As a packed British Airways flight departed for Jamaica from London in early March, almost everyone on board had one thing in common – they were on a journey to see the return of a national hero.
After his release from prison in December, they were headed to see Buju Banton’s first performance in eight years. The hugely popular – and controversial – reggae star was to stage a show in Kingston, billed (in a nod to Nelson Mandela) as the Long Walk To Freedom concert.
In the lead up, anticipation across the island had been growing: hotels and Airbnbs had reached full capacity, airline fares rocketed and, in the days before, Banton songs could be heard from passing cars and on various corners of Kingston. Within minutes of tickets going on sale, the website crashed.
UK rapper Stefflon Don’s mother, Maria, was a passenger on the flight. She talked about how excited she was to see her daughter perform as one of the support acts. Writing on Instagram, Don, whose collaboration with Idris Elba and Sean Paul ‘Boasy’ just topped the UK iTunes charts, described it as “the best moment of my career and life achievement ever.”
But this was not an un-complicated return. Banton’s release from prison for drugs trafficking marked the end of a low point in a three-decades long career. The Grammy award-winning musician had been sentenced in America to 10 years in prison, and though the charges hadn’t dented the support of his legions of adoring fans, a homophobic song released early in his career had more recently come back to haunt him.
Buju Banton, real name Mark Myrie, shot to fame as a reggae star and become widely regarded as one of the most prominent artists of the genre – a neo-Bob Marley figure.
Born in poverty in Salt Lane, Kingston, as the youngest of 15 siblings, the nickname Buju was given to Myrie by his mother. ‘Banton’ means “respected storyteller” in Jamaica.
He began recording music from the age of 12, and released a number of dancehall singles as early as 1987, but didn’t get his big break until 1992 with two albums, Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention – the latter becoming the best-selling album in Jamaican history upon its release.
In the same year, Banton overtook Bob Marley’s record for number 1 singles in his home country. By the mid-1990s, Banton had converted to Rastafarianism and his music became more influenced by his faith, as heard on the album ’Til Shiloh , which performed so well in the UK the he was invited to perform in a televised BBC broadcast.
His 2010 album Before the Dawn won Best Reggae Album at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards.
But there was a dark side to his success. Back in 1993, Banton released a track which included lyrics that incited the murder of gay people, Boom Bye Bye. It was initially recorded when he was 16, against a backdrop of conservative 1980s Jamaica. Banton has since said the song was written in response to an incident involving the abuse of a young boy – a case which was well-publicised in Jamaica at the time.
There was a huge outcry among global music fans, and Banton in later years said that his views on LGBTQ+ rights have evolved. He also agreed to stop performing the track at concerts via the the 2007 Reggae Compassionate Act.
The song also prompted the Stop Murder Music Campaign, organised by UK group OutRage! in collaboration with Jamaican LGBT-rights group JFLAG. It led to numerous concert cancellations – 28 of Banton’s performances were cancelled between 2005 and 2011.
But last month, an estimated 40,000 people attended Banton’s comeback concert, ahead of which Kingston welcomed just over 2,400 international visitors. “This represents a 143% increase over the same day last year,” the tourism ministry said, adding that data from the Jamaica Tourist Board also shows 7,389 foreign nationals arrived in Montego Bay on Friday – a 58% increase over the same day last year.
“The arrivals over the weekend have been very strong, and as an industry we are ecstatic,” said tourism minister Ed Bartlett.
UK actor Aml Ameen, who recently starred in Idris Elba-produced film Yardie, and director Femi Oyeniran also attended the show. UK grime artist MC Konan, of Krept and Konan fame, was spotted and speaking to BBC Newsbeat after the concert said: “This is history, the energy here is crazy. I’ve never seen anything like this – this is another level of inspiration. He’s at G.O.A.T status, another level. Legendary,” the 29-year-old said.
A number of supporting artists were billed to perform, including Grammy-nominated songstress Etana, Agent Sasco, Cocoa Tea, Banton’s son Jahaziel, harmony quartet LUST and roots favourite Chronixx.
