Winding and Long

When Buju Banton plunges his hand into the bowl of coconut milk, his forearm is black and slim as the letter 'I' on a blank page. Even standing in a humble kitchen in Miramar, he is a prophet. His gestures speak of larger things than steamed fish and pigeon peas and rice. Or maybe what he is saying is that there are no larger things in life than steamed fish and pigeon peas and rice. War, poverty, slavery, all the evils he decries in his reggae songs are at root a denial of the simplest sustenance. Laughter, love, a woman's upright posture, all the pleasures he celebrates as a dancehall DJ are so many versions of the sweetness of coconut milk or of a meal shared among friends.

Drying his hands at the sink, Buju is all straight lines: long fingers and long limbs, thin torso, his face lean too, his dreads pulled up into a narrow cascade at the back of his head. Just when those lines seem set, though, when you feel you know that yes, this is Buju Banton, he shifts. With a mischievous toss of the head he flicks his dreads at his assistant cook, Yardie, who is busy cleaning fish. As Yardie retreats, fish knife in hand, a smile full of impossibly white teeth cuts a perpendicular line across Buju's face.

Part slack DJ, part Rastafari, Buju Banton is an artist at odds. Thirty years old, he is an international reggae superstar revered from Kingston to Brixton to Tokyo. Yet seventeen years into his career he still struggles as an underground artist in the United States. That might change soon: The release of his seventh album, Friends for Life, comes at a time when dancehall reggae is finally making serious inroads into U.S. pop music. Perhaps even more important, his label, independent reggae powerhouse VP Records, has partnered up with major label Atlantic Records, making it more likely that Buju's music will be heard by the American pop market. But then again, Buju knows, maybe nothing will change. He's been down this road before.

Soon enough he'll head out on a 60-city tour of the United States in as many days; a nonstop blur of spotlights, hotels, airplanes, and restaurants that runs into May. Gearing up for the tour, Buju spends a few days among his breddren, hitting radio shows and performing his latest songs at South Florida's biggest sound system, the Friday-night Madhouse party in Key Biscayne. He was supposed to shoot a video for his first single, "What Am I Gonna Do?" while he is here, but a scheduling conflict pushed the shoot back a month. So on this unexpected holiday in a friend's house just north of Miami, he is cooking a good meal just the way his mother taught him.

Before the son she named Mark Myrie made it big, Mama Myrie was a higgler; she sold green groceries to support her fifteen children down Salt Lane, a suffering suburb of Kingston. The Myries got along best they could; likkle Mark was such a pudgy thing his friends called him Buju, patwa for breadfruit. Whoever would have thought he'd grow up to be so famous, or so skinny?

Papa Myrie loved to sing. After a day of factory work Buju's dad would play Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Otis Redding at home or he would head out to the street corner with his friends and fill the night with the rough ocean-scraping bass he would later pass on to his son. Once, Buju says, his father was so eager to break into the music industry that he broke into a recording studio, only to be chased away by an angry producer. "He was so embarrassed," Buju recalls. "I told him that is the humiliation you have to go through to get there. It's not an easy road."

Mark Myrie knows. He set out on that road when he was eleven years old after being transfixed at a show by rude boy singer Burro Banton. Buju began to haunt the outdoor sound systems, thrilling at the feel of the bass line rumbling through his belly. He recorded his first single, "The Ruler," at age thirteen. By the time Myrie turned seventeen, he had all but moved into the Penthouse Records recording studio in downtown Kingston. Legendary producer Donovan Germaine didn't mind. "From an early age Buju showed a commitment to the craft," remembers Germaine, who has worked with Buju throughout his career. "When you audition a person and every song they do is a good song, a personal song -- that inspired me to see what else he had to offer."

Those early songs were so good that Mr. Mention, Buju's 1992 debut album, broke Bob Marley's record for number one singles in Jamaica in a year with songs like "Batty Rider," "Love How the Gals Dem Flex," and "Love Me Brownin'." But if Buju knew what young Jamaica wanted to hear, he did not find a receptive audience in America. When dancehall replaced roots reggae as the youth's music of choice in the late 1980s, the new genre's stars literally spoke a language U.S. listeners and critics didn't understand. DJs mined rich Jamaican English for raunchy metaphors and rude in-jokes while aggressive, computer-generated riddims replaced reggae's rock-friendly rhythm guitars. For many roots fans, the new music was incomprehensible if not offensive. Mr. Mention's macho braggadocio and the violent homophobic posture of songs such as "Boom Bye Bye" ignited a firestorm of protest by gay-rights activists in the United States.