The mangoes aren’t yet ripe in the courtyard of Buju Banton’s Gargamel Studios in Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae and dancehall. They are bright green, hard and plentiful on the branch behind us as Banton and I speak, the day after listening to select tracks from Banton’s highly-anticipated effort Upside Down 2020. Unlike the mangoes, he says with a mischievous grin, the music is ready.
“We’ve been working since I got back, laying down demos and ideas I already had in my mind,” says Banton, referencing his ten-year sentence in a U.S. federal prison on drug-trafficking charges. Released in December 2018 after serving seven years, Banton made history with his homecoming concert, Long Walk to Freedom, at the island’s National Stadium.
Not since Bob Marley’s One Love Peace concert in 1978 had the venue completely filled its 35,000 seats. When asked if he’d ever imagined that his career would be compared to Marley’s, Banton humbly answers, “No. Not at all.”
Born Mark Anthony Myrie, Banton, 47, has seen his career spike and spiral through the years. In February 2011 he won his first Grammy for Best Reggae Album, Before the Dawn—but one day later, his trial began. Banton’s latest song, “Buried Alive,” sheds light on how his time away might have affected him.
“Certain experiences leave certain marks on you,” he says. “People go to a pub or a bar and they drink their sorrows away. Some use cocaine, some use heroin and all kinds of things. I choose to articulate my sorrows, my pain, and express it to the masses.”
On Upside Down 2020, Banton’s motivation is even more clear. “We want reggae music that the world can respect and love and adore once more because of the beautiful vocals that we contribute,” he says. “[And] we always want to offer a glimmer of truth through our lens, even if it’s not what they want to hear.” Has it been a burden to carry that torch? “Burden? Oh, no,” he answers emphatically. “Music is not a burden. The message and the mission are not a burden.” With a laugh he adds, “Jah guide, yuh know?” Jah be praised.
Here Banton’s Upside Down 2020, here.
This interview originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands June 30.