After 10 Years in Prison, Jamaican Star Buju Banton Reclaims Musical Destiny With Historic Long Walk to Freedom Concert

do not reuse - one time use only
Zev Lenchus @itsknottv
Buju Banton (foreground) and Beres Hammond (background) perform onstage at the Long Walk to Freedom concert on March 16, 2019.

The March 16 event in Kingston was more than a homecoming for the dancehall and reggae star.

Fans of Jamaican music have witnessed Buju Banton's dramatic transformation from a precociously talented early 1990s teenage dancehall sensation to an eminent -- if somewhat embattled -- global reggae ambassador. There have been significant controversies throughout his remarkable journey, including a 10-year prison sentence for his participation in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine that ended in December, but all of it contributed to making Banton's Long Walk to Freedom (LWTF) concert on March 16 one of the biggest and most anticipated events that Jamaica and the entire reggae diaspora has experienced. 

Held at the National Stadium in Kingston and presented by Banton's Gargamel Music and Boom Energy Drink, in association with Kingston's Solid Agency and Miami's Rocker's Island Entertainment, LWTF was a resounding success due to the organizers' extensive planning, precise execution and the headliner's resilient, charismatic talents. Throughout the week before, full flights arrived at Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport from the U.S. and other countries, many playing Banton's music over the PA systems as they touched down. The Jamaica Observer newspaper reported nearly 2,500 visitor arrivals in Kingston the day before the concert; hotel and Airbnb accommodations were sold out months in advance. Banton's fans and industry colleagues gathered at the stadium hours prior to the 8 p.m. showtime where, amidst much excitement, they shared their memories and projections surrounding the artist whose long-awaited return to the stage was now imminent. 

"People want to know that Buju Banton is still that tremendous dancehall and roots reggae artist, in terms of his vocals, his recordings and delivering live performances," Winford Williams, host of the popular Jamaican entertainment program Onstage, told Billboard before the concert. "That's the measurement people are looking for. If he can show within the first 10 minutes of his performance that he is the artist we knew, the man who wrote/sang 'Destiny,' because any fan knows what that song is saying, then yes, the Buju Banton that we knew will really be back." 

Banton's haunting "Destiny" from his 1997 album Inna Heights was written about the challenges faced in the unreserved pursuit of one's calling; 22 years on, the song's lyrics ring with a clairvoyance Banton could not have intended: "You know not the destiny of a next man why hold him, set him free for too long ... my destination is homeward bound though forces try to hold I down."

Ahead of Banton's set, LWTF opened with a stellar cast of supporting acts, including his son Jahziel Myrie, vocalists Christopher Martin and Romain Virgo, 2019 Grammy nominee Etana, veteran singer Ghost, vocal quartet L.U.S.T. and dancehall star Sasco, who released his very first single on Banton's Gargamel Music label. Chronixx elevated the 32,000-person audience's already jubilant mood with ethereal and fitting performances of his hits "Never Give In" and "Smile Jamaica." Singer Cocoa Tea, in a brilliant, but too-brief performance, adjusted the lyrics of his 1995 anthem "Holy Mount Zion" from a pilgrimage to the Rasta promised land to a warm greeting heralding Banton's return: "Sweet sweet Jamaica, Jah Jah send Buju forward to we." 

Minutes after 11 o'clock, Banton emerged on the darkened stage wearing a crisp white suit, his dreadlocks now reaching his waist. Patrons excitedly waved red, green and gold Rastafarian flags, blared air horns and illuminated the stadium with the blue glow of thousands of cell phones held aloft as they sought to capture his historic return. Backed by his superb Shiloh band, led by keyboardist Steven "Lenky" Marsden, Banton began his set by chanting a heartfelt prayer, "Oh Lamb of God have mercy on me." He then tore into the song that concisely described the rugged path he has traveled to reach this moment, "Not an Easy Road." 

As Banton continued, intently focused yet exuberant, the audience was clearly enthralled by his matured looks, agile moves and especially, the deep, coarse, ferocious voice that had been missing live for nearly a decade. With politicians, former beauty queens, reggae superstars Sean Paul, Beenie Man and Tarrus Riley, the legendary Bunny Wailer and DJ Khaled (Banton is featured on DJ Khaled's upcoming Father of Asahd album) in attendance, by the time Banton delivered "Destiny," his fourth song of the night, he had confirmed what everyone had hoped: The same compelling performer everyone remembered from the 1990s and 2000s had indeed returned.

Boom, Jamaica's first locally-produced energy drink, a presenting sponsor of LWTF, also sponsored Banton's previous concert, held Jan. 16, 2011, at the Bayfront Amphitheater in Miami, which he performed while out on bail. William Mahfood, chairman of Boom's parent company Wisynco Group told Billboard that its LWTF support was the company's largest investment in an entertainment endeavor. "As the biggest beverage company in Jamaica we couldn't let this concert pass without getting involved," he said. "Some brands and companies were afraid of [international] pushback, they said they wouldn't touch this event, but as a publicly listed Jamaican company, we aren't afraid to be associated with an artist who is among the most relevant of our time. The reality is we all make mistakes, Buju has made his, he realizes that, but he's served his time and he's moving forward." Mahfood added that Wisynco will continue to invest in Banton's career beyond the LWTF concert. 

