Rude boys can grow up. Like everyone else, they mature with time. As with the above lyric from "Destiny," the songs on Buju Banton's new recording Inner Heights scream maturity. His rough, booming trademark voice cuts through the beats like a Caribbean version of the deep, growling delivery pioneered by South Africa's Malathini, the Lion of Soweto.
"The sound of his voice is what sets him off from the rest of the guys," says Michael Julien, host of "The Michael Julien Show," Saturday nights on WDET-FM (101.9). "There are imitators who try to sound like him, but he pretty much set that sound."
So Buju is no copycat, but his relation to the great Malathini flows with his comprehensive understanding of music's universal appeal.
"I try to put the world in my music," he says. "I don't want it to be just Jamaica or only acceptable in America; I want a world flavor."
Don't let them fool you. Don't believe for a minute that they are with you.
Don't mistake Buju's worldwide aspiration for bowing to pop consciousness. If anything, his music has moved further away from pop over the years, probably a result of his embracing Rastafari in 1993, with the resultant spiritual consciousness revealed in his music.
"Reggae is underground music," he said in a recent telephone interview from Jamaica, "an underground level you cannot commercialize."
Buju now wears his hair in dreadlocks and speaks in reverential terms about the influence of Rastafari on the world. But in a time when dreadlocks are more fashion statement than symbol of a spiritual commitment, it's difficult to say who's a rasta and who's not.
"He seems to be really involved in Rastafarianism," says Julien. "A year and a half ago, dancehall was really gangsta stuff. It's done a 360-degree turn. Buju's one of the guys that influenced that a great deal. I think it's for the better in terms of lyrical content. It is stronger and has more substance."
Buju has at least made the commitment in terms of food. He travels with his own cook so that he always has vegetarian "ital" food on hand when on the road.
Circumstance is made me what I am.
Buju has been a music professional for eight of his 24 years. He came up through the musical ranks of dancehall reggae. The Jamaican equivalent of rap, dancehall has shepherded reggae to an international popularity that not even Bob Marley could attain during his short lifetime. Dancehall artists such as Shabba Ranks and Patra won Grammy Awards with their sexually oriented rhymes.
The young Buju Banton followed that trail. And even though he has stepped back to include roots music in his sound, he hasn't thrown away the dancehall. He even maintains the tradition of pairing with other artists on Inner Heights, from the elder statesman Toots Hibbert to the up-and-coming Red Rat.
"When I was a young artist, I wanted to work with Shabba Ranks and other superstars, but no one wanted to take me and show me a positive way out," he says. "I want Red Rat to have a greater chance than I had."
His advice to aspiring reggae artists:
"Give it all you got because all forces are trying to keep down the reggae. With reggae there is a positive message and if you truly love it then Jah will make it happen."
I work so hard just to get paid.
For a guy who was born the youngest of 15 children to a Kingston street vendor, Buju's achievements are amazing. He got his first taste of rapping at age 11 and from then on knew exactly what he wanted to do. His recent appearances in Uganda and Zimbabwe have whetted his appetite to learn more about what lies beyond Jamaica.
"When I'm not making music, I listen and try to study something," he says. "I read a book and try to learn something, anything but science fiction."
One thing Buju's learned is that there is a wealth of music to be mined in the Jamaican tradition. Inner Heights includes much of it from traditional nyabinghi drumming to the a cappella spiritual to ska to roots reggae to dub and dancehall. He names Bob Marley and Burning Spear as influences, and employs the legendary Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare on two cuts.
"I love lovers rock, conscious music," he says; "everything has a vibe to the soul. How I form the bridge between dancehall and roots reggae is because it is one music and there shouldn't be differentiation. I am one person and this is one musical story."
Even though such wisdom doesn't make Buju an old graybeard, it sounds like someone who has definitely gained perspective. Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]