Buju Banton is going through some shit. The LBGT community has been all up in his face for a decade, and arguably rightly so, for “Boom Bye Bye,” a lurching, scary song with lyrics that incite the murder of gay men. As a result venues nationwide have canceled scheduled dates and promoters have long been shy, all in addition to the case he’s caught more recently for cocaine possession with intent to distribute. But after 11 months in prison he is free on bail and decided to throw a show to end all shows (and probably pay his legal fees) last Sunday in Miami. Billed as “Darkest Before the Dawn: Buju Banton and Friends”, the flier was coy about exactly who these friends were, but the promise of Stephen Marley, Freddie McGregor, Shaggy, Wayne Wonder and Gargamel himself was enough to make seemingly all of Miami’s dread population and thick island community stand up and blow their contraband air horns.
Turns out Buju has a lot of friends. About five an hour. The show was being streamed live by Lime mobile all over Jamaica, and every artist with a visa (sorry Vybz and Beenie) wanted in. The first surprise of the night was Sean Paul, to a lukewarm reception. He has hits, bit he couldn’t make it through a verse without running out of breath, and the crowd was pulsing at barely more than a two-step even to the classics like “Gimmie the Light”. Good thing Spragga Benz was waiting in the wings to rush out and set the crowd back on fyah. Michael Rose played a solid set, evoking Black Uhuru in its hey. The show stopper was undoubtedly Gyptian, who gave us just a taste of “Hold Yuh” and “Nah Let Go” then bounced off the stage like Sexual Chocolate. Tarrus Riley with Dean Fraser hollered at all the ladies with real hair and real breastisis, and Shaggy cracked jokes almost as long as he air/stage/crowd humped through his Mr. Lover Lover jams, with a little help from Rayvon. We were promised that Buju was up next as DJ Khaled took the stage for a strangely placed but totally appropriate hip-hop set with Rich Kid and Busta Rhymes, who set it off proper like a dungeon dragon. And then the lights went down.
Lighters and cellys went up as the operatic “O Fortuna” bumped a grandiose intro, but instead of dropping into a bass-filled riddim as expected, Buju softly sang “Have Mercy on Me” into “Destiny” from the wings of an unlit stage. Wearing a simple white shirt under a black vest and black pants, humility was the theme of his set, bordering on pleading for forgiveness. He introduced Marcia Griffiths as his “inspiration,” said that when he was 18, “she told me to be careful what you say in the music.” At one point he crooned, ” Why do you want to make Buju cry? Is it because of Boom Bye Bye?” In the two hour set he rolled out nearly every hit of his career, alternately folding his lithe frame over at the waist on the ballads and high-stepping through the feverish double time dance hall. Everybody got mad warm and fuzzy when, while proclaiming, “yes, mi fren, mi good fren”, he brought out Stephen Marley, who posted $300,000 worth of equity of his own home as bail bond, and then OH SHIT DAMIAN MARLEY appeared too. Just when it looked like the show was going to rock all night and right after Buju gave a shout out to his lawyers, the Bayfront Park Amphitheater cut the sound, abruptly ending a historical night of redemption songs, likely Buju’s last opportunity to ask forgiveness in the United States.