Almost twenty years into his career, Buju Banton might be reggae’s most polarizing artist. He is loved by his fans the world over, and loathed with as much passion by his detractors.
It’s appropriate, seeing how he is able to effortlessly move between two distinct worlds – he has become reggae’s spiritual savant, but remains dancehall’s consummate ‘rude bwoy.’
As the headliner at the inaugural Guyana Music Festival, he embraced the dichotomy, switching easily from an old-school dancehall one minute a roots reggae ballad the next.
Exploding out on to the stage, knees pumping high, and dreadlocks swaying back and forth, the physical intensity he transmitted was enough to work the tiring crowd into a frenzy. Almost every song was echoed by a resounding chorus of the multitude at the stadium. Bogle initiated a break-neck flow until Destiny finally signalled the rhythmic downturn, all delivered in the distinctive rasping vocals that have come to be known so well by now.
It didn’t last for long and it was no time before he was running the gamut of his extensive catalogue.
Not surprisingly, very little consideration is given to reggae music before Bob Marley. Marley’s Catch a Fire along with Peter Tosh’s Legalize It were a huge leap from Toots Hibbert’s Do the Reggay in 1968 and they remain cultural benchmarks unto today. Unfortunately, very few of their successors have been able to capture the political urgency that was infused in their music. Certainly, Marley and Tosh were bent on engaging the reality of their times, while most of today’s acts are more apt to escape it altogether. It seems while reggae is inherently political, the derivative dancehall is inherently escapist.
In the last decade or so, it was Buju Banton who emerged the unlikely exception to the rule, with 1995’s Til Shiloh, 1996’s Untold Stories and to a lesser extent 1997’s Inna Heights. Each was a classic in its own right, yielding the most conscious songs of the decade, including the hits Murderer, Not An Easy Road, and the eponymous Untold Stories. He had engaged with the reality of the time, producing the most timeless music of his career.
It goes without saying that Buju Banton could be the biggest reggae star in the world. But since the 1992 release of Boom Bye Bye he has been a lightning rod for criticism by the members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (GLBT) community, who often cite the song as a prototypical example of what they have come to label ‘murder music.’ Although he has renounced violence, Banton remains unapologetic about his homophobia, most often citing his religious convictions as he is a member of the Rastafarian movement. As a result of his stance, there had been calls for him to be pulled from the night’s line-up. It was unsurprising then, that throughout the show he continually ranted against gay men:
“Buju no like batty boys,” he told the cheering crowd, “and dem batty boy attack Buju.”
His defiance was met with loud cheers from the crowd, culminating when he began the refrain, “Boom Bye Bye