BUJU BANTON / “Untold Stories”
With its plaintive lyrics and stark, acoustic guitar chords, Buju Banton’s “Untold Stories” is immediately reminiscent of another famous ‘sufferation’ song, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” While Bob’s song draws its power from the dramatic sweep and international scope of its lyrics (“Redemption Song” is a condemnation of the Atlantic slave trade and its ongoing legacy), Buju takes the opposite approach. “Untold Stories” talks about the here and now, detailing the trails and tribulations of the ghetto dwellers of Buju’s own Kingston, Jamiaca. But, through detailing the specific struggles of his own people, Buju lays bare the class warfare which afflicts poor people all over the world. Buju Banton was born Mark Anthony Myrie in 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica. Two decades later, Buju had become one of his country’s top DJs. (In Jamaica, the term ‘DJ’ refers to what we Americans think of as an MC or rapper.) At the time, dancehall reggae in Jamaica was in much the same condition that commercial rap is in today. The music was very popular and its best-known practitioners were rich and famous, but the often-explicit and sensationalistic lyrics did not accurately reflect the reality of many of the music’s fans. The popular Jamaican DJs and producers flaunted their overpriced gold jewelry while driving luxury cars through the slums from which they’d come. Buju himself was no exception. But after two of Buju’s childhood friends (both of whom were promising musicians) were murdered, Buju’s outlook began to change. Under the influence of Rastafarianism, Buju took an honest look at himself, his music and the ongoing problems of his people. Eventually, he came to an unavoidable conclusion: he himself was part of the problem. In 1995, Buju released his first album since his spiritual awakening. He called it ‘Til Shiloh (meaning ‘until kingdom come’ or ‘forever’) and almost immediately, Buju’s new work was hailed as a masterpiece. While Buju didn’t completely abandon the heavily electronic drum-and-bass style his fans were accustomed to, he widened his musical palate to include acoustic instruments, Nyabinghi-style drums and a more melodic style of DJing. “Untold Stories” perfectly exemplifies Buju’s new style. The spare instrumentation creates a beautiful backdrop for Buju’s rough, wailing tone as he details the day-to-day struggles of the “low budget people” of Kingston, Jamaica. Although Buju recorded this now-classic record a decade ago, his lyrics still resonate, especially given what recently happened (or didn’t happen, to be more accurate) to the “low budget people” of New Orleans, Gulfport and Biloxi. “Who can afford to run will run,” Buju cries out. “But what about those who can’t? They will have to stay.” Whether the subject is crime, education, white flight, black flight or, as we’ve seen recently, improper building codes, low-lying flood zones and slow-to-arrive disaster aid, Buju’s words ring true: Those who can run, do run. Those who can’t run, have to stay. They stay and they suffer the consequences. Here in San Diego, a friend asked me recently, “Is New Orleans really that black, is it that poor?” My friend (who happens to be black himself) was stunned, as much of America and the rest of the world was, by seeing image after image after image of so obviously poor, so obviously black people who, having no way to help themselves, were left at the mercy of a ‘soon come’ government. My friend couldn’t believe that such a large group of poor people could’ve been living so close to all of the wealth and glamour of the French Quarter, the Superdome, the Garden District and the Convention Center without something being done about the inhumane conditions in which they lived. He was truly stunned. The stunning thing for me is that my friend and so many others were stunned. New Orleans is inordinately black and inordinately poor, true. But it is also true that there are pockets of extreme poverty in every major city of America, and quite often, the people who are forced to live in these areas are black and brown people with little or no access to quality jobs, health care, crime prevention or, most egregiously, education. (Which is why Buju admonishes his fellow Kingstonians: “When Mama spend her last to send you to class, never you ever play!”) Whether they live in Kingston, Jamaica or New Orleans, Louisiana, “low budget” people live their entire lives, from the cradle to the grave, teetering on the brink of disaster. Why then should we be stunned when a ‘real’ disaster pushes them right over the edge? Perhaps it’s because, as Buju so eloquently points out, their stories remain untold. Since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve made my way from New Orleans to Birmingham, Alabama to both Mamou and Lake Charles, Louisiana then on to Austin, Texas and Phoenix, Arizona and finally to California, first Los Angeles and now San Diego. I’ve