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"It's not an easy road
Many see the glamor and the glitter
So dem think it's a bed of rose
Who feels it knows
Lord help me sustain these blows..."
–Not An Easy Road, Buju Banton, 1995
By now most people within the reggae community and even some folks with only a minor interest in Jamaican music have heard about artist Mark "Buju Banton" Myrie's high profile December 2009 arrest in Tampa, Fl on conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilos of cocaine.
The arrest perplexed many of his longtime fans as Buju had not previously been linked publicly to hard drugs or serious crime. On the contrary, his albums, including the Grammy-nominated Rasta Got Soul, contained many conscious and universal themes that stressed forgiveness ("A Little Bit of Sorry") and helping others ("Lend A Hand.").
The timing of the arrest also elicited suspicion as Banton had just completed a contentious US national tour for the aforementioned album in which multiple shows were canceled or picketed by gay activists. Activists maintained that Buju had not firmly disavowed his 1992 single "Boom Bye Bye," which advocated murdering "batty bwoys" (Jamaican patois for gay men). However, since the singles' original release Buju lyrics -- at least on his recent internationally released albums -- had been evolving toward positive subjects. Still as of his 2009 tour, the singer had not made an unequivocal public statement supporting gay and lesbian human rights as demanded by advocates. Reggae performers have historically avoided such statements fearing damage to their public standing with core Jamaican audiences. And in response to continued disparaging lyrics by Jamaican artists, several European nations have now barred artists from performing.
Space doesn't allow for retelling Buju's entire biography or redemptive efforts. Needless to say, Banton's drug case caused some to wonder if his arrest was possibly the work of a vindictive gay US official wishing to punish the singer for his views by setting him up with a federal crime. This is not a plausible argument, however, as the Feds don't like losing a drug case and the time and money involved in conducting such a sting suggests that officials had been targeting Buju or his associates long before his '09 tour. Also, the case is being charged as a conspiracy, which suggests that the Feds intend to take down a network rather than an individual.
US Federal authorities claim they have Buju on camera tasting the cocaine he is alleged to have purchased for distribution. But subsequent evidence from Buju's defense has cast doubt on the credibility of the US govt.'s main witness and informant that set up the deal. Additionally, an Associated Press story states that "After two more meetings at local restaurants between the informant and Banton’s associates, authorities arrested the associates and then took Banton into custody Thursday in Miami." The wording is telling here. It suggests that Buju was merely a middle man or acquaintance of the intended buyers.
The charges against Banton alleges a conspiracy, meaning he could have played any major or minor role in the deal -- from lending money or a car to the buyers all the way up to making the deal himself. In the convoluted world of Jamaican ghetto life it is possible to imagine a scenario in which Buju was asked or coerced to do a "favor" for an "area Don," or Jamaican neighborhood leader. In such a case, Buju's refusal would have been considered an insult, putting his family or relatives at risk.
Another possible reason for Buju's arrest may have international implications. Since August 2009, US Federal authorities have been pressuring the Jamaican government to extradite suspected drugs trafficker Christopher "Dudus" Coke. Dudus, also known as "The President" is a strongman in the ruling Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) government's Tivoli Gardens constituency. JLP Prime Minister Bruce Golding has gone on record to state that he does not believe the US has provided sufficient evidence to support extradition. Some view Golding's efforts as nothing less than a corrupt effort to protect a politically important ally.
Like many a Jamaican drug Don before him, Dudus has been immortalized in songs and shielded by friends in high places. Dudus is the adopted son of former Tivoli don Lloyd Coke, a.k.a. "Jim Brown," leader of the Shower Posse, a gang associated with cocaine and crack dealing in the US in the 1980s. Brown allegedly died while in custody in Jamaica and never served time in US prison but his associate Vivian Blake did. Blake was paroled and sent back to Jamaica in 2009. For more, watch the video below.
Given the tense diplomatic row between the US and Jamaica it would not be a stretch to imagine the US turning up the heat by arresting or embarrassing one of Jamaica's major international reggae stars. However, its not clear if Buju was of any value to Golding's JLP or to Dudus. The US may have picked the wrong man to allegedly entrap. Recent news stories suggest some movement toward extradition on th part of the Golding government, amid considerable denials and shadowplay.
So is Buju just a pawn to get Dudus? And is Dudus a chess piece in the wider US war against Mexican and Colombian cartels, some which use Jamaica as a transhipment point for coke headed to the US and Europe? It seems many threads are left hanging from the US government's garments, ones that won't soon be tied together. Meanwhile, Buju remains incarcerated.
Banton has had a real mixed run of luck. He's nominated for Grammy the same year all of his major US shows are picketed. His tour ends on a high note in Miami at a major Caribbean festival, then he's arrested. Despite his best efforts and some great recordings, music has not been an easy road for Banton. Against the backdrop of an Obama administration that was supported by reggae artists such as Cocoa Tea ("Barack Obama") during the 2008 election campaign and who invited Ziggy Marley to perform at the White House, it seems Obama's drug prosecutors still have much to learn about Jamaica and its artists.