For all that he’s accomplished, Buju Banton has no desire to be referred to as a legend. He wants to be a vessel. The Gargamel, as he is affectionately known by his sprawling reach of fans across the globe, is guided by one directive: “My message is simple: peace and love,” he tells me over the phone. It’s one that functions as a beacon of hope through a rather grim time.
In the days following our conversation, the murder of George Floyd, by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, would spark a series of protests around the world. The public is frustrated, and there have been calls to mobilize towards abolition and defunding the police in an effort to combat anti-Black racism and police brutality. All this is happening in addition to a global health pandemic making ghost towns out of once-bustling cities.
Buju Banton faces a marginally familiar reality. From his compound, on the island of Jamaica, an archipelago enclaved by the Caribbean Sea — the separation seems almost ironic. “I emerge from a prison cell, only to find myself in a different prison cell,” he says.
In 2011, Buju, real name Mark Anthony Myrie, was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm and conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. In 2013 his time at McRae Correctional Facility in Georgia was reduced to seven years after a judge discarded the gun charge. For the unacquainted, Buju Banton is among the giants of dancehall—a subgenre of reggae that emanated from the mid-70s and acted as a score to the plights, concerns and desires of Kingston, Jamaica’s inner-city communities. He is known for his institution-defying, unapologetic lyrics of his experiences as a ghetto yute scribed by his raspy and course delivery. With a career spanning 30 years, he’s both risen and stumbled in the public eye but has always worked towards redemption. Now he has a daunting task ahead of him: introduce himself to new fans while staying true to the old ones in a landscape that is much different than the one he dominated.
“This is Buju Banton. You have never heard me before. Chances are, you might have, but in a negative light. I want to introduce myself to you,” he says, speaking firmly to prospective new fans. “I will not start by saying what they’re saying is true or what they’re saying isn’t true. I will start by saying it’s up to you to find out for yourself. Do your research. I will also say to you my music is an embodiment. A total embodiment of who I am: my perspective, my griefs, how I feel within. I’m not trying to force my music on no one. I’m just trying to share it with you.”
And first-time listeners will soon get their opportunity. In addition to the slew of singles released throughout the past year, the artist is readying himself to liberate his latest album Upside Down 2020. At this point in Buju Banton’s life and career, creating music is not a means to an end. It provides and has provided purpose. It provides and has provided a means of spiritual refuge. Like a mosaic, it is piecing together life, storytelling, tragedy, victory, bass, skanks, energy, drums, guitars, grit, awareness, and catharsis to breathe life into what will be his upcoming audible souvenir. He is both introducing himself to new fans and reintroducing himself to old ones. All eyes are on him and arguably on Jamaican music.
Over the last year, newcomer Koffee signed to Columbia Records and nabbed a Grammy for “Best Reggae Album;” Protoje and his InDiggNation collective made a historic partnership with RCA x 6 Course giving the artists complete ownership of their masters; and, most recently, Swiss Beats and Timbaland’s Verzuz featured former foes Beenie Man and Bounty Killer facing off to an audience of half a million people.
No stranger to exploring themes of insurgency, Banton’s music has always been in conversation with communities who occupy a paradoxical existence: the ones who both power and propel nations through their labor and often muted contributions but dwell in the underbellies of their societies. Notable albums in the artist’s discography are Voice of Jamaica, ‘Til Shiloh and Unchained Spirit which unabashedly weaved together all things dealing with current news and politics, cultural affairs and the artist’s musings on his own life.
Banton has always been and remains tuned in, so it’s of no surprise that he is hyper-aware of the power of music and his own catalog. “I want a reset and clearly the global community is getting one at the moment. Through this reset, a lot of things are going to emerge. Consciousness is going to raise,” he says. “As a result, the music coming from Buju Banton is a forerunner. It has never changed. All my previous work to date were all trying to raise the consciousness of my fellow human beings on planet earth for a new time when the injustice will be no more. Because once the darkness comes to light, it can no longer exist. So then the mission, the music, all these have not been altered. It is only briefly silenced due to the powers that be! But the great universe, and the great universal power, is greater than any man can ever perceive.”
Banton is intent on creating a project laced with apropos substance. After a hiatus, he rejoins a scene with fresh faces, a genre whose sound is different and an industry that has altered since his departure, but the question is which literal and metaphorical stage are we meeting The Gargamel at?
In December of 2018, fans looked forward to the highly anticipated and aptly titled Long Walk to Freedom homecoming show. The staging on the March 16th show of the following year attracted 30,000+ fans from abroad and at home to Kingston’s over-capacity National Stadium, a feat that mobilized the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the country’s Defence Force to assist with the overwhelming amount of patrons that attended. For longtime fans, the tour was an opportunity to reconnect with an artist they’ve always had earnest admiration for.
