There’s a controversy that’s been dogging Buju Banton ever since he recorded the infamous single “Boom Bye Bye” as a teenager. Now older and wiser but no less a rebel, the Grammy-nominated reggae star holds forth at his studio compound in Kingston to discuss the sins of the past and the promise of the future, and reveals a vivid glimpse of his more human side as a devoted family man.
Those who know Buju Banton only from headlines and soundbites probably regard him as something of reggae’s answer to a gangsta rapper—an unapologetic, homophobic alpha male defiantly beating his chest in the face of controversy. Considering just that perception, and nothing more, it’s more than a little humorous that, at the moment, the dreadlocked beanpole of a man is nervously shooing a group of pot-smoking friends and hangers-on from the shady common area at his Kingston headquarters.
While he may have built up an impressive tolerance for marijuana, he must still be rocked from the massive hits he took a half-hour ago from a coconut-shell “chalice.” In the midst of that high, from this far end of the driveway, he’s just spotted his brother’s Mercedes pulling through the gates, with his mother in the passenger seat. See, while Banton may be a gravelly-voiced tough guy—one of contemporary reggae’s most powerful performers and one of Jamaica’s biggest celebrities—he’s still a little afraid of his mom. And at this moment, it’s a hilarious thing to behold. Apparently, his mom wouldn’t take too kindly to joining a smoke circle, so Banton is frantically breaking this one up, insisting that everyone leave—and quickly.
Everyone scatters like children who’ve just busted a window playing baseball, several curling around the backside of the spacious, two-story house that serves as recording studio, record-label office and all-around hang spot. After the smoke clears, Banton’s father (a dead ringer for Lee “Scratch” Perry, but much taller and saner) and his 11- and four-year-old sons spend the next half-hour beaming and belly-laughing with the singer’s tall, good-natured mother and portly brother. Banton’s larger-than-life personality makes him the focal point, and, seemingly, the head of the family. With his arms around his sons, he breaks into roaring laughter—a sweet, endearing side that he reveals rarely, and that casts an intriguing light on the complicated star who some regard as a monster.
If not a saint—though some devotees would regard him as such— he’s hardly a monster. While Banton and those in his camp are clearly tired of the admittedly old and sometimes dormant controversy that has nagged him for more than 15 years, it’s an issue that can’t be swept under the rug. And in a lot of ways, it seems like the heat that he’s taken—and continues to take—for writing the violent,