Noted Jamaican historian and Garvey scholar, Professor Rupert Lewis, has slammed ex-drug convict and reggae artiste Buju Banton and his publicity team for seeking to equate the entertainer’s drug-related incarceration with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after a decades-long fight against apartheid in South Africa.
The Grammy-winning singer, who was released late last year from the McRae Correctional Institution in the United States where he served eight years for cocaine trafficking, will be the headline act of his first concert in Jamaica in nearly a decade themed ‘Long Road to Freedom’. That’s also the title of Mandela’s autobiography detailing the South African freedom fighter’s 27-year incarceration on Robben Island under white dictatorship.
“The appropriation of Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ is unfortunate because what he represented was collective struggle, the struggle of a people, the sacrifice. What Buju represents is more personal freedom,” Lewis, now retired from the University of the West Indies, told The Gleaner last night.
Lewis deplored the commercial repackaging and image sanitisation of Buju Banton, real name Mark Myrie, and the attempt to “appropriate from that heroic struggle and to attach it to a life of a singer – whether he was set up or not”.
“I take objection to people who confuse what that slogan meant and how it has been appropriated.”
The historian argued that while he was a fan of some of Buju’s music and admired “his academic credentials while in prison”, the 46-year-old entertainer must confront his past and level with the people of Jamaica about his drug conviction and the road to redemption.
“I admire Buju’s music, but Buju has to speak why he was in prison. There is a question mark that I have.”
The man vs the music
Meanwhile, when Buju takes the stage for his Long Walk to Freedom concert at the National Stadium in Kingston on March 16, one face you won’t see in the audience will be that of Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.
In an interview with The Gleaneryesterday, Tufton expressed disappointment about the reggae artiste’s failure to acknowledge his wrong and make a public pledge to lead the fight against drug abuse and trafficking.
“Buju was convicted and served time for being involved in a drug deal. Now, of course, I do not support drug dealing nor the use of drugs, for the most obvious reason that it destroys lives, both of the person involved in the drug use and their friends and families.
“While I understand the Jamaican population and the world at large are looking forward to the concert ahead, I am a bit disappointed that the messaging surrounding the event is not one that is deeper than just a long walk to freedom. In my opinion, it should involve the lessons learnt along the way and also should be used as a cry for Jamaicans to put down drugs,” said Tufton.
Tufton, while insisting that his concern was from a public-health perspective, added that while he does not know the plans of Banton’s management team, he is willing to meet with the ‘Gargamel’ and others who are open to using their popularity to influence behaviour change in society.
“Given his popularity and influence on the nation, I do hope that he will use his experience to educate our youth, especially on the dangers of drugs, in an effort to not have them go down the path he did,” said Tufton.
However, retired professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Dr Carolyn Cooper, said Tufton’s expectations of the purpose of Banton’s concert were unrealistic and urged him to separate Buju Banton, the artiste, from Mark Myrie, the man.
“The minister of health needs to recognise the fact that Buju Banton is not Mark Myrie. Buju is a performing artiste, who is celebrating his long walk to freedom. Mark Myrie is a private citizen who has paid a terrible price for his error of judgement.
“Minister Tufton’s expectation that Buju’s concert should become a platform to condemn drug use is completely unrealistic. Buju is moving forward to rebuild his career. Whatever Mark Myrie thinks about his years in exile, Buju can’t keep on looking back,” said Cooper.
Cooper added that the concert is an occasion for celebration and not for preaching about the dangers of drug use.
“Instead of pressuring Buju, the minister needs to focus on speeding up the decriminalisation of ganja. There is so much hypocrisy about drug use in Jamaica. Alcohol and nicotine are potentially deadly drugs. Yet their use is perfectly legal. And it’s not the small farmers who are going to profit from the eventual decriminalisation of ganja. It’s the same high-ups who run tings and don’t give a damn about morality,” said Cooper.