Why you should care
After serving an eight-year jail sentence, dancehall legend Buju Banton just hit the stage again. But redemption may not be possible.
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WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Following his release from a U.S. prison late last year, dancehall and reggae performer Buju Banton — arguably the biggest name in Jamaican music today — made his way back to the stage over the weekend to a packed crowd in a 35,000-capacity stadium in Kingston. His tour, titled Long Walk to Freedom, shares a title with Nelson Mandela’s 1994 autobiography. Fans crashed ticket websites and crowded the Jamaican capital’s Airbnb listings, which were reportedly at nearly 100 percent capacity the night of the show. The tour is scheduled to continue through midsummer, with shows scheduled for Barbados, Grenada, Suriname and Germany.
Why does it matter? Banton, 45, isn’t a simple guy. Besides his time in the federal clink for cocaine possession, he’s also faced criticism for his alleged promotion of anti-gay violence in the song Boom Bye Bye. So as reggae fans welcome back this modern-day musical legend, key questions remain: Can Banton reclaim his spot in the reggae pantheon after a long hiatus? And is he ready — or able — to focus on music after a long incarceration?
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Famous, or infamous. Although not widely known outside Jamaica, Banton (born Mark Myrie) has been making musical waves on the Caribbean island since the 1990s. Surpassing even Bob Marley for most number-one singles in Jamaica, he also snagged a best reggae album Grammy in 2011 for Before the Dawn. That same month, he was found guilty of possessing and intending to distribute cocaine in Florida, though a judge tossed out a charge of illegal firearm possession that would have significantly extended his 10-year sentence. Just under eight years later, he was released and returned to Jamaica. For fans, those years represent prime music-making time that Banton won’t be able to get back. But now, after that long silence, a new album is reportedly on the way. Banton posted photos of himself recording on Instagram in recent weeks, promising fans they’ll soon hear new tracks.
Checkered past. Banton’s also faced controversy over Boom Bye Bye, a song he reportedly wrote as a teenager and released in the 1990s, which advocates murdering gay people. The song dogged his career long after that, with LGBT rights groups protesting and dozens of concerts canceled over the controversy before Banton went to prison in 2011. Boom Bye Bye was not played at this past weekend’s concert.
A triumphant return. Since his arrival in Jamaica, local officials have apparently been conflicted about how to treat the wayward legend. Culture Minister Olivia Grange suggested people “should embrace” his purported efforts to help youngsters stay on the straight and narrow, while national security chief Horace Chang reportedly conceded, “We can’t give him a hero’s welcome.” Banton’s use of “Long Walk to Freedom” and the implied connection to Mandela has also rubbed some critics the wrong way.
WHAT TO READ
On Buju Banton, ‘Bugga-Yagga’ Music and Middle-Class Hypocrisy, by Norris McDonald in The Gleaner
“Is Buju wrong to ‘even up himself’ with Nelson Mandela by using Mandela’s slogan, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’? To me, a slogan is just that – a slogan.”
This Time We Should Boycott Buju Banton, in Tribune 242
“Mr Banton needs a redemption tour, to be sure, but it should start with acknowledging his role in fostering hate through lyrics.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Buju Banton Live, Long Walk To Freedom 2019
Watch on World A Reggae on YouTube:
Buju Banton Speaks for the First Time Since Prison Release
“So many years since I’ve seen my people and we’ve exchanged communication, spiritually, mystically.”
Watch on Crushroad TV on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Out of the frying pan. Two days before Banton’s concert, one of his sons — Markus Myrie, a dancehall producer — penned a series of posts on Instagram denouncing his dad and exhorting U.S. President Donald Trump to return him to prison. Banton’s son filed a police report the same day alleging that his father called him to a meeting, then punched him in the mouth, but Jamaican police are awaiting a medical report before pressing any charges.