It’s Buju Banton’s 39th birthday today and it ‘hurt mi to mi heart’ that he’s behind bars. Buju should be walking like a champion down Redemption Street. Instead, he’s trapped in Uncle Sam’s conspiracy to derail his career. It’s not an easy road he’s been forced to travel.
The Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison certainly understands the difficult path of the Rastaman as he ‘trods’ through creation. In her poem, “The Road of the Dread”, she declares:
That dey road no pave
like any other black-face road
it no have no definite color
and it fence two side
with live barbwire
And no look fi no milepost
fi measure you walking
and no tek no stone as
dead or familiar
for sometime you pass a ting
you know as . . . call it stone again
and is a snake ready fi squeeze yu
or is a dead man tek him
possessions tease yu.
That poem, published in 1980 in Goodison’s first collection, Tamarind Season, uncannily predicts the way in which a snake-in-the-grass squeezed Mark Myrie, teasing him with the possessions of a dead man. That trip to the warehouse to inspect a boat turned out to be a one-way street to catastrophe.
Brought down by a paid informer, Mark Myrie seems to have carelessly forgotten what Buju Banton knows about the ways in which the political systems of the West work to spread propaganda against the innocent. In his prophetic pan-Africanist chant, ‘Til I’m Laid to Rest, on the ‘Til Shiloh album, he details his sense of alienation in the Diaspora and his longing for repatriation.
‘Til I’m laid to rest, yes
Always be depress
There’s no life in di West
I know di East is di best
All di propaganda dem spread
Tongues will ha fi confess
Oh I’m in bondage living is a mess
And I’ve got to rise up alleviate the stress
No longer will I expose my weakness
He who seek knowledge begins with humbleness
Work 7 to 7 yet mi still penniless
Fa di food upon mi table Massa God bless
Holler fi di needy an shelterless
Ethiopia await all prince and princess
A decade ago, when ‘Til Shiloh was released, Buju’s bondage was metaphorical. Today, it’s all too literal. Having foolishly exposed his weakness – running up his mouth with a stranger – Mark Myrie is paying a terrible penalty. He’s facing the prospect of incarceration for fifteen years.
Myrie could have been given a mere three-year sentence if he had yielded to the temptation of a plea bargain. But he has resolutely refused to concede guilt. Some may say he’s foolish to hold out for justice. But those of us who believe in his innocence completely understand why Mark wants his name cleared.
Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention
‘Til Shiloh was a decisive turning point in the artist’s stellar career. It marked his transition from dancehall DJ to roots reggae Rastafari icon. Buju’s first two albums, Stamina Dadda and Mr. Mention, both released in 1992, are classic dancehall. Most of the tracks focus on sexual love. Buju pays respect to the shape and flexibility of the well-endowed woman in tunes like Mampy Size, Bxtty Rider and Love How the Gal Dem Flex. But it’s not only the woman’s body that Buju admires. It’s also her intelligence and her capacity to make her way in the world: “Unu move up inna life no doubt about that”.
The early albums also include the exceptional ‘bad-man’ tunes Gun Unnu Want and Man Fe Dead. Assuming the persona of the Hollywood gangster, Buju Banton discharges dangerous lyrics with unbelievable bravado: “Di amount a gun wi have wi can’t run outa stock”; and “Gun shot fi bus up inna informer head”.
But there was also the occasional politically charged song that anticipated Buju’s later preoccupation with social justice. In How the World A Run from the Mr. Mention album, Buju takes up the mantle of the Warner man:
Where food is concerned there is a problem
Uman can’t find food fi gi di children
While di rich man have di chicken back a feed di dog dem
But woe be unto dem
He who rides against poor people shall perish inna di end
Voice of Jamaica, released in 2002, featured even more tunes focusing on social issues: Deportees (Things Change), Operation Ardent and Wicked Act featuring Busta Rhymes.
On tour in France in the 1990s, Buju had a Damascus Road conversion. At the launch of his Rasta Got Soul album at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Buju told a compelling story of the impact of Burning Spear’s performance: “Di man deliver such a set dat if dem never call mi right weh, mi just run come back a Jamaica. So mi inna di dressing room now an mi start tink inna mi self, it start come to me, ‘Mark, you’re not ready for this. No, you’re not. Yu lickle Bxtty Rider an yu lickle Love Mi Browning weak. Dis bigger dan you, man.’”
The very next day, Buju turned to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for a spliff and advice: “Lee, mi waan music, Iyah! Weh mi see di I dem a do, an mi see dem a play, mi cyaan, mi mi waan music, man.” This is how ‘Scratch’ responded: “Heh heh heh heh heh! Yu have to go out and make the music that the people can feel wid a humanistic approach.” The result was the masterful Til Shiloh.
‘Til I’m Laid to Rest documents Buju’s trod across Africa and his ‘overstanding’ of Marcus Garvey’s vision of African Redemption:
What coulda bad so bout di East?
Everybody want a piece
Africa fi Africans, Marcus Mosiah speak
Unification outnumber defeat
What a day when we walkin down Redemption Street
Banner pon head, Bible inna hand
One an all mek wi trod di promised land
Buju go down a Congo stop inna Shashamane Land
Di city of Harare is where Selassie come from
In Addis Ababa then Botswana
Left Kenya an end up inna Ghana
Oh, what a beauty my eyesight behold
Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold
Keep the faith, Buju! You’ll soon be walking down Redemption Street again.