Dancehall star Buju Banton’s rejection of mask-wearing stymies Jamaican government’s efforts to stem ‘COVID-19 fatigue’

Screenshot of Jamaican dancehall star Buju Banton taken from his appearance in the video for the remix of fellow Grammy winner Koffee's song “Pressure.”

Like many other governments, Jamaica's political administration is facing an uphill battle around reinforcing its COVID-19 safety guidelines. With the number of new cases remaining high, deaths are reported almost daily. As of October 21, the island had a total of 179 deaths and 8,600 confirmed positive cases, 155 of which were new.

Despite such concerning figures, however, “COVID-19 fatigue” appears to be taking its toll. An increasing number of local media reports have highlighted instances of Jamaicans holding parties and breaking curfew rules, causing a number of miscreants to be charged.

So, when dancehall icon Buju Banton went on a diatribe against the wearing of masks — urging the Jamaican government to “free” his people — this did not help the efforts of the Ministry of Health and Wellness:

Though hugely popular, Banton is also a divisive figure, and his rant received a generally disapproving response from Jamaican netizens. Addressing Banton's comments, Minister of Health and Wellness Christopher Tufton observed that while different views may contend, the government is “comfortable” with following the advice of clinicians when recommending COVID-19 protocols.

The Rastafarian deejay, who was deported from the United States in December 2018 after serving a seven-year prison term on drugs charges, enjoys a loyal following in Jamaica. Having previously expressed his views on Instagram, however, it quickly became apparent that not everyone — even within his own family — supported his views:

Another of Banton's daughters, rookie politician Jodian Myrie, who is a local councilor for the governing Jamaica Labour Party, made her position clear:

She also retweeted a comment by her sister Abihail:

COVID-19 has catapulted the Jamaican economy into a downturn with ripple effects from the decrease in tourism and the steady closure of small businesses. A recent survey conducted by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) shows a nearly 5 percent increase in the country's unemployment rate. As of July 2020, the country lost 120,000 jobs, causing the unemployment rate to rise from 7.8 percent one year prior, to the current 12.6 percent.

Against this backdrop, Banton recently appeared in a video remix of young dancehall star and fellow Grammy winner Koffee's song, “Pressure,” speaking to the injustice that gave rise to movements like Black Lives Matter, and increased inequity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jamaica's substantial and influential entertainment industry, an important sustainer of its informal economy, is also under tremendous strain, with evening curfews effectively shutting down Kingston's vibrant nightlife. Although Jamaican netizens understand Banton's frustration, they largely expressed disappointment in his position. One Facebook user's comment echoed the views of many:

And of course Kanyé is dragged into this lol.. on a serious note please do not listen to Buju Banton here in this case he is 110% wrong. Wear your mask, wash your hands and socially distance.

The comment referenced Kanye West's visit to Jamaica in September, when the rapper tweeted a photograph of himself chatting with the deejay in Banton's recording studio. Neither of them wore a mask, despite West having had the virus earlier this year. One Twitter user joked:

Even longtime fans of the dancehall star registered their disapproval:

Other Jamaican social media users suggested that people need to consider the threat of COVID-19 from a long-term perspective, and adhere to the recommended safety measures:

Others, however, were prepared to live and let live:

On Facebook, one well-known lawyer roundly disagreed:

Freedom of speech does not allow you to bellow fire, in a jam packed theatre without justification.

Time for the Disaster Risk Management Act to be amended so that drivel, like that uttered by Mr. Mark MYRIE, AKA BUJU BANTON,can be prosecuted. The grounds of reckless population endangerment and creating public mischief should be charges under that Act.

Whether Banton's outburst was a product of deeply held religious beliefs [he is a devout Rastafarian], or an expression of frustration with the curtailment of the activity of the entertainment sector, he appears to have disappointed those Jamaicans who are still trying their best to stick to the rules.

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