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Buju Banton’s drug trial the talk of Jamaica

by David McFadden
Monday Sep 27, 2010
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The U.S. drug trial of reggae star Buju Banton is the talk of Jamaica, where islanders are debating his guilt or innocence on street corners, in offices, in letters to the editor and on social networking websites.

Banton, a four-time Grammy nominee who rose from the slums of Kingston to success in the 1990s, was arrested on federal drug charges in December and a Florida jury is deliberating whether he conspired to buy cocaine from an undercover police officer. The 12-person panel reconvenes Monday in Tampa federal court.

In the Jamaican capital, some people are dissecting every detail of Banton’s case, a few even comparing him to the late reggae legend Bob Marley.

"I’ve been following it close because Buju is big in Jamaica, like a Bob Marley. Way I see it, they need to free the man cause they don’t have any concrete evidence against him," Charles Barrett, a resident of the capital, said Sunday.

For others the case is more of a curiosity, a media-fed sensation that distracts from weightier news.

His most ardent fans are talking of conspiracy theories - that he was framed by the U.S. government or gay activists who have protested violent, homophobic lyrics from early in Banton’s career as a brash dancehall singer.

"We all know it was a government set up. Just because of your beliefs they want to imprison you," wrote a person identified as R. Johnson on a Web page titled "Free Buju Banton."

The husky-voiced Rastafarian singer has long been a star in his homeland with the brash reggae-rap hybrid of dancehall music and, more recently, a traditional reggae sound.

"He’s a major, major figure here, so his trial has dominated the media and people’s conversations," Jamaican musicologist and disc jockey Bunny Goodison said. "He’s been extremely important through the years because he’s represented Rastafari and black consciousness in a very focused way."

On Friday, a false story that Banton had been found innocent was broadcast on an island radio station. Tumultuous applause broke out at an elite prep school when the rumor was announced as fact on the public address system. People across Kingston spread the false bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

"The best illustration of Buju’s importance is the broad sympathy for him and the desire for his release," said Carolyn Cooper, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies.

Others are far less sympathetic to the 37-year-old entertainer, whose real name is Mark Myrie.

"No matter how the trial turns out, Mr. Myrie has already let down himself and his fans," the Jamaica Observer said in an editorial Sunday.

Banton is charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and aiding two others in possessing a firearm during the course of cocaine distribution. He faces up to life in prison.

In closing statements Thursday, Banton’s attorney argued that an undercover U.S. government informant managed to connect only the two other men, but not Banton, to the conspiracy. Banton’s team of lawyers has tried to prove the singer was a victim of entrapment.

The singer testified that he talked a lot about cocaine with a U.S. government informant, but said he was just trying to impress the man, who claimed to have music industry connections.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston argued that Banton’s conversations with the informant put the conspiracy into motion. Prosecutors said Banton was an established drug trafficker by the time he met the informant and the singer was looking for "more, new and different money through a new conspiracy he was shopping for" in addition to drug deals he had already financed.

Banton’s arrest derailed plans to tour Japan after a tumultuous U.S. tour for his Grammy-nominated 2009 album, "Rasta Got Soul." Shows in several U.S. cities were canceled because of protests over his early homophobic lyrics and unapologetic anti-gay stance through the years.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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