‘Man is a king’: controversial star Buju Banton comes home to Jamaica 2018. Having served seven years in a US prison on drugs charges, Banton is returning to a hero’s welcome – though to many he’s still notorious for a song inciting the murder of gay of gay people .
The most eagerly awaited arrival in Jamaica since Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie touched down in April 1966 might just be this weekend’s return of Mark Myrie, better known as Buju Banton.
Myrie, perhaps the most famous Jamaican artist whose name isn’t Marley, has served seven years in a US prison after being found guilty of intent to deal more than 5kg of cocaine. On 8 December, the gravelly voiced rastafari artist will be put on a plane in Florida and flown to Kingston to a nation that has been eagerly awaiting this moment.
Jamaica’s culture minister, Olivia “Babsy” Grange, reports that Buju Banton “is now really about, from what we understand, employment of young people. If he can help shape and resocialise young people, that is something we should embrace.”
That said, the government isn’t pulling out any stops. “We can’t give him a hero’s welcome,” says minister of national security, Horace Chang. “He committed a crime.” And yes, Grange agrees, “There’s no getting over the fact that he was convicted, but Buju was loved long before he was convicted and he will be loved just the same, even if he comes home in handcuffs.”
Raised in Salt Lane, a poor area of Kingston, the man nicknamed Buju by his mother honed his craft as a child, performing live with sound systems under the name Gargamel aged 12 and recording by the following year, 1987. Jamaica fell for Banton in the early 90s, when he established himself as arguably the most significant dancehall artist in the country. Banton was beloved for his baritone grit, raunchy songs such as his ode to short shorts, Batty Rider, and his responsiveness to his audience. When some fans felt excluded by his hit Love Me Browning, about a penchant for lighter-skinned women, he followed it up with the equally catchy Love Black Women.
Reggae artist Protoje says: “There is nothing that he cannot do musically. He’s a prodigy. He was awesome from 18 years old. He is one of the greatest artists to ever do it in Jamaican music, so I would never count him out.”
In 1992, he overtook Bob Marley’s record for No 1 singles in Jamaica and signed with Mercury Records. Less happily, he also released the most infamous Jamaican song ever recorded, Boom Bye Bye, which openly incited the killing of gay people. It received local and international condemnation, culminating in the the Stop Murder Music Campaign, organised by UK group OutRage! in collaboration with Jamaican LGBT-rights group JFLAG.
The campaign ultimately led to concert cancellations – 28 of Banton’s were cancelled between 2005 and 2011. In June 2007, he signed the Reggae Compassionate Act, which meant he agreed “to not make statements or perform songs that incite hatred or violence against anyone from any community”.
Banton wrote Boom Bye Bye when he was 15, and has since found other lyrical topics. In 1995, he released the critically adored ’Til Shiloh, which embraced rastafari consciousness and demonstrated his versatility, as fluent in hardcore dancehall as roots reggae. Since his imprisonment in 2011, a new generation of reggae artists have gained global success, and Banton will have to compete with with likes of Jah 9, Raging Fyah and Kabaka Pyramid; Chronixx and Protoje drew 10,000 fans to London’s Alexandra Palace only last month. “The last album he released prior to his incarceration was Before the Dawn, for which he won a Grammy,” notes Sonjah Stanley Niaah, author of Dancehall: From Slaveship to Ghetto. “What’s interesting to me is that Buju will have to come to terms as a stage presence with a reggae revival.”
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