After spending the entirety of 2010 in bondage, Buju Banton freed himself up this past Martin Luther King Jr. weekend when he took the stage before a jubliant crowd at Bayfront Park Amphitheater in downtown Miami. "No one can ever lock away my spirit," the embattled reggae star told Miami's New Times in a cover story titled "Free The General" that hit stands last week. "There are many people that want to see me down... By the grace of the Almighty, you can lock me up physically, but spiritually I am free."
The long-awaited "Before The Dawn" concert took its name from Buju's latest Grammy-nominated album, a CD with an all-black cover, released during some of the artist's darkest days. (He was arrested in December 2009 on drug-trafficking and weapons charges, but the problematic case resulted in a mistrial, and will be retried next month.) Although he's been out of jail and living with his family on house arrest since November 2010, Buju had not seen his fans—or vice versa—in over a year. The court rejected his first request to put on a show, but his attorneys appealed, pointing out that their client must be allowed to earn a living.
Days before the big concert, Miami’s Mix 96 FM seemed to have morphed into the BBC (Buju Broadcasting Corporation) digging deep into The Banton’s catalog, from his latest—"Jah knows I’m innocent"—all the way back through Til Shiloh days to the early '90s era of Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention. As showtime drew near, the station was swamped with calls from fans who'd flown in from all over the world to see The Gargamel’s first live performance since late 2009, when he was first taken into custody. While his future still hangs in the balance, January 16th was all about celebrating his triumphant return of one of reggae's most powerful performers.
The crowd began filling the park from 5pm, rocking to the sounds of Everton Blender, Richie Loops, and Nadine Sutherland, who revisited some of her hot collabos with Buju. Every artist on the star-studded lineup seemed to recognize the enormity of the situation, selecting their songs carefully, delivering each lyric with heightened feeling on a night that was quite literally history in the making. Reggae legend Freddie McGregor got the crowd singing "freedom is a must" when he performed his classic "Prophecy," and Mykal Roze closed his set with a line from his latest hit, "Stronger": "Any time you knock me down I get stronger and stronger." Even Shaggy's pop confection "It Wasn't Me" packed a little extra punch.
"A good vibes—strength between artist and artist," said roots reggae singer Tarrus Riley, who blessed the crowd with "Beware" and "She's Royal" before his musical director, sax virtuoso Dean "Cannon" Fraser, played some of the Banton's gruff melodies on his golden horn. "Ever since Buju's been in his little problem, Dean and I have been doing his song 'Untold Stories' as part of our live sets, just to show support for our brother," Riley revealed. "Dem man deh inspire we a whole lot coming up."
Surprise guest Sean Paul thrilled the crowd with a high-energy set that included chart-topping hits like "Temperature" and "Get Busy." Then he brought in Spragga Benz for a sneak attack, and the turbaned DJ's fiery rhetoric stoked the crowd ever hotter. Finally DJ Khaled and Busta Rhymes—both of whom have recorded with Buju in the past—stepped up to rep for their comrade. Khaled roared "All I do is win win win," and Miami's hands went up for the man of the hour.
Buju began singing long before he took the stage, his unmistakably rough-textured vocals eliciting screams throughout the darkened arena. After touching a piece of his rousing new song "In The Air," he launched into "Destiny," a sufferer's anthem from Buju's classic album Inna Heights. By the time the tall, dreadlocked deejay finally strode into the spotlight wearing black trousers and vest and a ruffled white shirt, Bayfront Park was in an uproar. Though he showed no signs of rustiness, the deejay seemed less concerned with hyping up the crowd than with enjoying himself, bouncing and skanking to extended dubs laid down by the rock-solid Shiloh Band. [PHOTOS HERE] When they played the first strains of "Untold Stories" the audience took over, singing every word as Buju fell back, savoring the moment.
"People take artists for granted all the time," said Marcia Griffiths as she hung out backstage in a mellow mood, waiting for her time to perform. Reggae's first lady—a major star in her own right and a former member of Bob Marley's world-famous background trio, The I Three—wore a beautiful flowing dress emblazoned with the Tuff Gong's face. When she joined Buju onstage, he embraced her warmly and they sang a song called "Live On," which Marcia recorded with Buju's musical mentor, soul reggae balladeer Beres Hammond (who was unable to attend the show). "And when we're old and gray, we'll still feel this way," Buju and Marcia sang, holding hands. "Never have to worry. Live on."
Stephen "Ragga" Marley—who anted up his own Florida home last year to secure Buju's quarter-million-dollar bail—strolled onstage to sing his father's classic song "Duppy Conqueror," which almost seemed to have been written for the occasion. "Yes me friend, me deh pon street again," Ragga and Buju sang, pumping fists in the sky. "Yes me friend, them turn me loose again. The bars could not hold me. Force could not control me. But through the powers of the Most High, they've got to turn me loose." Jr. Gong rushed onstage with dreadlocks flying, boosting up the energy on "Traffic Jam" as he asserted defiantly that "Natty dreadlocks no wear handcuff." The Marley brothers closed out with "Jah Army," a cut from Stephen's next album set to Black Uhuru's General Penitentiary riddim. The blistering verse that Buju laid down for the "Jah Army" remix is one of the first recordings he made since being released from jail. Though most of the audience had never heard the tune, Buju's passionate delivery moved the crowd.
When the Shiloh Band dropped the "Real Rock" riddim, Buju called on Wayne Wonder—the dancehall singer who catapaulted him in the limelight some 20 years ago by calling him onstage at Sting—to sing their dubplate classic "Forever Young / Test We Now." They followed that up with the smash hit "Movie Star," which Buju and his backing vocalists transformed into a dramatic set-piece about his current predicament:
"Why dem wan' see Buju Banton cry?" he asked and his harmony section replied: I don't know why.
"Is it because of 'Boom Bye Bye'?" he mused, referring to the infamous "batty boy" tune that he's never quite lived down after two decades.
I don't know why.
"Is it because they cannot fight I?"
I don't know why.
"Is it because I’m black but not shy?"
I don't know why.
"Is it because I say Selassie I?"
I don't know why.
After a few more classics—"Love Sponge" and "Murderer" and "Til I'm Laid To Rest"—the night ended with a prayer as Gramps Morgan joined Buju to sing a soaring rendition of "Psalms 23." And then it was time for the final guest stars of the night: Banton's attorneys, who took the stage in "Free Buju" T-shirts. He urged the crowd to cheer for the men working to bring him back to the stage again as soon as humanly possible. But as he exited stage right, flanked by his legal counsel, it was painfully clear that Buju Banton still has many rivers to cross. —Rob Kenner