American rap fans probably didn’t pay much attention to Belizean politics until recently, when the Central American nation made international news for a unusual reason: Shyne, the hoarse-voiced, platinum-selling former Bad Boy rapper who’d been absent from the music scene for years, was elected to Belize’s House of Representatives in November. His political rise has been meteoric: He’s since become leader of the country’s main opposition faction, the center-right United Democratic Party, after ousting a rival. He’s also been enlisting old friends like Fat Joe and Diddy to publicize the country.
It’s just the latest in a series of surprising twists in the life of the 42-year-old who now goes by Shyne Barrow. The rapper was one of the key figures in the 1999 New York nightclub shooting involving his Bad Boy boss, then known as Puff Daddy, and Jennifer Lopez. Barrow was imprisoned for the shooting before being deported back to Belize, where he and his family have a deep history: His uncle was a founding member of the UDP, and his father was a longtime politico who eventually took charge of the party and became the country’s first Black prime minister in 2008. Barrow spent some years traveling and serving various administrative roles in Belize before ascending to the House, where he’s already courted controversy: Not only is he still beefing with his party’s former leader, but he’s currently fighting off a proposed amendment to Belize’s constitution that would prevent politicians who’ve been incarcerated anywhere in the world from serving in Belize—a measure would effectively end his political career. Nevertheless, the former rapper is still eyeing the prime ministership, and serving his current role to the fullest. For the past two weeks, he’s been on a visit to the U.S.—his first since his deportation—advocating for Belize and its diaspora; visiting cities like Atlanta, Newark, and New York; meeting with local and national politicians; and reuniting with old rapper friends like Diddy and Jay-Z (at a new nightclub, no less). On Monday, the day before his return to Belize, I spoke with Barrow over Zoom about his diplomatic missions, his rise to power, and his goals both for his own political career and for his country. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: How did it feel to make your first visit to the U.S. since your release in 2009?
Shyne Barrow: It wasn’t about me coming back to America. It was about the opposition leader of the House of Representatives coming to the United States on behalf of the people of Belize. The only me of it all is that the Shyne brand has very strong relationships, and I was able to use those relationships to get meetings with people at the highest level in Congress and state legislatures.
I saw you met with local politicians in Atlanta and New York, and you also met with national lawmakers, like Reps. Gregory Meeks, Hakeem Jeffries, Yvette Clark, Maxine Waters, and Adriano Espaillat. How did you land those meetings, and what did you talk with them about?
I’m the shadow prime minister. The office requires me to travel, allows me a diplomatic passport, and allows me to qualify for a diplomatic visa. Ever since I was elected, and even leading up to my election, I have been reaching out to my contacts in the United States to build relationships. I’ve had a strong relationship with the U.S. State Department here in Belize over the years.
Diddy was instrumental in making sure that whatever relationships he had with legislators were made available to me, so I could go to develop those relationships on behalf of Belize. Georgia was the first place I visited. I was honored at the Georgia Senate, and the Atlanta City Council declared Aug. 20 “Shyne Barrow Day.”
I was able to get an audience with these members of Congress to discuss economic development in Belize, foreign aid, security, regional stability. They were very concerned with what happened in Nicaragua, where they jailed the opposition leader, and places like Venezuela, where they suspended the constitution. We discussed ways we can strengthen democratic nations, with more investment in human infrastructure and job creation. Congressman Espaillat is from the Dominican Republic. Yvette Clarke is of Jamaican descendant. Congressmen Meeks and Jeffries represent a lot of Caribbean diaspora constituents, and so does Maxine Waters. Investment in the developing nations of the Caribbean, such as Belize, is very important to American foreign policy and interests.
What do you think of current immigration policy in the U.S., especially with regard to migrants from Central America, and what you would want to see from U.S. lawmakers when it comes to Central American immigration?
The United States is a nation built by and with immigrants. I’d to like to see that continue: more opportunities for people that do migrate there. That’s why investment in the region, in the Caribbean, in Latin America, is important. Many people are fleeing countries that are war-torn, countries where they’re being persecuted for political reasons. Investing in these countries would be a good way to prevent an overflow of migration.
But for people that do find themselves in the States and are making a contribution, I’d like to see what the Biden administration is proposing to make sure that the migrants get their chance, I’d certainly like to see an adjustment to the deportation laws. I went to the States when I was 7 years old and was there until I was almost 30. For me to be deported, even though I was a permanent resident, I think there’s something flawed in that policy. I’d like to see more opportunities for people who have permanent residency, who lived their entire life with their family in the States, to be given an opportunity to reform and to rehabilitate in the United States.
Are there lessons from your rap career that you’ve taken into politics?
