Buju Banton performs during Garance Reggae Festival 2003 in Paris.
Buju Banton performs during Garance Reggae Festival 2003 in Paris.
Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage

Anticipation Builds for Buju Banton's Long-Awaited Return From Prison

UK producer Blacker Dread says he has a full album of new Buju songs.

“It’s not an easy road,” sang reggae star Buju Banton on a standout track from his classic 1995 album Til Shiloh. “Many see the glamour and the glitter so they think a bed of rose/ Me say, who feels it knows/ Ooh Lord, help me sustain these blows.”

It’s been nine years since the Jamaica-born recording artist was arrested at his home in Florida and eventually convicted on drug-related charges. (Banton had been targeted and pursued for over a year by an undercover federal informant, and it took two trials for the charges to stick.) Since that time his music has remained a staple within reggae and dancehall circles, but Buju’s fans haven’t had much in the way of new music.

Banton’s last studio album, the 10-track project Before the Dawn, was released in September 2010 -- one day after his first court case ended in mistrial -- and won a Grammy Award for best reggae album. A mere handful of tracks have dropped since then, most notably “Jah Army,” a collaboration with Stephen “Ragga” Marley (who put up his own Florida home to secure bail so Buju could get out of jail while he fought his case) and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley. Other releases, including the solo cut “Set Up the Mic” and “Those Dayz,” a collaboration with Agent Sasco, were culled from older recording sessions.

Demand for Buju Banton’s music remains high despite his prolonged absence from the recording studio. A$AP Rocky recently named him “one of my favorite reggae rappers,” while DJ Khaled stated: “I love Buju so much. His music is like praying.”

With Banton scheduled for release from McRae Correctional Facility in Georgia in December, anticipation is building for new recordings by the artist. “There is a big void without Buju Banton in the music,” says veteran reggae singer Cocoa Tea. “We would like to see Buju free because Buju is one of I and I soldier. People make mistakes along the way and no man is perfect, but I and I love Buju Banton like how Jesus love little children... So we would love to see Buju Banton on the street.”

“He was always touring, always working. He started that work as a teenager, and he worked until he was decades into his career,” says Pat McKay, director of programming for reggae at Sirius XM. “In that time he built a world community fanbase.

They still miss him and they still want to hear from him. His work still has value, it’s still quotable and the aspirations of that work will always ring true. He was consistent about what his interests were, about feeling as if he represented the voiceless. He was very, very concerned with those he felt that he spoke for.”

Last October, Sean Paul visited Buju behind bars and posted on social media that he spent three hours talking with the artist whose music has evolved over the years from hardcore dancehall to roots reggae. “Still very focused,” Sean Paul wrote. “Has Not Broken!!! Teaching Classes @ Times 2 Inmates!!! Keeping Fit An Eating Healthy!!! Bare Joke An Serious Discussions As well!!!”

Buju will return to a music scene that has changed dramatically since the time he was first taken into custody. On the worldwide pop charts, reggae and dancehall sounds are more prevalent than ever before, thanks to international artists like Drake and Major Lazer, both of whom released their breakthrough records in 2009, the same year Buju was arrested. Meanwhile, music in Jamaica has drifted in other directions. Despite a “reggae revival” movement led by artists like Chronixx, the core sound of the Kingston streets trends toward hardcore dancehall and “island pop” fusion more so than the conscious roots direction in which Buju was heading.

“Buju Banton’s music makes bad people wanna do good,” says Beres Hammond, who collaborated with the artist on records like, “Who Say” and “Little More Time” and has shared many stages with him. “In my estimation, he would do more good out here than being in there. Personal relationship has nothing to do with the law but I really wish that he was out here. We’re missing one of our messengers, ya know? This is me speaking from the heart. We need people like him out here.”

The most recent Buju Banton release is “Stumbling Block,” a collaboration with Freddie McGregor produced for Blacker Dread Records by the British sound system selector of the same name. “I actually had a track on Buju's last album called ‘Innocent,’” says Blacker, a fixture in the UK reggae scene who is the subject of the recent BBC documentary Being Blacker, directed by Molly Dineen.

Blacker says Buju’s latest song, which hit iTunes in March 2017, was recorded in Florida while the artist was on house arrest and still fighting his case. “Listen to the words,” Blacker explained exclusively to Billboard. “‘Early one morning I was surprised.’ He's actually talking about the morning when he was raided by the police.”

The track is part of a full-length project that Blacker has kept under wraps for years while awaiting Banton’s release. “I have a 13-track album with Buju Banton that we recorded just before he was incarcerated,” says Blacker Dread. “I didn't think it would be right putting it out without Buju being around to promote it and give it the kudos that it deserves, ‘cause I know he's gonna be coming home soon.”

