Photos: Jamie Crawford-Walker/Getty; Peeter Viisimaa; Jean Baptiste Lacroix
When speaking with Buju Banton, your job is to be less interrogator and more listener. Big ears and patience are required. The 46-year-old legend may not answer queries with the precision you desire, but he will do exactly what he’s done throughout his 30-year career: educate.
Ever since revolutionizing the reggae scene in 1992 with instantly classic debut and sophomore efforts — along the way shattering Bob Marley’s records for №1 songs in Jamaica — the man born Mark Anthony Myrie has offered tutelage via incomparable lyricism and cadence. Buju taught us how to walk like a champion; how to love people for who they really are; how to Bogle! And throughout, he spoke truth to power and put on for the sufferers.
Whenever a prophet informs their people that the present normal is actually abnormal, severe heat tends to follow. Buju’s own walk through fire began on February 22, 2011, when he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on conspiracy charges with the intent to traffic cocaine. (He ultimately served seven.) Although the singer relinquished his right to appeal, he maintains his innocence; indeed, uncertainty surrounds the case, from a paid U.S. government informant to tainted jury proceedings.
Yet the feds weren’t the first to take aim. In the years following his ’92 hit “Boom Bye Bye,” the song’s homophobic lyrics landed Buju at the center of a gay-rights firestorm. He ceased performing the track more than a decade ago, and removed it from streaming platforms last year shortly after his December 2018 release. “I recognize that the song has caused much pain to listeners, as well as to my fans, my family and myself,” he said in a statement at the time. “I affirm once and for all that everyone has the right to live as they so choose.” Still, the damage was done; while Buju refuses to talk about the song, he believes he’s never quite shaken off the bull’s-eye for lyrics he wrote as a 15-year-old.
Back then we had a rule: N.F.F.A. — not fit for airplay. It was the goal of every entertainer to be fit for airplay. Since I’ve come back, they’ve shifted all of that, trying to merge into what Americans are doing and losing their way. Why would a rapper want someone who sounds like them on their record?
Prison has a way of altering a person, wrongful incarceration or not. Buju hasn’t changed much, but his distrust toward the world to which he came home has deepened. His upcoming 11th studio album, Upside Down 2020 — due early summer — offers cautionary takes on anything governed by man-made systems. (“Mankind is in a state of disarray,” he says of the title, which also refers to the album’s 20 songs.) He’s joined on the project by fellow legends Pharrell Williams (“Cherry Pie”) and John Legend, who brings Beres Hammond vibes to the sublime new single “Memories.” The days of bigging up pum-pum shorts seem to be behind him; these days, Buju would rather talk about the issues that are urgent to him, from marijuana legalization to the new generation of dancehall to his disdain for texting.
You may not agree with his views on the Covid-19 pandemic; you may not believe that he never viewed Shabba Ranks as competition. Doesn’t matter. Buju Banton is a G.O.A.T. — the greatest dancehall artist of our lifetime.
LEVEL: How are you, king? Family well?
Buju Banton: Everyone is good, Bonsu. Giving thanks for life. How are you?
The family is good, so I’m blessed. Last year, you played me a bunch of music off your new album, and I remember you talking a lot about gratitude, about how much you appreciate your journey. I recently heard some of the even newer stuff, and your song “Blessed” stuck with me. What do you feel most blessed about today?
I am grateful that the Lord has preserved me, Mark Anthony Myrie, to witness this dispensation. Because it was prophecy. Touch not the Lord’s anointed and do His prophets no harm (Psalm 105:15). So I am grateful that I have risen from Hades in these times to witness this dispensation. It is the greatest show that I have witnessed in all my life. I need more popcorn.
You’ve also said, “I was buried alive, but I’m still breathing.” Is that analogy for your time incarcerated or another time in your life?
There’s no analogy. Those words speak for themselves. The intent of my oppressors was to destroy me mentally, but fortunately they did not succeed. I was buried alive, but God never forsake me. For that I am grateful. God don’t make mistake. God is wonderful and whatever he does is perfect.
How did you feel about the state of dancehall during your “forced vacation?”
When I was coming up, we were singing songs like “When mama spend her last and send you to class you a never play.” We were not only singing it for our children; we were singing it for a future generation of youth going to college. We were empowering the future leaders of tomorrow. To break the cycle of poverty, it rested upon us: the ’70s babies. We have to play a part in our music.
I don’t smoke dispensary herb. Once the herb comes with a false prophet, it does not possess the spiritual potency. Herb is a spiritual thing. It’s not for High Time magazine.
Were there any dancehall artists that you felt carried the torch in your absence?
