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The continuing transformation of Buju Banton

Many artists have made drastic career and image changes and lived to tell about it. But few of them have changed as dramatically as Buju Banton. The brash, young dancehall DJ exploded in the early '90s with his volatile blend of roots rock, R&B, dancehall DJing and sexually charged lyrics. By the age of 19, he was one of Jamaica's biggest dancehall artists, courtesy of hits such as "Bogle" and "Love Me Browning/Love Black Woman." His commercial success afforded him a platform from which he could spit his personal philosophies and, some might say, misguided beliefs indiscriminately at the masses.

But the no-holds-barred Banton let loose a little too much — and he still has the battle scars to prove it. In 1992, he released the controversial "Boom Bye Bye," a song that ignited the ire of gay rights organizations with its open advocacy of violence against homosexuals. The song stirred a huge ruckus that got so out of hand, Banton received death threats. Still, he refused to back down, issuing a statement claiming that he never intended to create an atmosphere of violence. Yet he never apologized for his comments, declaring that they were rooted in his religious beliefs. For those he offended, his stance left open unhealed wounds that no doubt sting to this day.

But Buju Banton has moved on.

The Banton of 2003 bares only a slight resemblance to the Banton of those days. Shortly after the "Boom Bye Bye" controversy, the artist did a total about-face, personally and musically. He became a Rastafarian, releasing the album Voice of Jamaica in 1993. It features "Willy (Don't Be Silly)," a song promoting the use of condoms; proceeds from the sale of the single went to "Project Willy," an organization he formed to benefit children afflicted with AIDS. He also embarked on a mission to educate the children of his native Jamaica about religion.

The two years that followed saw even deeper changes in Banton. In 1995, he released 'Til Shiloh, an album that helped usher in a new era for dancehall music, elevating its typically sexual content to address more positive, socially conscious subjects. Quite a drastic transformation for the gravelly voiced young man whose every utterance once had something to do with sex and/or ghetto life.

Coming some three years since his last album (2000's Unchained Spirit), Banton's latest release, Friends for Life, covers all the bases: roots reggae, African-inspired rhythms, dancehall, hip-hop and R&B. Conceptually, it's as soft as a baby's tush, comprised mostly of heartfelt love songs and philosophically uplifting messages of hope and social consciousness. Banton has dedicated the album to his fans, for whom he gives credit for his longevity and his ability to endure.

"I've been recording since I was 18 years old," he's said. "With all the struggles I've undergone, I could have disappeared. But my fans are my friends for life — and I love my friends. Whenever I come to them with a record — especially after three years — it has to be worthy."

And judging by recent statements to the press, it would appear that Banton has virtually forgotten his former self. "I always come out with my spiritual self, with music of worth, and I hope everyone can appreciate it. This is for us. I want to make music that transcends time and heals the spirit and uplifts you for that moment."

If that's not growth, enlightenment and spiritual evolution, nothing is.


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