“The stage represents, not only a site of birth and rebirth, but the entire lifecycle of artistry, whether it is in relation to music, song, or dance, it really doesn’t matter,” says Dr. Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, the Director and Senior Lecturer of the University of the West Indies’ Institute of Cultural Studies. “It’s very interesting because you can sort of map the role of the stage and the role that the stage plays in a number of lives through artistry. That there is this thing of moving from almost the entrance onto the stage to even your grave. So many careers die on a stage.”
Banton’s certainly did not, and although this is an anamnesis, Dr. Stanley-Niaah’s thoughts provide particular insight into our own psyche of spectatorship and expectations from the artist. He surpassed what was forecasted through his performance, but with his new musical contribution towards his already expansive discography, we’ve reached a fever pitch on the possibilities of what his new release can offer.
In the eight years Banton has been absent from the music industry, much has changed. Digital music streaming platforms were beginning to garner more popularity—Spotify had its U.S launch in 2011—but that same year was the crux that would segue into our changed consumption of music in the digital age. “It’s a new world now,” says Tanya Lawson, Audiomack’s Director of Reggae and Afrobeats. “When he went in, radio mattered. I’m not saying radio doesn’t matter now, but radio mattered [more] and [the emphasis on] CD sales were slowly phasing out [for] something else.” The internet democratized our access to information, software, and each other, and there seemed to be a surplus of artists, producers, albums, projects, singles, sub-genres, and everything in between. Lawson stresses the implications of the generational gap and how that translates to the music-making process sharing, “[Artists] like him and [from] that generation took time to craft their music. They didn’t rush the process. It’s highly competitive now. You got these artists who don’t have to physically go to the studio anymore. All [they] have to do is have [a] laptop, a little mic and have someone on SoundCloud or YouTube send [them] a beat.”
But Banton has, of course, given considerable thought to the changing landscape he’s walking into. As evidenced in a recent interview with BBC 1Xtra’s Seani B, he spoke candidly about some of the artistic differences he’s noticed between the process of creating records and performing. “I see the music business suffering until the right ones dem come along who are musically-inclined and understand that this music is not hustle,” he shared with the host. He adds more gravitas to the technical aspects of music-making by mentioning in the interview, “We’re having a delivery problem where the brothers cannot deliver on riddims like they were meant to deliver on the riddims. [Dancehall] is a hard-hitting thing. It’s lazy stuff that I hear where you sing two songs and you take a break for three-four bars. You have to fill every bar.”
For Banton, the methodology is as important as the final product. Through his assessment of the current state of music-related affairs, it’s clear that he has no intention to depart from the techniques he’s already mastered. He is critical but craves a more intentional approach from artists when making records on both a lyrical and procedural level. “The music is not wholesome. It does not possess the power to uplift you from any tragedies you face in life, or any shortcomings that life throws you,” he says. “When we have free-reign, like what’s currently abound all over the world right now—where everybody’s just making and putting out what they have—things aren’t properly balanced. Things aren’t properly done. Things aren’t properly prepared in its entirety and given to the people as a standard for them to measure and embrace. This becomes commonplace over time, and very quickly too. So good music loses its appeal, good performance is non-existent, and I intend on practicing and rehearsing. All these things are enveloped into the very fabric of what the art represents.”
Banton is employing his comeback with the necessary amount of tact to maximize his mission of spreading resonating, timely, and conscious music with the masses while acknowledging that there’s been a lapse of time where different sounds have emerged — what Dr. Stanley-Niaah calls the “music attention economy.” With records like the self-produced, “Steppa”, Banton descends into familiar territory. With its heavy bassline and old school dancehall musical composition, the artist interrogates an individual’s claim and implications of someone who considers themselves a bad man. On “Trust”, co-produced by longtime colleague Dave Kelly, Banton jumps on a contemporary-sounding production providing social commentary on our connections, and maybe obsessions, with our phones, the paranoia of information sharing and how we use our devices to interact; an anxiety that, regardless of age, is relatable grounds. “Nothing stays the same, so this is my evolution musically,” he says self-assuredly. These cues of his adaptiveness are most evident in his collaborations with fresh voices: “Trust” received a remix courtesy of Tory Lanez and Banton also made an appearance on dvsn’s third studio album via “Dangerous City” featuring Ty Dolla $ign. Not to mention, he’s connecting with old friends, too. The artist provided DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd two features by way of its opening record, “Holy Mountain,” alongside other dancehall behemoths like Sizzla, Mavado, and 070 Shake, and its closing record, “Holy Ground”, and that’s just on the music-making front.
