“My destination is homeward bound,” sang Buju Banton on stage at Jamaica’s National Stadium in the heart of Kingston. “Though forces try hold I down. Breaking chains has become the norm. I know I must get through no matter what a gwaan.” As the Grammy-winning reggae icon performed his song “Destiny,” a hit single from the 1997 album Inna Heights, the words took on added resonance due to the enormity of the occasion—a homecoming celebration for a living legend who’d been gone too long.
A crowd of more than 30,000 turned out to watch Buju launch his Long Walk To Freedom tour, named after Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. After much anticipation and speculation, Buju’s first performance since being released from federal prison in the U.S. could not have been held in a more fitting location. Jamaica’s National Stadium was the same place where Mandela addressed the people of Jamaica during his first visit to the island in July of 1991. Prior to Buju Banton, no other Jamaican artist headlined this prestigious venue since Bob Marley performed here at the One Love Peace Concert on April 22, 1978—when the Tuff Gong brought rival political leaders together onstage, demonstrating the power of reggae music.
“It was epic to see the amount of people that came to the stadium,” said dancehall superstar Sean Paul after the Buju show. “With Usain Bolt or with our football team, when the stadium is full we don’t see the field full as well. So to see that for one person—that was really amazing.”
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This historic performance was not the first time Buju ever appeared at the National Stadium. In December 1991 the rising dancehall star Wayne Wonder called out the tall, skinny, short-haired 18-year-old as a surprise guest during his own set on Sting, the annual Boxing Day stage show. “Nobody knew Buju,” recalls Donovan Germaine of Penthouse Records, who produced Buju’s early hits “Love Me Browning” and “Love Black Woman,” both of which were featured on his classic 1992 album Mr. Mention. “They heard the song but they had never seen him, so Wayne Wonder brought him onstage at Sting and then the world saw Buju Banton.”
That quick set back in 1991 was a mere glimpse of the greatness to come, and nearly three decades later the artist had come full circle. Witnessing Buju run through highlights of his extensive catalog backed by the 10-piece Shiloh Band left no question that one of reggae’s greatest artists was back in top form. Dressed in full white, Buju commanded the audience’s attention like no other act before him. Having given no official public appearances, interviews, and only a handful of statements on social media since his return home last December, Buju had the audience hanging on his every word. For many Buju fans, missing this once-in-a-lifetime event would be inexcusable.
Celebrities and music lovers alike snapped up all available plane tickets and flew in from all corners of the globe, creating a “Buju Boost” to the local economy. Jamaica’s ministry of tourism reported a 143 percent increase in arrivals to Kingston compared with the same day last year. All those fortunate enough to make it to the big show did so with great expectations—and they were not disappointed.
The opening acts at the Long Walk to Freedom concert were a mixture of veteran artists from Buju’s era like Ghost, Delly Ranx, and Cocoa Tea, more recent reggae stars like Etana, Romain Virgo, Christopher Martin, and Agent Sasco, and promising new talents like Buju’s son Jahaziel Myrie making his first major live appearance, rising star Koffee, who joined Cocoa Tea as a surprise guest, and Chronixx, who turned in a rousing performance with his Zinc Fence Redemption band just before Buju took the stage. Every one of the supporting acts rose to the occasion, performing as if they knew the whole world was watching. Many other top artists, from Tarrus Riley and Tony Rebel to Konshens, Govana, and Aidonia chilled backstage, soaking up the vibes.
Around 11 p.m. it was time for the main event. Emerging from his backstage tent wearing dark shades, Buju was mobbed by crowds of people straining for a glimpse as he made his way to the elevated stage. Escorted by a human chain of bodyguards, Buju strode with ease followed by longtime friend DJ Khaled and his wife Nicole Tuck. Khaled was one of Buju’s first overseas visitors and the two spent time in the recording studio in December, fueling speculation that Buju’s first new release may be included on Khaled’s forthcoming Father of Asahd album. The 100-yard walk to the stage seemed to take forever. Soon after Buju climbed the staircase a scuffle broke out at the foot of the stage. Khaled and his wife did finally make it through after some persistent efforts.
After a dramatic intro adapted from “Hate Me Now” by Nas, Buju entered the stage with words of prayer, going down on bended knee. From that moment forward, he sprinkled his performance with candid remarks that revealed his thoughts about all that he has been through, his hopes and plans for the future. “Now where we?” he remarked before launching into the first verse of his opening song, “Not an Easy Road.” Running through track after track—from “Close One Yesterday” to “Give I Strength,” and “Over Hills And Valleys”—Buju’s music spoke to the artist’s triumph over trials and tribulations.
