By Ron Shillingford
When Buju Banton burst on the scene in 1992, the whole of Jamaica was in awe of the skinny 18-year-old kid. He took Reggae Sunsplash by storm that summer. The crowd lapped up every note. I should know, I was there. He was sensational.
Banton went on to record hit after hit but since 2011 he has not been able to perform or record because he is in a US jail, for his part in a controversial cocaine deal. His millions of fans worldwide are awaiting his release at the end of 2018 for an outpouring of fresh work compiled during his time in incarceration.
To earn substantial money touring is going to be difficult for Banton though because his notorious single ‘Boom Bye’, which advocates violence against gays and inspired worldwide protest, has seen him banned from many international venues. The time I saw him perform in London, 12 years ago, he sang a few bars of ‘Boom Bye Boom’, much to the amusement of most of the crowd.
He began life as Mark Anthony Myrie, the youngest of 15 children on July 15, 1973 in the Kingston ghetto of Salt Lane. He started deejaying at 13, and began recording music soon after. A chance meeting with producer Robert French led to his first recorded single, ‘The Ruler’. After taking a break to allow his voice to mature, Banton returned to recording with a rough, aggressive growl that became his trademark.
He first courted controversy in the early 1990s with his first major hit on the Penthouse label: ‘Love Me Browning’ detailing his love of light-skinned women, and drew backlash from Jamaica's dark-skinned population. After recording a follow-up single, ‘Love Black Woman’, to appease his growing fan base, he soon found controversy again with ‘Boom Bye’.
Banton broke Bob Marley's record for the most No. 1 singles in a single year, with the help of his debut album, Mr. Mention and the follow up Stamina Daddy.
A succession of hit singles and albums followed as Banton’s topics evolved from slack lyrics to songs with social messages. He has worked with some of reggae and dancehall's most prominent producers, including Bunny Lee, Winston Riley, Patrick Roberts and Donovan Germain. The increasing violence in Jamaica inspired Banton and other leading artists to embrace Rastafari teachings in their music and reach out to youth. His hit single, ‘Murderer’, inspired by the brutal murder of his friend and fellow deejay, Panhead, touched on the personal toll of violence.
Banton released the hard-hitting Voice of Jamaica in 1993. The album included many conscious tracks, including ‘Deportees’, a song which criticised those Jamaicans who went abroad but never sent money home; a remix of Little Roy's ‘Tribal War’, a sharp condemnation of political violence; and ‘Willy, Don't Be Silly’, which promoted safe sex and the use of contraceptives, particularly the condom, profits from which were donated to a charity supporting children with AIDS.
The album ‘Til Shiloh’ (1995) was immensely influential, using a studio band instead of synthesised music, and marking a slight shift away from dancehall towards roots reggae for Banton. It included the haunting ‘Untold Stories’ and other conscious singles such as ‘Not An Easy Road’, ‘Murderer’ and ‘Champion’.
Inna Heights (1997) substantially increased Banton's international audience as he explored his singing ability and recorded more roots-tinged tracks, including the hugely popular ‘Destiny’ and ‘Hills and Valleys’. The album also included collaborations with Beres Hammond and the legendary Toots Hibbert.
The release of the Too Bad album in 2006 was more dancehall-orientated in style. One of the slower tracks from the album, ‘Driver A’, became a major hit, while at the same time reviving Sly & Robbie's ‘Taxi’ riddim.
Banton’s success continued up till the time he was imprisoned as he won Grammy Awards for best reggae album for Rasta Got Soul and Before the Dawn in 2009 and 2011 respectively.