In 1994, the Jamaican singer Buju Banton released a track titled “Murderer,” unleashing a torrent of fury and shame at killers — “Why did you disobey the first commandment?” — and any government that uses them: “Some are murdering people to collect medals/Stop committing dirty acts for the high officials/You could wash your hands until you can’t wash them any more/It is like an epidemic and you won’t find a cure.”
Roughly 25 years later, Banton is still exploring similar themes: In his new video for “Steppa,” a roaring reggae cut, the singer defuses a shoot-out, peacefully disarming gang members by collecting their guns before they are put to violent use.
“A certain culture has taken on a life of its own and become a monster,” Banton tells Rolling Stone. “Things are not the way they used to be — crime and violence, the gap between the rich and the poor,” he continues. “Wasn’t that always my role, to bring some civility and some consciousness to human existence, to the music? I’ve not changed.”
This spurt of productivity is a welcome change for one of Jamaica’s biggest contemporary stars. In December 2009, Banton was arrested on drug charges. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but in February 2011, just weeks after Banton’s Before the Dawn was awarded Best Reggae Album at the Grammys, the singer was convicted for conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute, possession of a firearm related to drug trafficking, and using a telephone to facilitate drug trafficking.
Banton was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison, though that was later reduced. He served time in Georgia until his release in December 2018. In March, he performed to a crowd of more than 30,000 people at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica. Banton then embarked on the Long Walk to Freedom tour. At a subsequent performance in Barbados, he connected with Rihanna, who later posted a picture of the two on Instagram.
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Rihanna also brought Banton into Roc Nation’s orbit. “The connection came about through my association with the great queen, Miss Rihanna herself,” Banton explains. “A great guy who works alongside her, Omar Grant” — who helped A&R albums like Talk That Talk and Anti and now serves as co-president of Roc Nation — “we started working together on small stuff, and the idea [of collaborating] came about.”
Banton says he shares at least two priorities with Roc Nation. First, “to do things independently and show that we can foster a unity in our people that can’t be emulated anywhere else.” Second, he adds, “their affinity to the prison reform situation that’s going on over in America, that’s something I can identify with.”
Banton hopes to release a new album soon, but he’s coy about his plan for the coming year. “I’m without a plan,” he says. Then he reconsiders. “A plan — that is too much of a strong word. We’re working on a fellowship.”