Having had a long time to plan this concert, Buju’s care and preparation shone through in every detail. As he delved into harder-edged dancehall cuts like “Big It Up,” “Champion” and “Batty Rider,” he made a point of reaching out to a new generation of listeners. “Some of you might be pretty young—much too young to have been introduced to Buju Banton,” he said with a smile. “Hi, this is Mark Myrie aka Buju Banton. I’m sorry I didn’t met you earlier, due to unforeseen circumstances. However I’m here now. And I’m gonna take you back a little, to just educate you about the early ’90s, and how we dedicated ourselves to change the culture of our music, the direction of our music, and the quality of our music.”
After touching a few more dancehall classics, and giving props to some of those who helped him along the way, Buju applied a little pressure to Jamaica’s current wave of artists. “You guys are playing around today,” said the veteran hitmaker, sounding intent on restoring some order to the music. “We old folks ain’t gonna stand for it.”
One vintage cut that he did not perform was the infamous “Boom Bye Bye,” which Buju cut from his setlist well over a decade ago. Soon after his return from prison Buju voluntarily removed the song from all streaming platforms as well, a decisive move to make a fresh start and leave behind years of protests over the song. “After all the adversity we’ve been through,” Buju declared in a statement, “I am determined to put this song in the past and continue moving forward as an artist and as a man.”
As the evening built to a crescendo, Buju invited out a few special guests, the first of whom used to sing with Bob Marley as he performed his songs of freedom all over the world. “This is mother apart from my mother,” Buju said as he welcomed Marcia Griffiths, noting that she had been sending him words of encouragement since he was 17 years old. They shared a warm embrace and two powerful duets, “Closer To You” and “Stepping Out of Babylon.” Then Marcia made way for another icon of Jamaican music, the beloved soul man Beres Hammond.
Beres had been looking forward to this moment for years. Having recorded many great collaborations at Penthouse, the smooth singer and the rough-and-rugged DJ have a tradition of trading parts when they perform together live. Even during the years when Buju wasn’t able to join him in person, Beres would do his best to recreate his young friend’s gravelly roar.
“It’s been too long,” Beres said as he greeted Buju with a joyful hug. Buju replied that he had tried to visit, driving himself to the singer’s home, but got turned away. “I was asleep,” Beres replied with a smile, and soon they got down to business, trading parts on “Who Say” just like they used to do, and making the crowd fall in love all over again. As Beres declared, “This is a welcome party!”
The next guest artist on stage was Wayne Wonder, the very same singer who helped launch Buju’s career here in the National Stadium almost three decades earlier. “Dancehall massive we don't forget you,” Buju roared as the band launched into the “Real Rock” riddim and Wayne began singing “Forever Young,” a collaboration made famous on a dubplate for the Stone Love sound system. When Buju started his verse, “Tell them fi test wi now, if them feel them bad like we,” he drove his hardcore fans into a frenzy.
Wayne’s presence seemed to take Buju back to the essence, tapping into the magic that made the early ’90s such a special era in Jamaican music. Standing next to his old friend, Buju shared one of his most candid remarks of the night. “Even though Buju Banton lock up mi still rough,” he stated with a serious expression. “Eight years, six months, 27 days, 13 hours, five minutes, and 26 seconds.” Buju then proceeded to address rumors that he’d been sexually abused during his incarceration—refuting the notion with a fiery freestyle.
The “Long Walk to Freedom” concert will go down as a milestone for a mighty musical genre that was recently honored by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, highlighting its "contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity.” While Buju’s place in history is assured, many are hopeful that his triumphant homecoming may signal a new way forward for the future of the music. He returns to a reggae scene that’s experienced profound changes during his absence. Although the dancehall sound is obviously a powerful influence on international artists like Drake, Major Lazer, and Rihanna, the rise of “tropical house,” “island pop,” and Afrobeats has left reggae music’s mission at a crossroads.
While Buju did not hesitate to offer a critique of modern dancehall music, he did extend an invitation to UK dancehall artist Stefflon Don, hailing her as “very instrumental in taking our culture international.” Later in his set, he offered words of encouragement to the new generation. “I wanna say nuff respect to all the younger generation of youths who kept the music,” Buju stated. “We don’t kill champions, we raise them. We want you to know that Buju Banton love what you’re doing. We just want you to find your way, and change it up a bit, and make it… wholesome.”
Returning home to the biggest stage on the island, Buju not only silenced his critics and reasserted his place as one of Jamaica’s foremost artists, he also underscored what UNESCO described as “the basic social functions of the music — as a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice, and a means of praising God." As he closed his set with a medley that included anthems like “Murderer,” “Driver A,” and “Psalms 23” with Gramps Morgan, Buju demonstrated the full potential of reggae music, leading by example.
Staring out at a stadium filled with bright lights, his shirt dripping with sweat, Buju used his platform to issue a powerful warning. “We are a nation that’s built on some spiritual foundation,” Buju told the massive audience. “The day we lose that is the day we are over, and we are edging closer and closer to the edge.” As he continues his Long Walk to Freedom tour—with stops planned in the Bahamas, Trinidad, Barbados, Tortola, and St. Kitts—Buju seems perfectly positioned to lead the music forward to higher heights.