Buju Banton, performing in NYC in 2007, now faces a 15-years-to-life sentence. (Photo: FilmMagic)
The Feb. 22 guilty verdict in the drug trafficking case against Jamaican reggae artist Buju Banton arrived a few days after he won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album for "Before The Dawn" (Gargamel Music, Inc.) and it shocked Jamaica's music industry on the island and throughout the Diaspora. Banton is now facing a 15- years-to-life sentence.
"This is a sad day for our music, our culture, and for Rastafari," said veteran Rastafarian reggae artist Tony Rebel, a mentor in Banton's transition to the Rastafarian faith that has imbued his music since his 1995 groundbreaking album "'Til Shiloh" (Loose Cannon). Rebel called Banton "a fearless musical explorer and a serious contributor to reggae's development."
The same night the verdict was announced, the Brooklyn-N.Y.-based Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music (CPR) hosted a reception celebrating Black History Month and Reggae Month (so designated in Jamaica in 2008 by Prime Minister Bruce Golding).
In his keynote address, the Jamaican broadcaster Dermott Hussey drew parallels between Banton's current predicament and contemporary dancehall's sullied reputation, rooted in lyrical deviations away from roots reggae's expressions of empowerment for the downtrodden. "The music has been sidetracked by homophobia, misogyny and violence," said Hussey, host of Sirius XM's reggae channel The Joint, "and in a year when we have lost greats like Sugar Minott and Gregory Isaacs, what happened to Buju further damages our music."
Born Mark Myrie, Buju Banton, 37, was arrested on December 10, 2009 and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and possession of a firearm during the course of a drug trafficking crime; he was promptly incarcerated and spent eleven months in Florida's Pinellas County Jail outside of Tampa. Banton's September 2010 trial resulted in a hung jury; two months later he was granted bail and Stephen Marley, who testified on Banton's behalf, posted his Miami home as bond.
Banton's conditional freedom included a 24-hour security detail at a cost of $20,000 per month, according to his manager Tracii McGregor. As a means of generating revenue for his mounting bills, Banton headlined his own Before The Dawn concert at Miami's Bayfront Amphitheater on January 16. His riveting, two-hour long career defining set spanned early 90s hits like "Deportees" to 2007's "Driver A", a curious (in light of his current circumstance) yet compelling song with Buju portraying a boss instructing his underling in a marijuana delivery. The concert's most profound moments arrived with Banton's heartfelt renditions of the prescient tracks "Innocent" and "Bondage" featured on "Before The Dawn". Stephen and Damian Marley, Shaggy and Sean Paul also performed and 10,000 enthusiastic Banton supporters witnessed what might have been the embattled artist's final US show.
Banton's transformation from a precociously gifted, teenaged dancehall sensation to a global dancehall-reggae ambassador has earned him legions of loyal fans, but his 1991 song "Boom Bye Bye", with lyrics ostensibly calling for the killing of homosexuals, undoubtedly tarnished his career. Gay rights groups began protesting against Banton at the threshold of US breakthrough which accompanied his 1993 release of "Voice of Jamaica" (Mercury Records). Banton has steadfastly maintained "Boom Bye Bye" was written about a known pedophile, with child molestation the target of his (lyrical) annihilation; he has endured repeated tour/concert cancellations due to what he has previously stated is a misrepresentation of the song's lyrics. At his Miami show he referenced that career-plaguing saga most effectively in his introduction of Marcia Griffiths by sharing advice Reggae's Grand Dame had given him as a teenager: "Early in my career this lady told me to be careful what you put in a song because these things take on a life of their own," said Banton before they performed their hit "Live On".
In song, as well as in damning trial testimonies, which included his boasts to US government informant Alexander Johnson that he smuggled diamonds from Africa to Europe to finance drug deals, Banton's words have indeed come back to haunt him. "Buju's words were used to convict him," noted CPR Chair Sharon Gordon, "and reggae artists must understand they need to be circumspect in their lifestyle choices."
Banton's trial reconvened the day after his Grammy triumph and he faced two additional charges: attempting to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and using a communication facility in the commission of a felony. Following eleven hours of jury deliberations he was found guilty on three charges and acquitted of attempted possession with the intent to distribute cocaine; his lawyer David Oscar Markus will appeal the verdict.
Members of the reggae fraternity are already drafting plans for a fundraising concert to help Banton offset another round of legal expenses.
CPR President Carlyle McKetty opines that industry stakeholders who have championed the erosion of reggae's lyrical standards and some artists' unsavory behavior bear partial responsibility for Banton's plight. "Jamaica's romance with gangsterism and communal neglect is in part the cause of Buju's situation," he states. "However, we can use this as a watershed moment to bring reggae back to its original calling as a healing force."