Rastafarians generally don’t celebrate their birthdays, but Buju Banton ensured everyone he was grateful to mark his 46th ‘earthstrong’ on Monday by announcing it on social media. “I give thanks for another year around the sun, and I am grateful to each and every one of you,” Buju wrote on his Instagram. It was his first birthday out of prison after serving an eight-year cocaine trafficking sentence in the US.
His ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ tour began in March in Kingston and he returns to Jamaica this weekend to top the celebrated Sumfest extravaganza. It includes huge names like Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, Chronixx, and newcomer Koffee but collectively they are probably still not more appreciated than Banton.
Two weeks ago Banton made his European return, performing at the 2019 Summer Jam festival in Germany in a well-received set. It was Amsterdam the next day and he has a busy itinerary in coming months. Years of incarceration, legal fees and a huge brood of kids dictate that he generates as much income as possible and the fact that reggae fans generally spend little on listening to even huge stars like him, means that live performances are the most lucrative source of income.
Since his record-breaking curtain-raiser at the National Stadium, the Grammy Award-winning performer has mesmerised adoring fans in Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Barbados, Suriname, Grenada, Guyana, the British Virgin Islands and St Kitts and Nevis.
After Reggae Sumfest he’s back to Europe to appear at festivals in Switzerland, Portugal, France, Belgium, and then onto Antigua and Barbuda.
Countries where LGBT activists are most militant, like the US and the UK, are still opposed to Banton’s ‘Boom Bye Bye’ anti-gay song. Although he has renounced it and not performed it since his comeback, it may be difficult for him to be allowed to play in those countries. His prison record also counts against him.
Nevertheless, Banton, born Mark Myrie, remains hugely popular worldwide. His musical genius has brought him crossover appreciation, far transcending reggae music. The fact that he identifies so closely with his poverty-stricken childhood and helps as much as possible the oppressed and disfranchised resonates with people from all walks of life and races.
When he came on stage for his first performance, he ordered security to open the doors to allow those without tickets in. Years of incarceration hadn’t affected his humanity.
The youngest of 15 children, he was not surrounded by wealth, but the Myrie family were proud descendants of the Maroons, African warriors who escaped slavery and fought for their freedom, establishing their own ‘promised land’ in the mountainous areas of Jamaica. His father, an aspiring singer, provided for his family through manual labour, while his mother sold fresh produce in nearby Coronation Market. It was she who gave him the affectionate nickname ‘Buju’, which means ‘breadfruit’. Banton started performing on local sound systems as a child, honing his gravelly voice to perfection. The transition to performing artist was a natural progression and before he was out of his teens Buju was smashing it in Jamaica.
Still close to his roots, he has used his music as a voice for the voiceless and established the Lend a Hand Foundation to make a difference in the lives of at-risk children in Jamaica and all around the world. He has also set up the Buju Banton Foundation.
“Born in abject poverty, I know what it is for a child to go without basic necessities,” he said. “I also know what it is to be a youth with big dreams and lots of determination unfortunately daunted and unable to achieve your destiny due to lack of a helping hand. It is not an easy road, my children. However, Jah has blessed me. I have made it my mission, through the Buju Banton Foundation, to help by giving light to youth living in the darkness of poverty through provision of food, clothing, healthcare and education, thus ensuring they, too, have equal opportunities to succeed. I love to see brothers and sisters looking out for one another. That’s the way it should be, not contrary. Stop tearing down each other.”
Buju’s breakthrough 1992 album, ‘Mr Mention’, was primarily dancehall-style – hard-edged digital rhythms. As one of those rare artists whose work defined the cutting edge of his chosen genre, Buju set trends with each new release. ‘Love Me Browning’ caused such a stir that he brought out ‘Love Black Woman’ immediately after to appease darker skinned women. His music was already internationally known when he signed a recording contract with Mercury Records in New York City and released his major label debut, ‘Voice of Jamaica’, in 1993.
A long list of hit singles and albums followed. Some singles are now anthems, including ‘Hills and Valleys’, ‘Driver’, ‘Destiny’, ‘Not An Easy Road’, ‘Champion’, ‘Untold Stories’ and ‘Murderer’. Fabulous albums like ‘’Til Shiloh’, ‘Inna Heights’ and ‘Rasta Got Soul’ never age.
In 2011, Buju’s album ‘Before the Dawn’ won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album, his first, long overdue, win after four previous nominations.