Nobody moved the needle but Vybz Kartel. If you hear the Baby Chams and the Vybz Kartels, they are all emulating what we did in the early ’90s, because we took the time to make sure the foundation was correct for the coming generation. Now everybody have a laptop flooding the industry with all kind of commonality with no substance. Back then we had a rule: N.F.F.A. — not fit for airplay. It was the goal of every entertainer to be fit for airplay. Since I’ve come back, they’ve shifted all of that, trying to merge into what Americans are doing and losing their way. Why would a rapper want someone who sounds like them on their record?
Speaking of rappers, let’s talk weed. Your song “Ganjaman” allows you to freely address your relationship with marijuana. Cannabis is accepted more in the U.S., but I know its use remained frowned upon in Jamaica…
The previous administration implemented draconian laws to criminalize marijuana, CBD, and all affiliates. In 2003, police run up into my Kingston studio finding one marijuana tree that was growing in the garden; they hauled me off to jail, hauled me off to court to take away my (traveling) visa. But God was in the mix. It didn’t work.
Why do you feel marijuana has gone from a consumption crime to a multi-million-dollar business?
You think the White man has just learned to make money from marijuana? Marijuana — especially hemp — was always important to the American industry before the invention of plastic. All the ships, the military gear was made from hemp. The invention of plastic meant one industry must die if another must thrive. Hence, marijuana was the focus of their attention. It was criminalized and placed in a category way higher than where it should be. But now the world is waking up to learn that this blessed herb has so many medicinal benefits and financial rewards. Now who’s benefiting?
Those with wealth and privilege.
Not the man who went to prison! Not the man who was abused! Not the man who lost his freedom! Not the man whose family grew up without a father because he was in prison for two pounds of marijuana! Everyone knows that marijuana is the only thing that can settle the mind and open the mind back to the greater realities of truth. So what they have done is placed themselves into the marijuana industry and created a hybrid marijuana that make you want to sleep, make you hungry, make you lethargic, make you dumb and vulnerable. They killed the original strain of sinsemilla. Now they have stuff named Pink Pussy, all kind of fuckery.
Have you visited any dispensaries?
I don’t smoke out of bloodclot dispensaries. I visit, yes, for different reasons: to get knowledge for myself. But I don’t smoke dispensary herb. A guy can’t handle my herb. Once the herb comes with a false prophet, it does not possess the spiritual potency.
Herb is a spiritual thing. It’s not for High Time magazine.
Your song “Trust” really captures your disbelief in most things sanctioned by the federal government. You’re on Instagram, but you have a major issue with texting…
I have trust issues. Not because I have done anything wrong. The way we define ourselves has shifted so much that there’s no social interaction between human beings. It’s hard. You have to figure out what this text means. What context is written. Then you find yourself thinking for the other person. That’s too fucking much. Call me on the phone.
You came up during a time when Jamaicans saw roots as the purest form of reggae, and dancehall as a street fad — similar to hip-hop in America during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Where did you source the confidence to push forward in spite of the disbelief?
It is written that when one has the power in their mind and believe within their spirit that they can say to a mountain “move,” that mountain shall be moved. That is confidence. Trusting in your abilities as a man to go beyond; to realize your full potential without limitations. I’ve always had an awareness. If you listen to my music, I’ve been talking to you people all my life, until they stopped me and put me in prison. I can’t go from house-to-house, telling you what to think, so let your conscience be your guide. That is an angel over you. I’ve never told you anything but the truth.
Before your emergence, Shabba Ranks had become one of the first dancehall artists to cross over in America. Did you ever see him as competition?
No, no. That’s my brother. Music to me is a mission, not a competition. The words of Shabba Ranks and all those great stalwarts before me enabled me to be here. How can I compete with my teacher? Anyone who precedes you and did something that fascinates you is your teacher.
Shabba had exceptional talent and a few hits, but his career didn’t last as long. What would you attribute to the longevity that allowed you to transcend years, eras?
I don’t compare my work to anyone or to any man, for that matter. I know that anything I do, I do from a pure space, a pure mindset, a position of love, a position of righteousness. I ask Father the Almighty to bless and sanctify anything that I do. Guide me and protect me so that whatever I do may be a light. Not only for my generation, but for future generations.
Your breakout songs like “Stamina Daddy,” “Quick,” or “Gold Spoon,” while some of my favorites to this day, weren’t exactly expressions of higher enlightenment. They spoke primarily with bravado and machismo…
Stop for a minute and let’s examine these songs. A lot of people point to my early works as something taboo. “Stamina Daddy” — let’s examine it. “I am the stamina daddy for all the girls. Tell all the girls to run come to Buju Banton.” It’s saying that girls love me; Mark is nice. There’s nothing wrong with being around me. My stage shows sometimes seem a little excited, but I’m still a loving guy. Nothing nefarious.
