The career of Jamaican reggae dancehall artiste Buju Banton is associated with antipathy towards gays and informers. Though it is his Boom bye bye song that has brought him most infamy by calling for the killing of gay men, he has been no less graphic in prescriptions of violence against informers or snitches.
It seems somewhat ironic, then, that in his impending trial before a Florida court on federal drug charges, his two co-defendants have offered guilty pleas and decided to give evidence against the four-time Grammy nominated singer. Defendant Mark Myrie (Buju Banton’s real name) finds himself faced with charges that carry a minimum sentence of 20 years, if convicted. The case against him relies on a criminal justice practice against which he has often railed as a reggae performer.
Perhaps no community ever likes a snitch. From mafia movies to hip hop, popular culture disdains any violation of communal trust in favour of law enforcement. Hip hop queen Lil’ Kim did a year in prison, rather than “rat on” colleagues in a criminal case. Jamaican dancehall music is no exception in upholding this tradition. Like the reggae music of Bob Marley, dancehall has its roots in the mean streets of Kingston, where anti-authoritarian sentiments are common and the police are sometimes indistinguishable from other enemies. Street credentials are maintained by demonstrating these values.
If such thinking makes for a counter-orthodoxy of sorts, Buju Banton, asthe self-styled Gargamel, has preached its message with pious rage. He cites his ancestral origin as a maroon – runaway slaves that fought against the British colonisers in Jamaica – as the psychic foundation for his fight against modern-day ills. In his view, this includes an uncompromising war with the gay community and all forms of Babylon – that is, the state and its law enforcement arms.
Buju Banton’s sense of righteousness also comes from his Rastafarianism. His unwavering opposition to homosexuality, for example, taps into the native morality of that faith: it’s not just about the bible and a clear understanding of right and wrong, but also the nationalist fervour in protecting the island of Jamaica from the corrupting forces of foreigners.
That Buju Banton has ended up in a court of law in the US on cocaine-related charges must seem like the work of evil forces, given his worldview. Unlike marijuana, which is part of the Rastafarian sacrament, cocaine is not seen as imbuing any spiritual purpose or authenticity. It is the drug of hedonism, which entangles Jamaica as a transshipment point for moneyed narco-barons. Unsurprisingly, the singer’s arrest immediately sparked wild rumours of a setup – with the bizarre suspicion trail leading to his fight with gay rights groups in the US.
However Buju’s case is decided, it has already cranked up massive tensions. There is the obvious mutual suspicion, if not downright hostility, between communities of urban music – dancehall reggae, in particular – and law enforcement agencies. It may be nigh impossible, to have any credibility within the value system of these communities and simultaneously cooperate with the criminal justice system. It is not clear how that gap can be closed, but these are serious concerns for law and order.
Then, too, Buju Banton has never apologised for Boom Bye Bye, which many hold out as the pre-eminent anthem of violent homophobia. Rightly or wrongly, this case is now seen by some gay rights activists as a proxy for settling old grievances – a chance that the singer will finally get his comeuppance, as they see it. Since there is no sustained dialogue between the dancehall establishment and gay rights groups, it is likely that whoever perceives themselves being the “losing side” in this proxy war will simply dig in deeper and become more embittered. That will be unhelpful, to say the least, for any dialogue of respect and reconciliation.