A 12-year-old sensation in the dancehall music scene of Jamaica, Buju Banton later scored a series of number-one hits in his homeland as a teenage deejay and performer. Banton’s debut on the international stage, however, was marked by controversy as his openly anti-gay song “Boom Bye Bye,” which advocated the murder of homosexuals, brought on threats of boycotts against his major-label record company. Although Banton insisted that he was not supporting anti-gay crimes, he stood by his lyrics as an expression of his religious beliefs against homosexuality. Indeed, as part of his growing commitment to the Rastafarian religion, Banton focused more on spiritual issues on his subsequent albums. Steering clear of the violent themes that marked much of Jamaican dance-hall music in the 1990s, Banton found new critical respect, though some listeners continued to be disappointed in his refusal to disown “Boom Bye Bye.”
The youngest of 15 children of a street vendor, Mark Anthony Myrie was born on July 15, 1973. Growing up in the Salt Lane ghetto of Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, Myrie knew firsthand of the poverty and struggles that characterized much of slum life. Gaining the nickname “Buju” for his chubby build, which resembled that of the large, round breadfruit (called “buju” in the local slang), Myrie took part in dancehall deejaying while still a youth. Later, he would adopt the surname “Banton” in honor of another deejay, Burro Banton, who served as an early mentor. When he was 13, Buju Banton started appearing as a deejay in local clubs; before long, he was writing his own songs and appearing as a performer.
In the wake of Bob Marley’s roots-oriented reggae of the 1970s, Jamaican music was dominated in the 1980s by the harsher sounds and lyrics of ragga and dancehall music; one popular form, slackness, focused on sexual boasts that were often explicit. Once he began recording, Banton’s work typified the slackness genre with songs such as 1991’s “Love Me Browning,” his first number-one single in Jamaica, and “Love Black Woman,” another hit that same year. Based on his string of hit tracks and the popular 1992 album release Mr. Mention, Banton signed up with Mercury Records. The major-label deal promised to broaden the performer’s fan base throughout America and Europe.
In 1992, Banton recorded a song employing the gangster violence themes that characterized ragga music in a diatribe against homosexuals. The track, “Boom Bye Bye,” contained lyrics that—as translated into standard American English—said, “Get an automatic or an Uzi instead/Shoot them now,” and “When Buju Banton arrives/Fagg*** have to run/Or get a bullet in the head/Bang-bang in a fagg**’s head/Homeboys don’t condone nasty men/They must die.” The song raised a huge outcry from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in New York City, and some radio stations there banned the song. Newsweek labeled the track
Born Mark Anthony Myrie on July 15, 1973, in Salt Lane, near Kingston, Jamaica.
Began performing as a deejay at 13 years old; released first album in Jamaica, Mr. Mention, 1992; raised controversy over anti-gay song “Boom Bye Bye”; major label debut, Voice of Jamaica, 1993; subsequent albums, ’til Shiloh, 1995, Inna Heights, 1997, and Unchained Spirit, 2000, feature mix of spiritual and social themes.
Addresses: Record company —Epitaph/Anti-, 2798 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90026, websites: http://www.anti.com, http://www.epitaph.com. Website —Buju Banton Official Website: http://www.bujubanton.net.
“hate-hit” filled with “vile bile.” Despite the outcry, Ban-ton stood by his lyrics and refused to issue an apology. Mercury Records issued a press release under the artist’s name (later reprinted in a Spectator Online review) that said, “I do not advocate violence against anyone and it was never my intention to incite violent acts with ‘Boom Bye Bye.’ However, I must state unequivocally, that I do not condone homosexuality, as the lifestyle runs contrary to my religious beliefs.” In a 1996 interview with a reporter from the Yüsh Ponline website, Banton claimed that the attacks directed at him were racist in nature. Commenting that the impact on his career from the song’s bad publicity was “All negative,” Banton added, “But it’s a white man’s [world] so what do you expect.” Banton also refused to stop performing the song, telling the interviewer, “If my audience say they want ‘Boom Bye Bye,’ they get ‘Boom Bye Bye’ and that’s my song, you know.”
Mercury carried through with the 1993 release of Voice of Jamaica, an album that contained social protest songs such as “Deportee” in addition to the safe-sex track “Willy (Don’t Be Silly).” Banton used the profits from the latter’s single release to fund a charity for children infected with HIV in Jamaica. However, the quality of Voice of Jamaica and the star’s charity work did not entirely abate the controversy that had served as his introduction to most listeners in North America and Europe. Although Banton received some positive reviews, his sales did not match that of fellow reggae artists Shabba Ranks and Shaggy, who found mainstream success with record buyers around the same time.
