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On Buju Banton's “Untold Stories”

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Thursday, October 19, 2006:


With its plaintive lyrics and stark, acoustic guitar chords, Buju Banton’s “Untold Stories” is immediately reminiscent of 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. Through this, he also 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 jewellery 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
(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 be 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 spends 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 travelled 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!


Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.


Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com


“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….




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