When flight 559 traveling from JFK touched down in Kingston, Jamaica on Wednesday March 13, the pilot thanked the passengers for flying Jet Blue, told us to enjoy the island’s 85-degree temperature, and insisted we have fun at the weekend’s concert.
Obviously, he didn’t need to specify which concert: it’s the gig that’s filled up flights to Jamaica’s capital for the past week, packed hotels and guest houses, and increased Airbnb bookings to nearly 100-percent occupancy. Websites crashed within minutes of tickets going on sale, unable to handle the demand.
Buju Banton’s Long Walk to Freedom Concert, one of the biggest music events in Jamaica’s history, was held Saturday night at Kingston’s National Stadium, marking the reggae icon’s return to the stage after an eight-year absence. Banton didn’t willingly take a break from performing; he had been incarcerated in federal prison following a conviction on cocaine-trafficking charges.
Banton, born Mark Myrie, was arrested in December 2009 and charged with attempting to possess and distribute cocaine, and was promptly incarcerated for 11 months in Florida’s Pinellas County jail, outside of Tampa.
Banton’s September 2010 trial resulted in a hung jury and two months later, he was freed on bail. Bob Marley’s son Stephen, who testified on Banton’s behalf at the trial, posted his home as bond. While out on bail, Banton performed a fundraising concert to generate money for his mounting legal costs.
The Before the Dawn concert (named after Banton’s 2010 album, released on his Gargamel Music label) was held at Miami’s Bayfront Amphitheater on January 16, 2011; 10,000 fans turned out to witness what might have been Banton’s final U.S. performance.
On February 13, 2011, Before the Dawn won the Best Reggae Album Grammy, but Banton couldn’t attend the ceremony because his second trial began the following day. Less than two weeks later, Banton was found guilty of attempting to possess and distribute cocaine. On June 23, 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he remained until December 7, 2018, when he was released and deported to Jamaica.
Banton has yet to speak publicly about the circumstances that led to his criminal conviction and his time in prison. His silence on such serious life-altering events, coupled with his 10-year absence from a Jamaican stage, undoubtedly heightened the anticipation surrounding the Long Walk to Freedom concert. Banton’s dramatic—and contentious—career arc has rendered him a revolutionary to some, and a divisive figure to others.
The youngest of 15 children born to a street vendor mother, Banton’s coarse, unrelenting deejayed vocals—the Jamaican equivalent of rapping—and ferocious delivery took him to the pinnacle of dancehall superstardom in the early 1990s.
His 1994 song “Murderer,” written about the fatal shooting of his close friend and dancehall artist Panhead, as well as Kingston’s escalating gun crime, helped temporarily redirect dancehall reggae away from gangsterism, towards Rastafarianism-themed positive messages.
Banton’s 1995 album ‘Til Shiloh (Loose Cannon), widely considered his masterpiece, played a further role in shaping roots reggae for the 1990s and beyond. But Banton has also been a longstanding target for gay rights activists who were outraged by the lyrics to his song “Boom Bye Bye,” which advocated the killing of homosexuals.
Banton recorded “Boom Bye Bye” when he was 16, and he has explained that it was written about a specific incident in Jamaica: a pedophile’s abuse of a young boy. A translation of the song’s dense patois lyrics first surfaced around 1993, when Banton released Voice of Jamaica, his sole album for Mercury Records. He has apologized for the sentiments the song expressed and stopped performing it many years ago, yet it continued to impede his career, with protests resulting in concert cancellations as late as 2009.
Additional controversies surrounding Banton—from the videotape showing him tasting cocaine in a Florida warehouse and asking if there were more from his trial, to seizing the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography for his return concert—largely subsided as the concert date approached.
As fans arrived hours early to soak up the revelry amidst the Gargamel’s (as Banton is also known) long-awaited return, vendors lined the stadium’s entrance, selling snacks, soft drinks, Red Stripe beers, air horns and an assortment of memorabilia bearing Banton’s image.
New York City’s Bobby Konders and Jabba of Massive B Sound and Hot 97 (WQHT FM) set a fitting tone with their selections of 1980s and 1990s dancehall classics. The stadium was packed, nearly reaching its 35,000-person capacity as the 8 p.m. showtime drew closer.
Ticket prices ranged from $32 for bleacher seats up to $200 for the VIP section. Several opening acts were on the bill. Among those who fared best were singer Ghost, best known for his 1990s/early 2000s dancehall hits, but is truly a timeless entertainer; and vocal quartet L.U.S.T. who dazzled with exquisite harmonies; and the dynamic dancehall artist Sasco, who was mentored by Banton early in his career.
Young roots reggae star Chronixx seamlessly merged dancehall influences and roots reggae’s Rastafarianism-imbued messages as this decade’s embodiment of a musical path Banton helped pioneer in the mid-1990s. Most notable was veteran Rastafarian singer Cocoa Tea; unlike the other acts, he tailored his performance to the occasion. As he strode on stage, he adapted the words of his 1995 Rastafari anthem “Holy Mount Zion” to a welcome home song for Banton: “After eight years of incarceration Buju still stands strong/after eight years of incarceration, he finally gets to witness this long walk to freedom.”
Popular Jamaican radio personality Elyse Kelly of the island’s all-reggae station IRIE FM Radio (107.5 FM) introduced the artist as someone “who makes us laugh, he makes us cry, he makes us think as we take this long walk to freedom. From the chains of incarceration, we are celebrating liberty and freedom. Jamaica, the wait is over. Help us bring on stage Buju Banton and the Shiloh Band.” With that, attendees roared their approval and held their cellphones aloft, to capture historic images of Banton’s return to the stage.
Banton, resplendent in a white suit, his waist-length dreadlocks freely swinging, cut a striking figure. He opened his set with a prayer, chanting “Oh Lamb of God have mercy on me.” He closed his eyes and placed a hand on his forehead, as he dropped to his knees for greater emphasis.
For the next 90 minutes, Banton chose songs from his extensive catalog that helped convey the remarkable narrative that had led to this long-anticipated moment, which was best summed up by his first selection, “Not an Easy Road.” With the superb backing of the Shiloh Band, led by keyboardist Steven “Lenky” Marsden, Buju continued his reflective mood singing “Destiny,” “Close One Yesterday,” “Lord Give I Strength,” but also incorporated his kinetic dancehall brand with “Too Bad,” “Only Man,” and “Walk Like A Champion.”
Banton’s vigor was impressive throughout as he bounced, jumped, danced and kicked, working the stage as if he had never been away from it. His deep, distinctively granular voice has not yet been restored to its full capacity and too often he let his female backup trio, or even the audience, take over the vocals; however, there’s little doubt that the Voice of Jamaica will soon regain his optimal form.
Several of Buju’s collaborators also joined him on stage to celebrate his return. They included Marcia Griffiths, former member of Bob Marley’s I-Threes, whom Banton said he regarded as a mother; Wayne Wonder, with whom Banton performed the 1992 dancehall classic “Bona Fide Love” and one of Banton’s mentors; and singer Beres Hammond. Beres and Buju performed their exuberant ode to dancehall “Can You Play Some More,” and caused the already frenzied crowd to scream even louder when they sang each other’s verses on their 1992 hit, “Who Say?”
Banton had little to say about his incarceration except for counting down, to the second, the amount of time he was locked up, which served as the introduction to “Driver A.” Banton’s 2007 hit about a ganja dealer sending his driver to make a delivery in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, contains a somewhat prescient lyric, as he cautions his driver: “Just remember the damn speed limit cause if you run into the Feds, my friend, that is it.” For the time being, maybe that’s the only direct reference to his incarceration that Banton needs to make.