Buju Banton on trial


“It’s not an easy road/ Some see the glamour and the glitter and they think a bed of roses…”

 The Spotlight this week in Jamaica has been focused fully on Buju Banton , the iconic Rasta reggae singer and four-time Grammy nominee who found himself on trial in the USA for conspiracy to sell cocaine. Nothing has so captured public attention this week as the Buju Banton case, even though in the same week dancehall DJ Bounty Killa was arrested and jailed for domestic abuse.

From the trial began on September 20, it has been the main topic of conversation in Jamaica, with discussions centering around the videotape of Buju ‘sampling’ the product to be sold, and tape recordings of phone conversations with two alleged co-conspirators as convincing evidence of his guilt. But no less compelling is the evidence that the case was set up by a professional entrapper who earns a good living from US government crime agencies to set traps such as the one Buju was caught in.

LONG WAIT FOR TRIAL   Ten months ago, when Buju Banton was arrested and incarcerted in Miami, the news had only shock value and soon fell off the public view, as Buju has been known to be controversial. He spoke out angrily when he was arrested and convicted for two ganja plants that were found growing in the yard of his large studio compound – a conviction that deprived him of a US Visa for several years. But as the length of his imprisonment without trial extended far beyond the norm into 10 months, Jamaicans and reggae fans began to question whether there was something ‘different’ about this case. After all, we know the history of Buju’s controversial song that brought him powerful opponents who might be happy to have that voice silenced by a long jail sentence.

So by the time the trial began on Monday September 20, everyone was interested in Buju’s fate and – perhaps better late than never – had begun to pay tribute to the work and life of one of Reggae’s most beloved performers. Watching Buju’s appearance in the courtroom on the first day of the trial crisply dressed in suit and tie, the full weight of what faced him seemed to fall on Jamaica’s shoulders and – with an attitude of “He’s ours, no matter what” – Jamaica started paying tribute to Buju Banton.

TILL SHILOH   We remembered the Buju who seemed to be maturing from his brash and outlandish youth when he produced the seminal “Till Shiloh” album which brought a new generation of the conscious Rasta music that Bob Marley had given us. The album introduced and confirmed Buju Banton as a Rasta psalmist, leaving behind his earlier works and youthful indiscretions.

So all Jamaica wondered how Buju Banton had got himself into such trouble. Was he truly a cocaine dealer, or was the case based on the fact that – as he said in his evidence – he ‘… talked too much”. Along with the many who prayed for his deliverance, there were those who felt he was guilty by video and would undoubtedly be punished. On Friday, as the jury was about to begin deliberations, one newspaper wrote an Editorial chiding Buju Banton with words to the effect that ‘if you lie with dogs, you will rise with fleas’, that caused one Comment writer to say: “Please wait until the verdict is in to be so negative.”

DRIVER     On Monday, the day the verdict was to be delivered, another daily newspaper published the lyrics of Buju’s hit “Driver”, in which Buju tells a courier to take a package, collect some money and avoid getting caught by ‘the Feds’. The implication was clear.

Driver, don’t stop at all, mi seh drop this Arizona round a Alba Mall/ Driver, mi seh don’t even hitch, collect dat likkle food deh yah and come back quick/ Driver, just rememba di damn speed limit/ Cau if yuh run inna di Feds my friend dat is it/All mi life savings a ride pon this/ Yuh can drink a beer but don’t yuh dare bun a spliff/ Di scent a di marijuana mek yuh life uplift/ Even though it compress and tie inna plastic/ Don’t deliver it a go end up drastic/ A barrel gun mi buss and mi yuh know it caan stick...”

But all the negative comments were overbalanced by the outpouring of LOVE expressed nationally for Buju Banton. This was best demonstrated when a rumour on Friday morning that a “Not guilty” verdict had been delivered, caused the Downtown Kingston area to burst into celebration as happy as when Usain Bolt won his first Olympic Gold. Car horns were honked and people shouted for joy all over city and countryside – until word came that it was a false alarm and in fact the jury had retired to reconvene on Monday.

TRIBUTE TO A REGGAE ICON   On Friday night Anthony Miller, Jamaica’s best entertainment journalist, used his prime time Entertainment Report to package a series of interviews he has done with the Gargamel from his early pre-dreadlocks years to the release of his  “Rasta Got Soul” album showing the history and talent of this extraordinary artist.  Avoiding much attention on the notorious song that haunts Buju’s repertoire, Miller instead showed an artist whose energy, philosophy and attitude reminds so much of the late Peter Tosh – another artist who was not afraid to speak his mind.

On Saturday Rastafari brethren and friends gathered at the thatched-roof tabernacle Buju maintains in the yard behind his Gargamel Studio and began a two day-and-night Nyabinghi session. The sounds of African drums and spiritual chants went up into the rain-cooled night and day and night, as prayers and chants in traditional Rastafari fashion of heartbeat and music were sent up by the large crowd in prayers to the All-Mighty. Media reports quoted nearby residents who said they were not disturbed by the sounds. “If it will help free Buju” said one, “fine with me. We like him, he is a good neighbour.”

On Monday morning several FaceBook pages carried a link to this video of one of Buju’s songs that ironically seems to have been written specially for this occasion.

MISTRIAL VERDICT    On Monday afternoon the Judge declared a mistrial, and Jamaica was glad that Buju Banton’s fate is not yet sealed, hoping he will be allowed out of jail on bail. “It’s better a mistrial than a guilty verdict. At least he gets a second chance,” said Buju’s mentor and former manager, producer Donovan Germain.

Jamaica is glad our Prayers were answered, thanking JAH for small mercies.

To Buju we say:

‘Be strong, hold a firm meditation,

One day things must get better.

And though you think our faith is in vain,

Till Shiloh we chant Rastafari name.”





   Jamaica OBSERVER cartoon, Monday September 30