“Quick,” what is that saying? “Quick, someone call the owner. A sound boy just died in here.” Our drive is to kill a sound, but people misconstrue it to mean a physical sound. I’m talking about a sound that leads us backwards. I’ve never shed any light on this before. Let me shed some light on this with you. Whatever is coming through your radio, we call it sound. What if I tell you the frequency that is emitted from your radio, your brain registers it. The frequency that we’re functioning on is wrong. It drives us to all the things we see happening in the world. So you think that we’re going to kill a sound system, but there is a deeper symbolism. We’re crying out to go back to the original sound that harmonizes the universe.
How do you feel your music has evolved from the early ’90s to 2020?
Once a man and twice a child and so shall the music reflect.
There’s a lot to reflect these days. How long have you been quarantining?
How long have you been quarantining? Social distancing?
Are you losing your mind? [Laughs] I am not quarantining.
Oh, this is going to be good. Why not?
Staying away from people? Why? Because the system says I must stay away from people? I don’t follow the system. Have you seen any of these fake newscast reporters on the television wearing a mask? Listen to me. I’m all right. My family is all right. My friends are okay, and God is good.
Do you know anyone who’s been affected by Covid-19?
What I know is that major pharmaceutical companies are testing people who feel funny and all of a sudden they come down with coronavirus. And most [people] going into the hospital are not coming out. That’s what we know. If you know something else, tell me.
I think I’d rather hear you right now.
Those who are aware are not in fear. Those who are not aware, they live in fear. We just know that they tell people to stay home. The numbers are not adding up. We know that something bleak is going on. How ironic that coronavirus — this great mysterious killer — only attacks New York City, Brussels, London, Paris, Saudi Arabia, all these major cities. Maybe I’m dumb.
Everyone knows you’re far from that. There are far fewer cases of infection and death in the Caribbean compared to the larger cities you mentioned. What’s your theory on this fact?
It’s a reset. It’s good for us. Those who are not grounded are running amok. Those who are grounded in themselves know that the system as it was could not continue because it was set at default. When you come to a world where your existence and your labor pales in comparison to someone who is doing the same thing, having the same existence, you find it so difficult to survive. You feel like a hamster.
So you’re saying this virus is a sort of worldwide karma for global classism and inequality?
No, those are your words. I realize the closed-minded nature of a lot of people. No one wants to think outside the box. I just cannot see with my rational eyes what is being forced upon me to believe. And then the media is out there with so much confusing advice: You should go outside; you shouldn’t go outside; you can go outside to buy something at the supermarket; you cannot buy seeds to plant vegetables. Ludicrous. [Laughs]
Let’s rewind the tape a little. You didn’t live with your father until you were age 11. Was that because, in your mother’s household, you were the youngest behind 15 sisters?
No, no. Not from that perspective. I didn’t know my father. He was never an absentee father, I just never lived with him. So I wanted to know the man that help bring me unto this Earth. I was looking to get more knowledge as it concerned the world. I needed a father figure around me because I grew up with 15 sisters. My dad was a very practical man. So he imparted those wisdoms and that knowledge on me.
Today, you are the father of 15 children yourself. What did your father pass down to aid you in becoming a great dad?
My father always teach me: Know yourself and love the Lord, your God, and do no evil. I don’t need anything else from my father. That’s the greatest message he could ever give me. Very simple message, but how powerful.
You’ve spoken on being surprised that your father supported your dancehall dreams. What did your mother think of your music pursuits early on?
My mother was quite supportive. Before I turned to music, I was an engineer. My first job was at Smith’s Engineering, because that was my profession in school. I used to make rollers for National Bakery. So she wondered why I left that. But it was a terrible experience because of the metal. It wouldn’t allow me to sleep.
Your music has always addressed Jamaican politics, from the government to gang culture. As a youth, how did you navigate the pressures of joining a gang or choosing a side?
Rasta cannot be involved in politics. You have to hear the voice of the people. The voice of the voiceless. And growing up as a young man, I have always had a determined spirit and that temperament where even if I know people and gangsters, I always made sure I said, “Look, the people come first.”
Were you protected by the streets because you were a rare talent?
Gangsters don’t protect Buju. Jah protect me. I am friends with everyone. I don’t cry preservation. I must be able to call peace. I must be able to bring warring and arguing to the table and say, “Let’s start over.” So if I take the side of pushing violence, then that takes away my privilege to bring peace. And Rastaman is peace. Peace and love.