In Kingston, they say, Buju Banton can’t walk down the street without being mobbed by fans. Takoma Park, Md., is a bit different. Last week, when the Jamaican DJ star dropped by the West Indian Record Mart for a promotional “in-store,” he drew a good-size crowd, though hardly a mob.
In just two years, Banton has attained legendary status in the dancehall demimonde. His steady output of hits, from “Stamina Daddy” on, has led his admirers to hail Banton as the next Shabba Ranks. “Boom Bye Bye,” with its homo-bashing lyrics, was Banton’s biggest hit, so big that it crossed over to American radio—where it understandably infuriated a lot of people, particularly gays. That Banton refused to apologize for it only bolstered his macho, bad-bwai rep: Fans explained that he’s rebellious because he’s descended from the defiant Maroons. Banton’s rival DJs, including Ranks and Ninjaman, have come to his defense, the former explaining that Banton was only expressing the sensibilities of Jamaican culture, which condemns homosexuality.
Mercury Records, the U.S. label that had signed Banton before the “Bye Bye” flap, did some quick damage control, explaining that the label had nothing to do with the release of the song (it was put out by Jamaica’s Shang), and besides, Banton was only 17 when he recorded it. Now the label is pushing its dancehall star forward: “Make My Day,” the first single off Voice of Jamaica, is No. 89 on Billboard‘s Hot R&B singles chart. The Mercury rep who accompanies Banton to the West Indian Record Mart explains that although “Day,” is great for mainstream radio, Banton is going to remain “true to his roots.”
Her charge, a lanky man-child in a baggy shirt and baggier pants, obligingly signs autographs. You can’t really see his face—he’s got on shades and a baseball cap. The rep says that when he performed last week in Philly, girls in the audience tore off his clothes.
Customers are rubbernecking rather than shopping until Banton retreats into the store’s back room. There, an interviewer compliments Banton between questions about his influences and his mentors. (His answers are elusive: “Jamaica has a wide range of so many artists with so much talent,” and, as for his mentors, “They all stand out.”)
Before reeling off a few promo spots for WKYS-FM (93.9) jock Superslice, Banton burps loudly into the mike. And when Banton sends out “respect to all the youts,” the Mercury rep helpfully explains: “He means “youths.’ ”
No one says a word about “Boom Bye Bye,” not the interviewer, not the Mercury rep, not Banton, nor any of the fans who tug on his sleeve until he poses for pictures with their babies.
“Our Yard massive has a different vibe for music than anyone else,” Banton notes at one point, but it’s hard to know exactly what he’s referring to. And before there’s a moment in which to ask, this particular celebrity whirl is over. Banton climbs into the rep’s Eagle Summit, still sipping the tiny bottle he’s been nursing throughout the in-store. It’s Roots Tonic, a bitter-tasting beverage reputed to have mythic powers, whose label lists ingredients that include “strong back,” “man back,” and “all-man strength.”