belize for Jerusalem to embrace ultra-religious life. He grew payot (sidecurls), wore a fedora and Ray-Bans, and underwent an informal conversion called giyur lechmura. Soon he was leading a clique of music-loving Hasids, barely touching alcohol, and studying Talmud between jam sessions. “I never saw the guy sleep for more than an hour,” says Yosef “Big J” ben Shimon, a rapper who fell into Shyne’s orbit. “He would fall asleep with a book in his hand almost every night.”

Rap artist Shyne, or Moses Levi, who legally changed his name from Jamal Barrow, visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on Nov. 4, 2010. Shyne, who was released from prison last year after serving almost nine years for opening fire in a nightclub while out with Sean Combs and Jennifer Lopez, is busy making music when he’s not studying Talmud. (Ricki Rosen/The New York Times)

At Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in 2010. Shyne converted to Orthodox Judaism while in prison, and after his release moved to Israel in 2011.

Ricki Rosen/The New York Times/Redux

Shyne still wanted to be a rap superstar, and performed with Matisyahu and others in Israel. But prison had damaged his voice, and meetings with hard-partying Def Jam execs were tough to reconcile with orthodoxy. “The conversion process he was getting into required a lot of commitment, and the gangster stuff didn’t really blend with that,” says Eli Goldsmith, a husky, London-born club promoter who became one of Shyne’s closest confidants.

A self-released 2012 mixtape, Gangland, explored religious, political, and racial themes. But it bombed, and Shyne was growing disillusioned with prejudices closer to his new home. Since Ethiopian Jews began making aliyah in the mid-Seventies, they have faced continued discrimination. Wearing a white scarf on the Sabbath, while unmarried, was enough for Shyne to elicit the ire of lighter-skinned worshippers.

“I met so many religious people who judged me, and who were prejudiced and discriminatory,” he says. “Everything that you should never be as a chosen person. Whose emissary are you? What God is that? That’s not what God is. God created everybody.

“I realized: It’s not about the outfit I have on, it’s not about the payot or the black hat, or not driving on Shabbat,” he adds. “What it’s about is being honest, compassionate, tolerant, kind and generous and altruistic. . . . I don’t need a rabbi to tell me I’m kosher.”

In 2012, Shyne moved to Paris, and transitioned back to secular life. At Paris Fashion Week, Combs offered him an apology, and the two made peace, posing for photos in the front row. “Let’s celebrate this moment as a historical event and a victory for hip-hop and Afro and Latin American men trained to exterminate each other,” Shyne told XXL. “It’s a new day. L’chaim!”

Still, Shyne found that life felt empty. “I realized I was just in Paris enjoying myself,” he says. “There was really no purpose.” He also found himself way down rap’s food chain. When old pals like Jay-Z or Drake passed through town, he would hang with them. But nobody asked him for a rhyme or a collab. When a close friend told Shyne it was time to hang up the mic, “I was upset, I was insulted,” he recalls. “But it was the greatest advice anyone ever gave me.” Shyne left Paris in 2013, and returned to Belize.

The afternoon after my first talk with Shyne, I’m invited by a local youth leader to a gathering of around 40 young men in a straw-roofed cabana beside a Belize City resort. Outside, American spring breakers drink and dance to a soundtrack of Drake, DJ Khaled, and Lil Wayne.

Inside, the mood is far less celebratory. Five shootings have hit Belize City in the past 24 hours. Cops with semi-automatic weapons guard the exits, and community leaders attempt to parlay a ceasefire. Before long, folks are on their feet hurling accusations at one another. Only the threat of a “state of emergency” — during which cops throw anybody with suspected gang ties into jail — puts them back on their seats.

“The gangs in Belize are disorganized,” a pastor tells me an hour later, as everybody files out into the afternoon sun. It’s “sprots, trying to fight off competition.” Joblessness is high, and people are desperate. The only solutions are political. “Education, family: These are the things that will change the dynamic.”

Neither Shyne nor any of his parliamentary colleagues attend the meeting. For our second interview, he invites me not to Mesopotamia, where I might see him interact with his constituents, but to the porch of an upscale whiskey bar straight from the pages of a Graham Greene novel. He orders barracuda and truffle fries, and starts by blaming Belize’s police minister (who refused an interview for this story) for the city’s ongoing violence. “You have many years and years of a judicial system that is extremely weak,” Shyne says, “and has failed the nation.”

How can somebody who promotes his refusal to snitch after the Club New York shooting be a good role model to kids in his constituency, I ask him. “Certainly younger Shyne was anti-government, against the police,” he admits. “The authorities, as a kid growing up, were very oppressive.” Back then it was “accepting the blame, taking the fall, and not getting other people in trouble. That’s the context of me not snitching. It’s not like I was terrorizing my community.” But in Belize, he clarifies, snitching is “a byproduct of the greater issue, which is the mindset that says, ‘It’s OK to kill people, it’s OK to rob people, it’s OK to terrorize my community.’”

HOMETOWN HERO: Shyne was elected to represent Mesopotamia, in Belize City, in 2020. In April, he became the leader of Belize’s United Democratic Party. “Thank God I’m in a position where I can try and do my best for my country,” he says.

