From the first time Buju Banton crossed the Caribbean Sea to find success in America, he has beaten a unique path. Most of his peers crafted Dancehall anthems that still get the party started in any urban nightclub, leaving the “culture”, or more conscious – almost religious – music to the elders who had toiled to develop the genre into what it has become today. Buju somehow found a balance.
His earlier work brought him respect from his mainly young, urban fan base, as it equally brought criticism from a mainstream that refused to further examine the source of his lyrics. Yet on Buju Banton’s sophomore album, the Grammy-nominated Til Shiloh, he showed signs of growth and a spiritual depth which his contemporaries seemed to avoid.
Now, ten years after the release of the album, which was named by Rolling Stone as one of the best albums of the ‘90s, Buju Banton is still walking like a champion; fighting for a nobler cause with his newest – and mostly self-produced – album, Rasta Got Soul. In a fascinating conversation with AllHipHop.com Alternatives, Buju discusses taking his crusade further with his most personal release to date.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: You are still as successful today as you were when Til Shiloh was first released in 1995. To what do you attribute that longevity? How do you keep yourself current?
Buju: Basically, we try to make music that I feel people can gravitate towards and people will feel and embrace it even further. Sometimes it’s the things that you actually facing in your life and facing some pain about. People identify with that also.
AHHA: A lot of your music addresses some of the hardship that Jamaica goes through, and a lot of the things that are universal to the African Diaspora throughout the Third World. Many of those experiences are not things that most Americans can relate to. How do you make those issues easier to grasp?
Buju: They can relate to it, but the major thing is the information is not being given to dem and it’s been suppressed. And whatever dem hear about countries in the Diaspora and in the Caribbean, or any Third World nation for that [matter], is always something negative. And it never entice them to check the real place out, to see the real people or the real culture. All they do is jump on the bandwagon and start demonizing it also. Those who have the medium to speak to the people can start singing music that is one time in our life someone can reflect on it and say, “Well this mean something to me, because it makes me feel like when I was going through this pain or this heartache ‘cause my brother died, or… something happened when I get some emotion, ya know? And this time I could relate it because it help me to feel that special way. Like someone is looking out for me.”
AHHA: “Magic City”, the first single from your new album, is an ode to Kingston. What is the reality of Kingston right now?
Buju: The political landscape of the Caribbean is pretty much like the political landscape of a ancient colonial system. But this time it’s different: people have taken civil matters into they own hands. And therefore, chaos rules, y’understand? ‘Cause there’s no guidance and no direction. So chaos looms. You have topics of violence in every community, in every country; even in America there’s nothing news from that. [People] act like America is the safest place on earth; it can be just like Jamaica, just like Port-au-Prince, [Haiti], right? At the same time, you have to focus on the positive tings, because the negative tings is all they tell the people about. When you focus on the positive tings, then people learn it’s also a magical place too. It’s not only a burial camp. It’s got magic.
AHHA: Describe some of that magic.
Buju: For instance my life. [Coming] from the poor social side of things, I was granted a [chance] through the force and through the open doors of music to talk to the people and reach out to the masses. And I’m truly grateful for that opportunity. And I know many situations and many individual who could not determine what they’re gonna be tomorrow and are grateful for what dey are today. “Look at what the hardship,” some would say. I would say because of how we are brought up not having a lot, never exposed to a lot, so when opportunities arise we take full advantage of these opportunities and expound upon them greatly.
AHHA: Throughout your career, you’ve been very involved in humanitarian efforts benefiting Jamaica. Tell us about your Operation Willy, which you founded ten years ago.
Buju: The organization itself tends to the kids and people with HIV, from the standpoint of looking out for them and making sure that whatever necessities they have we can give it on a local level, by coming in and giving to them, and just try to be their.
AHHA: How is that going now?
Buju: Operation Willy has been stagnant for a couple of years now because of my recent run-ins with the law. I have been able to reach out to a lot of people who normally make themselves available for the task of working with Operation Willy like how they used to. But we hope to get all these things back on track.
AHHA: Rasta Got Soul features more of a “roots” sound, which a few of the songs on Til Shiloh. What usually grabs American audiences is the up-tempo, the riddims they play in the clubs. What made you decide to take a departure from what’s prevalent in the market right now?
Buju: All of us cannot be going in the same direction. It’s gonna create a bottleneck and some tragic accident at the end of the day, ya know? I like to make music with diverse feeling, ya know? And I am blessed I can make all type of music: Reggae, Dancehall, a likkle bit of Ska. That just like I can make a full Reggae album, no Dancehall, because I know the Dancehall album come right after.
AHHA: You did all of the production on this one?
Buju: Not in it’s entirety, but the songs were done with my producers in my recording studio.
AHHA: What is the message that you are trying to bring forth with this album?
Buju: Rasta Got Soul is about 15 tracks, with one combination: Buju Banton, Wyclef Jean- the only one collaboration on it. There’s no Dancehall on the album, let me state. All roots Reggae, uplifting, giving food to Rasta and the world. Soul music, so to speak, soul food. The first single is called “Magic City”, as we discussed earlier on. But therefore, I want to let you know that magic on the album Rasta Got Soul [is] a powerful work, a powerful piece of art that can inspire, truly uplift and truly rejuvenate, ya know?
AHHA: How did you decide on that title?
Buju: People don’t know that there’s a soul inside of dem. A lot of people deny that, ya know. And I want everyone to realize that you have a soul; each and every single person have a soul, even the animals have a soul. So, it’s through the force of love and the powers of love, anyone can feel Jah. You can feel Jah through a total connection, a spiritual one.
AHHA: You mentioned the duet with Wyclef. How did that come about?
Buju: We created a masterpiece I know the world is gonna love when dem hear it. It’s called “Bedtime Stories”, which relates to a little girl, or a little boy as the case may be, who’s missing their mom or their dad and looking to figure out why they have failed to come home and learning a tragic incident has overtaken. Not to make it so drastic and harsh, but make it musical.
AHHA: How come you decided not to collaborate with any other vocalists on this album?
Buju: Well this one is Buju Banton. I got so much to say right now and I just want the people dem to hear what I have to say, on my own.
AHHA: Are you working any other projects through your label, Gargamel Music, at this time?
Buju: We got a new compilation coming out on a riddim called “Smile”. That’s a Dancehall album we working on right now.
AHHA: How has being CEO of your own label influenced your career?
Buju: Well I’m working for myself. You work hard for others, so why not put some energy into doing stuff for yourself? And the feelings back are greater.
AHHA: What are the biggest changes that you’ve perceived about yourself, and about the world, since you first came into the limelight ten years ago?
Buju: The biggest thing I perceived about myself as changes is I’ve [gotten] to be more aware of who I am and who I’m among. More so, I’m careful of what I say among them. The world? There’s no such thing as freedom, as they all blab their mouth and say. There’s no such great word as democracy; it’s a lie. The minority cannot rule the majority and as it is in the world today, the minority of people who are wealthy rule the majority of people who are poor.