By M. Peggy Quattro and Halcyone Hoagland
With more than 20 years as a Reggae music icon, Rasta Dancehall performer and five-time Grammy nominee Buju Banton has no shortage of true friends, as in those who are there for you in your greatest time of need. The all-star line-up of artists, media professionals from around the world, and all-around “top-shottas” of Jamaican entertainment gathered together inside Miami’s Bayfront Amphitheater were just that—Buju’s nearest and dearest. Surrounded by those who have mentored and been mentored by him, Buju gave thanks for fans and friends who have clearly given him tremendous strength and support during the challenges of the past year.
As Buju awaits retrial in February 2011, Reggae Report caught up with Buju’s attorney, David Oscar Markus, at a quick briefing inside the press tent. Markus has successfully defended several cases in the state of Florida and remains optimistic about the outcome of the case. “Buju is positive…most people would have crumbled by now” he remarked. “It’s very hard to fight the government, very difficult.” He added that they are trying to say Buju Banton is a drug dealer, and “Buju is no drug dealer.”
Ras Michael and the Nyabinghi Drummers set the evening’s tone with Rasta chants invoking the spirit and blessings of the Most High. With a certain reverence in the air, guest artists took the stage one by one: Richie Loop, Everton Blender, Nadine Sutherland, Freddie McGregor, Wayne Wonder, Mykal (Michael) Rose, Gyptian, Sean Paul and Spragga Benz, Tarrus Riley (who did some hilarious impersonations of Buju and had Dean Fraser mocking Buju’s voice with the his sax), Shaggy with Rayvon and Serani, Gramps Morgan, and Miami’s own DJ Khaled, who brought Ace Hood, Rich Kid, and surprise guest Busta Rhymes. Each one echoed their sole purpose for being there—to provide support, strength, and to build solidarity as a community. Hit after hit, the program grew in steady anticipation of Buju’s arrival.
The Rockers Island and Gargamel Music production was seamlessly rehearsed and produced, with significant sponsorship presence by Jamaica Observer, LIME Jamaica, and Boom Energy Drink. The video monitor that hung high above the rafters of the Amphitheater provided amazingly clear and accurate images of the stage show to an estimated 10,000+ capacity crowd. Lime Jamaica provided live coverage to its thousands of mobile subscribers and the show was broadcast on Buju’s website. Due to technical difficulties, much of the show was not received by fans that paid $25 to watch the historical event unfold. (However, each paying guest received a full presentation of the show by week’s end.)
As the show progressed, many artists inside the press tent echoed the same supportive tone. Everton Blender said, “Mi never leave Buju out of mi thoughts. If him come out and him want Blender, mi a go lend mi help.” Freddie McGregor noted Buju’s sense of focus in his music and his increased artistry throughout the drama. Nadine called Buju a brother, “and wi mus’ help our brother.”
Where they could, artists transformed their lyrics to suit the occasion and show unity for Buju. Wayne Wonder’s “Informer,” Michael Rose’s “Stronger,” Shaggy’s take on the Jamaican folk song “Dis Long Time Gal (Buju we nuh see yuh),” and Serani “Disease Heart” (Dem nuh really wan see Buju reach far). Gyptian’s “Serious Times” had the crowd singing verbatim, “This is seven times rise, and seven times fall, but Buju doh believe in the falling t’ings at all.” As if the lineup were not star-studded enough, Beenie Man, Vybz Kartel, Luciano, and Bounty Killa were all willing to appear on the show but unable to get visas.
Appropriately, veteran IRIE-fm radio personality and Rasta Queen Elise Kelly had the honor of introducing the final act of the evening. Minutes before 10 p.m., from inside the darkness, the park lit only by lighters and cell phones, we could hear that legendary voice. Buju’s deep throaty growl was heard reciting a spiritual hymn, which he wrote while in prison, called “Mercy.” A dramatic lyrical testimony to what the past year has brought for the artist. Buju Banton then entered through center stage, into the loving light, looking fit, healthy, and impeccably dressed in dark pants, vest and crisp white shirt. He raised his hand to salute his loving fans while singing a bit of “In the Air” before launching into “Destiny,” his hit song off the CD Inna Heights (1999).
