Reggae star Buju Banton’s long walk to freedom

What the Grammy winner's case reveals about the U.S. justice system and the moral panic of the war on drugs

Published March 24, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Buju Banton performs at the Benefit Party after the NY Benefit Premiere of 'The Agronomist' on April 13, 2004 in New York City. (Getty/Scott Eells)
Buju Banton performs at the Benefit Party after the NY Benefit Premiere of 'The Agronomist' on April 13, 2004 in New York City. (Getty/Scott Eells)

In more than two decades of covering reggae shows, I have never — as I did last weekend — seen a Caribbean crowd so big line up so early for a concert. Some 35,000 people began descending on Kingston’s National Stadium well before sunset on March 16 with all the zealous fervor of those making a holy pilgrimage. Who, after all, dared be late for what was being called the reggae event of the century: the return of Buju Banton‚ a Grammy Award-winning artist with more number one singles than Bob Marley, to the stage after nearly eight years of incarceration in the U.S. on federal drug charges?

The deafening sounds of horns and cheers when Banton emerged on stage — clad in white, dreadlocks pirouetting behind him — were otherworldly. But they were fast drowned out by that voice: the one known as the “voice of Jamaica,” capable of sounding soothing as a lover’s, wrathful as a prophet’s, frisky as a naughty teenager’s. Throughout, that voice sounded a bit husky but still immaculate — almost as if it had never left the stage.

Such was the overall feeling of the exuberant show, the opening of Banton’s Long Walk to Freedom Tour — named after the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years behind bars in South Africa — which will take Banton across the Caribbean and into Europe. It was as if the past decade had never happened; indeed, besides a few offhand mentions of incarceration and one of “bondage,” Banton never addressed the past at all, and in fact said very little to the audience, an unusual move from a Rastafarian artist who once peppered his shows with sermons about the ills of the world.

Instead, he preached through music. He delightfully and vigorously fed us with nostalgia, serving up both reggae and dancehall hits, from “Destiny” and “Not an Easy Road” to “Champion.” Joined onstage by an array of special guests like Beres Hammond and Gramps Morgan, Banton sang every song as if it were the first time, as if to declare once and for all that Buju is not only back, but his fans had better act like he had never left at all.

It was a fitting culmination to years of absence followed by months of build-up, which went into high gear on December 7, 2018, when the 45-year-old artist born Mark Myrie was released from  McRae Correctional Institution in Georgia. The Guardian dubbed his arrival that day the most eagerly awaited in Jamaica since Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie touched down in 1966, and social media was ablaze. “Today is a glorious day," Diddy wrote on Instagram, posting a video of the reggae artist and dubbing him “king.”

Buju took to social media too, granting no interviews and instead electing to address his fans directly via Instagram. “Eighty-six months of chains is finally over,” he said in a video clip. “I’ve deliberately kept my silence so I could observe with my own eyes what is going on, not only locally, but globally. How are you? I am ready for you, are you ready for me? We have nuff things to talk bout.”

Nuff people, meanwhile, were talking. Buju fast became a text onto which Jamaican talking heads foisted their ideas about crime, justice and morality. Former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson expressed full support for the artist, while Health Minister Dr. Christopher Tufton voiced disappointment because he felt “the messaging surrounding the [concert] . . . should be used as a cry for Jamaicans to put down drugs.”

University of the West Indies professor Carolyn Cooper scoffed at such notions in an interview with The Gleaner, a daily newspaper based in Kingston. “Instead of pressuring Buju, the minister needs to focus on speeding up the decriminalization of ganja,” she said. “It’s not the small farmers who are going to profit from the eventual decriminalization of ganja. It’s the same high-ups who run tings and don’t give a damn about morality.”

Jamaican historian Rupert Lewis, meanwhile, honed in on the tour name, recoiling at the notion that Mandela’s time in prison as a freedom fighter belonged in the same breath as Buju’s lockup on drug charges. Such a notion is close to blasphemy, he huffed to the Gleaner.

Is it?

It’s worth stepping back to consider this question, because it touches on much more than just music. A big-picture look at Buju’s quite complex case, and now his concert, is profoundly revealing about the U.S. criminal justice system and the meaning of justice itself.

The narrative that led Banton to his cell in McRae Correctional began in July 2009, on a flight from Madrid to Miami. As best reported in a 2012 Miami New Times article, Banton sat on the plane beside a man named Alex Johnson, and the two men become fast friends and boisterous airplane drinking buddies. Many sips in, they began “trying to impress each other," as Banton later put it in court. Johnson claimed to be a Colombian “transporter” moving masses of drugs and money to the U.S. Banton boasted of links to Caribbean drug traffickers. As the two deplaned in Miami, they exchanged information and planned to meet up again.

They did, thanks to Johnson’s persistence. Over the next five months he called Buju dozens of times and invited him out; on the occasions when Buju accepted the invitation — much more often, he said he was working or too tired — the drug deal talk grew more and more outsized. Nothing came of it, and yet still Johnson did not let up. In December 2009, he called Banton and insisted that he’d flown into town exclusively to see the singer, and so Banton must finally visit his boat in Sarasota. Banton obliged, taking his friend Ian Thomas with him. On arrival, though, they were detoured by Johnson to a warehouse containing 20 plastic-wrapped kilos of cocaine.

