(VP Records/Germain Music)
By Joshua Green
It's not too tough these days for a fallen star to clamber back into the public's good graces. Marv Albert hit the talk show circuit before the ink was dry on his plea bargain; a newly penitent Mike Tyson landed a gig with the World Wrestling Federation; Latrell Sprewell got an arbitration hearing. Seems anything short of murder--sorry O.J.--is forgivable if you're famous.
But what if you simply advocate murder? Of a certain minority--say, gays?
That's what dancehall-reggae champion Buju Banton did about six years ago, and now he's counting on his latest album, Inna Heights, to act as the Everest of apologies. And it's no mere pardon he's looking for--he's practically positioning himself as a spiritual leader. But the facts surrounding his epiphany are as controversial to reggae fans as Jimmy Swaggart's dalliances with prostitutes were to evangelical Christians.
Banton's original transgression was a single called "Boom Bye Bye," released in the U.S. in 1992. Its message was startlingly clear: shoot the fags and shoot to kill. And its timing couldn't have been worse: had Banton not been poised on the brink of international stardom, the tune likely would have come and gone unnoticed. But the early 90s saw a heavy stateside demand for dancehall artists, particularly as collaborators with hip-hop artists. So when Banton replaced Shabba Ranks as the premier dancehall artist back home, it seemed only reasonable that he'd fare well here. Then, just after Banton signed with Mercury Records, "Boom Bye Bye" was released on the New York-based VP label.
By this time the record was four years old in Jamaica, where it hadn't caused any fuss. Dancehall's nasty lyrics had long ago lost their shock value there, much as gangsta rap's have here. Banton's ugliness was neither the first nor the worst--before he was signed to Columbia in 1992, Mad Cobra had released "Crucifixion," which proposed a much more dramatic means to the same end advocated by "Boom Bye Bye."
Nevertheless Banton was quickly vilified by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which succeeded in getting the song pulled off the radio in New York City. In his defense, Banton said that homophobia was part of Caribbean culture and that homosexuality was prohibited in the Bible. GLAAD and Mercury eventually squeezed a vague, antiviolence apology out of him, but it was more carefully worded than a Clinton denial and did little but fan the flames. Ranks, who defended Banton on British television, was bounced from both the Tonight Show and an opening slot on Bobby Brown's U.S. tour following further protests by GLAAD.
But somewhere between that episode and the release of his Mercury debut, Voice of Jamaica, in 1993, Banton found Jah, and the new album testified to his sudden conversion to Rastafarianism. He espoused religion, righteousness, and heavy-handed authority over just the sort of ghetto violence he'd been glorifying a few months earlier. Banton's reinvention of himself was roundly greeted with skepticism. Detractors--and there were plenty of them--questioned his credibility, noting that Banton's hopes of international stardom just happened to hinge on mainstream U.S. acceptance of the sort that a gun-waving gay basher wasn't likely to find.
Though Voice of Jamaica was unexceptional, skeptics underestimated Banton. Sure, he was a new face, but he was still the only guy to have topped Bob Marley's single-year sales total in Jamaica, and his influence there was almost as great as Marley's. Led by young toughs like Ranks and Banton, dancehall had been headed down a blind alley since its inception in the mid-80s. Beats had been sped up and instruments computerized to the point where its ties to roots reggae were unrecognizable, and gangsta rap, which dancehall so closely mirrored, was sputtering. With a single track, "Murderer," from his next album, 'Til Shiloh, Banton changed all that, incorporating studio musicians and Rasta-based spiritual broadsides into the dancehall format and actually selling records. Banton's success opened the floodgates for other artists who were tired of the genre's nihilism. 'Til Shiloh was rightly hailed as one of the few classic dancehall albums. But there remained among critics the nagging question of credibility.
Just how much sleep the newly successful Banton was losing over their doubts wasn't clear until Inna Heights came out late last year. A star since his early teens, at 25 Banton has already hit the point where the only thing he truly lacks is universal critical acclaim, and he wants that desperately. Inna Heights is about recognition. It's Banton's way of announcing that he's finally matured into the Marley heir the reggae world has been waiting for since 1981. But he's wrong.
Banton hasn't yet risen above the underdeveloped ideology that plagues most modern roots artists. Whether they're pandering to market expectations or simply trying to live up to the standards set by past heroes, today's reggae artists too often mistake positivity for artistic depth. Widely selling acts like Pato Banton (no relation) and Ziggy Marley have made careers out of a kind of reggae lite in which cultural differences dissolve into an antiseptic message of goodwill, and Buju Banton's "Single Parent" and "Cry No More" suffer from the same shallowness.
Worse yet, on Inna Heights Banton feels the need to answer his critics directly: quite literally, he explains himself in five spoken-word pieces, all titled "Inter Lingua," that are scattered among the album's 16 musical tracks. Though they're all less than 30 seconds long, they kill any hope of album continuity. And while he sounds plenty earnest and penitent, he also reveals himself to be utterly self-centered: he talks about his love of music, his role in reggae, and his spirituality. In trying to place himself among them Banton shows just how far removed he is from reggae's Rasta greats--even modern ones like Israel Vibration--who hardly ever refer to themselves in the first person, much less explicitly offer themselves as role models.
Tellingly, the best efforts on Inna Heights are the ones that least strive for credibility. Duets like the bouncy, neo-ska "Small Axe" and the Beres Hammond collaboration "My Woman Now" stand as evidence that Banton has indeed matured. His vocal range in a genre where a monotone is the standard is a testament to his sheer talent: though his trademark has always been the hoarsely expressive growl that makes Shabba Ranks sound like a eunuch, he's developed a singing voice that lends itself comfortably to his new subject matter.
But Banton has always been at his finest as an explosive dancehall toaster and that holds true on Inna Heights too. The real gems here hark back to 'Til Shiloh's brilliant mixture of harsh, computer-driven beats with classic roots lyrics and instrumentation. "African Pride" blends traditional African choral harmonies with dancehall's nimble phrasings; "Love Sponge" is a toast that plays off a simple but infectious keyboard riff; "Redder Than Red" speeds up the tempo to showcase Banton's vocal gymnastics. Taken on their own terms, these songs would make a fine case for Banton's spiritual viability. Instead, they're hints at the album that could have been.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Buju Banton photo/ album cover.