This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending Buju “Gargamel” Banton’s much anticipated concert, “Before the Dawn.” It took place on Sunday, January 16th, 2011 at the Bayfront Park Amphitheatre in Miami, Florida, where Buju enchanted the audience of 10,000 plus with an amazingly soulful and energetic performance steeped in ritualistic undertones.
Buju, the beleaguered reggae star, was arrested in Florida on drug charges in the fall of 2009. After being denied bail he endured prolonged delays in his trial while languishing in a Florida jail for a year before finally being released on bail after a mistrial. His high-profile case has dominated the reggae world since his arrest and has elicited an extraordinary outpouring of support and sympathy from fans all over the world, particularly from the Jamaican Diaspora.
The extent of this support has been extraordinary. I’ve even surprised myself by the intensity of my heartfelt concern and fervent prayers for the star whose music I’ve always loved. But even among Buju non-believers, folks like my mother who have not been seduced by his throaty voice and who can’t name even one of his songs, the wish for his safe and speedy release has been widespread. And here’s the kicker: so many of us are not concerned with whether he is guilty or not. We just want him home.
Sunday’s concert struck me as a performance of Buju’s personal prayers for his release as well as the demonstration of a collective desire for his safety and protection while he prepares for the resumption of his trial and to face newly added gun charges. “Before the Dawn” was a performance of faith and hope, both on stage and amongst the audience, and in many ways it was also a ritualized anointing— a communal laying on of hands on Buju’s besieged shoulders by the screaming, 10,000-plus live audience as well as the thousands more who tuned in via live streams and Facebook updates.
The ceremonial undertones of “Before the Dawn” were evident as concert-goers made their way down Biscayne Boulevard and into the long line to enter the amphitheatre. Drumming and chanting from Ras Michael and the Nyahbingi Drummers echoed onto the street, progressively becoming more audible as fans neared the entrance. The drumming also heightened the evening’s drama and seemed to herald a Nyabinghi ceremony rather than a reggae concert. While I was initially a little perplexed by this choice of background audio to welcome the audience to the concert, as the evening wore on it all made sense. We were in fact entering a ceremony.
The concert got going in earnest somewhere between 5:30 and 6 P.M. and featured a stunning lineup of some of the best known names in reggae, including Gyptian, Everton Blender, Marcia Griffiths, Wayne Wonder, Freddie McGregor, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Stephen and Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley, and Grants Morgan. Intertwined in the performances were acknowledgements of Buju’s kindness and talent, suggestions that his current dilemma fell in a long trajectory of imperialist oppression against black people, and prayers for his safety.
For example, Nadine Sutherland spoke of Buju’s support for her when she was going through a very trying period and came close to abandoning her music career. Numerous performers and MCs humorously implied that undercover law enforcement was in the crowd and issued the usual condemnation of “informers,” with particular relevance in Buju’s case which involved undercover agents. And all the performers in some way conveyed their version of an intercession to the Divine on Buju’s behalf for him to overcome his tribulations.
Buju took the stage around 10 P.M., entering in darkness with just his distinctive voice to announce his presence. His opening songs were prayerful and devout, probably from his latest album, Before the Dawn, after which the concert was titled. He then moved into some of the songs from his ‘Til Shiloh album, an album ironically evocative of his current predicament, featuring songs such as “Not an Easy Road,” and “Untold Stories” that lament the struggle and persecution of Jamaica’s black underclass. The crowd often sang along with him, heads nodding in commiseration, fists in the air in solidarity.
As the concert went on he became more playful, launching into his dancehall hits like “Champion” and “Love Sponge,” driving the audience wild when he finally responded to its demands for “Driver A.” Throughout his performance, Buju’s emotions were deep and palpable, his energy at its height from start to finish. The stress of the last year, and perhaps rumored drug use, seemed to show a little on his face, but he remains ruggedly handsome, his stage presence distinct and his movements vigorous.
At various junctures in the show Buju quite directly referenced his incarceration, acknowledging the tumult of the past 15 months, questioning why he has faced these tribulations, and claiming his faith in Jah. But nowhere were both Buju and the audience’s emotions heightened and the imagery of his anointing apparent than during his performance of Bob Marley’s “Duppy Conqueror” with his friend Stephen Marley and his closing song.
Stephen Marley’s friendship with Buju and his dedication to him was widespread news last year when Buju was finally granted bail and Marley put up his home as security for his friend. Marley’s presence on the stage embodied that love for Buju, shared by the crowd, and evoked the presence and blessings of Marley’s legendary father, the most revered of all reggae performers, Bob Marley. Furthermore, the lyrics to the song called to mind Buju’s release and temporary victory and implied that God had intervened in his tribulations and that black people had the supernatural capacity to overcome oppression as “duppy conquerors.”
