Images by Perou

The afternoon sky is a crisp blue and the wild birds of Belize are chirping as Shyne Po sits on the balcony of his penthouse apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. He is in Belize City, Belize, where he was born in November 8, 1978. He hasn’t lived here since his mother, Frances Franklin, moved him to Brooklyn when he was 7 years old. Now, having been deported by the United States Department of Justice after serving nine years in prison for charges stemming from an infamous shooting incident at Club NY in Manhattan, he’s back to the Central-American land of his ancestry.

That ancestry is important here. Shyne’s father, Dean Barrow, comes from a long line of Belizean political power and became the nation’s first Black prime minister in 2008. The two had little contact for years—and the vast difference between Shyne’s life with his single mother, who worked overtime to keep the lights on, and his father’s position at the top of society back home led to some understandably hard feelings.

But after Shyne hit it big with his 1999 single “Bad Boys,” and through his long stay in prison, the two have been forging a healthier relationship.

Shyne arrived in Belize in November last year. He has been recording an album—to be released under the partnership between his own label, Gangland Records, and Def Jam—in the months since, and was appointed the nation’s official musical ambassador in April. He heads up the music program at the National Institute of Cultural History. And while he fights for the legal right to return to the U.S., he’s dedicated himself to building Belize into, as he puts it, “a Central-American Dubai.”

Lofty goals, for sure. But on this sticky summer night, as he discusses them with XXL, Shyne looks comfortable in his surroundings. Life in exile suits him in a way. He’s at home here.

Tell me about Belize. What is Belize known for?

Shyne: To me, Belize is known for that independence. That improbable existence. Belize is like Israel, shit is surrounded by bigger muthafuckas—by a bunch of Goliaths. But it maintains its sovereignty. Like, you know Guatemala used to have Belize drawn as part of they map. Honduras, Mexico, all surround this shit. It’s all part of the same landmass. But somehow Belize was able to maintain its sovereignty. Three hundred thousand people. You would think—surrounded by different countries with hundreds of millions of people—they would just grab this little shit up. But nonetheless, Belize remains in that sovereign space. So that’s very significant to me, ’cause I’m the same way. Just like when I was in the pen, you would think a muthafucka in the pen ain’t got shit—desperate, fightin’ for life. He’ll take anything. Never me. I’d rather not have anything than have a muthafucka that devalues or does not assess my value the right way, ya dig?

How do you personally connect to that?

Before I was in the pen, even when I was in the street, I was always a young muthafucka, different. Looked different—I wasn’t dark enough, I wasn’t light enough. I was always right there. What you call an enigma. I always stood out. Confident in my eccentricity, ya dig? ’Cause there’s one common bond that ties most men. I get that from that Belize bloodline. Where even, improbable as it may be, I still push forward with my vision and my confidence that I could accomplish that. And I actually do accomplish it. ’Cause a lot of us got pipedreams. A lot of us aspire for shit and it don’t never come to fruition. But for me, I was always able to aspire for the improbable, and it materialized. And that definitely is a part of that Belizean shit where there’s people, for whatever reason, wanted their independence.