Banton released his next album, ’til Shiloh, on the Loose Cannon division of Mercury Records in 1995. The album was notable for its use of live musicians instead of computerized instruments, which had become the standard practice in dancehall music, ’til Shiloh surprised the critics who expected Banton to deliver more lyrics focusing on sex and violence. Instead, the artist released “a serious, religious tract almost fundamentalist in its approach,” according to a Music Business International review. Some of Banton’s new direction came from his increased involvement in the Rastafarian religion; Banton also used the personal tragedies that befell some of his friends to call for an end to violence. “Murderer” was one such track: a tribute to a deejay killed after a dance in Kingston, the song broke away from the glorification of violence that characterized many dancehall lyrics.
Most critics welcomed Banton’s new emphasis on spirituality and social protest in his lyrics; in contrast, some of his fans were not as pleased. At a concert in New York to promote ’til Shiloh in early 1995, Banton faced an audience that wanted to hear his older, more explicit material; some audience members walked out before the concert was over. Despite the hardship in keeping his old audience while exploring new themes in his music, however, Banton forged on with another Rastafarian-influenced album in 1997, Inna Heights. With tracks that featured a variety of tempos and themes, from spirituality to romantic messages, “Inna Heights goes a long way toward further establishing Banton as a ghetto messenger of peace and social justice—a role few expected he would ever be grown-up enough to play,” as Rolling Stone commented. A Q reviewer agreed, concluding that “All taken, his natural lyricism above booming Jamaican rhythms makes for an album of supremely spiritual dancehall, some distance from his notoriously anti-gay anthem, ‘Boom Bye Bye.’”
Now viewed as a successor to the legendary Bob Marley, Banton was described by Billboard in a 1999 reggae review as “the sole contemporary artist capable of bridging reggae’s dancehall and prayer grounds and satisfying both urban music heads’ yen for ‘hard’ sounds and roots-reggae fans’ desire for inspiration.” Yet major success in terms of sales was still limited outside of Jamaica. Even though ’til Shiloh had sold about 300,000 copies worldwide, Banton still waited for a commercial breakthrough. His live shows in New York City and other reggae strongholds in the States, however, frequently sold out.
Banton released Unchained Spirit in 2000 on Anti-, a division of the independent label Epitaph. Featuring collaborations with ragga artist Luciano as well as the punk group Rancid on the track “No More Misty Days,” Unchained Spirit also explores musical styles from American gospel and soul to Jamaican ska and rock steady. Continuing the artist’s musical quest, “It’s an album full of political and philosophical searching,” a Rolling Stone review concluded, noting that Banton had “cooled, softened, and expanded since he turned Rastafarian in the mid-Nineties.” Like his contemporary Beenie Man, Banton remained true to his reggae roots while expanding the traditional subject matter and musical forms of the genre.
While he had traveled far in his music over the space of just a decade, however, Banton remained a focal point for protests against anti-gay violence in Jamaica. “Boom Bye Bye” remained a powerful anthem on the island’s dancehall scene, and human rights advocates continued to criticize its role in perpetuating violence against homosexuals. “The music has become a form of rallying cry, a cry of solidarity to rid the country of what is largely perceived as a disease,” one gay rights supporter told the Miami Herald in August 2001. “We have a problem when young people in the island know about killing a battyman [homosexual] before they even know what a battyman is.”
Mr. Mention, Penthouse, 1992.
Voice of Jamaica, Mercury, 1993.
’til Shiloh, Loose Cannon, 1995.
Inna Heights, VP, 1997.
Unchained Spirit, Epitaph/Anti-, 2000.
Broughton, Simon, et al., editors, World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 2, The Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Billboard, June 17, 1995; July 17, 1999.
Miami Herald, August 10, 2001.
Music Business International, June 1996.
Nation, July 5, 1993.
Newsweek, November 9, 1992.
Q, February 1998.
Rolling Stone, March 5, 1998.
“Buju Banton,” Anti-, http://www.anti.com/buju/frontpage/index.html (September 4, 2001).
“Buju Banton,” Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/recordings/review.asp?aid=22036&cf=4051 (September 5, 2001).
Buju Banton Official Website, http://www.bujubanton.net/biography.html (September 4, 2001).
