Buju welcome with conditions
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, out of the 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017, nearly one third — or 23,139 — involved cocaine, psychostimulants, or both. From 2016 to 2017, death rates involving cocaine and psychostimulants each increased by approximately one third, and increases occurred across all demographic groups, Census regions, and in several states. In 2017, nearly three quarters of cocaine-involved and roughly one half of psychostimulant-involved overdose deaths, respectively, involved at least one opioid.
Buju Banton’s ten-year sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine came about through a sting operation conducted by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Which suggests he was a person of interest to the feds. Why was that? Additionally, video of him tasting cocaine for authenticity was pretty damning, giving the impression of a particular familiarity.
Quite unlike the homophobic lyrics that could be found throughout his controversial 1992 hit Boom Bye Bye that preached death to gay people — although there is no telling how many violent events that tune has inspired over the years, in particular in his Jamaican homeland — cocaine carries with it the threat of a death sentence. And there is no doubt in the minds of the Florida jury that Mark Anthony Myrie, Banton’s real name, looked to profit from it.
More than Boom Bye Bye, that is what Banton needs to be held accountable for in the court of public opinion as we embrace the inevitability that one of the world’s most supremely talented reggae artists will be performing in Bermuda in August.
Within hours of the announcement, news of his impending arrival split opinion. In the news. On social media. In the street. Albeit with the majority backing Buju.
In Jamaica, Banton’s fans were aghast that he could be caught trafficking cocaine as an advocate of Rastafari, whose preachings condone only the use of “the holy herb”, universally known as cannabis or ganja.
Perhaps it is for that reason, before singing a solitary verse, that he began his comeback at the National Stadium in Kingston on his knees.
If that symbolic gesture of “humbling himself” is the closest Banton comes to offering an apology to his hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide — each time he takes to the stage on this “Long Walk to Freedom” tour, including here — then we should be all for him performing in Bermuda while still in the throes of being a freshly released ex-con.
Before his run-in with the law, Banton more than any other reggae artist since Bob Marley, touched on social consciousness, his music resonating with the afflicted and underprivileged.
The hits were countless and he should be revered, but not to the extent that he is given a free pass in the sphere of accountability.
He may have served his time in a Florida prison for the drug offences, but he must also pay his debt to the people who worshipped him but were badly let down.
The early steps that he and his backers have taken are laudable. Feeding children and the homeless in Kingston, and making contributions out of his presumed six-figure salary per concert to non-profit charities on every stop of his tour through the Caribbean.
Boom Bye Bye, “yesterday’s news”, ceases to exist. But before he belatedly took the steps in March to have the song removed from his discography, Banton suffered banning orders and concert cancellations that hit him in the pocket — this as the world changed its view on gay people, and as the global LGBTQ community gathered steam.
He stopped singing the song even before he went to prison but it has taken that eight-year stretch to get a 45-year-old man who wrote those hateful lyrics as a 15-year-old to see they have no place in a modern world.
Banton himself is aware of this and that outrunning his past required a show of commitment not previously seen.
“In recent days there has been a great deal of press coverage about the song Boom Bye Bye from my past, which I long ago stopped performing and removed from any platform that I control or have influence over,” he told online magazine Urban Islandz in March after the anti-gay anthem was removed from his catalogue.
“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 artist and as a man.
“I affirm once and for all that everyone has the right to live as they so choose. In the words of the great Dennis Brown, ‘Love and hate can never be friends’. I welcome everyone to my shows in a spirit of peace and love. Please come join me in that same spirit.”
This was followed by the song being removed from streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music. The video, which reached nearly 30 million views on YouTube, was also removed from his account.
That should complete Banton’s penance to the gay community but local organiser MHB Consultants is committed to going a step farther in starting a dialogue with OutBermuda, the LGBTQ advocate group, with a view to seeking redemption.
National security minister Wayne Caines, who approved Banton’s visit, has weighed in in the belief that Unity Festival Bermuda has the power to heal our community. If that is even half-true, then the funds shelled out to get Banton and his Shiloh band here would prove money well spent. Rather, the minister may wish to concentrate his considerable powers on ensuring that pungent wafts of cannabis do not permeate even a 100-yard radius from the National Stadium stage.
And before the minister and his colleagues pat themselves too much on the back for this supposed coup, they may wish to take heed by way of a hint of a reality check in the final chorus and verse from Banton’s Untold Stories, which should feature in his playlist on August 17:
“I am living while I am living to the
Father I will pray
Only Him knows how we get through every day
With all the hike in the price
Arm and leg we have to pay
While our leaders play
Who can afford to run will run
But what about those who can’t ... they will have to stay
Opportunity a scarce, scarce commodity
In these times I say ... When mama spend her last and send you go class
Never you ever play
It’s a competitive world for low-budget people
Spending a dime while earning a nickel
With no regards to who it may tickle
My cup is full to the brim
I could go on and on, the full has never been told”