The video footage of this warehouse meeting went viral because it contained the unthinkable: Here was the man known as the “Voice of Jamaica,” the great Rastafarian musical icon, tasting cocaine. Importantly, though, that was all he did. The deal brokered was between Thomas, Johnson and a man named James Mack; Thomas would make $10,000 and Buju would make nothing. But that deal never happened. On the day it was meant to go down, police stormed the warehouse and arrested Mack and Thomas, while Banton was arrested at his home.

Johnson turned out to be a confidential informant working for the DEA, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. While Banton’s links to drug kingpins were never verified, Johnson was in fact telling the truth about his Colombian connections: A former transporter for Colombian cartels known as "El Gordo,” Johnson was nabbed by U.S. authorities in 1993. He knocked decades off his sentence by becoming an informant. The whole Buju ordeal was a setup for which Johnson — who earned more as an informant than he ever did as a drug trafficker (reportedly some $3.5 million by the time he helped bust Buju) — was paid $50,000.

"I'm here today for running my mouth," Banton said at his trial. "I'm an innocent man." U.S. District Court Judge James Moody told jurors that it was more complex than that: Even if Banton "played only a minor part in the plan" but "willfully joined in the plan on at least one occasion, that's sufficient for you to find the defendant guilty," he explained.

But, Moody added, "if there is a reasonable doubt about whether the defendant was willing to commit the crime without the persuasion of [the] government . . .  then you must find the defendant not guilty." The first trial in 2010 was declared a mistrial after the jury could not agree on a verdict, but in a second trial the next year, 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. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, subsequently reduced to eight years after the judge dismissed the gun charge.

Banton’s case lays bare on so many levels problems within the U.S. justice system, starting with the government’s reliance on what can only be called professional snitches. A 2016 report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General ripped into the DEA’s confidential-source program, saying it “exposes the DEA to an unacceptably increased potential for waste, fraud, and abuse.” The numbers are stunning: The DEA paid one source $30 million over a 30-year period, nine people $25 million during a five-year period, and one airline employee over $600,000 in under four years.

“Law enforcement agencies are spending millions of dollars on confidential informant programs, and Congress does not have any information on who these informants are, if they committed any crimes, and whether they have been properly vetted,” U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch said in response to the report. “There is no accountability, because it’s a cash business.”

A business indeed — much like the U.S. justice system as a whole, which, as Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson has famously said, “treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” The outlandish fees paid to informants — a program that defies morality by creating incentives for illegal entrapment, and is jarringly hypocritical by employing the very people it seeks to condemn — are perfectly in line with the U.S.’s longtime approach to substance abuse, which boils down to the War on Drugs, a tactic so hysterical it actually criminalizes conversing. A man who actually committed crimes was paid tens of thousands to secure the imprisonment of a man who simply talked about them. But in a culture operating under the blinding sway of a moral panic, which is the climate created by an ineffective, illogical War on Drugs, talk is not cheap. It is paid for in years of a person's life.

Meanwhile, those who did walk the walk — Thomas and Mack, who attempted to go through with the deal — did less time than Banton. They took plea bargains and ended up with four and six years, respectively.

Here, too, is an atrocity that has become the new normal: justice as a matter of bargaining and negotiating, or a game of “let’s make a deal.”

According to legal scholar William J. Stuntz in the Atlantic, before the 1960s, between one-fourth and one-third of state felony charges led to a trial, compared to just one-twentieth today. On average, 94 percent of state-level felony convictions are the result of plea bargains, as are 97 percent of federal convictions. For local and national organizations like The Bail Project and the Vera Institute, who are taking on the U.S.’s swelling jail population, this results in poor, often innocent people pleading guilty out of sheer desperation. It’s worth noting too that this is not just the American way anymore. Via the Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development and Assistance and Training, the U.S. is avidly training other countries in this art, guided by the notion that plea bargains — instead of policy change, especially around drug laws — are the answer to clogged justice systems.

Speaking of U.S. exports, Banton is now one of them: a deportee, one of more than 256,000 people banished from the U.S. in fiscal year 2018. At one point in his sentence, the artist begged for early deportation but was, like thousands of foreign-born incarcerated people who make such appeals each year, denied. I wrote about the illogic of this almost a decade ago in the Huffington Post. On one hand, I wrote, the process of deportation is a callous disclaimer — “you didn’t make the cut, so you’re no longer one of us.” But when it comes to foreign-born individuals in the criminal justice system, we don’t just deport; often, we first incarcerate, which is just the opposite. It's a claim of responsibility: “But wait, we want to redeem you.” It’s as perverse as a parent first harshly grounding a misbehaving teen and then tossing her out of the house.

