Buju Ban­ton

Home­com­ing for Ja­maican singer freed from US jail

The Guardian - - WORLD - ‘It would be even bet­ter if he could ac­knowl­edge and apol­o­gise for those lyrics, but the main pri­or­ity is that he doesn’t re­peat them’ Peter Tatchell Gay rights cam­paigner Erin MacLeod Kate Chap­pell

The most ea­gerly awaited ar­rival to Ja­maica since the Ethiopian emperor Haile Se­lassie touched down in April 1966 might just be to­day’s re­turn of Mark Myrie, bet­ter known as Buju Ban­ton.

Ban­ton, 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. The grav­elly voiced Rasta­fari artist will to­day 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, says that 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 the minister of na­tional se­cu­rity, Ho­race Chang. “He com­mit­ted a crime.” And yes, Grange agrees, “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 at the age of 12 with sound sys­tems un­der the name Gargamel, and record­ing by the age of 13. Ja­maica fell for Ban­ton in the early 90s, when he be­came, 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. 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,” says the reg­gae artist Pro­toje.

In 1992, Ban­ton over­took Bob Mar­ley’s record for No 1 sin­gles in Ja­maica, and signed with Mer­cury Records. In Au­gust of that year he 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 Stop Mur­der Mu­sic cam­paign, or­gan­ised by the UK group Out­Rage! in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Ja­maica Fo­rum for Les­bians, All-Sex­u­als and Gays (J-Flag).

The cam­paign ul­ti­mately led to 28 concert can­cel­la­tions 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 his ver­sa­til­ity, as flu­ent in hard­core dance­hall as roots reg­gae.

Since his jail­ing in 2011, a new gen­er­a­tion of reg­gae artists have gained global suc­cess, and Ban­ton will have to com­pete with the 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, the au­thor of Dance­hall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto. “Buju will have to come to terms as a stage pres­ence with a reg­gae re­vival.”

Artist of the mo­ment Spice, real name Grace Hamilton, is ex­cited about Ban­ton’s re­turn: “It is ex­tremely sig­nif­i­cant ... his mu­sic up­lifts our roots and cul­ture. His first concert in Ja­maica will prove that.” Ban­ton’s Long Walk to Free­dom tour (named af­ter Nel­son Man­dela’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy) is ex­pected to be­gin in Ja­maica on 23 March.

It is ru­moured that he has been writ­ing songs and reach­ing out to

po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tors. There is at least one al­bum ready to go. The UK pro­ducer Blacker Dread re­leased the tan­ta­lis­ing Stum­bling Block sin­gle last year, one of a range of tracks recorded in the early 2000s but held back be­cause of the death of Dread’s son in 2004 and then

Ban­ton’s im­pris­on­ment. “Man is a king,” says Dread, “I have tracks with Buju that are time­less.”

Un­like the sim­i­larly revered dance­hall artist Vybz Kar­tel, who still seems able to re­lease track af­ter track de­spite serv­ing a sen­tence of at least 35 years af­ter a 2014 con­vic­tion for mur­der, Ban­ton has been all but silent.

In a state­ment to the Guardian he de­scribed the im­pact of im­pris­on­ment. “Prison can be trau­ma­tis­ing, not just on my­self but on my fam­ily, as well as emo­tion­ally drain­ing,” he ex­plained. “For me, I drew strength from im­mers­ing my­self in my sit­u­a­tion. Do not live in yesterday but in to­day. Ed­u­ca­tion was the only thing that kept me up and alive. I im­mersed my­self in read­ing the­ol­ogy, phi­los­o­phy and other sub­jects.”

Peter Tatchell, the hu­man rights ac­tivist and for­mer mem­ber of Out­Rage!, is con­fi­dent Ban­ton will

con­tinue to put the past be­hind him. “It would be even bet­ter if he could ac­knowl­edge and apol­o­gise for those vi­o­lently ho­mo­pho­bic lyrics, but the main pri­or­ity is that he doesn’t re­peat them,” he says.

Dane Lewis, a for­mer di­rec­tor of J-Flag, says “the re­al­ity is that [in Ja­maica] the most vul­ner­a­ble con­tinue to face some ex­treme forms of ho­mo­pho­bia ... but in the last 10 years we have seen some shifts re­gard­ing ho­mo­pho­bia and the ways LGBT in the re­gion ex­pe­ri­ence life”. via so­cial me­dia in ad­vance of his re­lease: “In light of the ad­ver­sity I have en­coun­tered, I feel the need to stress that my only de­sire go­ing for­ward is peace and love. I just want to con­tinue mak­ing mu­sic, which I’ve devoted my life to. I look for­ward to the op­por­tu­nity to say a per­sonal thanks to my fans and ev­ery­one who sup­ported me.”

▼ ‘Prison can be trau­ma­tis­ing,’ said Buju Ban­ton. ‘Ed­u­ca­tion was the thing that kept me up and alive’ PHO­TO­GRAPH: ANDY COTTERILL/CAM­ERA PRESS

▲ Ban­ton was one of the most pop­u­lar stars, per­form­ing around the world

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