Banton released early dancehall singles in 1988 but came to prominence in 1992 with two albums, Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention, which became the best-selling album in Jamaican history upon its release. He signed with major label Mercury Records and released Voice of Jamaica the following year. By the mid-1990s, Banton had converted to the Rastafari faith, and his music undertook a more spiritual tone. His 2010 album Before the Dawn won Best Reggae Album at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards.
Buju Banton was born in Kingston, Jamaica in a poor neighborhood called Salt Lane. Buju is a nickname given to chubby children that means breadfruit in the language of the Maroons in Jamaica and was given to him by his mother as a child. Banton is a Jamaican word that refers to someone who is a respected storyteller, and it was adopted by Myrie in tribute to the deejay Burro Banton, whom Buju admired as a child. It was Burro's rough gravelly vocals that Buju emulated and ultimately made his own. Buju's mother was a higgler, or street vendor, while his father worked as a labourer at a tile factory. He was the youngest of fifteen children born into a family that was directly descended from the Maroons of Jamaica.
Banton has homes in Jamaica and Tamarac, Florida (United States). He also has 15 children.
As a youngster, Buju would often watch his favorite artists perform at outdoor shows and local dancehalls in Denham Town. At the age of 12, he picked up the microphone for himself and began toasting under the moniker of Gargamel, working with the Sweet Love and Rambo Mango sound systems. In 1986, he was introduced to producer Robert Ffrench by fellow deejay Clement Irie, and his first single, "The Ruler" was released not long afterwards in 1987. This led to recording sessions with producers such as Patrick Roberts, Bunny Lee, Winston Riley, and Digital B, and in 1988, aged 15, he first recorded the song "Boom Bye Bye".
In 1991, Buju joined Donovan Germain's Penthouse Records label and began a fruitful partnership with producer Dave Kelly who later launched his own Madhouse Records label. Buju is one of the most popular musicians in Jamaican history, having major chart success in 1992, with "Bogle" and "Love me Browning", both massive hits in Jamaica. Controversy erupted over "Love Me Browning" which spoke of Banton's penchant for light-skinned women: "I love my car I love my bike I love my money and ting, but most of all I love my browning." Some accused Banton of promoting a colonialist mindset and denigrating the beauty of dark skinned black women. In response, he released "Love Black Woman" which spoke of his love for dark-skinned beauties: "Mi nuh Stop cry, fi all black women, respect all the girls dem with dark complexion". 1992 was an explosive year for Buju as he broke Bob Marley's record for the greatest number of number one singles in a year. Beginning with "Woman fi Sex", Buju's gruff voice dominated the Jamaican airwaves for the duration of the year. Banton's debut album, Mr. Mention, includes his greatest hits from that year. 1992 saw the unsanctioned re-release of "Boom Bye Bye", which almost destroyed his career. The song was the subject of outrage in the United States and Europe, leading to Banton being dropped from the line-up of the WOMAD festival that year. Banton subsequently issued a public apology.
Now on the major Mercury/PolyGram Records label, Banton released the hard-hitting Voice of Jamaica in 1993. The album included a number of conscious tracks. These tracks included "Deportees", a song which criticized those Jamaicans who went abroad but never sent money home; a remix of Little Roy's "Tribal War", a sharp condemnation of political violence; and "Willy, Don't Be Silly", which promoted safe sex and the use of contraceptives, particularly the condom, profits from which were donated to a charity supporting children with AIDS. He was invited to meet Jamaican Prime Minister P. J. Patterson, and won several awards that year at the Caribbean Music Awards, the Canadian Music Awards, and the Topeka ceremony.
Banton's lyrics often dealt with violence, which he explained as reflecting the images that young Jamaicans were presented with by the news media, but the reality of Kingston's violence was brought home in 1993 by the murders in separate incidents of three of his friends and fellow recording artists, the deejays Pan Head and Dirtsman and singer Mickey Simpson. His response was the single "Murderer", which condemned gun violence, going against the flow of the prevailing lyrical content in dancehall. The song inspired several clubs to stop playing songs with excessively violent subject matter. Late in 1994, Buju was also affected by the death of his friend Garnett Silk. Buju's transformation continued, embracing the Rastafari movement and growing dreadlocks. He joined "conscious" deejay Tony Rebel, Papa San, and General Degree in the Yardcore Collective. His performances and musical releases took on a more spiritual tone. Banton toured Europe and Japan, playing sold out shows.
'Til Shiloh (1995) was a very influential album, using a studio band instead of synthesized music, and marking a slight shift away from dancehall towards roots reggae for Banton. Buju claimed to have sighted Rastafari and his new album reflected these beliefs. Til Shiloh successfully blended conscious lyrics with a hard-hitting dancehall vibe. The album included earlier singles such as "Murderer", and "Untold Stories". "Untold Stories" revealed an entirely different Buju Banton from the one that had stormed to dancehall stardom. It is regarded by many as some of his best work, and is a staple in the Banton performance repertoire. Reminiscent in mood and delivery to "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley, "Untold Stories" won Buju Banton many favorable comparisons to the late singer. This album had a large impact on dancehall music and proved that dancehall audiences had not forgotten the message that Roots Reggae expounded with the use of "conscious lyrics". Dancehall music did not move away from slack and violent lyrics, but the album did pave the way for a greater spirituality within the music. In the wake of Buju's transformation to Rastafari, many artists, such as Capleton, converted to the faith and began to denounce violence.
