MIAMI — The image was plastered all across social media: Unconventional U.S. presidential candidate and rapper-producer Kanye West relaxing in a Kingston, Jamaica, recording studio with Jamaican reggae icon Buju Banton.
Oh, and both were maskless.
Now Jamaicans are asking whether West, who has been on a Twitter tirade about record contracts, masters and rights issues since posting the photo on Sept. 18, broke the law. Jamaica, which has been struggling to control the spread of COVID-19 after seeing early success, requires all tourists to the island to remain confined in its COVID-19 resilient corridor, maintain a distance of six feet when in the company of others and wear a face mask when in public, which also includes a workplace.
Jamaica has been seeing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases since reopening its borders to international visitors and nationals on June 15 and following its Sept. 3 general elections, in which Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his Jamaica Labor Party won a landslide victory over the country’s main opposition People’s National Party.
Joking at a COVID-19 press conference Wednesday that he knew the West question would be asked, Holness said he didn’t fully have all of the answers or the full facts of the situation, despite trying to brief himself on the incident.
“My understanding is that the international artist visited Jamaica a few days ago and … he stayed at a hotel in the resilient corridor,” Holness said, referring to the beachfront area from Negril to Port Antonio where a series of hotels and businesses approved for operation amid the global pandemic are located. “And he asked for permission to be able to travel outside of curfew hours because of his flight arrangements. … That permission was given.”
Holness acknowledged that based on what he’s seen in the press about the visit to Banton’s Gargamel recording studio, “the circumstances around that would have to be thoroughly investigated.”
“I don’t have the details around that as to whether permission was given, how that was arranged, whether protocols were observed,” Holness said, emphasizing his public plea to Jamaicans about respecting the COVID-19 protocols including wearing a mask indoors.
The controversy involving West marks the second time in weeks that a high-profile celebrity’s behavior in a public space in Jamaica has raised questions after being put on display on social media.
Last month, after world sprinter Usain Bolt tested positive for COVID-19 following an Aug. 21 birthday bash held in his honor, controversy and criticism erupted. While some accused the superstar athlete of being irresponsible, others demanded to know whether the legend and his high-profile celebrity friends had flouted the COVID-19 rules. Videos shared on social media showed partygoers dancing on an outdoor court without masks covering their faces.
Police later confirmed to the media that their investigation revealed that Bolt had received a permit to stage the event. Assistant Commissioner of Police Anthony McLaughlin told Radio Jamaica News that police was still awaiting additional information from immigration to determine whether international soccer stars Leon Bailey and Raheim Sterling, who attended the party, were in breach of the 14-day mandatory quarantine order for visitors.
It is unclear if the visit between West and Banton, arguably the biggest reggae star in Jamaica since Bob Marley, is an indication of a future collaboration. A former Miami resident, Banton was released from McRae Correctional Institution in Georgia and deported to Jamaica in December 2018 after serving seven years. He was arrested in 2009 on gun and cocaine-possession charges, and in 2011 was found guilty of intent to deal more than 5 kg of cocaine.
Following his release and before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, his shows drew sold-out crowds across the Caribbean with fans traveling from the United States to see him perform live.
West tweeted the photo of himself and Banton to his 31 million followers, and the image was shared 6,300 times while receiving 65,500 likes. The two were sitting in Banton’s Gargamel studio in Kingston, along with Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke.
The photo accompanied the tweet, “GREATNESS IN THE MAKING.”
One of the Caribbean’s prime tourist destinations, Jamaica has remained popular among tourists and celebrities despite its sharp spike in COVID-19 cases. In addition to West, the island has been visited by Madonna, who celebrated her 62nd birthday there amid the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Jamaica reported that the country has registered 5,270 COVID-19 cases, 3,668 of which are currently active. In the last 24 hours, it also saw five more deaths , for a total of 75.
Holness announced that due to the continued rise in infections, the government has decided to extend the daily 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew islandwide until Oct. 7. Public gatherings will remain limited to 15 persons and a 14-day quarantine remains in effect for people arriving in Jamaica.
While lockdown of the entire country remains a tool that can be used, Holness said, his government has decided that it is too costly to both the economy and the livelihoods of Jamaicans. For now, he said, Jamaica will remain focused on persuading Jamaicans to change their behavior to limit the community spread of the deadly virus.
©2020 Miami Herald