Hard drugs won’t do
You’re just behaving like they want you to
Arrogance is much different from ignorance
And I know you feel the same way too
Many live this life without having a clue
No reason why they are so sad and blue
Places to go so much things to do
Not a moment to reflect on the cycle of life
—Hills and Valleys, Buju Banton
You remember where you were when you heard Buju Banton for the first time? You were probably about 10 or so and not really that conscious of the world around you. Michael Jackson was still the coolest man in the world but then there were these things called maxi-taxis. It was probably Boom Bye Bye that you heard first. Back when homophobia wasn’t something that made sense to you. Back then there was no Facebook, no BBM, no million and one radio stations playing more ads than music for a captive young audience and agencies hiring big stars to make ads for them so that soon you can’t tell the difference between the product and the music. But these days everything and everybody are for sale.
Back in those days there was just Chinese Laundry doing a legitimate piracy service to a nation of young people desperate for a new sound. And dancehall was it. It defined our generation and everyone else, except maybe Super Cat and Shabba, fades into the background in the shadow of Buju Banton. If no one else, Buju Banton was the one who helped us figure it out. He danced between social commentary and slackness. He transformed himself into a thoughtful prophet. All the time he made us dance. He made us feel beautiful. He made us sure that we were searching. For something more and something better. Even if it was just to be able to out-butterfly your best friends. Truth be told I always loved Buju more than Sizzla. Sizzla who started off over-zealous and earnest. Sizzla who had the talk but not the walk and who fell so far from grace that now it is hard to believe that anything he ever said was true.
We always knew who Buju was. Smart man, lover, badjohn, poet. He was everything without being preachy. He asked the questions we asked about our own ghettoes. You could feel the grit of Kingston garrisons in the gravelled edge of his voice, in the way he could find himself inside a riddim like it was his skin and you were the sweat on it. You could see cockpit country and imagine that Buju was being true to his Maroon roots. Bad for spite. An escape artist. An unchainable spirit. And then you see a picture of him in shackles. And you want to vomit. You convince yourself that it’s not really happening. You convince yourself that Buju of all people could not be so stupid. The trickster allowed himself to be tricked? It’s not possible.
You could forgive Buju anything. His sexism. His homophobia. His love of “brownin” in a time when the use of skin bleaching creams in Jamaica started to skyrocket. You could forgive him all these things. But not the colossal stupidity of falling into Babylon’s trap. You listen again to his lyrics and realise that like any good prophet he has sung of his own downfall. Seen it and put his bittersweet defeat into the music that you love so much. But you can’t hear it because you are dancing and like Bob says when music hits you feel no pain. Because you are dancing to forget the pain. You are imagining that you are really a butterfly and your body can transcend the prisons of racism and unloving, and self-loathing. You escape this mental slavery and Buju is the Maroon stealing you away to some hidden bush town.
But every prophet falls. The disappointment is deep. I really wasn’t looking for you there nah, Buju. I don’t think I will recover from this star tabanca, like I still can’t get over the death of Michael Jackson. Buju Banton gets ten years. Ten years in jail. The truth is I still can’t begin to process what he did. I try to convince myself that he didn’t do it. That he’s innocent. But the evidence is damning. The verdict is guilty and Buju is going to jail. And if he’s guilty he deserves to go to jail. Notwithstanding a more intelligent discussion about the drug trade and how the desire for something synthetic and illegal bears no connection to the value of a plant that for centuries was used by indigenous people to heal themselves. And now because we know better and we’re civilised, we use it to destroy ourselves.
Notwithstanding a more reasonable stance on the drug trade and how a war against it has been used to recolonise people. How somebody still letting the cocaine pass and sometimes you need someone to made an example of. Notwithstanding an understanding of good drugs and bad drugs and tobacco being okay and rum till all of us die. These days you can’t watch five minutes of television without being bombarded by an ad about some drug, for which the side effects are a long list of illnesses that sound far worse than what you’re suffering from. These days you can’t go anywhere without meeting someone who is addicted to some over-the-counter pain killer, knocking back boxes of their favourite NSAIDs.
But Buju is going to jail for 10 years and if you do the crime you do the time. In shackles now, real physical ones to match the ones on our minds. Real physical ones to remind us that we really aren’t free. What a nightmare when you wake up to realise that the one to offer a place for escape is in prison too.