The reggae community breathed a sigh of relief in November when Buju Banton was finally released from prison on bail. Arrested in December 2009 on suspicion of conspiracy to possess and distribute five kilograms of cocaine, Buju (real name Mark Anthony Myrie) was locked up in Tampa's Pinellas County Jail for eleven harrowing months. He claimed mistreatment and poor health, but waited what seemed like decades for a trial that was postponed three times.
Finally, Buju made it to court. And on September 27, after an intense four-day hearing, the 12-person jury returned twice during deliberations to report its members were evenly split in their decision: Half found Buju guilty without a doubt and half thought there wasn't enough evidence to convict. It resulted in a mistrial.
In most other cases, a video recording of the defendant plainly stating interest in selling drugs would've sealed the case. But the six-month escapade leading up to Buju's arrest was strange enough to deeply complicate a seemingly simple conviction. Affidavits show that this odd case involved a government informant and convicted Colombian drug-trafficker who heavily pursued, even stalked, the reggae star. Over time, the informant seduced Banton with promises of an easy way to make "lots of money." It was a long, drawn-out seduction that eventually led Banton into a Sarasota warehouse filled with cocaine. The arrest came next.
With Steven Marley, Gramps Morgan, Shaggy, Wayne Wonder, Sly 305-358-7550; bayfrontparkmiami.com.Tickets cost $42 to $100 via bujulive.com.
Some called this incident a bogus misunderstanding while others claimed bona fide entrapment. Yet guilty or not, Buju is a free man right now. "No one can ever lock away my spirit," he insisted during an exclusive phone conversation with New Times. "There are many people that want to see me down. But by the grace of His Almighty, you can lock me up physically, but spiritually I am free."
Following his release on $250,000 bail (raised by none other than Bob Marley's son Stephen), Banton is focused on one thing: music. His latest release, Before the Dawn, nabbed a 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album, and Banton plans to celebrate his freedom on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at a star-studded reggae festival in downtown Miami. The show, appropriately titled Buju Banton and Friends: Before the Dawn Concert, will feature some of reggae's biggest living icons, including Sly & Robbie, Freddie McGregor, Gramps Morgan, and Shaggy, as well as close allies Wayne Wonder, DJ Khaled, and the Marley family.
"We were supposed to have this concert in December," Buju explains. "But it worked out that we are now doing this on Dr. King's birthday, a man who sacrificed his life to liberate the people from oppression. Now that's how Jah works!"
Over the course of his 25-year career, Banton has served as hero to many musicians, regardless of genre. The impoverished inner-city boy from Kingston, Jamaica, made his debut at the tender age of 12 under the moniker Gargamel. With his gruff voice and high-energy stage presence, he quickly became a household figure in that country. An undeniable force both inside and outside the studio, Buju's last ten albums feature recurring topics such as consciousness, justice, freedom, and love. Yet even before the cocaine arrest, his reputation was irreversibly marred by a notoriously hate-filled song recorded when he was only 15 years old.
Indeed, "Boom Bye Bye" is a toxic piece, punctuated by a chorus that encourages the killing of homosexuals. But it's necessary to put the violent tune into proper context: In 1988, Jamaicans were furious as reports of a man raping an underage boy filtered into the news. And Banton, a teenager himself at that time, took to music in response to the horrific crime. He would regret the decision for the rest of his life.
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In 1992, "Boom Bye Bye" resurfaced on Buju's album Mr. Mention, stirring outraged protest. And ever since, the song continues to resurface regularly in the form of news headlines and show cancellations. No matter how many positive records, philanthropic gestures, or apologetic explanations Banton offers, the homophobic track continues to haunt him. But he has no regrets. "My greatest weakness is my music," he says. "I am a slave to music. That is my life. I am responsible for everything that I create, both good and the bad. The people that truly know my music, they truly know me. They know that my intentions are pure, and it is to uplift and empower the people. I don't need to explain myself to no one. My music does that for me."
And explaining his current legal trouble is something Buju will not be doing at Bayfront. He is currently scheduled for retrial in February. But until then, he will sing. "I have been aching to get back on stage and perform for my fans and supporters. And for me to bring along so many of my musical brothers and sisters to share the stage with me, it's a blessing."
Now there's no question that this concert marks a significant moment in the ongoing history of reggae music. In fact, the producers of Buju Banton and Friends claim fans are flying from as far as Australia and Japan to witness this monumental occasion. It will be Buju's first performance since his release from jail. And it will most likely be his last until the retrial next month. So expect the General to give every ounce of his soul to this show.
"When I'm on stage, it's a spiritual thing. I want to do more than just entertain. [I want to] uplift my audience to another plane of higher consciousness. My audience comes from all over the world and speaks all types of languages. Yet music is what drives us together. It is this universal language that elevates and unites us. And that is what the Almighty has put me on this earth to do."