The demand that foreign-born people serve out their full sentences before deportation stretches back to the notorious 1917 Immigration Act that also made alcoholics and “feeble-minded persons” inadmissible to the U.S. As much as the law claimed to want to rid America of foreign “undesirables,” it nonetheless insisted on trapping the most impeachable among them — the law-violators — on its territory. What zealous urge could have possibly trumped America’s colorful history of xenophobia? Not a commitment to correction but a longstanding lust for retribution, an incarceration addiction that makes America, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, see prison as “a remedy for all the evils of society.” And to be locked up for years, then banished from family and “homeland,” amounts to a double dose of revenge — one for which U.S. taxpayers literally carry the cost.

With all of this in mind, the Mandela-Banton comparison becomes less of a stretch. Banton fell victim to systemic injustice masquerading as a justice system. He became a statistic: another black man in prison in the U.S., another person who grew up in poverty and landed behind bars, another member of the New Jim Crow, another deportee. These life interruptions are not accidents — they are deliberate manifestations of embedded racism and inequality, actively produced by political systems and structures. And that means that in almost all contexts, and certainly in the U.S., there is a simple truth: all prisoners are political.

Buju Banton, of course, is not Nelson Mandela. Nor is he, as many of us see it, off the hook. Ten years ago when he tasted cocaine in a Florida warehouse, he let the millions of us who held him in the highest esteem as a musical leader down. As I read about the case and listened to the recorded conversations, taking in Buju’s brute talk of women and his hyper-masculine, almost embarrassing, boasts about moving kilos, I was viscerally pained. I found it impossible to reconcile the person engaged in such ignorant talk with the prophetic figure I have seen onstage dozens of times, carrying us to higher heights.

Last Saturday in Kingston, standing so close to Buju I could track his every facial expression, I was again carried to such heights. It was nothing short of blissful, and I was not the only one shedding tears of joy. But because I grapple every day with deeper issues about justice, I was also intellectually processing Buju’s every move.

His grand stage entrance — something fans have been waiting a decade to see — was not the bombastic display I expected. Instead, he took to the stage slowly and quietly, intoning a prayer: “Oh Lamb of God, have mercy on me.” As the crowd roared and the lighters flared, he kneeled before his audience and faced us, on bended knee, in pristine all-white attire that connoted purity and atonement. This seemed a stunning statement of remorse and vulnerability, the presentation of a person who was not the braggadocious wheeler-dealer I’d cringed while listening to on government-recorded phone calls, but a humble man saying something tremendous: “I am sorry.”

Does he owe us this apology? I say yes. I grasp that there is Buju Banton and there is Mark Myrie. There is art and there is reality, and this is just music. But it is also reggae music, a genre with a birthright of substance and struggle and One Love, and a spiritual anchoring that elevates it above being just music. Call me an idealist, but I hold reggae and therefore reggae artists to a certain standard. By allowing his private misdeeds to sully his public role as a reggae prophet whose onus it is to awaken us, Buju Banton did not live up to that standard.

At the same time, as Buju segued into his dancehall songs — including his massive hit “Driver,” about marijuana dealing — I conceded that the man is also just a man, entitled to his foibles. And to his duality, something he has long manifested as both a conscious reggae artist and a dancehall artist, never shying away from what Jamaicans call slackness, or lyrical mischief. Still he drew the line here too, electing not to perform one of his most famous dancehall songs, “Boom Bye Bye,” which has long been interpreted as violently homophobic. (It’s important to note that Banton recorded this song when he was 15, never intended it for release, and maintains that it is about a specific pedophile case in Jamaica.)

I admit that yes, I was hungry for more words from Buju: about his prison time and really, the state of his heart and mind after so many years in the belly of the beast. But as someone who works every day with people coming home from prison — people for whom there are obstacles at every turn, who are given barely a second to get their lives back in order, let alone face the mountains of trauma compounded by years of brutal punishment — I am also mindful of manifesting patience, understanding and love. I was more than happy with the most important thing of all: a gesture of apology.

A true “sorry,” though, is an action word, shored up by attempts to repair the harm caused. And the whole of Buju’s stunning Long Walk to Freedom Tour opening show was just that. Not only did he literally give back — a portion of the proceeds from all the Caribbean shows will go to nonprofit organizations — but he gave back the most vital thing of all: Buju Banton. He did something all formerly incarcerated people deserve the privilege of doing: Serving your best self to the world, not being forced talk about your past but instead blessing us with the gift of a positive present.

And that ultimately paints a picture of what another sort of justice — restorative, not punitive — looks like. Whom did it benefit to have Banton behind bars for almost a decade? I thought, as Buju closed out the show. If anything, it cased further harm, to the 17 children he left behind and to the pockets of U.S. taxpayers, who covered the literal costs of his incarceration. Whom can it benefit — and continue to benefit — to have him onstage living out his calling, moving us to consciousness as the reggae prophet that he is? All of us, from Jamaica to the world, each and every day that he is free.

By Baz Dreisinger

Dr. Baz Dreisinger is a professor at John Jay College, the author of "Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World," the founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline movement, and the Executive Director of the Incarceration Nations Network.

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