Shyne was elected to represent Mesopotamia, in Belize City, in 2020. In April, he became the leader of Belize’s United Democratic Party. “Thank God I’m in a position where I can try and do my best for my country,” he says.

Aquila Flores for Rolling Stone

Leaders need to “put the people first, not the oligarchs,” he says. But surely he’s an oligarch himself? When he returned to Belize from Paris, Shyne cleaved to his father. In 2020, he won Mesop. In 2025, he hopes to unseat Briceño and follow in his father’s footsteps to become Belize’s prime minister.

On both Combs and his father — the relationships that have defined him more than any others in his careers in music and politics — Shyne reduces the complicated dynamics to media-friendly aphorisms. Now he understands why his father rejected him as a child, he tells me, “because he was a single guy, having a child with him while he’s trying to be the best public servant he can be.” Of Combs, he says simply, he’s still a “close friend. There’s no problem with that relationship, and I’m grateful for it.”

In 2020, he explained in an interview that he’d reconciled Combs’ choices in the aftermath of the shooting as those of a man who was “a half-a-billion-dollar corporation. So, nobody is going to sacrifice the corporation for anybody else.” He clearly took the lesson to heart. “Being disciplined is one of the great things I learned from Diddy,” he says today. “Being the leader of a country is not that different from being the CEO of a corporation. You gotta take care of all the employees, and you gotta ensure that the business performs. You gotta lead, you gotta set the tone, and you gotta be there thinking for everyone. I’ve been training for this my entire life because I grew up with one of the greatest CEOs ever in Diddy.”

Beyond Combs, music still plays a big role in Shyne’s political image. In recent years he’s brought industry heavyweights like Combs, Kanye West, and J. Prince to Belize, though he claims none of those invitations was calculated. “Fat Joe, DJ Khaled, Jay-Z, Steven Victor, Kanye West — these are all people I’ve been friends with my entire career,” he says. “It’s not as if I picked and chose who I’m friends with. It’s a part of who I am, promoting Belize and wanting to make Belize an international treasure.” In 2021, Universal signed five Belizean artists with Shyne’s help. “You can’t pay for that PR,” he says.

Whether that translates into tangible results for the citizens of Belize remains to be seen. “I think him’ll lift up the whole of Mesop and the country,” dancehall performer 6Frass says. “He got a lot of backup; I know he can do it for us long as he pushes.”

People here are confused about Shyne. I am too. He’s charismatic, but at arm’s distance. Professional, but a chimera. I wondered why Shyne hadn’t invited me to join him in Mesop. Perhaps he wanted to show a white, Western journalist the upmarket side to Belize City — to drum up the tourism he claims his star quality adds to the country. As I walk around Mesop the following night, a local gangster sees it differently. “When he brings Puff Daddy over here, he doesn’t bring him to the ghetto, he brings him to the cayes,” he tells me. “He don’t wanna show him no ghetto. He’d have to admit that his daddy had 13 years and he’s done nothing. The whole system’s junk.”

Night sucks the color out of Mesop, leaving patches of dim yellow-streetlamp light on streets that have narrowed in the darkness. Cop cars creep up and down its tight alleys, stopping to move on groups of young men guarding their turf. A convenience-store owner who’s lived in the neighborhood for decades tells me it doesn’t matter who gets voted into power. Once they get power, you rarely see them again: “You see the Belize flag? Two colors: red and blue. PUP, UDP. These guys are the biggest Bloods and Crips.”

I close out the night at a club a block from the beach, with a local journalist and a notorious drug dealer, sipping whiskeys. “We know pretty much the man’s a sellout — we don’t disrespect him for that,” the drug dealer says of Shyne. “You don’t have to pretend you got no Rolex.” When I ask him if Shyne is the answer to Belize’s problems, he laughs. “Man,” he says, knocking back his drink. “He’s bullshit.”

“He’s one of the same oligarchs that he claims to want to remove from power,” my other companion adds. “There’s a handful of families in Belize who control all the wealth, the land, the resources, and access to the government. He’s enjoying a free ride to the top because people are so indifferent to politics.”

Some Belizeans question whether somebody who fled to the Middle East just months after his deportation really wants to stay the course in tiny Belize — or if it’s just another chapter in the story of Shyne. More than a few folks told me they think his entire political career is a ploy to use his diplomatic status to return to the United States. At this idea, Shyne bristles. “I made it back because of my service to Belize,” he says. “Thank God that I’m in a position where I can try and do my best for my country.”

Despite my own misgivings about his selflessness, there’s no doubt he’s going to play a big role in his country’s future. Since 2017, he has been married to a businesswoman named Catherine, and a year after that they had a daughter. He’s going nowhere. Whether that’s good for Belize’s mounting gang problems is another question. But he still has that same conviction that hit him back in 1996, when he realized he could be a rap star. “My creativity is channeled into finding solutions for people I’ve been elected to serve,” he says. “Not just people in Mesopotamia, but people all throughout the country. What I believe I’m on this Earth to do is find solutions for the problems of humanity. As a creative, that’s what you do: You create.”

Additional reporting by Danny Gold





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