Buju Banton Rides Drug Trial Up the Charts as Fans Demand His Release

​Just ask Tupac, Lil Wayne, or, hell, even Jim Morrison: sometimes a good stint behind bars is just what the spin doctor ordered for selling a ton of records. You might as well add Buju Banton to that list, because even as the reggae star languishes in a Tampa-area jail awaiting retrial on federal drug charges, his new album is tearing up the charts.

Buju's growing fan base, meanwhile, doesn't want the crooner stuck in the joint any longer. A federal judge is set to rule tomorrow whether to grant Banton bail, and a fan group is close to delivering 15,000 signatures demanding that the "legendary musician" be freed.

Banton, who lives in Tamarac, was arrested in Sarasota last December after following a man to a warehouse full of cocaine. The man, Alexander Johnson, was a federal plant who had spent months wiretapping the music star talking about drugs, and goading Banton into making a drug deal.

Despite the evidence -- including hours of taped conversation -- Tampa jurors declared a mistrial two weeks ago, after four days of deliberation. Banton's lawyers had argued that Johnson set up the singer and that Banton thought he was going to the Sarasota warehouse to look at boats.

In a canny bit of timing, the same week Banton's mistrial was dominating headlines around the Caribbean, the singer released his newest album, Before the Dawn. The record shot to number two on the iTunes reggae charts in its first week and is still perched as the second-ranked reggae album on Billboard.

Banton spent hours on prison phones working with engineers and designers to finish the album, the Jamaica Observer reports. The disc even includes a note the singer wrote from lockup.

Record sales aside, Banton still faces some serious legal hurdles. It will be months before the feds are ready to retry the singer, and in the meantime, his lawyers are arguing he should be freed on bail. They say he's "too famous" to flee; prosecutors, of course, disagree.

Here's the letter Banton fans plan to send on his behalf before tomorrow's bail hearing, via the Jamaica Observer:

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I am writing to ask for your intervention with respect to a grave injustice against Grammy-nominated reggae music icon Buju Banton (legal name Mark Anthony Myrie).

The incarceration of this legendary musician without bail is unconscionable. He has been incarcerated in the Pinellas County Jail in Clearwater, Florida since January 2010 while he awaited his trial for drug conspiracy charges in the Middle District of Florida for which he has pleaded not guilty.

The charges are a result of information provided by a professional informant who relentlessly pursued Mr. Myrie for six months to participate in a drug deal.

The trial held in September resulted in a hung jury.

In our great system of justice the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, persons accused of crime are entitled to bail. Mr. Myrie meets all of the requirements for bail, yet it has not been granted.

The professional informant in Mr. Myrie's case is a convicted drug trafficker from Colombia. This convicted felon has been granted legal immigration status and to date has earned over three million American dollars (tax free) for serving as an informant to various U.S. government agencies. Taxpayer dollars certainly could be spent more effectively than on trying to entrap individuals who have no previous criminal record and have never been involved with drugs in any manner.

Is the Federal government presently in the business of creating criminals?

Mr. Myrie, a.k.a. Buju Banton, produces uplifting, positive music comparable to the music of Bob Marley. His work inspires people worldwide. He has been nominated for a Grammy Award, the highest achievement in his field, four times since 1999. He is one of the leading voices of his generation, shedding light on such issues as the unrelenting violence and abject poverty pervasive in the Third World.

He has also represented his country in performances at the Summer Olympics in Greece in 2004 and at the Cricket World Cup Opening in 2007. Buju commemorated Jamaica's support for President Obama collaborating with Dave Stewart on "American Prayer," a tribute to the President. Additionally, Buju is a family man, an employer and a generous philanthropist.

Given Buju Banton's exemplary reputation, his humanitarian efforts and his cultural contributions to society, he should not be languishing in jail at U.S. taxpayers' expense.

I urge you to do whatever possible to end this injustice.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink