Buju Banton Trial Starts As Singer Testifies He Didn't Mean To Visit Warehouse Full of Coke

Buju Banton, it seems, has a gaping, cavernous mineshaft of a hole to dig out of in federal court in Tampa: the feds have hours of taped conversations with the reggae star talking about cocaine, quoting detailed worldwide prices for cocaine, and even visiting a warehouse and sampling a few kilos of cocaine.

But the musician, who took the stand yesterday, says he was set up by the government's undercover source and has never dealt coke."I was trying to impress this guy. I wasn't going to let him outtalk me," the Tamarac-based musician said.

The Banton trial -- which is dominating headlines in Jamaica -- promises to be a strange day in court for some of the biggest names in reggae. Before Banton took the stand yesterday, Stephen Marley stepped up to talk up the singer's character.

"(He is) the voice of the people," Marley said, adding that Banton had never mentioned drugs to him.

Banton was arrested back in December, after the warehouse meeting with what turned out to be a squad of undercover cops. It was the culmination of a five month relationship between the Banton and Alexander Johnson, prosecutors say, who plied the star on international flights and at restaurant meetings with talk of getting into the coke running business.

But Banton, on the stand, countered that he thought he was going to see boats at the warehouse in Sarasota. When he was presented with a kilo of coke by another undercover source, Banton said he had no choice but to play along.

"I didn't know I was going to see any drugs," Banton said. "And if I had known I was going to see drugs, I wouldn't have gone."

Still, the St. Pete Times does a fine job of carving up Banton's claims in the lede to its story: Johnson is a chubby seafood stand owner; Banton is a filthy rich international music star. Why, exactly, was he so desperate to impress Johnson that he'd play along with a cocaine deal?

We've been hard on Buju here at Riptide -- call us old fashioned, but we can't get behind someone who sings lustily about how "there is no end to the war between me and faggot" and calls for shotgun blasts to the head for gays. (Then again, his album with Rancid back in the day was the jaaaam.)

The trial continues today.

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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