Homecoming for Jamaican singer freed from US jail
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