The respected British reggae producer calls the project “arguably my biggest thing I’ve done in the music industry to date—although it’s not out and people have not heard it.” He says the album is as yet untitled. “I've given it so many names,” says the producer. “First it was Buju's Bible, then it was Buju in Exile. My last title that I had for it was Just Believe,” which is also the name of one of the songs on the project. “Titles for the album kept changing, so I thought ‘You know what? Let me just wait till Buju comes home and we will sit down and decide.””

 

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A post shared by Buju Banton (@bujuofficial) on

“It’s a very exciting time. After 9 long years Buju Banton’s redemption is at hand,” states Joseph Louis Jr of A-Team Management, the artist’s official representatives. “Buju is looking forward to performing for his fans again and releasing new music. We are currently in negotiation with a number of promoters and sponsors in Jamaica and elsewhere.” Earlier this week the @BujuOfficial instagram account posted a sign in Jamaica reading, “Be ready for the REUNIFICATION 12.08.18 Buju Banton.”

“It would be great if something positive could happen that would sort of balance with what seemed a great negative when he was removed from the music-making community,” says Pat McKay. “I hope something good happens in a big way.”

If the Blacker Dread album is indeed released as the producer describes, it would be Buju’s first full project with a single producer since he recorded Mr. Mention with Dave Kelly at Donovan Germaine’s Penthouse Records in 1992.

“It was such an exciting time,” recalls Pat McKay. “When Mr. Mention had been released in Jamaica, all the songs on that album made it to the top legitimately. It broke a record in Jamaica: since Bob Marley no one had had 10 #1s in a row. And Buju Banton was able to do that.”

That same year, Blacker Dread recorded a song with Buju called “Yardie,” released in the UK on the Blacker Dread label and in Jamaica on Xterminator Records. “We just connected because of the music,” Blacker recalls. “I used to go to Jamaica and I'd be at the studios hearing him recording tunes. As a Rastaman, Rasta and Rasta just link up.”

They began working after Banton visited Blacker Dread’s now defunct record shop in South London. “Buju sees me as one of the eldest pioneers of UK reggae,” he recalls. “It was wonderful. He actually came to my shop and he said to me, ‘Blacker, how comes you no record no Buju Banton? You don't like Buju?’" Blacker told him that, to the contrary, recording a song with Buju was one of his “all time dreams.” They agreed to make it happen then and there.

“I had riddims already made and we had a little studio in Brixton,” says Blacker. “Overnight, he called me like 4 o'clock in the morning and said, ‘I'm ready, what time can you get the studio for?’” Blacker booked an engineer and they went in the next morning. After giving the artist a copy of their day’s work, Blacker received another late-night phone call. “Buju rang me up—again, maybe 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning—and said ‘Yo Rasta, we haffi go do an album.’"

A former selector for Sir Coxsone Sound in South London, Blacker describes himself as “Buju’s number one fan.” He sometimes refers to the artist as “Buju Marley” because he says he considers Banton “the closest thing to Bob Marley” in modern reggae. “They've got Bob as the king and I have Buju as a king in his own right,” says Blacker. “I believe that Buju's music, in 50 years time, will be so important to people growing up.”

As the film Being Blacker details, the producer himself endured a 15-month jail sentence for money laundering. “Sometimes you have to go into the lion’s den to find out what’s really going on,” says the man who marched through Brixton with Nelson Mandela and counseled many members of his own community to stay away from crime. “The people can only tell you about the lion, but if you don't go into the den, you would never know. It’s not something that you want to do, but sometimes life takes you in directions that you would never have expected.” Despite his incarceration Blacker says he was determined to “turn his experience into an advantage rather than a disadvantage.”

He began DJing on a radio network that can be heard in over 170 different prisons across the UK. “There was no way I was just going to sit there,” Blacker says. “I knew I made a mistake and I knew I had to contribute something.” He also used his expertise and connections to build up the prison station’s reggae collection.

Blacker says he decided to release “Stumbling Block” because of the song’s message. “Another stumbling block, another hidden trap,” Buju sings on the record. “The four songs that we did while I was in Miami are all basically about what was happening to him at the time. He got his bail and he couldn’t leave his house. That’s the reason why I put out ‘Stumbling Block’ because of what it’s actually stating.”

“There are all these trite expressions: that’s the measure of a man, how he responds to adversity,” says Pat McKay. “But we’re talking about someone’s life—and someone with a large family. So I am hopeful for all of them that he will stay strong. Because so far from what we know, he is still strong, he is still standing.”

Beyond his own recordings Blacker says he’s looking forward to the new songs Buju will record once he’s a free man. “I don't know if I dreamt it,” he says, “but one morning I woke up thinking `Buju's probably written about 10,000 songs while in prison.’ I can imagine what it’s gonna do for the music industry. I think when he takes up the mantle again, he will be unstoppable. He probably won't have to write songs again for the rest of his life.”

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