Through strategic and culturally-relevant alliances, Banton was able to produce an exclusive run of tees with loved streetwear brand Supreme—facilitated by Rob Kenner, a founding editor of VIBE and well-known journalist whose chronicled and championed reggae throughout the decades—which sold out within minutes. In the realm of business, he made a milestone partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, only the second reggae artist to have done so after Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, through A&R Omar Grant. Banton believes this Roc Nation deal will assist a great deal in propelling his aspirations further but is no-bullshit about the linkage. “I can’t reach the masses the way I want to from an island. This partnership will enable us, not only to get [them] music but also to enhance the message. The message is peace and the message is love. They agreed on the orifice of Black excellence and here we are today.” These intentional unions remind onlookers that the artist is as much tapped into the music as he is the culture that surrounds it. He’s approached each new venture tactfully and purposefully and made no exception in the production of his upcoming album.
Perhaps Upside Down will be the cultural reset that’s needed, especially since there’s been much conversation about the place of Jamaica’s music on the international stage. The late 2010s saw an uptick of artists from different countries in Africa propel their regional sounds beyond the peripheries of the mainstream and into the fore. Musicians like Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, and Afro B were no longer confined to a geographic-specific audience, which prompted angst in the latter half of 2019 about whether dancehall would lose its global appeal in favor for the new sounds emerging from the continent. Though it’s well-known that current sonic trends in some of the music coming from the continent borrows from dancehall, it should be noted that this exchange is mutual. One only needs to look to Ding Dong’s 2017 single “Lebeh Lebeh” to see how this is actualized. Recorded over Nigerian artist’s Runtown’s “Mad Over You,” the artist replicating the same cadence in his own iteration. All the while, there’s been an increase in African dancehall and dancehall-fusion artists, most notably Ghana’s Shatta Wale and Stonebwoy and Nigeria’s Patoranking and Tiwa Savage. For the most part, this fusion has been welcomed, as seen through genre-collaborative singles like Busy Signal and Afro B’s “Go Dance”, many of Popcaan and Davido’s records and Mr. Eazi and Kranium’s “Call Me,” but now concerns of the two genres on the world’s music stage has become a site of contention.
While there’s much to be said about the belief that only one genre of music within the Black diaspora can exist at once, and perhaps another conversation about the changing sounds of dancehall within the past five years, Banton hurriedly denounces any inkling of division or the potential to divide. “That’s just another apparatus designed to divide us, okay?,” he mentions sharply. “There’s no rift going on between us in Jamaica, and our brothers in Africa and Afrobeats. In 1990, I went to Africa. They understand dancehall. In 2010, they understood dancehall. The bridge is beginning to build. The link is beginning to be reestablished between diaspora and home. There’s no divide. We welcome it. Davido, Burna Boy, Wiz Kid, keep doing what you’re doing. I love it.” He tacks the ancestral lineages that connect the two region’s musical sensibilities together saying, “Remember, we’re all the way here in Jamaica. We came over with our drums. It is that same drum that we’re beating now. We need no divide to be promulgated and pushed by no media entity. Let us dispel that rumor immediately.”
The twenty-track album features a multitude of records that maintain the artist’s deliverance of sociopolitical commentary and conscious records, like the uplifting “Buried Alive” which takes on the sonic aesthetics of early dancehall to the Lovers Rock single “Memories” featuring John Legend. The album also sees a handful of new features, with production by Pharrell, a record with U.K. starlet Stefflon Don, another with Steve Marley and the recently-liberated and buoyant “Blessed” where the artists provides a retrospective on gratuity and his past struggles. No man is an island, and despite the artist operating from one, it’s a philosophy that is guiding his collaborative approach to making music.
Before he leaves, I wonder about his own self-awareness of who and what he is given what he represents for so many people and over such a large period of time. I mean, he is Buju Banton. I ask him what he thinks about his legacy, and just like a much wiser elder, chides me at the assumption that that’s something that he would dote on. “You think I sit here in Jamaica and think about a thing named legacy? If history has taught us anything, it’s that a tall man must die, yes? If history has taught us anything, it’s that men build themselves monolithic edifices for people to place their names on when all they did was evil works upon the face of the earth. I desire no such thing. I don’t even desire legacy. Let my work speak for itself.”
His perception of self is sharp, but he knows that his purpose with music is much larger. “What can you say about the music when it speaks for itself? Who am I to speak on the great inspiration that comes through feeling? I am merely a vessel. A servant. And this is my offering. Wholeheartedly.”
Sharine Taylor is a Toronto-based music and culture writer and believes plantain is God’s gift to earth.
You can follow her on Twitter here.