“Buju Booms By and By,” Yüsh Ponline, http://leevalley.co.uk/yush/rewind/yush0101/buju.htm (September 5, 2001).
“The Voice of Jamaica,” Spectator Online, http://www.spectatoronline.com/2000/093000/sound.html (September 5, 2001).
Born: Mark Anthony Myrie; Kingston, Jamaica, 15 July 1973
Genre: World, Reggae
Best-selling album since 1990: Voice of Jamaica (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Murderer"
Rude boy reggae singer/songwriter, the youngest of fifteen siblings raised in a slum, Buju Banton managed a 180-degree turnaround in social attitudes over his decade-long career. From the scandal he caused at age nineteen, calling in his song "Boom Boom Bye Bye" (1992) for violence and death to be reigned upon Jamaica's homosexuals, Banton has become a spokesperson for AIDS education, composer of the first Jamaican song advocating condom use, and advocate of religion.
The parents of Mark Myrie (as Banton was named at birth) were impoverished street vendors, but claimed direct descent from the Maroons, Jamaican blacks who carried on a long fight against the colonizing British for freedom and independence. Mark Myrie's nickname "Buju" means breadfruit; it refers both to his baby fat and the weight of his patrimony. He took the name Banton, a word for a skilled dancehall storyteller, from Burro Banton, another dancehall performer he admired. At age thirteen Banton wielded a mike behind a dancehall sound system, and he began recording thereafter, starting with "The Ruler" (1986). Even then his hoary voice belied his youth, and he had a wild, wooly nihilism to match them both. His album Mr. Mention (1991) broke all Jamaican sales records, including those set by famous Jamaican singer Bob Marley.
Banton's conversion to greater tolerance and social consciousness has been gradual, and while it was surely the wise, if not necessary, response to the outpouring of criticism leveled at him for "Boom Boom Bye Bye," he appears to be genuine in his commitment to a shift of position. That most offending song, upon its release, was just another in his series of harshly worded, sexually explicit, and provocative songs such as "Bogle," "Love Me Browning," "Love Black Woman," and "Big It Up," all co-written with his then-engineer/producer, David Kelly. Raw language delivered with breathless articulation over nonstop reggae beats advanced Banton to the head of his dance floor class.
However, protests from gay organizations in the United States and tourist boards throughout the Caribbean islands resulted in Mercury Records asking its artist to write a statement about the song. He did so, but justified his antigay sentiments with reference to the Bible and his religious beliefs.
Banton evidently rethought his readings and conclusions following the incident. He became a Rastafarian and subsequently his lyrics exhibited more interest in love than sex, more generosity and consideration behind his positions, and concrete devotion to his causes. For instance, proceeds from his pro-condom song "Willy (Don't Be Silly)" from his album Voice of Jamaica (1993) were donated to fund his Project Willy, created to help AIDS-afflicted children.
Banton's subject matter and his music have both matured. On "Murderer" he delivers an unflinching diatribe against exploitive and destructive elements of dance-hall culture as exemplified in the shooting deaths of two aspiring reggae performers. The song reached the top of the charts in Jamaica; its success inspired imitation, and may have influenced some DJs to stop playing gun-happy songs. His mixes are complex, often pitting his hoarse gargle against lighter, more melodic male voices. 'Til Shiloh (1995) shook up the assumptions of the dancehall genre, formerly an exclusively synthesized and computer-generated music, by returning to the use of a live-in-the-studio band with horn section. Banton's success is not confined to Jamaica; 'Til Shiloh was cited as one of the Top 20 albums of the year by Spin magazine, and Banton is reputed to be the first dancehall DJ to sell out New York City's 5,600-seat Paramount Theater.
Banton consciously courts a crossover audience. On Unchained Spirit (2003) he ventures beyond his dancehall purview to sing ska, gospel, soul, and African highlife-inspired tunes, with guests including his reggae rival Luciano and punk rockers Rancid.
Mr. Mention (Penthouse, 1992); Voice of Jamaica (Mercury, 1993); 'Til Shiloh (Loos Cannon, 1995); Inna Heights (Loos Cannon, 1997); Rudeboys Inna Ghetto (Jamaican Vibes, 2000); Dubbing with the Banton (Germaine, 2000); 'Til Shiloh [Expanded] (Universal, 2002); The Voice of Jamaica [Expanded] (Universal, 2002); Want It (NYC Music, 2002); Friends for Life (Atlantic, 2003); Unchained Spirit (Epitaph/Anti-Gravity, 2003).