Buju Banton has sat in a Florida jail for more than three years, serving a ten years prison sentence. He was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, using a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense. I won’t get in to the specifics of the case here because most persons by now know the story. However, if you are interested in the details and progress of the case, it can be found here.
Often times when celebrities or influential people go to prison, there are ‘campaigns’ for their freedom. In the 1980s there was the ‘Free Mandela’ campaign, The ‘Free Mumia’ campaign was started in the 1990s and is ongoing. There was a ‘Free Jah Cure’ campaign in Jamaica and now there are people campaigning for Vybz Kartel’s freedom. So without a doubt there were going to be people saying ‘Free Buju’. Initially, these ‘campaigns’ had some merit because there were reasons to believe that the incarcerated individuals were unjustly targeted. Over the years however, fan(atic)s have pretty much perverted these campaigns and made a mockery of them – Free Boosie or Free C-Murder. I want to point out that this post is not one of those campaigns.
I am a Buju Banton fan; I have been a fan for many years. Buju has always been a cut above the rest. He has grown from strength to strength in the music industry, making great music in the process. For most of his career he was not involved in any wrong doing (as far as the public knew). For these reasons he is highly respected and loved in Jamaica.
My mother is not a very expressive person. She is quiet and reserved. She is not a fan of reggae or dance-hall music (She doesn’t necessarily hate the genres either). In all my life I have only ever heard her mention two Jamaican artistes; Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks. When she spoke about Buju, I could tell she was a fan even if she never came out and said it. That is how my connection to Buju Banton started. The fact that my mother thought highly of my favorite artiste meant a lot to me. It was a sort of validation. Buju would become the big brother I never had and he would talk to me through his music. He told me; “when mama spend her last and send you go class, never you ever play” and “rude boy don’t be silly, put a rubber on your willy, aids a go round and you don’t waan ketch it”. He would ‘talk to me’ a lot in the 1990s. If there was a soundtrack to the 1990s, Buju Banton would have been the main artiste on that soundtrack. He gave us hard-hitting music with topical social commentary.
The brash, gravelly voiced teenager took the music industry by storm. He was all over the charts. He broke Bob Marley’s record for number one songs in a single year and his album Mr. Mention became the best-selling album in Jamaican history at the time of its release. Buju’s songs were on most Jamaican radio stations and on most Jamaicans’ lips. You had to take notice and people did. ‘Browning’, ‘Man Fi Dead’ and ‘Boom Bye Bye’, three songs known for their controversial lyrics, had people talking. ‘Boom Bye Bye’ would later spark a ‘campaign by Outrage and change Buju’s life and career forever. I will get back to this later.
In 1994 the reggae music industry lost a young, upcoming reggae artiste by the name of Garnett Silk. From all indications, The Rastafarian artiste seemed on pace to be a big star. Unfortunately and tragically he was killed in a house fire. A year earlier the music industry had lost Pan Head and Dirts Man. All three entertainers were associates of Buju. After Silk’s death it seemed that there was a surge of Rastafarian converts in the reggae music industry. Maybe affected by the death of Garnett Silk, Pan Head and Dirts Man, and wanting a change, Buju converted to Rastafari.
At the time of his conversion to Rastafari, it seemed like a risky career move for Buju. He had a growing dance-hall fan base and many hit songs to his name. Some thought his conversion to Rasta might alienate some of his fans and slow his career, others thought it could help. All concerns were however put to rest when Til Shiloh was released in 1995. Two years later Til Shiloh was followed up with Inna Heights and Buju Banton became a living legend in his own right.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, there is uproar over homophobic and violent dance-hall lyrics. It didn’t matter that for the most part, dance-hall lyrics were always homophobic, violent and/or sexist . A number of Jamaican artistes came under pressure from LGBT (Lesbians,Gays,Bisexuals and Transvestites) groups, they included; Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Elephant Man, Sizzla and Buju Banton. They all had shows cancelled as a result of a ‘Stop Murder Music’ campaign that was launched. The LGBT groups needed a scapegoat for their campaign and Buju Banton was to become their patsy. Almost a decade after it was released ‘Boom Bye Bye’ was back in the spotlight. Even though the song was rarely,if ever performed since the initial controversy,the LGBT community would use it to justify their witch-hunt. I always felt that it was during this period that somebody decided that they would teach Buju a lesson and make an example of him. Nobody knew the lengths they were willing to go to teach him this lesson, in a couple years we would find out.
In 2009 after many cancelled performances as a result of the LGBT groups’ protests, news broke that Buju Banton was arrested on a drug charge. The news left his fans scratching their heads in confusion and disbelief. Nobody saw this coming. When the dust settled Buju would be facing more than ten years in prison on a drug charge that reeked of entrapment. Chris Sweeney, who shares my sentiments on the case, wrote a brilliant article titled ‘Reggae Great Buju Banton Is Locked Up On Drug Charges. Was He Entrapped?’
This brings me back to the ‘Free Buju’ campaign. When I say ‘Free Buju’, I am not making light of the charges that were brought against him. The truth is, I genuinely believe he is not guilty of those charges. He is guilty of a lot of things; ‘braggadocious and boasty talk’, tasting cocaine (I still haven’t seen the video) and being in the company of criminals. None of these are criminal offenses. When I say ‘Free Buju’, I am saying don’t forget Buju. Keep him in your hearts and minds. When I say ‘Free Buju’, I am saying this man is not in prison because the powers that be felt he was a threat to society. He is in prison because he disagreed with a particular lifestyle and made it known publicly. He is in prison because a group of people are holding a grudge.
For what it’s worth, there has been progress since Buju was first sentenced. One of the charges was thrown out because a juror did independent research on the case during the trial. Nonetheless,Buju still languishes in a Florida jail while one of the co-accused was recently released and the other is due to be released in November of this year. These are the two men that actually brokered the drug deal. These are the two men that were caught with a gun, drugs and money. Combined they will have served less time (about 6 years) in prison, compared to Buju Banton who is serving a ten years prison sentence.
So until the day Buju Banton is released from that Florida prison, we wont stop saying ‘Free Buju‘.