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.
"I put out a record at the age of nineteen and I have had a brutal education in the way the system works," Buju complains. "A brutal education."
Even Banton's masterpiece, 'Til Shiloh, fell victim to that system. By the time he released that album in 1995, the young rudie had converted to Rastafarianism. His new faith charged his brash dancehall delivery, backed by a live band, with breathtaking roots conviction. Nominated for a Grammy and acclaimed by many critics as one of the best reggae albums of all time, 'Til Shiloh stalled at number 148 on the Billboard album charts in large part because Buju's label at that time, Loose Cannon, lost its deal with parent company and now-defunct major label Polygram. "All that breakup was starting to happen around the time his album came out," remembers former Loose Cannon employee Aaron Talbert. "The followup suffered. A lot of what happens to these records is about the commitment of dollars."
Currently director of sales at VP Records and project director for Friends for Life, Talbert sees better days ahead. "Reggae music is making strides [in the mainstream] once again," the Detroit native observes. The recent evolution of hip-hop production has stoked a new appreciation for dancehall in the United States. "You can credit Timbaland with borrowing from reggae," says Talbert of the hit-making hip-hop producer with a gift for working the open spaces in a beat much like dancehall's riddim wizards do. "I don't want to say that hip-hop is biting from reggae, but the sounds are merging more. It's less a hip-hop-reggae thing than a contemporary urban feel."
That emerging urban feel helped the decade-old VP label land its first album in the Billboard pop charts with Sean Paul's platinum-certified Dutty Rock. Eager to tap the trend, Atlantic Records formed a partnership with indie VP to amp up the promotion and distribution of what the Atlantic folks are calling the "dancehall hip-hop niche." While Atlantic jumped on the buzz created by Sean Paul's single "Gimme the Light" after it was released, Friends for Life is the first album to be handled entirely through the VP/Atlantic partnership.
"[Buju] seemed like he would be perfect for us," Talbert reveals. "With a new deal like this you [as a record company] want to put your best stuff forward and really deliver."
On another no-video-shoot afternoon in Miami, Buju Banton keeps hitting the repeat button on the stereo of my Volkswagen Passat. Then he leans back into the passenger seat, half closes his eyes, and sings along to his new song "Up Ye Mighty Race." Moved by his own tribute to Jamaican-born African nationalist hero Marcus Garvey, the reggae star throws his head back and grins a beatific grin. As we follow his friend's mint green Cadillac Escalade through the maze of one-way downtown streets to Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market on the Miami River, an ominous bass line pulses from the speakers like the beat of a broken heart or the march of a wounded army. Liberty and democracy are truly expensive/Can even cost your life, Buju cries, shaking his dreads. Pumped by his own message, he laughs, "This is my favorite song on the album." Then he hits the repeat button again.
The sing-along comes to an end when Buju spies an upscale auto accessories store on a side street as we creep through the lunch-hour congestion. "I'll have to remember this and come back," he says to himself. He likes fast cars, he says, to get his adrenaline going. Otherwise his life is so boring. "Don't you think that's boring?" he demands. "Answering questions all day?" Point taken.
A few minutes later, when I point out the Historical Museum of Southern Florida on our right, he launches into a lecture on the plunder of Third World treasures by European and North American museums. Our own historical museum actually showcases the living Caribbean musical cultures of South Florida, but that is beside Buju's point.
"I don't go in there," he insists. "Them slavery museums, full of things taken from other cultures. I don't want to see that." This reminds him of the way Western history glosses over slavery and that, even more painfully, reminds him that many of the children of the African Diaspora would rather forget that history themselves. "We just let slavery pass," he laments. "Some people don't even want to remember [the history] about themselves. What can we do about this?"
Before he can answer, a flaming red motorcycle cuts across the street in front of us and flies onto the I-95 expressway.
"Bumbo klaat!" Buju exclaims, giddy with speed. "What was that?"
Buju's moods shift as fast and furious as the genres do on Friends for Life. The eighteen tracks skip from the militancy of "Up Ye Mighty Race" to the old-school ska of "Feeling Groovy" to the R&B appeal of "What Am I Gonna Do?" to the lover's rock-rap "Good Times" featuring beloved Jamaican crooner Beres Hammond and thuggin' Nuyorican rapper Fat Joe. On the beautiful acoustic ballad "All Will Be Fine," the Rasta comforts the poor with a mournful moan backed by the lush harmonies of the Sons and Daughters Choir. Then on the dancehall-hip-hop track "Paid Not Played" -- featuring the Surprise riddim laid by Troyton Remi, the Miami-based producer responsible for Sean Paul's biggest hits -- the slack toaster is awed by wealth as he praises a woman for "pushing Escalade and rocking Prada."
No matter how much Buju might like fast cars and expensive women, the souljah in him is wary of leaving the underground if that means promoting only bling-bling, at the expense of his more radical message. "I don't want to reach the masses if that means being muzzled," he insists. "The major labels, they are looking for someone to represent reggae music to the world, but they keep choosing the wrong person. They need someone who can represent the whole of Jamaican music." For hard-core fans, Buju is already the chosen one.