Interview: Buju Banton Is a Lyrical Purveyor of African Truth

Buju Banton sits in a record store.
Photo: Shawn Theodore via Schure Media Group/Roc Nation

Buju Banton.

A candid conversation with the Jamaican icon about his new album, Upside Down 2020, his influence on afrobeats, and the new generation of dancehall.

Devout fans of reggae music have been longing for new musical offerings from Mark Anthony Myrie, widely-known as the iconic reggae superstar Buju Banton. A shining son of Jamaican soil, with humble beginnings as one of 15 siblings in the close-knit community of Salt Lane, Kingston, the 46-year-old musician is now a legend in his own right.

Buju Banton has 12 albums under his belt, one Grammy Award win for Best Reggae Album, numerous classic hits and a 30-year domination of the industry. His larger-than-life persona, however, is more than just the string of accolades that follow in the shadows of his career. It is his dutiful, authentic style of Caribbean storytelling that has captured the minds and hearts of those who have joined him on this long career ride.

The current socio-economic climate of uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrusted onto the world, coupled with the intensified fight against racism throughout the diaspora, have taken centre stage within the last few months. Indubitably, this makes Buju—and by extension, his new album—a timely and familiar voice of reason in a revolution that has called for creative evolution.

With his highly-anticipated album, Upside Down 2020, the stage is set for Gargamel. The title of this latest discography feels nothing short of serendipitous, and with tracks such as "Memories" featuring John Legend and the follow-up dancehall single "Blessed," it's clear that this latest body of work is a rare gem that speaks truth to vision and celebrates our polylithic African heritage in its rich fullness and complexities.

Having had an exclusive listen to some other tracks on the album back in April, our candid one-on-one conversation with Buju Banton journeys through his inspiration, collaboration and direction for Upside Down 2020, African cultural linkages and the next generational wave of dancehall and reggae.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Buju Banton poses in front of a wall with a finger on his temple.Buju BantonPhoto: Shawn Theodore via Schure Media Group/Roc Nation

Well, here we are. It's been over a decade. People have always felt this profound connection to your music… it's almost like talking to an old friend. What was the inspiration, what did you want people to walk away with from this Upside Down 2020 album?

First and foremost, I do not want people to walk away. I want them to walk right in. It's a new body of work, new level of consciousness, awareness, opening your eyes to the things that are happening all around you. We have been in constant denial and bombarded by things we have to deal with in our daily life, we don't pay attention to the things that are happening around you. Let us begin from scratch. Listen to what I gotta say. I'm not trying to sell you a product—I'm trying to open your mind.

How long ago did you start writing for the album?

It doesn't matter because music is every day. I don't have a starting point, so I can't say January, or February. Music is my life and this is what we do, it's always been what I do—I live, eat, sleep music. I've been giving the people music ever since I was a little kid; some you take, some you choose, some you dissect to suit your own agendas. Nothing has changed, I'm still the same me, doing what I was sent here to do.

You know, I think back to "Til I'm Laid to Rest" which is about your spiritual connection to the African continent—Congo, Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, Ethiopia—and in continuing that journey with this new album, what has it meant for your African connection?

I am an African. I am a direct link, with ownership and right to the land. A connection is an alien approach with the intent of making yourself a part of it. That's not we—I am an African, Ethiopia, of sunburnt skin... through years of my devotion, my land of birth, origin, through various ancestors and years of separation. That (devotion) never died, it keeps blazing. I know who I am and when you know who you, that is the greatest achievement. We have been divided by territorial boundaries and describe us as various neocolonial nationalities but you have lost your way along the way. Because if you acquired wealth and a good house, and talk the Western way… how beautiful is it? Do you know any of the cultures of your forefathers? How can we speak love to trump the hate? How can we speak unity and try to divide them? How can I say "I love you" and your heart speaks bitterness and contempt? Upside Down. Upside Down.

Buju Banton -

It's no secret that you've been such an inspiration to so many afrobeats artists, particularly to the new generation such as Burna Boy, Bobi Wine, Mr. Eazi and others who cite you and dancehall, more broadly, as a major influence. How does that make you feel, to know that?

In 1993, I had my first trip to Africa. I spent two weeks in Ghana and along the West Coast. I spent most of my time educating people about what dancehall is and what it is I do, and just genuinely enjoying Africa. Coming in 2020, seeing that bridge and seeing that musical connection so strong, it makes my heart feel so high. We are a people divided and separated by a vast amount of body of water, and all we have been fed is propaganda. We are realizing who we are as a people: we respect who we are, we are more honest with who we are, kinder with who we are, more love for each other. We were a great civilization even before the advent of current civilizations.

There's a little bit of everything on this Upside Down discography – classic reggae, deep cuts of dancehall, amazing R&B tones with that John Legend collaboration. It's not something we've quite heard from you before. Was there ever a time where you second-guessed the creative direction?