traveled over 2,000 miles and no matter where I’ve gone, I’ve been asked the same question: “Why didn’t they leave?” Sometimes, if I’m in a conversational mood, I answer truthfully. Other times, I lie and say, “I don’t know,” not wanting to have that same conversation yet again with people who may or may not be able to accept the truth. The truth today is the same truth Buju tried to tell us ten years ago when he sang “Untold Stories.” Those who could afford to run, ran. Those who couldn’t run had to stay. Opportunity is indeed a scarce, scarce commodity. For over 1,000 low budget people of the Gulf Coast, many of them black and nearly all of them poor, it’s too late for stories. But as my grandmother used to say, “Better late than never.” It’s time for the full to be told. —Mtume ya Salaam “Untold Stories” While I’m living, thanks I’ll be giving / To the Most High, ya know? I’m a living, while I’m living to the Father I will pray Only Him know how we get through everyday All the hike in the price / Arm and leg we have to pay While our leaders play All I see, people a rip and a rob and a grab O’ thief never love fe see thief with long bag No love for the people who a suffer real bad Another toll to the poll may God help your soul What is to stop the youth from get out of control? Full up a education yet no own a payroll The clothes ‘pon me back have countless eye-hole I could go on and on, the full has never been told I’m a living, while I’m living to the Father I will pray Only Him know how we get through everyday With all the hike in the price / Arm and leg we have to pay While our leaders play Me say who can afford to run will run But what about those who can’t? They will have to stay Opportunity – a scarce, scarce commodity in this time, I say When Mama spend her last a send you go class, never you ever play It’s a competitive world for low budget people Spending a dime while earning a nickel With no regard to who it may tickle My cup is full to the brim I could go on and on, the full has never been told Though this life may get me down, got to survive. Some way somehow…. The contradictions of oppression I like the Buju song but i am not particularly crazy enough about the song to seek it out, partly because I can't overlook Buju's prideful homophobia. Why can't we live and let live? Why do we oppress others for no other reason than that they are "other" than we are? Jamaica's virulence toward homosexuality is legendary, almost as legendary as the gulf between the haves and have-nots. I don't think anyone has to embrace lifestyles, cultures or individuals whom they don't want to embrace. But there is a big difference between personal preference and persecution of the other. Be what you are. Be what you want to be. And give to others the same perogative. 'Til shiloh! —Kalamu ya Salaam Context, context, context Your comments about Buju remind me of the guy who called Jimi Hendrix "a dead junkie." The statement is technically true, but where is the context? You mentioned that homophobia in Jamaica is particularly virulent, but you didn't mention that homosexuality is actually illegal in Jamaica. (Meaning, Buju's ignorance and hatred is as much a reflection of his environment as it is a reflection of his personal biases.) Rastafarians in particular adhere to a strictly fundamentalist reading of the Bible. The average 'progressive' American would consider Rastafarian behavior not only homophobic, but also misogynist. For example, Bob Marley is an infamous womaniser who apparently took the phrase 'be fruitful and multiply' literally, this despite being married his entire adult life. But you'd best believe that Rita Marley wasn't allowed to so much as bat an eye at another man. When I post a Bob Marley song will you say: "It's a decent song but he's a well known misogynist who fathered many children out of wedlock"? See the following articles: —"Bob Marley Raped Me" at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/topstories/tm_objectid=14101231%26method=full%26siteid=94762-name_page.html —"Two New Views of Bob Marley and the Wailers - a book review essay by Gregory Stephens" at http://www.jahworks.org/music/book_reviews/coffeetablebob.htm —Mtume ya Salaam
i & i overstand
rather than go off on a long philosophical back & forth, let me (hopefully) clearly state two observations:1. all fundamental religions are oppressive. 2. i remain interested in and struggle with the basic contradiction that among the oppressed, we often find an advocacy of the oppression of others. this phenomenon is sometimes called internalized oppression. even as we fight to end our oppression, we participate in oppressing someone else. i believe we must grapple with this contradiction even as we understand that, at one level or another, me, you and everyone else will have and manifest contradictory (and occasionally even downright oppressive) beliefs and behviors. seen? —kalamu ya salaam
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