The World

One of Belize’s Most Powerful Politicians Is a Former Bad Boy Rapper

Shyne is seen wearing a Mets cap.
Jamal “Shyne” Barrow leaves the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan on March 15, 2001. Matt Campbell/AFP via Getty Images

Remember Shyne? If you’re a fan of the glamour era of 1990s–2000s rap, or followed turn-of-millennium celebrity scandals, the name likely rings a bell. He is, most notoriously, known as a key figure in the 1999 nightclub shooting involving Jennifer Lopez and her boyfriend, then known as Puff Daddy. The controversial Brooklyn rapper, who at the time was one of the Bad Boy CEO’s protégés, ended up taking the fall for the incident and languishing behind bars for 10 years.

Advertisement

Perhaps now, as the memories of that bizarre night come back, you might be wondering: Just where is Shyne now? Luckily, I’m here to tell you: As of this week, he’s the official leader of Belize’s conservative opposition party, having ascended to that prominent post after serving for less than a year in the country’s House of Representatives. While that’s a lot to process on its own, what’s even odder about the situation is that it can be attributed to a domino effect starting right with that notorious shooting, and accelerated by Shyne’s long-standing family ties to Belizean politics.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Let’s head back to the very start. Shyne was born Jamal Michael Barrow in Belize City in 1978, just three years before the Central American nation gained full independence from the United Kingdom. By the mid-’80s, Shyne’s father, Dean Barrow, was serving on the Belize City Council, while Shyne moved to Brooklyn and got absorbed into the borough’s burgeoning rap scene. 1998 would be a pivotal year for both father and son: Dean would become the Belize House of Representatives’ opposition leader, taking charge of the weak conservative coalition known as the United Democratic Party, while Shyne would be introduced to Puff Daddy and offered a generous label deal.

Advertisement

Things went sour for Shyne just the following year. On the night of Dec. 27, 1999, he was celebrating the impending release of his self-titled debut at Club New York when Puffy accidentally bumped into streetwise Brooklynite Matthew “Scar” Allen and spilled his drink. J. Lo and Shyne stood nearby as Puffy and Scar got into a heated argument that ended with a wad of cash being thrown in the former’s face. Shots rang out, and three clubgoers were injured in the ensuing chaos; J. Lo, Puff, and his bodyguard quickly fled the scene before getting pulled over for running a red light and arrested for storing a gun in their getaway car. Both Shyne and Puff Daddy were tried as perpetrators of the shooting—but the latter, who had celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran on his legal team, was cleared of all charges.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Shyne, on the other hand, was done in by a few factors: prominent witnesses alleging that he was carrying a gun that night, with his defense attorney admitting to it as well; multiple accounts told of Scar threatening Shyne specifically, and of Shyne firing his gun in retaliation; and the rapper’s own self-admitted refusal to snitch on any other suspected gunmen. (Years after, Shyne would admit to brandishing his firearm in self-defense that night and claim that Diddy later told him the mogul had been “under a lot of pressure from the lawyers to throw me under the bus.” Diddy settled a lawsuit with the three individual survivors of the shooting in 2011.)

Advertisement

The ordeal changed the lives of everyone involved. J. Lo and Puff Daddy split in the midst of the trial, and the latter soon changed his moniker to P. Diddy in order to dissociate himself from the situation. Shyne, whose 2000 debut went platinum, was condemned to a full decade of imprisonment. He’d continue releasing music while incarcerated—but with Def Jam, not the floundering Bad Boy, whose CEO he subtly dissed in multiple lyrics. After he was finally released in 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him “for an immigration law violation” and deported him to Belize as a non–U.S. citizen felon.

Advertisement
Advertisement

By then, Belize’s politics had massively shifted. Shyne’s father, Dean Barrow, led his United Democratic Party to a resounding victory in the 2008 elections, becoming the country’s first Black prime minister. Shyne’s uncle Michael Finnegan also had a significant position, as a founding member of the UDP and a Belize House representative for the UDP-favoring Mesopotamia constituency, which encompasses Belize City, since 1993. In April 2010, Shyne was appointed by his father as the country’s musical goodwill ambassador, which allowed him to eventually visit the U.S. again. He had a mixed tenure on that job. In 2014, a group of Belizean artists demanded that Shyne be removed as ambassador, arguing that neither he nor the country’s National Institute of Culture and History were supporting musicians in any substantial way. But in subsequent years, Shyne would organize events for the benefit of artists and establish new music institutions stocked with instruments he himself donated.

Advertisement

Over the past decade, Shyne has spent some time in Israel, where he lived as a practicing Orthodox Jew under the name Moses Levi. He also bounced between American record labels from afar, collaborated with artists from Lil Wayne to Orthodox rocker Matisyahu, reconciled with Diddy in Paris (only to diss him again after he promised to procure a U.S. visa for Shyne and never followed through), endorsed presidential candidate Mitt Romney in retaliation for his deportation by the Obama administration, and released a popular new mixtape. In 2016, he joined a Bad Boy reunion show in Brooklyn from Belize, by means of a livestream broadcast on a big screen at the Barclays Center, earning him praise from local media for “bring[ing] even more attention to Belize.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Shyne also made no secret of higher political ambitions, dropping hints of his intent to eventually succeed his uncle Michael Finnegan for the Mesopotamia House seat—with Finnegan’s support—and then run for prime minister. But public doubt surrounded Shyne, especially when news emerged of his legal battles with artists and donors who claimed he never accounted for the money he owed to them or that they had given to his operations. Yet his own prime minister father was quick to defend him, stating that from “the little I see, I get the impression that he has been doing an excellent job as musical ambassador.”

Shyne kicked off his House campaign in 2018 and attracted an unusual amount of international attention. Rapper Fat Joe told Shyne he would come to Belize to support him, and even Diddy publicly endorsed his old labelmate’s run. In November 2020, Shyne won the Mesopotamia seat with 53 percent of the vote. But the election cycle was otherwise catastrophic for his party: Only four other party members besides Shyne were elected to the House, including his aunt Denise “Sista B” Barrow.

Advertisement

After entering office, Shyne escalated a feud with his party’s leader, Patrick Faber, that had started several years back, when Faber was Dean Barrow’s culture minister. On May 31, a video was leaked that appeared to show Faber aggressively raging against the mother of his 2-year-old daughter. He apologized, and the UDP backed him up—except for Shyne. About a week after the video’s release, Shyne called for an emergency UDP meeting to address the issue. (It’s worth noting that Shyne himself previously faced a domestic dispute allegation that was later retracted.) Then, on Monday, he sent a letter to Belize’s governor-general, co-signed by two other House UDP members, stating that he had the confidence of the majority of the party’s members, making him constitutionally eligible to take charge. By Wednesday, Shyne had assumed presumptive leadership of the opposition and was formally recognized by the prime minister.

And just like that, the former Brooklyn musician who once took the rap for the “Vote or Die” guy became one of the Caribbean’s most prominent politicians.

Advertisement