Networking is everything. And impossibility is a word that we don’t recognize. All that hip-hop culture has ever done is imagine itself as something greater than anybody could ever see. I’m taking that type of tenacity, that audacity, and I’m applying it to being a legislator: being determined, being disciplined, having a strong work ethic, never taking no for answer, never stopping, never giving up, being relentless in your pursuit.
It really starts with imagination. You can’t grow if you don’t see yourself doing more than what you’re doing today. And hip-hop is flooded with entrepreneurs. I want my constituents to be entrepreneurs and self-reliant and independent, not to depend on politicians for anything. I want to create other Shynes and Jay-Zs, other Barack Obamas and Nelson Mandelas. To empower people, whether they’re electricians or plumbers, lawyers or doctors, teachers or nurses, police or soldiers, with the mindset that will allow them to have a healthy life. That’s what hip-hop taught us to do.
Do you think, if the 1999 nightclub incident hadn’t happened, that you still would’ve ended up going back to Belize and getting involved in the country’s politics?
Definitely. I’d just have been a wealthier version of where I’m at now. It was always my plan to transform Belize, whether through financing politicians or financing a campaign for myself. It goes back: My great-great grandfather was district commissioner of Belize.
When you look at my first album, when I was 19 years old, I was a leader. The first thing I said was, “Dear America, I’m only what you made me.” That phrase says it. “Build schools instead of prisons, I’ll stop livin’ the way I’m livin’ ”—that is similar to what I’m saying in the House of Representatives right now. Nobody wrote that for me. Nobody told me to say that. No aunt, no uncle, no father was in America when I was selling millions of records. Even when I was making music, I was the voice of the voiceless. I was the spotlight that would shine the light on the horrors and tragedies of inner-city living.
When was the point you thought, “I want to run not only for office, but also to lead the country”?
It came in stages. After being incarcerated for almost 10 years, I wanted the freedom to travel wherever I wanted to go. I wanted to go Paris, I wanted to go to North Africa, I wanted to go to Jerusalem, I wanted to go to Turkey, Egypt. But after traveling, I came back to Belize for mom’s 60th birthday. Things weren’t working out with music. I’d been living in Paris on a long vacation, and I needed purpose. I was looking at my life and saying, “Man, if this never happened to me, I’d be a billionaire. I’d be selling millions and millions of albums.” I got out of that phase by looking at the people in Belize who never got an opportunity, who never got a chance to do any of the things I did. Some are living in subhuman standards. At least I was able to go from using the bathroom in a bucket—because we didn’t have a toilet system in the house I lived in while in Belize as a child—to what I did.
I felt guilty feeling sorry for myself. And rather than focus on what I could be doing if I were in the States. I focused on what I could be doing to help these people in Belize with the access that I have. I wasn’t a regular person, and I accept that. I was a multimillionaire, I had access to the prime minister, and I had access to other ministers. But I wasn’t interested in using that access to become a rich businessman. I wanted to use my access to push for policy that would make life better for the Belizean people in every way. And I realized in 2013 that, rather than pushing these people to implement policy, I needed to be the policymaker.
Becoming the opposition leader of the House of Representatives is not something I set out to do, necessarily. I was the chief whip before I was opposition leader. But when there’s a void in leadership—as was the case recently, where the former leader of the opposition lost confidence of the majority of members in the House and of the party—I am willing to step up. If my colleagues want me to be the leader of the party and take us into the next general elections, that’s what I’ll do. If they want me to support someone else that we all have confidence in, that’s what I’ll do. I believe democracy is about inspiring people to follow you, and whoever can inspire people is the person I am prepared to support. If that person is me, I’m ready, I’m always ready. But I had no master plan to get elected a year ago and then take over.
Why do you think Belize would be better off with the UDP in power? Your party is the more conservative one, correct?
We’re supposed to be conservative, but I try to be a moderate. I’m very pro–social development, pro–human development and I believe that is the responsibility of government. I do believe the responsibility of government is to create a healthy environment for businesses to thrive.
As far as the two parties, the People’s United Party promised the Belizean people everything that the United Democratic Party promised the Belizean people—there hasn’t been much of a difference in policy, but it’s about who has delivered. Certainly, I’m biased, but the United Democratic Party has been the one to deliver on their promises, more so than the People’s United Party.
My policy is to make sure that we develop the nation: The greater the people are, the greater the wealth of the nation. It’s important for us to educate our people, to uplift our people, to train our people. I see far too often that the rich continue to get rich, the poor continue to get poor, and the working class, due to COVID-19, has been completely eroded. We have to fix that. It takes a mindset that’s not about giving contracts to friends and cronies and enriching your family and yourself, but really making sure that the people get enriched.