In 1996, Buju contributed "Wanna Be Loved (Desea ser Amado)" along with Los Pericos to the Red Hot Organization's album Silencio=Muerte: Red Hot + Latin for the Red Hot Benefit Series. This series raises money to increase AIDS awareness.
Inna Heights (1997) substantially increased Banton's international audience as Buju explored his singing ability and recorded a number of roots-tinged tracks, including the hugely popular "Destiny" and "Hills and Valleys". The album also included collaborations with artists such as Beres Hammond and the legendary Toots Hibbert. The album was well-received but had distribution problems. Also, some fans were disappointed, having hoped for another ground-breaking album like Til Shiloh. Still, Buju's experimentation and soaring vocals impressed many fans and this album remains a highly regarded work.
In 1998, Buju met the punk band Rancid and recorded three tracks with them: "No More Misty Days", "Hooligans" and "Life Won't Wait". The latter became the title track of Rancid's 1998 album, Life Won't Wait.
Buju signed with Anti- Records, a subsidiary of Brett Gurewitz's Epitaph records, and released Unchained Spirit in 2000. The album showcased diverse musical styles, and featured guest appearances by Luciano, Morgan Heritage, Stephen Marley, and Rancid. It carried little of the roots feel heard on Til Shiloh and virtually none of the hardcore dancehall sound which had brought him to public acclaim early in his career.
Several singles followed in the start of the new decade, which were perceived as more mellow and introspective, as opposed to the dancehall approach of his early career. In March 2003, Banton released Friends for Life, which featured more sharply political songs, including "Mr. Nine", an anti-gun hit. The album focused on political messages regarding the African diaspora, featuring excerpts from a speech made by Marcus Garvey. "Paid Not Played", also featured on the album, displayed a gradual return to the themes more popular in dancehall. The album also featured some hip hop influence with the inclusion of rapper Fat Joe.
2006 saw the release of the Too Bad, an album more dancehall-orientated in style. One of the slower tracks from the album, "Driver A", went on to become a major hit, while at the same time reviving Sly & Robbie's "Taxi" riddim.
He performed at the Cricket World Cup 2007 Opening Ceremony with Third World and Beres Hammond.
The album Rasta Got Soul was released on 21 April 2009, a date which marked the 43rd anniversary of Emperor Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica in 1966. Produced by Banton, with contributions from longtime collaborators Donovan Germain, Stephen Marsden and Wyclef Jean, Rasta Got Soul was recorded over a seven-year period before its release. It went on to become his fourth Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album in 2010.
On 13 February 2011, one day before the scheduled start of his second court trial in Tampa, Florida, Buju Banton's Before the Dawn album was announced as the winner of Best Reggae Album at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards.
Banton has attracted criticism over his anti-gay lyrics in his hit "Boom Bye Bye", written when he was 15 years old and released in 1992, contains lyrics allegedly supporting the murder of gay men. In 2009 gay rights' groups appealed to venues around the United States not to host Buju Banton.
In 2007 Banton was allegedly among a number of reggae artists who signed a pledge, the Reggae Compassionate Act, created by the Stop Murder Music campaign, to refrain from performing homophobic songs or making homophobic statements, but he later denied that he had made any such commitment.
In December 2009 Drug Enforcement Administration agents remanded Banton to custody in Miami, where the U.S. Attorney charged him with conspiracy to distribute and possession of more than five kilograms of cocaine. Banton was then moved to the Pinellas County Jail where he remained until trial. A six-day trial in Tampa, Florida was declared a mistrial on 27 September 2010, after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision. During the trial, audio recordings were presented of Banton and a drug-dealer-turned-government-informant discussing drugs, drug prices and smuggling. Banton was also seen on a video recording meeting the informant in a police-controlled warehouse tasting cocaine from a kilogram bag. The informant was reportedly paid $50,000 for his work on the case. The singer was released that November on bond.
He was allowed to perform one concert between trials, which was held on 16 January 2011 to a sold-out crowd in Miami.
On 22 February 2011, Banton was found guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense and using communication wires to facilitate a drug-trafficking offense. He was found not guilty on the charge of attempted possession of five kilograms or more of cocaine. Four months later, he was sentenced to ten years and one month in a federal prison for the cocaine trafficking conviction. His sentencing on the firearms conviction was scheduled for 30 October 2012, but was postponed on his lawyer's request for an investigation of possible juror misconduct. On 14 May 2015 federal prosecutors agreed to drop the firearms charges.
Banton is scheduled to be released in December 2018.1992: Stamina Daddy (later repackaged as Quick)
1992: Mr. Mention
1993: Voice of Jamaica
1995: 'Til Shiloh
1997: Inna Heights
2000: Unchained Spirit
2003: Friends for Life
2006: Too Bad
2009: Rasta Got Soul
2010: Before the Dawn