Buju Banton was born Mark Myrie on July 15, 1973, in Kingston, the youngest of 15 children born to a street vendor mother. A descendant of the Maroons, the fierce freedom fighters who fended off attacks from the British colonial regiments, Banton battled his way out of abject poverty and, with his powerful patois, ascended to dancehall superstardom in the early 1990s. Story has it, he was signed to Mercury Records in 1992 as he exited the stage following a blistering set at Jamaica's now defunct Reggae Sunsplash music festival. He released Voice of Jamaica for the label the following year. 

His 1994 single "Murderer," penned hours after the fatal shooting of his close friend, dancehall artist Panhead, helped temporarily redirect dancehall reggae away from gangsterism towards Rastafarian themed positive messages. Banton's 1995 album, the outstanding 'Til Shiloh, where he revealed sensitively sung vocals on such tracks as "Untold Stories," played a pivotal role in shaping the Rastafari and roots reggae movement of the mid-1990s and beyond. As Banton's international renown grew, the thick patois lyrics of a song he recorded when he was 16, "Boom Bye Bye," were decoded: Banton explained the song was written about an incident in Jamaica, a pedophile's abuse of a young boy but it was heard as advocating the killing of homosexuals. Banton apologized for the song and stopped performing it years ago, but gay rights groups' protests against "Boom Bye Bye" continued to hamper his career, resulting in concert cancellations as late as October 2009, just two months before his arrest on cocaine-related charges.

Banton's first trial ended in a hung jury; he was released on bail when close friend Stephen Marley posted his home as bond and was free to plan and perform his Before The Dawn concert. Before The Dawn won the best reggae album Grammy on Feb. 13, 2011 and Banton's trial began the following day. Much of the case against him was based on video and audio recordings made by a U.S. government informant, Alexander Johnson, who was paid $50,000 -- according to Johnson's trial testimony -- to ensnare the artist. Most damning was a grainy videotape showing Banton tasting cocaine in a Sarasota, Florida, warehouse actually owned by the Sarasota Police Department and asking if there were additional quantities available for purchase. He was convicted less than three weeks after his Grammy win and held in the McRae Correctional Institution, in McRae, Georgia.

 

The provocative, headline-making turn of events surrounding Banton and his 10-year incarceration have provided an opportunity to reevaluate the pervasive impact of his artistry -- something that appeared to be taken for granted in the years immediately preceding his lock up. "This might be sacrilegious to some, but I think Buju is Bob Marley for this generation, someone who has had such a profound effect on the reggae genre, " Neil "Diamond" Edwards, executive director of A&R, VP Records, who worked with Buju on his 2003 album, Friends for Life. "But for people to see his talent as they are seeing it now, there had to be drama and that arrived with the protests, the Miami performance, his conviction and jail sentence."

Edwards continued, "Buju's LWTF concert has changed the game, it sets the bar high because filling a stadium is not an easy task, but he did it. Young kids who didn't grow up knowing his songs are trying to get up to date with his music now because he is that reggae icon for this time."

Banton's performance on Saturday night featured many of his collaborators over the years, including Wayne Wonder, Marcia Griffiths, Gramps Morgan and his mentor, beloved veteran singer Beres Hammond. Hammond had not seen Banton since his release from jail on Dec. 7 and their onstage embrace was deeply felt by the audience, as were the renditions of their cheerful dancehall tribute "Can You Play Some More." When Banton and Hammond sang each other's verses on their 1992 hit "Who Say?," they caused an already frenzied crowd to squeal even louder.

Throughout Banton's 90-minute performance he didn't offer any words about his criminal convictions but did recount the exact length of his incarceration -- 8 years, 6 months, 27 days, 13 hours, 5 minutes and 26 seconds -- then squashed any rumors of illicit prison activity. "This is a disclaimer, no disrespect to no one, I am talking about me," said Banton before launching into a tough freestyle: "Me don't care what in the media, me no business 'bout the news, me do 10 years of prison but no sexual abuse."
 
Perhaps Banton will address his conviction, imprisonment and other related issues during future shows, which include a round of Caribbean dates beginning on March 30 in the Bahamas. Meanwhile, he seems focused on readjusting to the rigors of being an in-demand entertainer while readapting to life on the outside. 

"Buju's performance was a success story for someone coming out of a penal system that doesn't really rehabilitate its inmates -- the ordeal doesn't define him, so there's much to look forward to as he reenters society and the music fraternity," said Allison Hunte, director and shareholder of the Barbados Reggae Festival, which celebrates its 15th anniversary with a performance by Banton and the Shiloh Band on April 27. 

"Once the euphoria of Buju's return wears off, his fans are going to be looking for consistency and sustainability from him," Hunte continued. "He should pay attention to making good quality albums, supporting that with merchandise and building out his business. He has a great opportunity for a global career and the access to do many collaborations with people from other genres. There is so much for him to explore, I know that he will be successful."