When Banton sauntered onstage dressed all in white, the packed venue was illuminated by phone lights held high to capture the moment.
He opened his set with a gospel hymn Lamb of God, Have Mercy On Me, before launching into hits It’s Not An Easy Road, Don’t Cry and Driver. Banton duetted with a few guests throughout his two-hour set including Marcia Griffiths, who is also a former member of Bob Marley’s I-Threes, Stefflon Don, dancehall peer Wayne Wonder, and Gramps Morgan of Morgan Heritage.
But for many in attendance, it was Banton’s onstage chemistry with Grammy-nominated singer Beres Hammond which stood out. The pair are firm friends who have collaborated on a number of tracks, such as Pull It Up and Who Say?.
Attendee Tanya Gomes said: “[This is] one of the most epic moments in musical history. The respect, love, admiration, appreciation and humbleness between Beres and Buju says a lot about triumph, endurance and loyalty. This night can never repeated.”
The concert marks the end of a dark episode for Banton. In 2009, he was arrested in the US and charged on cocaine trafficking charges – though he has always maintained his innocence. He was subsequently incarcerated for 11 months in Florida’s Pinellas County jail, outside Tampa.
His September 2010 trial resulted in a hung jury and two months later, he was freed on bail. Bob Marley’s son, Stephen, posted his own home as bond and testified on Banton’s behalf at the trial.
One year later, on 13 February 2011, Banton’s Before the Dawn album won the Best Reggae Album Grammy – but he couldn’t attend the ceremony as his second trial began the following day.
Within two weeks, the 45-year-old was found guilty of attempting to possess and distribute cocaine and sentenced was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in December 2018 and deported to Jamaica, where he had kept a relatively low profile since.
At the concert, Banton did not make reference to the circumstances behind his prison stint; only stating that it had been “eight years, six months, 27 days, 13 hours, five minutes and 26 seconds” since then.
Following the singer’s release, Colin Robinson, director of Trinidad based Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), told Medium: “Buju’s deportation and return to society ought to be a powerful occasion for public debates over drugs in Caribbean communities and who brings them there; the weaknesses of our popular leaders; decriminalisation of cannabis; the prison industrial complex, justice, race and restoration.
“Instead we are squandering it on an ageing debate about ‘Boom Bye Bye’, using it as an opportunity to perform homophobia and racism on social media. It’s not a conversation we want to join.”
Donnya Piggott, of Barbados Gays, Lesbians and All-Sexuals against Discrimination, added: “We can’t pretend that we have this idea of moral absolutism where someone is all good or all bad. Caribbean people do not necessarily subscribe to that kind of idea. I just feel the same way about Buju. He has given us so much.”
Writing on Facebook, Piggott said: “Before I knew of Boom Bye Bye, I knew of Destiny, Untold Stories, I Wanna be loved, ’Til Shiloh and he made a profound impact on my life as a black dark skinned Caribbean woman and he was a voice for many poor disenfranchised black people in the Caribbean.
“I’m not denying the harm that Boom Bye Bye has caused and, writing it as a 15-year-old boy, I can only imagine where Buju was at in his life [...] I refuse to let anyone erase the Buju that lifted me up and inspired me and many other Caribbean black people.”
Last week, 45-year-old Banton released a statement re-emphasising that he wishes to put controversial song Boom Bye Bye behind him.
“I recognise that the song has caused much pain to listeners, as well as to my fans, my family and myself. After all the adversity we’ve been through, I am determined to put this song in the past and continue moving forward as an artiste and as a man,” the statement read.
While opinion continues to be divided over Banton, and how far he should be hailed as a hero, his comeback concert turn-out makes one thing clear: he is regarded as a global musical icon.
At the time of his release from incarceration, Jamaican Culture minister Babsy Grange said: “There’s no getting over the fact that he was convicted, but Buju was loved long before he was convicted and he will be loved just the same, even if he comes home in handcuffs.”