Following “Not an Easy Road” and “Close One Yesterday,” he finally addressed the crowd. He said thank you to all the loyal fans and friends for their love and support, and for sticking with him throughout the turbulent times. He spoke of the empathy and compassion he had to find for his downpressors. Standing firm in his innocence, he told the crowd that they were not “stupid,” not “ignorant,” and not “dumb,” and urged people to discern for themselves “what is going on.” He encouraged fans to remember that in the [Babylon] struggle, “we are all together.”
From the very depths of his being, Buju gave the performance of his life. He sounded and performed like never before. His unique prancing and bending forward and backward had his long locks flying; soon the vest was gone and the shirttail came out as his boundless energy poured forth.
His Shiloh band, consisting of Mitchum “Khan” Chin—guitar; Stephen DePass—bass; Frank Burt—bass; Basil “Prince” Shirley—drums; Courtney Sinclair—keyboards; and ably led by keyboardist/producer Steven “Lenky” Marsden, were super tight despite nearly one year of not performing with Buju. Following one compact week of rehearsals, Shiloh and the three extraordinary back up singers—Nikki Burt, Althea Layne Hamilton and Carol Ann Dexter—sounded like a symphony as Buju unleashed a string of his signature tunes, including “I Rise,” “Untold Story,” “Up Close and Personal,” and “Innocent” from the new Before the Dawn CD (2010).
Moving on to “Champion,” “Sleepless Nights,” and “I Wanna be Loved,” Buju’s voice never cracked, never faltered, his amazing artistry shining bright for nearly one and a half hours before inviting his mentor, Marcia Griffiths, to the stage. He shared her advice with the crowd—“Be careful what you say in the music…sometimes these things take on life like a real person.” Appearing grateful, emotional, as Marcia came out, they tenderly embraced before launching into the popular “Live On” and their huge hit “Closer.” In tribute to Beres Hammond’s influence in his life, and because Beres could not make the show due to Rebel Salute, Buju performed “Falling in Love,” and their massive hit “Pull It Up.” “Beres is one of my mentors,” said Buju, “he means so much to me…I miss him so much.”
After thanking his fans again, emotions ran even higher when good friend Stephen Marley joined Buju on stage to perform “Duppy Conqueror” (Yes mi fren’, mi good fren’, mi deh pon street again…But t’ru deh powers of deh Most High, dem got to turn mi loose) during the last segment of the show. Stephen went into “Traffic Jam,” where Buju jokingly remarked, “If you are deh herbsman, I am deh farmer,” and the two icons drew brother Damian “Jr Gong” Marley on stage to finish the song. The trio then performed “Jah Army,” playing off each other’s energy and captivating the crowd. Wayne Wonder, the man Buju said is responsible for introducing “Gargamel” on stage in 1990 and writer of his many early hits, joined him for “Forever Young” and “I Don’t Know Why.” Buju then addressed his situation by asking his fans, “Why dem want to see Buju Banton cry? Is it because of Boom Bye Bye? Is it because they could not bribe I? Is it because I’m black but not shy?” Is it because I say Selassie I? The crowd roared!
Then Buju launched into a set of clips from his classics, including “Love Sponge,” “Too Bad,” “Murderer,” “Till I’m Laid to Rest,” “Batty Rider,” the emotional “Hills and Valleys,” “One to One,” “Batty Rider,” and “Driver A” (where the crowd went mad!)
As the show was in the beginning, so it was in the end. Gramps Morgan was invited back on stage to join Buju for “The 23rd Psalm,” a stirring spiritual duet the two recorded for Buju’s Unchained Spirit CD (2000). (It´s so good to praise…to praise the Most High Jah… The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not want… Goodness and mercy all my life…shall surely follow me… And in Jah’s house…forever more my dwelling place must be.)
For two solid hours, Buju’s presentation was unwavering and untiring. He combined unforgettable performances with intimate conversation directed at his faithful fans. At 11:58 p.m., in the last remaining moments of this meaningful and significant show, Buju brought Attorneys David Markus and Mark Seitles on stage and thanked them for “fighting with me.” He put his arm around Markus’s shoulders and said to the crowd, “Nuh watch him skin color, him blacker than wi…Believe mi!” In parting, a spiritually, emotionally, and physically exhausted Buju, braced by the trusted Markus, said “Good-bye…” then shouted, “Miami, I love you!” and left history and his adoring fans behind. The venue went dark, and together they walked off toward a hopeful yet uncertain future.
Link to photos:
Link to videos:
Link to quick interview with Tracii McGregor, Buju’s manager, backstage, prior to Buju’s performance: