Buju Banton Interview: Freedom Has to Be Taken
The reggae icon chats about his stellar new album, BORN FOR GREATNESS, his spirituality, the purpose of reggae music, and why he could never have a smoke-off with Snoop.
“This requires extraordinary finesse,” Buju Banton states at the top of “BORN FOR GREATNESS,” the title track off his new studio album, out today. “This is something special, you should all be a witness.” The iconic reggae artist’s latest release arrives three years after Upside Down 2020, which was his first project in a decade and the first following the U.S. incarceration that Buju now refers to as his “exodus.”
Born in a Kingston ghetto to a family that can be traced back to the Jamaican Maroons — African freedom fighters who waged war against slavemasters for the right to self-determination — Buju took the music scene by storm in the early 1990s. His 1992 album, Mr. Mention, featuring production by Dave Kelly, stands as one of the greatest dancehall albums of all time. He elevated Jamaican music to another level with the 1995 album ’Til Shiloh, a mixture of hardcore dancehall, Rasta roots reggae and pop sensibilities, as heard on songs like “Wanna Be Loved.” Over the years, he has collaborated with hip-hop stars like Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe and DJ Khaled, cementing his status as a true legend of Jamaican music, even as his lyrics have incited controversy.
The last time I’d spoken with Buju was at his Gargamel studio in Kingston, shortly before the launch of Upside Down 2020, which earned him his sixth Grammy nomination. Soon after I returned to New York from Jamaica, everything was locked down, and upside down is exactly how life felt.
BORN FOR GREATNESS is a musical progression from that last album, refining and updating his sound. Buju and his Gargamel Music team produced the lion’s share of the project, along with crucial contributions by Stephen Marley and DJ Khaled. Buju, 50, recently talked to TIDAL about the new music, his enduring friendship with Snoop Dogg and much more.
I had a chance to preview your new album, and it feels like an evolution of your sound.
BORN FOR GREATNESS comes on the heels of Upside Down in the sense that it was a culmination of work that embodied my time since I was away and my exodus and my transition into the free world.
Now BORN FOR GREATNESS encapsulates a growth, a new direction and also a musical change that I wanna share with the world. Ever since I’ve been making my music, I’ve never stuck to any set formula that you can expect Buju Banton sounding this way or doing this. There’s always an expectation, but it’s never met. Because I never go in the direction that people expect me to go in. And this is just one of those cases. I hope you truly listen to the record and that you see the direction and feel the growth in the musical presentation, in the musical delivery and in the lyrical content. ’Cause that’s what we want to do — rebuild the music from the bottom up.
Let’s talk about “COCONUT WATA.” Every time I come to Jamaica, the first thing I do is get that coconut as soon as I come off the plane. But I know there’s a serious message behind this song.
Well, coconut water speaks about people having corrupted heart. In Jamaica, we say we drink coconut water to wash our heart, to keep our heart clean. The whole song is also about refreshing yourself with some good coconut water. But don’t miss the underlying fact that we’re talking about having a good mindset, a good heart.
Another song I enjoy is your collab with Snoop, “HIGH LIFE.” I’ve been playing it a lot on TIDAL Live, and it’s grown on me more and more.
That song came about miraculously. I was sitting under my mango tree and reached out to Snoop and he responded and we started talking. We asked each other what we were doing at the moment. He was actually inside his studio. I said, “Great, let me send you something.” And he just went ahead and sat down right there and wrote the lyrics. He did his part and I did my part right here, and in one day it was just “high on life.”
You can feel the vibe. Is that the first time you’ve collabed with Snoop?
You two have such a natural chemistry. You both came out in the early ’90s, and you’ve both had your ups and downs. Listening to the song just feels very…
Refreshing. “High life, good weed all day and night.” “Jamaican marijuana is the people’s choice. Snoop Dogg, what you like? California Kush, straight off the bush.”
Which is better, California Kush or Jamaican herb?
I don’t wanna form an opinion on that. [laughs]
Good answer. When I went to the premiere of Snoop’s film Reincarnated, I asked him if there would be any herb in the place, and he said, “The popcorn might be laced with some sticky icky icky.” So, you know, he lives the culture. I don’t know who would win in a smoking contest between the two of you.
Well, you know, I can’t have a smoke-off because herb to me is a sacrament of the spiritual, not something for braggadocious use and stuff like that.
Right, right. How long have you known each other?
Well, I’ve known Snoop for quite some time ’cause I’ve spent a lot of time in California. So I’ve known him extensively. ’Cause like you rightfully said, we’re both from the ’90s.
On Instagram Live, he was thanking you for helping him with his patois.
Yes, because we are able to communicate musically. Music is an international language, and once you are cool with the person, you can translate and they’ll be able to pick up on the energy that you’re trying to send to them.
I think he feels very much at home with you because he’s kind of gravitated to reggae — like a lot of artists have.
Yeah, and he changed his name to Lion and he came to Jamaica and embraced the culture, which is quite admirable.
I think that’s why the song feels so genuine. It’s a fun song, but it’s also reminding people that these two cultures are very similar.
Hip-hop derives from reggae, you know. So there’s a strong relationship between both cultures. Even when I work with DJ Khaled, we’ve always been good partners.
Speaking of hip-hop, everybody’s celebrating Hip-Hop 50 this year. Did you get a chance to check out Busta’s performance at the BET Awards?
That was a good look for reggae and dancehall music.
Is that Stephen’s voice I’m hearing on “FEEL A WAY”?
Yeah, Stephen Marley. We have never done something of this caliber before. All of our songs are mostly rooted towards conscious direction. So we’re just trying to show the people our diversity and versatility.
You’re really putting your heart out there on “YARD AND OUTTA ROAD.” You have a line that says, “If I could go over all of those days, those dark days.” What in particular are you saying to us in that line?
Well, if you’re not aware that I’m coming from prison, then we shouldn’t even be talking. Because those are the darkest things that I’ve experienced in your country. [laughs] My microphone is my only defense. So they have to know about those dark days.
Let’s talk about the album title. Could you explain what it represents?
The album is called BORN FOR GREATNESS, and I see myself as a servant who was born for greatness. This album is supposed to inspire every young man to know that they were born for greatness. The born and the unborn.
When did you know that you were born for greatness?
The day I was born. [laughs] Through life, you realize that the struggles you face, they are not ordinary. And if you weren’t ordained to face these struggles, you could never have faced them. So you were born for it — all of us. You were born for what you were born for. I am created for what I was created for. So we have to embrace it and give thanks for what we’ve got. And I am blessed to be able to do the same, and to tap into the people’s emotions from a conscious level without injecting negativity.
I love this last song on the album, “LET MY PEOPLE GO” — a phrase from the Bible that became part of an old spiritual, and now you’ve made it a reggae song.
Well, “LET MY PEOPLE GO” is not only a Bible verse, it’s a reality of our world that we’re living in. Because a lot of us are living under subhuman bondage. And the last three years have shown us that in its entirety. It has shown us our doctors, our pharmaceutical companies, our banks. It has shown us our government, our leaders. It has shown us a lot of things. And if you don’t desire to be let go, well I do. Because I cannot continue to feed off of the hamster wheel.
So “LET MY PEOPLE GO” is quite essential, because everything it’s talking about is what’s happening in the world right now — from Russia, all the way around to our backyard. Real and true freedom and liberty — that will only happen if they let us go. And we have to demand to be let go, and fight for it, ’cause freedom is never given to a people; it has to be taken. But that is another story. I digress…
No, that’s why we’re having this conversation. Everyone hears different things in a piece of music, but it’s great to hear from the person who created these songs.
The world never knows what I am thinking. I can only share a fraction of those ideas with you. That’s why you’re an individual and that’s why I’m an individual — ’cause your thoughts are yours and my thoughts are mine. We can share the concept around the songs, why they are created, but to dive so deep into the thoughts of my mind will not happen. [laughs]
Some of us would hope others cannot hear what we are thinking.
But on a serious note, you have been doing this your whole career: You’ve been sharing your thoughts and keeping mindful of what is going on around us.
I have to somehow pick up on the things that are relevant because my music is reggae music — make no mistake about it. Reggae music uplifts, educates and eradicates negativity from across the world. Yes, we have songs that talk about gyrating and wining because that’s a part of our culture, and it is nice to see the ladies having fun. But the fundamental of this music is to cultivate positivity.
In the song “TRIAL BY FIRE,” you say, “They are all counting on me, so I must take the lead.” Do you feel that is a weight on your shoulders?
Nothing is on my shoulder, but music is on all of our hearts, yes? And if you’re comfortable with the state of our music, I am not.
Does that feel like pressure in some ways?
No, I’ve undergone pressure. I know what pressure is. I’m talking about helping my people, opening their eyes to reality, so they can start loving each other and loving who we are. People of the world have lost love, so we have gone through trial by fire in the last three years. How many survived? You survived, so we’re still talking on the phone. How many didn’t make it?
Millions. I’ve lost members of my own family. It’s very sad.
I’m telling you, trial by fire. Crazy. These songs are intended to uplift the masses, you know? Give them strength through these dark times that we are facing. A lot of people don’t see, but many are aware. So my aim and intent is just to strengthen the masses and further encourage them and further give them hope musically. That’s what my music does. And that’s what I want to continue to do.
As you’ve told me, “Impossible is nothing to accomplish.”
I’m honored and giving thanks unto the Creator, who continues to inspire me to guide the people. And continues to inspire me to give the people strength, no matter what they’re going through. And continues to inspire me to be a beacon of hope for those who find themselves in hopeless positions. Not to me, but to the powers that grant I this grace. So we know we’re born for greatness.
Reshma B is a music journalist and filmmaker who specializes in reggae and dancehall. Her work has appeared on the BBC and at Complex, Pigeons and Planes, Billboard and VIBE, and she is TIDAL’s reggae and dancehall curator. Her column, Murda She Wrote, is published monthly at TIDAL Magazine.