As Buju and Marley sang “Yes me friend, me friend, me deh pon street again / the bars could not hold me, the walls could not control me” and embraced each other, the crowd roared and its spirit rose in celebration of Buju’s current, although short-term, triumph. “Yes, I’ve been accused, wrongly accused now / but through the powers of the most high, they got to turn me loose,” the crowd chanted along with them. Emotions came to a climax during the chorus, when Buju sang, “I’m a duppy conqueror,” the classic case of good triumphing over evil.
The show closed with Buju and Gramps Morgan singing “The 23rd Psalm,” which they recorded together for Buju’s 2000 album Unchained Spirit. The performance was nothing short of profound, and the perfect close to the evening. By this time Buju had been on stage for close to two hours, no breaks, a powerhouse of energy throughout. All of us in the audience knew the show was coming to close and in some ways our own emotions must have peaked. How would we say goodbye knowing what could rest ahead for Buju?
As he and Gramps Morgan sang, “Yeah though I walk in death’s dark vale, yet will I fear no ill / Thy rod and staff they are with me, they surely comfort still,” Morgan lowered his head in prayerful reverence and raised one of Buju’s hands in the air, a powerful image of supplication. The audience responded to this unspoken but familiar ritualistic call for prayer over a loved one in distress, and we raised our hands also. Fists were balled to mark solidarity in the struggle, hands outstretched to balm and protect him, or in true Jamaican form, palms clutched glowing cell phones to light a path back home for our Gargamel.
The moment was indescribable—moving, surreal—and called to mind so many key aspects of Jamaica’s history: its post-colonial struggles against poverty and imperialist oppression, its Afro-Caribbean spiritual tradition, and its rich reggae lineage. It was a moment that served as an announcement of Buju and his fans’ faith and prayers for his divine guidance and anointing as he prepares for the next stage of his court battle.
As “The 23rd Psalm” came to an end, Buju called two gentlemen on stage. Initially, I was not clear who they were. They were both white and dressed in jeans. Buju warmly embraced each man, introducing them as his attorneys, the men who were fighting for him, I believe he said. He also said something to the extent that they were black on the inside. The audience cheered and the men waved while Buju stood between the two of them, the threesome locked together with arms around shoulders. All three left the stage together, Buju seeming to be physically supported by them, and they seeming quite comfortable in their paternal role.
In obvious ways the presence of these white attorneys interrupt the narrative of the concert’s imagery as rooted in Afro-Caribbean religious tradition, but maybe not. These attorneys were presented as supporters and friends of the reggae star, all signs of the transactional nature of their interaction erased. But perhaps this serves to continue the narrative of God’s divine intervention and to suggest that these attorneys are guardian angels of sort, in whose care Buju has been placed.
I was taken aback by the attorneys’ apparent embrace of this role and what seemed like their sincere support for Buju. They returned his embrace with ease, and comfortably maintained what struck me as an extraordinary level of physical closeness on the stage. How amazing if a relationship that started out as a transaction has indeed transformed and their investment into seeing Buju walk free goes beyond their obligations as his attorneys.
Perhaps their inclusion in the concert was also an opportunity for them to share in Buju’s anointment and for him to reassure us that he is in capable and caring legal hands. Also striking about the image of Buju and these two white men tightly hugging each other on stage is how starkly it contradicts stereotypical presumptions about homophobia, an allegation that Buju faced earlier in his career.
Within a minute or so of Buju and his attorneys exiting the stage, the concert came to an end, the lyrics of “The 23rd Psalm” still lingering in the air: “Goodness and mercy all my life shall surely follow me / And in Jah house for”I”ver more, my dwelling place shall be.”
While the result of Buju’s new trial and recently added charges remain an “untold story,” what is certain is his faith in an almighty power and the fervent support he has received from fans around the world. The “Before the Dawn” concert was brilliantly conceived by its producers and outstandingly executed by all the performers. The concert also spoke to Jamaicans’ ability to mesh the sacred and the profane, to intercede with God on Buju’s behalf and pray for his protection while gyrating to the lyrics of “Batty Rider.”
How a boy from the slums of Kingston has moved so many Jamaicans in solidarity remains an intrigue, although he has not been the first. He lives around the corner from my parents’ old home in the hilly suburbs of Kingston, and on many mornings when I used to huff and puff up the hill for exercise, I would see him drive past, probably taking his children to school. His smile, his greeting, and his disposition were gentle and sincere, no hint of flirtation or boastfulness in his smile.
Maybe it is this characteristic that has engendered in me, in so many of his fans, such dedication and concern. Perhaps despite the hyper-masculinized posture of some of his music, we see gentleness in his eyes. Also, maybe those of us living across the Diaspora know all too well the challenges of being an immigrant from an ethnic minority and the sometimes devastating results of our often fragile relationship with law enforcement agencies like immigration authorities and the police force.
I remain hopeful for Gargamel’s safe and soon permanent release and believe that he will continue to be inspired and sustained by the Diaspora’s communal prayers for his anointing. In the tradition of call and response, early in the show one of the MCs belted out to the audience, “Who Jah bless?” to the resounding response, “No man curse!”
Nuff, nuff blessings to Gargamel.