Well, I've worked with John Legend before on "Can't Be My Lover." With reggae lovers rock, we celebrate our own culture, so this would be a follow-up to what we would have done in the past. It's not something we're trying to re-introduce, it comes natural because it's a part of our culture, so it will always interest us. And now that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, nothing that you would have listened to all your life will offer you any comfort. We stand unapologetic because we know that our music of Zion must be the Holy music.

You dropped "Blessed" a couple weeks ago and it sent everyone into a frenzy! It feels like such a classic Gargamel sound, that bravado talk is always an element that people associate with your music.

"Blessed" is about paying homage to the true and mighty Universal Creator that brought me through the depths from the days of my youth to now, before my enemies and friends alike. To let the people know that the blessing of God is everlasting. That's what it's about—not bravado or machismo. Blessings of God with the adversities in my life that I've been through – it didn't break me. I'm blessed.

Buju Banton sings on stage.Buju BantonPhoto: Phillip "Fox" Williams.

I also gotta talk to you about this Pharrell collaboration, "Cherry Pie", which to us has a bit of Soca music element that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Was it intentional to give the world a true essence of what Caribbean sound can look and feel like beyond the scope of reggae music?

You make this distinction between Trinidad and Jamaica, and I see us as one people, with one common thread that binds us together apart from our complexions. Listen to me: the common thread that binds us together is our love for the Almighty. We might speak different languages, different accents, different dialects, different hues and different shades – but we are one people. And there is a reason why we as a people, we suffer. We suffer primarily because for one, we don't know who our enemies are, we kill our own for the enemies' sake and think we're doing something good. And who are they? They are always in the background formulating our thoughts, dividing us with territorial lies that create issues that real Trinidadians and real Jamaicans do not have. So when we remove the blockades that inhibit us as a coalition of people, there is a harmonious reality to finding our own self. And that's what my music is here to do: (for) listening, (and) educating my people.

And your music has always led revolutions… you can't spell revolution without evolution. Having witnessed the growth in the industry for over 30 years, what is your biggest takeaway from the current state of music?

On this frequency that we're on right now? We're maxed out. We're not on the same frequency musically for the last 200 years. And what has it done to our people? You tell me now. Has their consciousness risen? Look at it from a Soca perspective. What has Soca done for your people? Has your people's consciousness risen through Soca?

It's a lot to think about, especially because when I heard "Cherry Pie," it just felt familiar. Music acts as this kind of cushion, but it also has this panopticon effect, like holding up a mirror to yourself.

And that was the original intent. With "Cherry Pie," I mean, Pharrell totally delivered on that track. And that's what we want the music to do—resonate with the people. Our musical frequency has a spirit, and we need to change it. Go back to what it was… more harmonious with nature, harmonious with vibe, harmonious with the Universe. But many minds don't understand that because their minds are dark. They are trapped. We need to uplift, educate and stimulate with a higher consciousness.

Well, there are going to be a lot of people that may not be receptive to the idea of expansion of sound as it relates to your body of work, while some of the reggae traditionalists might feel a little left out at this modern direction that you've taken.

Sister, I could not save everyone ennuh (laughs). That is not my intent, my intent is to do my work as a servant. When I serve you, it's your responsibility to eat or not. You understand? A new time is coming where you can't hide behind pen and paper and cloak up the truth with some jargons and prettying it up to make it seem appealing. Those days are gone ennuh. Even as a journalist, you create for a bigger purpose that lies ahead. Those days of platitudes are long gone. Only the truth alone will make good, and the onus is on I to tell them the truth.

So as somebody who is seen as an industry leader-

I see myself the same way too (laughs) I must confess!

Naturally so! So where would you like to see reggae go from here?

You know, with reggae music... we have to re-explore ourselves. I think the frequencies that we have been operating from have been exhausted. The musical harmony is not there. Some of the things that have happened, they cannot happen anymore and we know that this frequency needs to change. The music that I'll be offering is coming from a place of peace, a place of love.

Was that your intent when you collaborated with Stefflon Don and Steve Marley?

The song with Stefflon Don is what we call a girl's song, because anyways it must be music that we love to enjoy without having blatant sex lyrics. I'm not going to sing about sex, I'm not doing that. The song is suggestive and it's entertaining which is to me, the effect. It will allow you to play it in the car with children without feeling like we're violating them.

So it's about balance?

It's about balance, absolutely.

You have a beautiful song called "Buried Alive." It's such a timely song, almost prophetic. Even with the uncertainty of what lies ahead, that weighty burden for everyone to bear right now, you said "you've got a feeling and there must be a reason." What is the reason?

Ah! Can I decline to answer this question? Because you just answered it for me (laughs). But there is a reason, and you guys gonna find out soon. You getting to listen to it wasn't a mistake. There is a reason… and the world is going to know soon.

Tenille Clarke is an avid wanderlust, publicist, storyteller and cultural enthusiast. Based in Trinidad and Tobago, she pens about her ongoing love affair with travel, culture and entertainment through a Caribbean lens.