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Buju Banton: Pay the Price

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Reggae/dancehall star Buju Banton will perform his first concert following his release from prison on March 16, 2019 at the National Stadium, Kingston, Jamaica. Banton and his 10-piece Shiloh Band will perform a 90-minute set at the Long Walk to Freedom concert, presented by Miami-based Best of the Best Productions and Kingston’s Solid Agency. Joseph “Joey Budafuco” Louis of Rockers Island Entertainment, the promoters of Miami’s annual reggae concert extravaganza Best of the Best, and XO Management shared the details exclusively with Billboard in a recent phone conversation from Jamaica.  

The Jamaica concert will be the first performance for Banton, 45, who spent nearly eight years at the McRae Correctional Institution in Georgia, since headlining the Buju Banton and Friends Before The Dawn event at Miami’s Bayfront Park Amphitheater on Jan. 16, 2011. Banton’s Miami concert, presented by Rockers Island Entertainment, notably took place while Banton was out on bail after spending 11 months behind bars. The event attracted over 10,000 patrons with an additional 360,000 watching the live stream, according to Dianne Bissoon, former vp of TV and Entertainment LIME TV, the concert’s streaming partner. In Dec. 2009, Buju, born Mark Anthony Myrie, was arrested at his Tamarac, Florida home for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine; he posted bail with the help of his friend Stephen Marley who put up his Miami home as collateral. Stephen and younger brother Damian Marley were a part of the Miami concert’s stellar reggae lineup, which also included dancehall superstars Sean Paul and Shaggy, singers Tarrus Riley and Michael Rose, longstanding Buju collaborators Wayne Wonder and Marcia Griffiths, with a brief appearance by DJ Khaled.

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On Feb. 13, 2011, Banton’s Before The Dawn (released on his Gargamel Music label) won the best reggae album Grammy. Banton was unable to attend the ceremony: his trial began the following day in Tampa, FL. On Feb. 22, Banton was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense and using communication wires to facilitate a drug-trafficking offense. Four months later Banton was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

The embattled artist was returned home to Jamaica to great fanfare on the evening of Dec. 7, 2018. Short video clips of a bespectacled, slightly heavier, smiling Banton, walking through the corridors of Kingston’s Norman Manley Airport surrounded by well-wishers, were shared across social media.

“The energy and support Buju has received from fans and other artists in Jamaica has been amazing, people are happy he’s home and he’s excited to return to performing,” comments Joey Budafuco who is also a part of Banton’s management team. “We are still planning The Long Walk to Freedom (named after Nelson Mandela’s autobiography) concert in Kingston, which will only have three or four opening acts because we want Buju to have ample time for his set.” Banton has also established a nonprofit, the Lend A Hand Foundation, which will assist the needs of at-risk children. “A portion of the proceeds from Buju’s Kingston show will go to his foundation and on his (upcoming) Caribbean dates, we will align with nonprofits in each island, with part proceeds going to those (respective) organizations and Lend A Hand,” Budafuco added.

Raised in extremely humble circumstances Buju rose to prominence in the early ’90s as a brash, teenage dancehall sensation known for his ferocious, raspy vocal tone. His debut album Mr. Mention (Penthouse Records) broke sales records in Jamaica. Mercury Records A&R Lisa Cortes signed Banton after watching his performance at Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash 1992. That same year, Jamaica’s Prime Minister at the time, PJ Patterson, had missed Banton’s Thursday night performance at Sunsplash. When the Patterson entourage arrived on Friday night, a request was sent to singer Beres Hammond, who was on stage at the time, to interrupt his set and let Banton perform. The singer obliged and Banton delivered a few songs including his hit duet with Hammond “Who Say.” The Prime Minister was pleased, the audience ecstatic and Banton became Jamaica’s most talked about artist.

Buju’s renown grew internationally with the release of his Mercury Records debut Voice of Jamaica, which, reflective of its title, touched on personal, social, and cultural themes and reached the lower rungs of the Billboard 200, as did Banton’s 1995 masterpiece ‘Til Shiloh. A missive of his newfound Rastafarian way ‘Til Shiloh(for Cortes’ Loose Canon Imprint) brilliantly united dancehall’s energy with roots reggae’s spiritual sensibilities.

Amidst the critical acclaim Banton received in the U.S., controversy ensued. The dense patois rhymes of a song Banton recorded when he was 15 and never intended for release, “Boom Bye Bye,” had been decoded as virulently homophobic. Banton explained that the song was written about a specific situation in Jamaica — a pedophile’s abuse of a young boy. Nonetheless the firestorm has followed Banton throughout his career with gay rights groups’ protests resulting in numerous show and tour cancellations.

Following an absence of eight years from the industry, Buju Banton’s 2019 homecoming concert marks a new chapter in his nearly 30-year career, and perhaps will include some new music written in his time away. “Buju is back and that means a lot for reggae,” Buju’s keyboardist and musical director Stephen “Lenky” Marsden, who began working with Banton in 1995, told Billboard. In preparation for the Long Walk to Freedom concert in Kingston (and subsequent tour dates) the Shiloh Band has begun their rehearsals with just one directive from Banton. “Buju told me, Lenky, make sure you know all my songs. He told us to rehearse all of his albums, so we are working out the arrangements for every song he ever recorded. I know his sound from way back, so it’s really up to me to make sure the sound is right, mainly, that the grooves that the (new) drummer is playing are up to par,” he continued. “All of us are listening to Buju’s albums and concerts from way back so that we get it right and from there we will put a set list together. It will be a great show by a great artist who people have been waiting for a very long time to see again.”

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